Op. 14

 

SECRET EXCHANGES

 

Long Prose

 

Copyright © 1980-2010 John O'Loughlin

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CONTENTS

 

Chapters 1-10

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CHAPTER ONE

 

He was so very pleased to be sitting in such close proximity to the paintings he had specifically brought Gwendolyn Evans along to the Tate Gallery to view; to have them all round him in a dazzling profusion of light and colour.

     Yes, it was fundamentally here, with these largely abstract-looking canvases, that modern art began.  Here, with Peace, Burial at Sea, Norham Castle, Sunrise, Mountain Scene with Lake and Hut, Mountain in Landscape, and Sunrise with a boat between headlands, all painted between 1835-40 in a manner which, to Turner's contemporaries, could hardly have been expected to win widespread understanding, let alone critical adulation!  Yet here they were, exhibited on the wall in front of Matthew Pearce, painter and sculptor, together with his latest girlfriend, who had never seen them before.  Here for the eye to behold was the revolutionary break with tradition which, not altogether surprisingly, had caused such a scandal in Turner's day, obliging the great painter to keep so much of his later work largely to and for himself.  In these and similar paintings, matter had been broken down, virtually erased from the canvas in order that light and colour could come shining out of it with a brilliance and importance scarcely dreamed of by earlier painters.  Here form, if and where it still existed, had been subordinated to content, the material displaced by the spiritual, and the resulting impression was so nebulous ... that one might have taken it for pure abstraction - devoid of the even slightest reference to external reality.  No artist before Turner had dared to be so biased on the side of the spirit.  More exactly, no artist before Turner could have conceived of the possibility or legitimacy of being so spiritually biased, especially prior to the nineteenth century.  It wouldn't have been relevant to the age, an age, at least from approximately the 14-18th centuries, of what Spengler would have called 'great art', or art that reflected Western man in his egocentric prime - balanced, in varying degrees, between his subconscious and superconscious minds in the ego at its dualistic height.  Torn between the sensual and the spiritual, the mundane and the transcendent.

     Around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in particular, when Western man was in full-flower, there could not have been the slightest possibility of an art arising which betrayed a distinct predilection for the spirit - for light and colour over form and substance.  Had, by any quirk of evolutionary fate, something approximating to a late Turner been produced then, it would have struck people as a mess, not art but rather something akin to an artist's palette - one that had taken a number of diverse paints and suffered them to be experimentally blended.  With the nineteenth century, however, a great change came over the Western mind, a change initiated by the Industrial Revolution, itself a product in part of the Napoleonic Wars, and the subsequent growth of towns and cities to a size quite unprecedented in the entire history of mankind.  No longer was civilized man finely balanced between the sensual and the spiritual, the subconscious and the superconscious minds, but in the process of becoming increasingly biased on the side of the transcendent - in short, to whatever reflected his growing isolation from nature in the artificial urban and industrial environments he had created for himself in response to evolutionary necessity.  From the nineteenth century, it was becoming increasingly evident that Western man had passed his prime as an egocentric being, a recipient of dualistic tension, and accordingly entered a post-egocentric epoch of transcendental lopsidedness, in which the influence of the superconscious came to play an ever-more decisive role in shaping his destiny.  Hence Turner's late canvases, which reflected the imbalance that was characterizing modern man.  And hence, too, their great importance and significance to such eyes as could be expected, at this more evolved juncture in post-egocentric time, to appreciate them - a greater number of minds, it should be evident, than would have done so shortly after they were first painted.

     Yet, despite the eulogistic comments which Matthew Pearce was making on behalf of the half-dozen or so brightly painted canvases in front of him, Gwen's eyes weren't all that appreciative, her mind remaining rather unmoved by them, even though, thanks in large measure to the esoteric information being imparted to her by Matthew with regard to the general direction of human evolution, she was now in a better position than ever before to understand them.  Had she been honest with her boyfriend, instead of trying to please him by feigning enthusiasm for the works, she would have confessed, there and then, to the sad fact that a majority of the paintings on display in this particular section of the Turner bequest left her stone cold, absolutely failed, for one reason or another, to interest her.  But from feminine tact, which embraced a certain fear of what Matthew would think of her if she disappointed him in this way, she did her best to appear sympathetic, to share his unquestionable admiration for those exhibits upon which he specifically chose to comment.

     However, it was far from easy!  For even with the best will in the world, she couldn't bring herself to view paintings like Mountain in Landscape and Sunrise with a boat between headlands through the same pair of eyes as him.  To her, they seemed a mess.  Too indistinct to be worth taking seriously.  There was the suggestion of a certain scrappiness about them which violently conflicted with her own classical predilection for neat, clear, well-defined works, such as she had seen in some of the other rooms.  One might have thought the artist had gone mad, lost contact with reality to the extent of being incapable of reproducing coherent forms, so vague was the resultant impression!  Such, at any rate, was how she secretly felt at the sight of the more abstract-looking paintings, not least those which she had seen in the previous room - like, for example, Scene in Venice and Venice from the Salute, which had been painted between 1840-45.  And partly because of this subjective doubt concerning Turner's sanity, she found herself incapable of entering into the spirit of the paintings, unwilling to commit herself to an enthusiastic acceptance of them from fear that she might compromise her aesthetic integrity and became reduced, in her own estimation, to the unenviable level of a bigoted crank.  With one part of her mind she remained defiantly aloof, self-consciously superior to what she saw all around her, while with the other part she played along with Matthew, responding to various of his pronouncements with an appropriately complaisant nod, smile, or gentle grunt - a policy she was subsequently obliged to adopt as much for exhibits like Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge, Yacht approaching the coast, Light and Colour (Goethe's theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses writing the Book of Genesis, which were hung on the large picture support at right-angles to the wall they had been sitting in front of, as for exhibits like Sun Setting over a Lake, Stormy sea with dolphins, and Snow Storm - Steam Boat off a harbour's mouth and making signals in shallow water, and going by the lead on the opposite wall, the extended title of which both baffled and privately amused her.

     Not that Matthew Pearce was unduly garrulous or imposing, and therefore necessitated one's constant attention on his conversation.  Yet he was certainly not a man to allow himself to be led from painting to painting at a rate corresponding to the disinterestedness of his partner!  On the contrary, standing or sitting in front of a Turner from 3-5 minutes, as he devotedly did in a number of instances, it was obligatory for her to fix her attention on the relevant painting for a corresponding period of time, even when it wasn't of any particular interest to her.  A sign of impatience would almost certainly have offended him, a cursory inspection of the other occupants of the room no less than a tendency to flit from one painting to another independently of his guidance and running commentary.  Feminine tact was enough to tell her this - now no less than previously!

     Yet it wasn't enough to tell her that, after a couple of minutes' silent inspection of Stormy sea with dolphins, Matthew would suddenly change mental track and, for the first time since setting eyes on the Turners, launch out on a swift stream of criticism concerning the manifest turbulence of the scene portrayed, which he considered the worst aspect of Romanticism and the one he could least abide.  For, to his way of thinking, the turbulent was by nature Satanic, opposed to evolutionary progress towards blissful passivity, and, for that reason, something to be condemned.  "God knows," he continued, speaking in a fairly quiet though firm tone-of-voice, "Delacroix and Gericault were worse offenders against 'the peace that passes all understanding' than ever Turner was!  Yet that doesn't mean to say that he wasn't guilty, from time to time, of following suit and producing works which, in their Romantic turbulence, correspond to the demonic.  That and the one next to it, the Snow Storm, are typically Romantic in this respect.  They seethe with negativity, with horribly tortuous activity.  Not my favourite Turner, by any means!"

     He broke away from the canvas in question, as though from an evil spell, and briskly led Gwen towards the next room, which contained works by other English painters.  He looked quite stylish in his tight black denims and puffy zipper-jacket, stylish enough, at any rate, to attract the passing attention of two young women, who caused Gwen to look at him from a broadly personal viewpoint herself and reflect upon his tidy, if informal, appearance.  His dark-brown hair, gathered into a short pigtail that gently curved down from the back of his head to his neck, had been washed only the night before and looked perfectly docile.  With his aquiline profile and large blue eyes, he was certainly more handsome than the previous men in her life, which was of some consolation.  He was also more intelligent, though not perhaps more highly-sexed.  As yet, it was still too soon for her to get him into proper sexual perspective, since she hadn't known him long enough.  But time would doubtless tell, and thus enable her to extend her assessment of him to such matters as were of specific importance to her as a woman, not simply as an intellectual.

     Before entering the next room, however, Matthew halted near the exist in front of one last Turner, a relatively small work entitled The Angel Standing in the Sun, for which he confessed a special fondness, deeming it one of the master's most spiritually noble productions - a shedder of dazzling light.  "Admittedly, not one of his most abstract-tending works," he softly remarked.  "Yet the whole concept of angelic transcendence and light is really too beautiful.  Not altogether surprisingly, it was one of his last works, dated 1846.  I can't help but admire its mystical symbolism.  It is virtually an epitome of the coming post-human millennium, of man become superman, or angelic being, surrounded by spiritual light in blissful self-realization.  For, of course, the essential light of the post-human millennium won't be the sun, though that will doubtless continue to exist in heathen selflessness for some time thereafter, but the light of spirit in the superconscious - the clear, as opposed to unclear or chemical, light.  Yet before his death, Turner left us this magnificently paradoxical symbol of mankind's future destiny, one which will continue to shine in the hearts of men throughout the coming decades."

     He looked sideways at Gwen to gauge her response, which, as before, appeared to be fairly sympathetic.  She smiled back at him but remained silent.  She didn't have much to say, since it was all rather bewildering to her, and he sensed as much from her reticence.  He sensed, too, that she was probably too shy or reserved to talk in art galleries and was slightly embarrassed by his speech.  Nevertheless he felt that he had to say something, if only to justify being in her company.  It would have seemed stranger to him had they gone through the rooms without exchanging a word, as some couples evidently did.  Hitherto he had always gone along to the Tate Gallery alone and had remained wrapped-up in himself, enshrouded in silence and thoughtful contemplation of the paintings.  Now that he was accompanied by a woman, however, he considered it his duty to speak, to offer comments on several of the exhibits which particularly impressed or even depressed him.  And, besides, he had a burning desire to instruct, to enlighten, to expatiate.  He hoped he wouldn't be wasting his breath on Gwen who, after all, was an intelligent young woman - intelligent enough to have gone to college, at any rate, and got herself a teaching diploma in French, which she was currently justifying in her capacity as French teacher in a south London comprehensive.  So, if that was anything to judge by, she ought to be appreciative of the merits of a great painter when she saw one, and accessible, moreover, to such evolutionary theories as he was only too keen to impress upon her for her own good.

     Leaving the last room of the Turner bequest, they stepped across the threshold of the next room, which was divided into two sections, one small and the other large, and were immediately confronted by the turbulence of a huge canvas by Francis Danby entitled The Deluge, at which Matthew quickly took umbrage for its Romantic ferocity - the sight of so many twisted, struggling nude or semi-nude bodies endeavouring to climb to safety from the rushing flood-waters onto the rocks and trees that lay to-hand, offering the victims of the deluge a temporary shelter from the waters of death.  Not a particularly agreeable spectacle, by any means; though a work of undoubted ingenuity, reminiscent of the turbulent waterscapes favoured by Gericault, Delacroix, and, on occasion, the great Turner himself.  Compared with John Martin's The Plains of Heaven, which was exhibited, curiously, in the same section of the room, it was indeed a hellish context, its violence in complete contrast to the blissful serenity of one of Martin's greatest works, the only work on view of which the latter-day artist would allow himself to think highly.  In fact, the three canvases by this artist on display here could be assessed, according to him, on the basis of a descending order of merit, The Plains of Heaven, being wholly transcendent, signifying the apex of tranquil spirituality, The Last Judgement, with the Saved blissfully to one side of the canvas and the Damned agonizingly to the other, presided over by Christ and His angels, signifying a compromise between Heaven and Hell, and, finally, The Great Day of His Wrath, focusing on a cataclysmic upheaval in which numerous naked bodies were hurled with the falling, lightening-cleft rocks into a dark abyss of raging hell, signifying virtually the furthest possible remove from blissful tranquillity.  One shuddered at the sight of it, of so many panic-stricken people plunging helplessly to their doom in the ugly black abyss between the sundered rocks!  Romantic pessimism could go no further.  The great evil at the root of life was indubitably manifest.

     "So far as I'm concerned," said Matthew, suddenly breaking the horrified silence into which he had fallen in the presence of this gruesome work, "the scene before us is positively primeval in its cataclysmic turbulence, a record, one might argue, of pagan man, or man tyrannized over by the moral darkness of his subconscious and living in fear of a wrathful and largely materialistic deity.  It seethes with negativity, it knows no compromise.  Unlike the scene depicted in The Last Judgement, which could be said to signify the mentality of Christian man, or man torn between the hell of materialistic damnation and the heaven of idealistic salvation, half-way up the ladder of human evolution in some egocentric compromise.  And there, at the apex of evolution, one finds not a trace of Hell.  For the compromise has been superseded, and instead of seething negativity one has blissful positivity, instead of death - life!"

     He was of course referring Gwen's attention to The Plains of Heaven, which he considered significant of the culmination of transcendental man's spiritual aspirations.  As yet, we were still too close to the dualistic compromise for comfort; we still had a long way to go before attaining to a life of transcendent bliss.  Yet we were certainly heading in the right direction, our spiritual bias on the side of the superconscious was becoming more evident all the time and would doubtless continue to develop over the coming decades ... until such time as not a trace of egocentric dualism remained, and we entered the post-human millennium - the heaven that John Martin had ingeniously symbolized through a tranquil, otherworldly landscape peopled by the Blessed.

     Oh yes, there could be little doubt that we were now closer to that heavenly culmination than Western society had ever been in the past!  We were no longer as dualistic, thank goodness, as our egocentric forebears in the heyday of Christianity.  We didn't give much credence to Hell.  We didn't like the concept of compromise.  Still less what had preceded it.  The Great Day of His Wrath could hardly be expected to attract all that many enthusiastic admirers these days, least of all for its cataclysmic subject-matter!  No, it was to The Plains of Heaven that the enlightened modern man instinctively turned, eager to see there the goal of human evolution.  This painting had relevance to him.  The others didn't.  This was John Martin's highest conceptual achievement, a fact which Matthew was keen to impress upon his girlfriend as they stood in front of the large canvas for about three minutes, admiring and studying.  And he was no less keen to impress upon her the fact that, taken together, the three canvases in the vicinity of where they were standing signified a summary of human evolution, beginning with the pre-Christian, progressing to the Christian, and culminating in the post-Christian - the wholly transcendent.  A journey, as it were, from agony to bliss via a dualistic compromise.

     "Yes, I see your point," Gwen admitted, smiling coyly.  "Psychologically, one could argue that The Deluge is on a similar plane to The Great Day of His Wrath," she added, turning back towards the Danby, plunging from the heights of Heaven to the depths of Hell in a split second.

     "Indeed!" concurred Matthew, following her across the room.  "Although Danby does at least provide one with an angel weeping over the death, it would appear, of a flood victim.  Yet that's psychologically inept, in my opinion, since angels shouldn't weep.  As symbolic representatives of transcendent spirituality, they should be incapable of indulging in negative emotions.  They should pertain to the blissful tranquillity of Heaven, not weep like poor wretches from a more mundane realm.  They should be spiritually consistent - bringers of love and joy.  A weeping or angry angel would seem to be a contradiction in terms."

     "Well, Francis Danby evidently considered it symbolically apt to have a representative from the divine realm saddened by all the evil afoot," Gwen declared pithily.

     "So it would seem," Matthew conceded, smiling wryly.  "Yet is still strikes me as rather surreal, if you see what I mean.  An angel in Hell?  Very unlikely!  Unless, of course, it was a fallen angel.  But, then, fallen angels aren't really angels in the true sense, are they?"

     Gwen couldn't very well argue with that!  She simply moved on a few paces to a canvas by Samuel Colman entitled The Destruction of the Temple (c. 1830) which, with its lightening-stricken crumbling stone and panic-stricken inhabitants, appeared unequivocally hellish, unequivocally on a psychological level with the pre-Christian.  Undoubtedly a very imaginative work, but hardly one guaranteed to inspire one with any great confidence in the coming post-human millennium!  Nevertheless, as they were about to take their leave of it for the larger section of Room 16, Matthew elected to say a few words in praise of the transparency of a majority of the figures therein portrayed which, so he maintained, was agreeably transcendent.

     No such comment, however, could he allot to the Pre-Raphaelite and associated paintings which now confronted his weary gaze as, reluctantly, he shuffled after Gwen and stepped into a world of late Victorianism.  Ugh, how he had come to loathe the Pre-Raphaelites!  How reactionary they seemed to him these days, in light of what the Impressionists had been doing in France at approximately the same time!  How awful that, instead of reflecting and justifying Western man's advance towards the superconscious, they should have turned their back on the age to the extent they appeared to have done, and consequently indulged in such fanciful illusions as were ordinarily to be encountered in their works!  Pre-Raphael indeed!  As if salvation were to come through reverting to some largely medieval context of rural simplicity!  No, the medievalism of the Brotherhood was indeed a chimera, a sham solution even by their standards, a skimming off the cream of medieval mythology, romance, and sentimentality, a nostalgia for things past without the knowledge or experience of true medievalism, with its innumerable horrors and limitations.

     Not that the Middle Ages were as black or bleak as was sometimes thought by contemporary liberals.  Yet they were by no means as agreeable as a spell in the fanciful illusions of Pre-Raphaelitism might have led one to suppose!  Nor would they have offered one much consolation for the upheavals of modern life.  There was nothing particularly heavenly about an age of mounting dualism.  Nothing charitable about the great castles which had been erected to protect the nobility from fellow noblemen, popular unrest, and foreign invasion.  Compared with the present, it was undoubtedly closer to Hell, even given all the horrors and limitations which beset the modern world.  Yet the Pre-Raphaelites didn't want to see that.  They preferred to turn their back on industrial progress and large-scale urbanization for the sake of a comforting illusion which medievalism seemed to offer them.  They preferred to think in terms of an illusory Golden Age of the English past in which chivalrous knights came to the timely rescue of beautiful damsels in distress, and people lived in harmony with nature.  They had no desire to learn from Constable or Turner and follow in their progressive footsteps by adopting a transcendental approach to painting.  That was left, on the contrary, to the Impressionists, those glorifiers of spirituality in light and colour, those disintegrators of matter.  The Pre-Raphaelites, by contrast, appear to have had scant taste for spiritual leadership - assuming they would have known how to recognize it in the first place.  Instead, they preferred to thematically regress not merely to the previous century but some five or six centuries, and to paradoxically pretend that such a regression was effectively a kind of progress.  To them, an aristocratic society would have made more sense than a proletarian one.  It would have corresponded to a Golden Age, whereas what was going on around them in the industrial world signified a tarnishing of the mean, a societal 'fall' from natural grace, which no right-thinking person could possibly condone.  Therefore back to the days of old when knights were bold and England not yet ruined by industrialism.  Yet not as far back, it has to be admitted, as the ages favoured by Poynter, Alma-Tadema, and Lord Leighton, to name but three historical painters.  No, let us give them some credit.  They weren't that reactionary.  Five or six hundred years merely - not a couple of millennia!

     It was with some psychological displeasure that Matthew Pearce observed the titles and subject-matter of the paintings on display here, in the larger section of Room 16.  He was not at all resigned to what seemed like an enthusiasm for them on the part of Gwen, who peered eagerly into the canvases, let fall a whispered "too beautiful!" or a respectful "so choice!" every now and then, as though to assure him that she had a fairly developed aesthetic sense and was confident he would agree with her as a matter of course - a thing which, to some extent, he was superficially prepared to do, since the paintings here, as elsewhere, of the leading Pre-Raphaelites were of course generally quite beautiful and obviously the work of highly skilled artists.  Yes, naturally!  No-one with an ounce of culture could possibly deny that such exhibits had beauty and were accordingly deserving of some respect.  Yet all that was somehow beside-the-point, painfully irrelevant to the evolution of modern art, and he was disappointed with Gwen, after all he had said to her, that she couldn't see it.  To her, they were skilfully painted representational works with noble subject-matter.  To him, by contrast, they were traitors to the age, down-dragging influences in an age of mounting transcendentalism.

     Yes, of course King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, The Lady of Shalott, and The Knight Errant, painted by Bourne-Jones, Waterhouse, and Millais respectively, were accomplished works, done with loving care and an eye for detail.  One couldn't doubt that!  Yet how frightfully anachronistic they seemed, how devoid of contemporary significance when compared with Turner's most revolutionary works - works, for example, like Scene in Venice, Venice from the Salute, or even Interior at Petworth, the abstract impression of which was to set the tone for the next century and influence all or most of the leading painters of the age!  Could one say the same of the Pre-Raphaelites?  Not if one knew anything about modern art!  Theirs was a lost cause, as lost as that of the French Symbolists, with their fin-de-siècle decadence.  From Turner, the torch of modernism had passed to the Impressionists, especially to Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro, and from them it was handed down more diversified to the twentieth century via the Post-Impressionists, Nabis, and Divisionists who, in their various ways, were to keep the belief in progress alive and weather the storms of decadence and reaction which swept all about them.  But The Lady of Shalott, in front of which Gwen was now standing, rapt, it appeared, in wholehearted admiration, had very little faith in progress and nothing to say to modernity.  The stream which bore its heroine away from Camelot was only a variant on the current of reactionary sentimentality which enabled Waterhouse, its Tennysonian creator, to be borne away from the nineteenth century towards an imaginary realm of medieval romance.  There was little about the work to suggest that a new era of human evolution had recently got under way, superior to anything in the past.  Strictly speaking, it wasn't an integral part of late-nineteenth-century art.  It had no real relevance to the age.  It had simply been imposed upon it out of a longing for mythical escape.  To Matthew Pearce, however, it was something to be escaped from!  He had no desire to tally there any longer in the world of the reactionaries.  He couldn't share Gwen's respect for Pre-Raphaelitis.

     "But don't you like it?" she protested, as he tugged her away from the Waterhouse, as though from a bedbug, and made for the room's nearest exit.

     "No, I bloody well don't!" he firmly and almost categorically asseverated, not bothering to look at her.  "I've no respect for down-draggers!"

     She didn't quite understand him, but said no more.  She was disappointed that he didn't share her tastes in art, yet in no way anxious to quarrel with him.  She knew that he had his reasons and wouldn't be diverted from them by anything she said on behalf of her own.  She had to accept him.  Yet she was conscious, as they walked back through the earlier rooms again and on towards the main exit, that an apocalyptic-like rift had opened-up between them - one doubtless born of their dissimilar wavelengths - into which they were now tumbling, as into a hell of their own contrivance.  No matter how hard she tried to learn from him and accept his views as her own, she couldn't surmount her previous conditioning overnight, so to speak, and thereby climb straight onto his level of awareness.  The words she heard him speak made no real impression on her soul.  She wasn't ready for them.  Her pretence of complicity in awareness had been exposed in Room 16, and she knew he resented it.  Now she was secretly angry with herself for having allowed her natural response to the genius of the Pre-Raphaelites to be aired in such obviously eulogistic terms, completely overlooking the fact that Matthew might not think so highly of it.  Instead of continuing to play second-fiddle to him, she had suddenly taken the lead, and it was not one that he had any intentions of following.  It had been a foolish miscalculation on her part!

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

"Any sign of them yet?" Thomas Evans casually inquired of his wife, as she peered out through the sitting-room's large front windows onto the driveway leading up from the wooden gateposts, some thirty yards away, to their front door.

     "Yes, I didn't think my ears were deceiving me," Deirdre Evans replied, automatically turning away from the windows.  "They're half-way up the drive."  She hesitated a moment, looked back over her shoulder, and smiled to herself.  "I must say, Gwendolyn appears to have found herself quite a good-looking boyfriend at last!  Neatly dressed and handsome with it!  That's not a combination one sees that often these days."

     "You saw it often enough in my day," Mr Evans declared, putting down his newspaper and casting an exploratory glance through the front windows - a glance, alas, which was too late to catch the approaching figures outside.  For they had already reached the front door and disappeared from view.  The driveway was once again empty and silent, its copious gravel no longer responding to the regular clump of purposeful feet.  The afternoon August sun shone down brightly into the house, illuminating a patch of carpet and part of the tea table to one side of the seated man.  At the sound of the doorbell, his wife had swiftly passed in front of him, leaving, in her excited wake, a trail of patchouli perfume which tickled his nostrils and, in conjunction with the swishing sound of her nylon stockings, aroused him to a momentary lasciviousness.  There was an expectant pause while the door opened and then, characteristically, a gush of exuberant greetings, as mother and daughter spontaneously embraced in the watchful presence of their guest, whom Gwen duly introduced.

     "So glad to meet you, Matthew," announced Mrs Evans, extending to the artist a small graceful hand.  "My daughter has already told me all about you in one of her recent letters to me, so I wasn't altogether unprepared for you."  She let go of his hand and gently smiled into his face.  "How did the journey go?" she asked, in due course.

     "Oh, quite well, thanks," he replied.  "The train ran on time anyway."

     "Yes, and thanks to the fine weather, it was a pleasure to gaze at the passing countryside," said Gwen.

     "Or such of it as is left between London and Northampton," Mrs Evans remarked light-heartedly.

     "Quite."

     Glancing from the one to the other, Matthew discovered that Gwen's face had very little in common with her mother's, other than a slightly retroussé nose.  For the eyes and hair of both women were of different colours and the chins of different shape - Mrs Evans' curved, Gwen's quite straight.  One would hardly have taken them for mother and daughter at first glance; though a more lingering comparison might have led to one's discovering similarities here and there, the most pronounced of which undoubtedly being the type of nose.  Yet Deirdre Evans seemed further to elude the status of Gwen's mother by dint of an appearance at once youthful and seductively attractive, which suggested not so much motherhood as elder sisterhood.  In fact, Matthew was somewhat surprised to find her so youthful-looking, though he assumed from Gwen, who had just turned twenty-two, that she must be at least forty.  In point of fact, she was thirty-nine, having conceived her daughter at the tender age of seventeen, a mere six months into her marriage.  But such information wasn't to be imparted to the artist there and then, as he stood next to his girlfriend and endeavoured to compare the two women while they talked.  He would have to content himself with guesswork, which, in any case, had been pretty close.

     Turning away from her daughter, Mrs Evans suddenly said: "Now then, Matthew, come and meet my husband, whom I'm sure will be delighted to see you."

     "Yes, I'd almost forgotten about dad," Gwen murmured, catching hold of her boyfriend's sleeve and well-nigh dragging him in her mother's turbulent wake.  "He's evidently in the sitting room."

     Which of course he was, and still seated in his favourite armchair with pipe in mouth and the daily paper on his lap.  He rose unsteadily to shake hands with the visitor, cast his daughter a welcoming nod, and, no sooner than these social obligations had been perfunctorily dispatched, gratefully relapsed into his chair again, pipe still in mouth.  One might have supposed from his behaviour that the reception of a stranger into his house was nothing out-of-the-ordinary, even if that stranger did happen to be his daughter's latest boyfriend.  At any moment, disdaining ceremony or curiosity, he might have picked up his paper again and carried on reading as though nothing had happened.  But that was only a surface impression.  For, in reality, he welcomed the prospect of finding out what kind of a young man Gwen had got herself involved with this time.

     It wasn't therefore long before, having taken the chair offered him shortly after entering the room, Matthew found himself drawn into conversation with Mr Evans on the subject of Gwen, which of course was common to them both, if from rather different angles.  "She told me you wrote to her a few weeks ago," Mr Evans stated, by way of an opening gambit, "and invited her to meet you somewhere in north London, if that was possible."

     "That's right," Matthew admitted, blushing slightly in the presence of the two women.  He wondered whether he hadn't let himself in for some kind of interrogation on the subject.  "Hampstead Heath, to be precise," he added, for Mr Evans' benefit.

     "And you apparently hadn't written to her for well over two years prior to that?"

     "No, quite true.  The previous letter I'd sent to her didn't receive an answer, so I assumed she had no desire to contact me.  I'd also written one even earlier than that ... about three-and-a-half years ago, but she didn't respond to that either.  I didn't realize, at the time, that she might have changed address beforehand and not had the letters forwarded-on to her.  Since they weren't returned to me, I had no way of knowing.  Indeed, it didn't even occur to me to use the second address she had given me that day we first met, namely yours - not, at any rate, until quite recently, when I began to consider the possibility of writing to her again.  I must have been too pessimistic about the fate of the earlier letters."

     "Which, presumably, had simply gone to an address she was no longer resident at?"

     "Yes, precisely!  But I didn't discover that until we got into correspondence quite recently, I having decided, after all, to send a letter to her care of you, a letter which I must thank you for having forwarded-on to her London address."

     Mr Evans vaguely waved a hand in the direction of the women, who were seated together on a nearby couch, before saying: "Don't thank me, dear boy, thank my wife.  It was she who re-addressed it."

     Matthew deferred to Mrs Evans with a polite smile.  He was still feeling embarrassed by the turn of conversation, but did his best not to show it.

     "I hear you first met my daughter outside Kenwood House in Highgate, north London," she remarked, taking advantage of the artist's attention.

     "Yes, a Sunday afternoon about four years ago," he obliged.  It was so hateful to be reminded of the fact.  Obviously Gwen had spoken to her mother on the subject!

     "And that was the last you saw of her until a couple of weeks ago, when she met you in London in response to your letter?"  It could have been Mr Evans again but, curiously, it wasn't.

     "Unfortunately so," Matthew confessed, feeling more than a shade disgruntled by this further example of parental curiosity concerning his relations with their daughter.  "Had she not changed address, a few months after we met, I might have received a reply sooner.  But she decided against notifying me, so I continued to send futile letters to her old one instead.  Since I didn't get around to writing to her until some five months after our brief acquaintance, she imagined, in the meantime, that I'd lost interest in her and that it therefore wasn't desirable or necessary for her to notify me of any change of address.  However, by the time I finally got round to writing - and writing letters, alas, has never been my forte - she had already moved house over a month previously, which is why I didn't receive a reply."

     "You ought to have written to her care of us after that," Mr Evans commented, pipe in hand.

     "Yes, so I realize," the artist admitted, feeling still more disgruntled with himself.  But he hadn't and that was that!  He had ignored their address and preferred to concentrate on the Norwich one instead.  It hadn't been a matter of life-and-death for him to contact her, in any case.  He had simply written out of curiosity, with a vague hope of furthering their relationship in due course.

     "Well, at least he wrote to me care of you eventually," said Gwen, offering her admirer some moral support.

     "Better late than never, I suppose," Mr Evans conceded.  "Though you could well have been deeply attached to someone else at the time and therefore not in a position to answer it in quite the way Mr Pearce would have hoped."

     This was hardly the kind of suggestion to win the latter's approval.  Yet he retained a discreet silence, in spite of its essentially baleful effect on him.  He was beginning to regret that he had ever written the damn letter at all and wasn't still in London, miles away from this rather cantankerous individual who sat opposite him with an evil-smelling pipe in his mouth and an even more evil-looking newspaper on his lap.  Better, perhaps, to have forgotten about Gwen than to have dragged her into his life again after so long.  Yet, deep down, he knew that his recent letter to her was virtually inevitable, insofar as he had no other woman to write to and was still desperately searching for love.  Gwen had not been his first and truest love.  As yet, she was scarcely even his second.  But she possessed the dubious distinction of being the only woman he had met, during the past four years, who bore a strong physical resemblance to his first love, and it was primarily for this reason that he had written to her in the hope of establishing some degree of intimate contact.  His judgement had told him that if he couldn't find his first love again - and he had no way of contacting her since she disappeared from his life one sad August afternoon several years before - he would be well-advised to find someone like her, someone with whom it would be possible to form a deep and lasting relationship.  Hence Gwen, being the nearest thing to her, had gradually acquired a special significance in this respect, despite the relative brevity of his prior meeting with her and the subsequent time-lag in their correspondence.  Had someone else come along in the meantime, to fill the void in his love-life, he would never have dreamt of contacting her.  Unfortunately for him, however, no-one else had, so the void had remained unfilled.

     Even now that he had established close contact with Gwen and made her his girlfriend, he was far from convinced it was being filled.  For, as already noted, he hadn't yet succeeded in falling in love with her and was privately disappointed by the fact that, in a number of respects, she existed on a completely different wavelength from himself, not, by any means, as spiritually close to him as he had imagined, on the dubious basis of their first meeting, that she would be. 

     That day, outside Kenwood House, they had talked for ages about art and travel and religion and other substantial subjects of mutual interest, and Matthew had come away with the impression that he had at last met a kindred spirit - a person with whom intimate conversation was possible.  Yet now, all these years later, it seemed to him that he may have been mistaken in his initial impression or, alternatively, inclined to modify it in his imagination in the meantime, since his recent relations with Gwen had exposed numerous disparities between them and accordingly caused him to cast suspicion upon his previous assumptions.      

     For instance, that afternoon at the Tate, a few days ago, he had become gravely disillusioned by her manifest admiration for and enjoyment of the Pre-Raphaelites, which seriously conflicted with his own attitude, based on radically post-Raphaelite taste.  She had only come to cultural life, it seemed to him, when they entered the Pre-Raphaelite section of Room 16.  Her responses to Turner, on the other hand, had been decidedly cool, especially where the more abstract-looking works were concerned.  It was as though she didn't comprehend the creative significance of what Turner had done and was consequently all-too-inclined to undervalue his work, to see in the gradual reduction of concrete representation a mess and incompetence rather than a radical breakthrough to a higher level of spiritual awareness.  Only with the more conventional early works did she appear to have any spontaneous interest, to stand in front of them with any degree of pleasure and occasionally make some eulogistic comment.  With the later and less conventional ones, on the other hand, it didn't take Matthew long to realize that she wasn't really there, didn't really appreciate what they signified in the development of modern art.  She appeared to withdraw into herself and clam-up, to respond but weakly to his enthusiasm.  Even The Angel Standing in the Sun didn't appear to make any great impression on her, no matter what he said on its behalf.

     Yes, it was evident that Gwen wasn't quite as kindred a spirit as Matthew had initially imagined, or that if, by any chance, she had once been closer to him, she had evolved in a different way during the course of the past four years.  Of the two possibilities, he wasn't quite sure which one to attribute more importance to, though he had a growing suspicion that the first was probably nearer the truth.  For time could only be subordinate to essence, since people who were essentially alike in their spiritual predilections remained so, no matter how long separated by time.  Still, it was perhaps too early, as yet, for Matthew to dismiss Gwen as a mistake on his part, and he was grateful, in spite of the cultural differences which existed between them, for the friendship she had granted him.  At least that was something to be pleased about!

     Meanwhile, the conversation had switched, much to Matthew's relief, to the subject of art, and specifically to his art, which Mr Evans seemed anxious to investigate after a rather cynical fashion.  "I mean, you're not one of these abstract artists, are you?" he fairly snorted, momentarily removing pipe from mouth.  "One who throws or flicks paint over the canvas and calls the deplorable result a work of art?"

     "Not quite; though I do indulge in a form of Post-Painterly Abstraction on occasion," the artist confessed in a slightly defensive tone-of-voice.

     "What-on-earth's that?" Mr Evans asked condescendingly. 

     "Well, it's a kind of simple, geometrical abstraction employing only a few colours to create a predominantly classical as opposed to, say, romantic type of modern art," Matthew informed him.  "One might argue that it generally looks neater than Abstract Expressionism, since primarily a matter of form rather than feeling.  Essentially an American phenomenon of the 'forties, it's now somewhat out-of-date, which is why I don't indulge in it very often.... Art styles change very rapidly these days, you know."

     "Perhaps that's just as well," Mr Evans averred sarcastically.  "So what do you generally indulge in, if that's not too sweeping a question?"

     "Well, I work in a variety of styles actually, sometimes veering in the direction of Op Art, with the use of closely knit wavy or angular strips of paint to create an illusion of movement, like one finds in Bridget Riley.  Sometimes veering in the direction of still life influenced by Pop Art, with the use of simple outlines painted in bright or matt tones of pure paint, like one finds in Patrick Caulfield.  Sometimes even veering in the direction of Computer Art, with the use of more complex geometrical shapes which reflect the influence of technology, like one finds in Eduardo Paolozzi.  And sometimes making use of minimalist techniques, in which only a few lines or dots or other simple forms are painted onto the canvas, and the result is extremely simplistic, suggestive of a greater degree of abstraction than had been achieved by most of the earlier abstract artists ... with the notable exceptions of the Italian, Fontana, and the Frenchman, Klein, who preferred to leave the canvas blank or to paint it white."

     "And you call all that art?" Mr Evans exclaimed, almost choking on his pipe.  "A blank or monochromatic canvas - art?"

     "Certainly modern art," Matthew admitted as calmly as possible.  He had anticipated some such outburst on his interlocutor's part.  "The general tendency being towards increased abstraction in one form or another, the most radical modern art completely breaking away from the traditional three-dimensional, representational concept of art."

     "But why-on-earth does it have to do that?" Mr Evans objected obdurately.

     "Because it does," the artist matter-of-factly stated, instinctively shying away from the immense abyss of dissimilar awareness which had suddenly opened up, hell-like, between them.  He didn't have the nerve, at present, to attempt bridging it, nor much confidence that such an attempt would meet with any success.  It was obvious that the reactionary philistine in front of him had no real desire to find out why modern art had to be modern.  If he had, he would have found out long ago!  No, it was perfectly clear that he was more interested in discrediting it than in seeking to justify its radicalism in the light of industrial and environmental change.

     "But surely an artist should put something recognizably artistic onto a canvas," Gwen's father protested, before Matthew could add anything to his initial reply.  "I mean, what's the point of a monochromatic canvas or, alternatively, of a canvas covered in geometrical patterns, zigzag lines, or whatever?  How can that have any relationship to genuine art?"  He stared sternly, almost offensively so, at his guest, as though wholly confident of the fact that he represented the voice of sanity and the artist, if not insanity, then certainly folly.

     "I don't know whether it has any relationship to conventional art as such," Matthew replied, endeavouring not to show his impatience.  "But it definitely has one to modern art.  So far as Western art is concerned, there are essentially three kinds, viz. the pre-Christian, the Christian, and the post-Christian, each of which follows its own rules within carefully prescribed boundaries."

     "That may well be," the pipe-smoker countered with an air of exasperation.  "But the way I see it, a lot of modern art simply isn't art."

     "It isn't Christian art, so it can't be judged by exactly the same standards as an art which was largely representational," Matthew averred.  "You have to judge it from a post-Christian viewpoint - from the viewpoint, namely, of twentieth-century transcendentalism.  Then it will make some sense to you.  But if you think that there's only one kind of art, viz. Christian, and that all art should correspond to it and be judged by it, then I'm afraid you're very much mistaken."

     Mr Evans appeared to be taken-aback, much as though he hadn't expected Matthew to rebut his criticism so confidently.  And he appeared baffled moreover, evidently uncertain of what the artist meant by 'Christian art'.  On the face of it the term seemed to imply crucifixions, visitations, resurrections, and the like, with strictly Christian associations.  Was this so?  He put the question to his guest.

     "No, by 'Christian' I don't just mean religious art," Matthew declared, "but any art, no matter how secular its subject-matter, which was painted from approximately the 12-18th centuries, during the period, one might say, of strong Christian influence.  In other words, an art which is dualistic, reflecting Western man's compromise position between the subconscious and the superconscious, rather than an art reflecting one or other of the psychic extremes, like one finds in the pre- and post-Christian periods.  Therefore Christian art is balanced between illusion and truth, the sensual and the spiritual, Hell and Heaven, etc., through whichever dualities you care to name.  It's largely a consequence of the environmental position of Western man during the time he lived in a more-or-less balanced condition between nature and civilization in his towns.  As soon as the balance began to tip in favour of civilization and the superconscious, however, Christian art started to decline and continued to decline the more tipped the balance, so that only a post-Christian, non-representational art was possible or, at any rate, truly representative of the age."

     "I'm afraid I don't quite follow you," Mr Evans confessed, not bothering to disguise his bewilderment.  "I mean, what-on-earth is the superconscious?  I haven't heard of such a term before."

     No, he hadn't.  And it was almost as though one should congratulate him for it, congratulate him for his ignorance and average middle-class mediocrity!  Matthew was fairly annoyed for having allowed himself to get drawn into an explication of art in relation to environmental transformations, for having given way to his penchant for high-flown didacticism in this patently philistine sitting-room.  Yet, protest as he might, it had been forced upon him by the necessity of justifying modern art and, through that, his own work in the face of unenlightened opinion.  He had no option but to continue, to respond to Mr Evans' ignorance.

     "Well, to put it as simply as possible, the superconscious is the highest part of the psyche, the intellectually- and spiritually-biased part of the mind as opposed to its emotionally- and sensuously-biased part," he obliged.  "It's that part signifying moral light as opposed to moral darkness, good as opposed to evil, positivity as opposed to negativity - in short, love as opposed to hate.  It is spirit at its lowest and highest, the spirit of intellectuality and the spirit, more importantly, of pure awareness, of timeless bliss.  The former on the lower level, the latter higher up ... at the apex, one might say, of mystical beatitude.  Indeed, it has been contended - and not without justification - that its topmost level is capable of identification with the Infinite; that, through it, man can come to a direct if partial knowledge of the Godhead; that the inner light is indeed commensurate with the essence of spirit per se, and thus equivalent to the truth beyond all appearances.  For one can experience an intimation of ultimate reality through the superconscious mind if one so desires or, to put it more accurately, if one is in a position to, that's to say, if one has the time, patience, inclination, and determination to dedicate oneself to the cultivation of pure awareness.  It won't come to one who hasn't properly prepared himself in advance, who hasn't dedicated his life to regular and sustained bouts of mystical concentration.  It has to be earned."

     "Presumably as the fruit of Transcendental Meditation," Mr Evans observed in an impatient tone-of-voice.  "Frankly, I'm afraid I can't accept what you say about the superconscious being capable of identification, partial or otherwise, with God.  It has never convinced me, this mystical theory of God as a state-of-mind, 'a being withdrawn', or whatever the quotation is, with which one can get into direct contact.  It all sounds too arbitrary.  The fact of a superconscious mind may be true, but I don't see that one should be led to infer the existence of God from it.  After all, there have been other concepts of God as well, so what is there about this one that should single it out for special commendation?"

     "Simply the fact that it's true and corresponds to ultimate reality," Matthew insisted.

     "Oh, come now!" Mr Evans protested.  "Just because some people - mystics or whatever they're called - believe it to be true, that doesn't mean to say it really is so!  Some people believe Jesus Christ to be God, but so what?  Does that mean that, ultimately, Christ really is God?  I've never thought so, anyway, and I'm nominally a Christian, not a Jew, a Moslem, a Hindu, or whatever.  To me, Christ is simply a man who happened to get himself taken for God in some parts of the world while the legitimacy of an anthropomorphic viewpoint prevailed."

     "In a sense, He's that for me too," Matthew confessed, blushing deeply in spite of himself.  For he was aware of the relativity of the term under discussion and felt that, while Christ wasn't exactly ultimate divinity, He was still divine to the degree of signifying a compromise between one level of divinity and another, the Father and the Holy Ghost, and thus had as much right, within relative terms, to be regarded as God as the other and more extreme parts of the Trinity.  "Yet I don't see why one should therefore disbelieve in a spiritually achieved intimation of God as the mystics conceive of Him," he went on.  "I don't see why a lower concept of God, founded as much on illusion as on truth, should prevent one from taking a higher concept of divinity seriously.  After all, there are plenty of people, these days, who are too enlightened to believe in God when conceived, say, as either Jesus Christ or some white-bearded Creator lording it over the Universe.  In other words, when conceived in traditional anthropomorphic terms, and who therefore consider themselves atheist."

     "I, for one!" Mr Evans declared.

     "Yes, well, such people often imagine they're above belief in God simply because what has hitherto been taken for divinity fails to convince them," Matthew continued.  "They come to a halt two-thirds of the way up the ladder of religious evolution under the delusion that they've actually reached the top or, rather, gone beyond it, transcended religion altogether, and then flatter themselves that they're too intelligent to believe in God.  For it's a taken-for-granted tenet of their philosophy that God, of whatever conception, is an illusion, a figment of the imagination which a less-enlightened ancestry were inclined to take too seriously.  To them, religion is a system of illusions or superstitions, beneath the dignity of an atheistic mind."

     "Well, isn't that what it essentially is?" Mr Evans countered, his face turning red with consternation.

     "No, no more than art is or must inevitably be," Matthew confidently retorted.  "Like art, religion can be divided into roughly three stages, corresponding to the nature of the environment and the degree of evolution manifested in it at any given time.  There's a religious sense largely founded on the subconscious, which is dark and fearsome, involving propitiatory sacrifice to a cruelly vengeful deity.  It's the equivalent of Creator-worship and is totally illusory, having no basis in reality whatsoever.  It isn't necessary to slay animals or people to win the favours of this Creator-God for the simple reason that such a deity, conceived in anthropomorphic terms, is largely if not purely a figment of the imagination.  Yet those who exist in this pre-Christian context can't be expected to realize that, since they're victims of the subconscious, unable to transcend its dominion to any appreciable extent - least of all to an extent which would enable them to see through their illusions.  They're too primitive, too much under nature's sway, and consequently too sensual to have any qualms about worshipping or, rather, fearing and propitiating a deity who corresponds to their subconscious enslavement.  Being predominantly sensual, they project their sensuality on to their deity, and accordingly endeavour to appease him in an appropriately sensual manner, usually through blood sacrifices though also, as in the case of the ancient Greeks - a slightly less fearful and generally more egocentric people on the whole - through sexual orgies ..."

     A titter of laughter erupted from the direction of the couch to Matthew's right, though Mrs Evans, less amused than her daughter, merely smiled her tacit acknowledgement of ancient Greek religiosity or, at any rate, to such of it as their guest had alluded.

     "Well, if these pre-Christian or pagan peoples are more under the sway of the subconscious than of the superconscious," Matthew continued, ignoring as best he could Gwen's non-verbal interruption, "then Christians represent an evolutionary development which signifies a balance between the two parts of the psyche, between the sensuous illusion-forming part and the spiritual truth-forming part, and are consequently more dualistic.  They aren't a people under the dominion of nature, but a people, on the contrary, who have evolved, thanks in large measure to the gradual expansion of their villages into towns, towards a position midway between nature and civilization.  To them, Heaven is as much a fact of life or religion as Hell.  For they're no longer under the dominion of evil, but balanced between evil and good in what I like to regard as the ego in its prime, that's to say, the twilight fusion-point of the two main parts of the psyche.  Christianity, you see, is really a twilight religion between the darkness of Creator-worship and the light of Holy Ghost experience, between the sensual and the spiritual.  Thus it's a religion half-illusion and half-truth - Jesus Christ, the actual deity of the Christians, having actually lived and been a man, religious requirement having endowed Him with supernatural significance, attributed all manner of miracles to Him which, though valid from a theological viewpoint, appear less than plausible from a rational one, and accordingly fail to impress us or, at any rate, those of us who are rational."

     "Here, here!" exclaimed Mr Evans, banging the hand holding his pipe down on the arm of his armchair so violently ... that some of its still-smouldering contents spilled out onto the carpet.  "I've never been able to accept the divinity of Christ.  To me, the idea of God as man or of man as God seems intrinsically suspect."

     "Yes, well that doesn't mean to say that the idea of God as spirit should also be so," Matthew calmly responded.  "For it's from Christianity, with its illusion/truth dichotomy, that we progress to the post-Christian context, largely brought about by the expansion of towns into cities and our growing independence from the sensuous influence of nature, in which the balance between the two parts of the psyche no longer holds sway and we find ourselves becoming progressively biased on the side of the superconscious, on the side of truth, goodness, peace, spirituality - all those attributes of life, in short, which stand at the opposite pole to those worshipped by the pre-Christians, or pagans.  No longer can God be conceived in terms of a dualistic compromise between illusion and truth, still less in terms of illusion alone, but only as truth, as God per se, which corresponds, in traditional terminology, to the Holy Ghost, the third and highest part of the so-called Blessed Trinity.

     "Here, at last, is the spiritual as opposed to anthropomorphic awareness of God," Matthew went on, warming to his thesis, "the religious sense commensurate with ultimate divinity.  No longer is it necessary to fear as well as love God, but simply to experience and understand God as love, light, bliss, peace, etc.  Nor need one conceive of this God in terms of 'He', as an anthropomorphic projection of the ego, for the simple reason that one has transcended the balance between the subconscious and superconscious parts of the psyche, and thus evolved beyond egocentric projections.  No longer 'He' but 'it', no longer Jesus Christ but the Holy Spirit of Universal Consciousness or whatever else you prefer to term this manifestation of true divinity, which is one with the superconscious mind.

     "Thus religion, becoming at last a question of truth, evolves to its third and final stage," Matthew continued, by now considerably fired-up, "beyond which it cannot change.  For once one has arrived at a true conception of God, one cannot return to an earlier illusory or part-illusory concept.  It's no good, once one has seen through the nature of prayer - that mental activity founded on egocentric projection - pretending that one can return to a religious framework endorsing it in due course.  One can't!  A society growing increasingly under the sway of the superconscious can only respond to that influence in an appropriately transpersonal way - by transcending egocentric selfhood.  For God, conceived in any ultimate sense, isn't there to be petitioned or thanked, praised or cursed, but simply experienced, as the heavenly side of Last Judgement paintings has generally shown.  Bliss, peace, love - this is compatible with ultimate divinity, not action!  Only an illusory or partly illusory concept of God leads one to believe that He is a being capable of exerting Himself on one's behalf, or even against one.  And to assume it isn't possible to believe in God because there's so much evil in the world ... is simply to betray the fact that one would have a rather simplistic and outmoded concept of God in mind to equate Him with such evil.  For this higher divinity is certainly not responsible for all the evil in the world.  How can it be when it has nothing to do with evil, since a state-of-mind, a peace which 'surpasses all understanding'?  No, it's highly unlikely that bliss can be held responsible for agony.  Only a dualist might think so, a man, in other words, who signifies but a phase of human evolution, when evil and good seem to be balanced in the world and it's possible to assume that the one must necessarily be dependent on the other.  Yet just as human evolution is a journey from the subconscious to the superconscious, from sensuality to spirituality, illusion to truth, so it's a journey from evil to good - from Hell to Heaven.  It's only a combination of Hell and Heaven, so to speak, during the Christian twilight era of human evolution, when the darkness seems to be balanced by the light."

     Thomas Evans wasn't particularly impressed by this line of argument, since he had suffered a great deal in life from poor health (he currently had a smoke-fuelled weak heart), financial and business worries, personal anxieties of one kind or another, etc., and was therefore unconvinced that life, however one conceived of it, was becoming progressively more heavenly.  To him, it was pretty evident that dualistic considerations still had to be borne in mind, and he wasted no time in saying so.

     "Oh, I quite agree," said Matthew by way of a deferential response.  "There is still a large amount of evil in life.  For we haven't yet transcended the egocentric balance to any appreciable extent, and accordingly still have a fair way to go before we get completely beyond dualism, since the subconscious hasn't been completely triumphed over at present.  It may take decades or even centuries before we evolve to a context where Heaven becomes more of a reality than at present.  But there's no way that you or anyone else can disprove the fact that we're evolving in the right direction for spiritual transformation, and it seems quite probable that if we persist long enough we'll eventually attain to our goal - attain, in other words, to what I am wont to call a post-human millennium, which, as the terms suggests, is more than merely post-humanist, being properly divine."

     "No, I can't believe that for one moment, any more than I can believe most of what you say!" Mr Evans obdurately retorted.  "I expect you'll be telling us, before long, that we're destined to turn into angels or supermen or something equally preposterous at this post-human millennium of your fanciful imagination."

     "Thomas!" interposed Mrs Evans, somewhat annoyed by her husband's impertinence.  "It isn't necessarily as preposterous as you, in your bourgeois short-sightedness, would seem to think."

     Mr Evans glared ferociously at his wife, as though she had just committed a sacrilege in his house.  What right had she to interfere, least of all in a way which drew attention to the limitations of his ideological views?  But he didn't say anything to her.  Instead, he turned his attention back to Matthew Pearce and glared at him awhile.  The atmosphere in the room was by no means pleasant.  "And I don't quite see," he confessed, picking up the thread of his retort again, "exactly what all this has to do with modern art, which I recall we were discussing prior to religion.  Am I to take it that such art generally signifies a superconscious bias, too?"

     "Yes, that would be helpful," said Matthew.  "For I was saying that Christian art was essentially a matter of dualism, not just religious subjects, and that post-Christian art couldn't be judged by the same standards, but had to be viewed in its own context of lopsided spirituality, had to be seen from the viewpoint of superconsciousness  instead of mere egocentricity.  For, compared with traditional art, modern art is largely a transpersonal phenomenon, transpersonal in its abstraction and transpersonal in what often appears as scrappiness or simplicity - a refusal to appear figuratively great, profound, overly objective, technically brilliant, or whatever else may be associated with an art form centred on the ego, which is to say, the dualistic fusion-point between subconscious and superconscious minds.  Thus when it really is modern, and accordingly reflects the most advanced creative tendencies of the day, art is essentially an abstract rather than a representational phenomenon, a product of the city environment. 

     "Most of Salvador Dali's art, on the other hand, isn't truly modern at all," he went on, "because too egocentric to signify a more transpersonal or transcendental approach to painting.  It's technically closer to Christian art.... Now when one remembers that Dali was the son of a notary, and thus hailed from a conservative upper-middle-class background, it needn't surprise one if much of his work should reflect a representational standpoint in an age of mounting abstraction.  Yet not all of his art can be so described, especially that part of it which focuses on Christian mysticism and utilizes a nuclear technique - a particle technique symptomatic of the nuclear disintegration of matter.     

     "However that may be, it's still fair to say that modern art is better characterized by transcendental abstraction than by surrealistic representation," Matthew continued, "that a painting intimating of the Holy Ghost is more relevant to and indicative of the age than one with Christian associations, even if those associations happen to be radicalized by a nuclear or mystical technique."

     "I'm afraid I know very little about Salvador Dali," remarked Mr Evans complacently.  "Though I've seen one or two of his canvases, which were quite intriguing if somewhat perversely obscure.  Yet at least they could be recognized as works of art, even if not as convincingly so as those of old masters like Raphael, Rembrandt, and Rubens."

     If anything was guaranteed to make Matthew lose patience with the man, it was this kind of attitude.  For it was evident that Mr Evans couldn't think of art in other than traditionally objective terms, and therefore automatically referred the present back to the past, regarding modern works as art only if they could be compared, to some extent, with those of the old masters, and considering all the rest, that is to say the bulk of twentieth-century art, as anti-art or even as no art at all.  A typically philistine viewpoint, but scarcely one to be wondered at, in the circumstances!  After all, Thomas Evans was the manager of an insurance company in Northampton and, as such, one couldn't very well expect him to be particularly aware of what was happening in the world of modern art, or why it had to happen.  In a sense, it didn't matter what he thought, his views were of scant consequence, since those of a businessman, not an artist.

     It was therefore important for Matthew to keep this in mind and thus make a determined effort not to be impressed by the reactionary opposition Mr Evans chose to offer, on the contentious subject of modern art.  No, instead of losing patience with him on account of his virtually inevitable unenlightened viewpoint, Matthew resolved to keep Mr Evans in perspective as a perfectly ordinary middle-class citizen whom it was unwise to expect to behave or talk like an artist, least of all a radical one.  If his viewpoint was somewhat limited, then so be it!   There could be no real reason, given his critical temperament and occupational habits, why it should be otherwise. 

     Yet to some extent it was nonetheless necessary for the artist to continue his defence and explication of modern art, if only because his own reputation and self-respect were personally at stake, and this he proceeded to do, albeit without any conviction that what he had to say would be appreciated.

     The fact that art had once primarily served the emotions was perfectly true.  Just as it had also served, albeit at a later and more evolved epoch, both the will and intellect combined, and was now primarily serving the spirit.  It had passed, like religion, from the realm of illusion to the realm of truth, and would continue to evolve in accordance with the contemporary imbalance on the side of truth.  To claim, therefore, that art should only serve illusion would be as ridiculous, in Matthew's view, as to claim that religion was only a matter of illusion and would cease to exist as religion if it wasn't.  No, art hadn't ceased to exist simply because the old criterion of dualistic balance had been superseded.  On the contrary, what now existed was simply a different kind of art - more truthful and rational than hitherto.  If, from a traditional viewpoint, it appeared to be a lesser art than that relative to an egocentric age, it nonetheless existed on a higher level of evolution and had to be respected on its own terms.  This much, at any rate, the artist endeavoured to assure his sceptical host.

     "Yes, but I still don't see the artistic significance of either a monochromatic or nearly blank canvas," Mr Evans objected, unwilling to accept Matthew's attempted vindication at face-value.  "You call it minimalism, or some such term, and regard the result as an advanced or extreme form of abstraction.  But, really, it doesn't make any sense to me.  I mean, is that the ultimate truth in modern art?"

     Matthew had to smile, in spite of his seriousness.  "I don't know whether it's the ultimate truth," he replied, "but it can certainly be equated with spirit, light, and thus the truth of the superconscious mind.  Indeed, I incline to view abstraction as a mode of religious art, the religious art of transcendental man.  It signifies the victory of the spiritual over the material, the transpersonal over the impersonal, subjectivity over objectivity.  A thing which also applies, I believe, to most light art, especially where neon tubing is involved.  And, of course, to a large quantity of modern sculpture, or sculpture emphasizing light and space as opposed to the secular, to whatever reflects materialism, technology, urbanization, scientific progress, and so on, in the world at large.  It's the difference, if you like, between that which emphasizes the influence of the Holy Ghost and that, by contrast, which emphasizes the influence of contemporary science and industry.  Both kinds of art, now as previously, are equally justified, but they aren't on the same level.  The religious, now as before, signifies a superior tendency, one dealing with the more-than-human, dealing, in short, with the principal concern of human evolution - namely, the attainment to salvation in the millennial Beyond, the transformation of man into the superhuman being which lies transpersonally beyond him."

     "Bah! I cannot accept that interpretation of human evolution," Mr Evans confessed, glowering defiantly.

     "No?  Well, maybe that's because you're essentially a materialist and therefore have no use for spiritual salvation," Matthew retorted.  "Yet, to me, a person who is indisposed to reconcile himself to the notion that science and technology are ends in themselves, it seems indisputably evident that evolution must be conceived primarily in terms of man's changing relationships to divinity and only secondarily in terms of how he sustains himself during the course of those changes.  To see technological and industrial progress as ends in themselves would seem to me a kind of insanity.  Yet neither would it be entirely sane if one were to dismiss the secular and materialistic side of evolution altogether, as though it were of small account.  For it's only through our ever-changing environments that we come to attain to a better and more truthful relationship with divinity.  Only with the aid of our materialistic progress in respect of new technologies."

     "So that is presumably why you sometimes work in a genre or format in which complex geometrical shapes, suggestive of the influence of contemporary technology, play an important role, is it?" Mr Evans deduced, recalling to mind an earlier facet of their conversation.

     Matthew nodded affirmatively.  "Yes, though not very often, least of all these days," he admitted.  "For I like to think of myself as a predominantly religious painter, in the service of the Holy Ghost.  In point of fact, I abandoned the impersonality of geometrical concerns some time ago for a kind of transcendental, symbolic art which sometimes makes use of a dove and at other times of an intensely luminous globe of light-suggesting paint."

     "How d'you mean?" asked Mr Evans, looking slightly puzzled, as well he might.

     "Well, as you doubtless know, the dove is symbolic of the Holy Ghost, so I use it to signify our age's growing allegiance, via the superconscious mind, to transcendentalism, and thus to the spirit.  Painted in white on a silver background, or occasionally on a pale-blue one, the dove becomes for me a symbol of contemporary religion, equivalent to Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point.  Now as the Omega Point is also a symbol, a concept for Ultimate Godhead in pure spirit, I make use of that as well, and so paint canvases in which an intensely pure light, turned-in upon itself in blissful self-contemplation, exists at the centre of a silver ground.  But more recently, within the past couple of months, I've begun to paint, in very minimalist outlines reminiscent of Matisse's graphics and Caulfield's still-lives, figures meditating, seated cross-legged in upright postures on a flat plane with a kind of seraphic glow about them."

     "Oh, really?" Mr Evans responded in a mockingly indifferent tone-of-voice.  He had never meditated in his life, nor did he know anyone who had.  "And are they supposed to represent the Buddha, or what?" he almost sarcastically inquired.

     "No, nothing of the kind," Matthew maintained, ignoring, as best he could, the air of flippancy attending his host's sarcastic curiosity.  "The figures used in the compositions in question are perfectly Western, designed to reflect the mounting relevance of meditation to a post-Christian society.  They're not so much emissaries of Eastern religion or traitors to their cultural heritage ... as intelligent Westerners for whom the 'Third Person' of the Trinity has come to have more significance than the 'Second'.  They pertain to spirituality in a modern industrialized and urbanized society, to a spirituality which reflects our severance from nature and consequent post-dualistic bias.  To them, sin and fear of God are alike irrelevant.  For they are too ascetic to be unduly exposed to sin, and can only conceive of God in terms of grace.  They're not Buddhists but transcendentalists.  And when they meditate, it's effectively with a view to fulfilling Christian prophecy and bringing the Christian aspiration towards salvation closer to fruition.  In other words, to entering the 'Kingdom of Heaven' wherein only peace, bliss, love, and light reign.  Being post-dualistic, they have no use for Hell."

     Thomas Evans inflicted a short, sharp snort on the artist in supercilious response.  "I wish I could say the same," he caustically declared.  "But, as it happens, I have to live in this world, which, to the best of my knowledge, is decidedly dualistic.  Your meditating figures seem far too complacent for me, too much a figment of your self-serving imagination.  They suggest a greater degree of optimism concerning this life than ever I would wish to entertain.  They seem to me to have turned their backs on reality and to be living in a kind of dream world."

     "I'm afraid I can't agree with you," said Matthew.

     "No, I don't suppose you can," Mr Evans retorted sarcastically, after which, to Matthew's relief, he relapsed into a silence disturbed only by the lighting and puffing of his pipe.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Following dinner early that evening, Gwen and Matthew went out into the large back garden to get some air and soak up a little of the sun which was now bathing it in a pool of soft light.  They took a couple of deck chairs and found a pleasant spot over by an imposing cluster of rhododendrons, which stood to the right of the garden at a distance of some thirty yards from the house.  It was really Gwen's decision to sit there, for she hated to sit in the centre of the garden, where there was a total absence of plant life and one felt exposed to prying eyes all around one.  Only by its edges, where the flowers and bushes were reposing in loosely arranged beds, did she feel any degree of complacency, born of the privacy they appeared to provide.  Besides, she liked the scent of the plants, which was particularly pleasant where they were now sitting.  The centre of the garden, about which only pale grass grew, seemed to her relatively barren and devoid of life.

     "I trust you didn't find dad too trying during dinner?" she gently inquired of Matthew, after a few minutes' respectful silence had fallen between them in the refreshing presence of temperate nature.

     "No, not really," he replied, more out of a mechanical response to her probing statement than an honest answer.  He looked at her half-humorously, as though in ironic deference to the fact that Mr Evans had been more upsetting before dinner than during it.  Indeed, it might have been truer to imply that Mr Evans was pretty upsetting whether or not he was talking.  But he had no real desire to compromise her over the thorny issue of her father, limiting himself, instead, to a good-natured dismissal of the matter, as though it were of small account.  For anything more serious would probably have led him to get up and make his way back to the station there and then, in order to be free not only of Gwen's father but of Gwen herself, who wasn't exactly the most kindred of spirits, either.  Yet he didn't want to make a scene of it, to treat this experience too seriously.  Better, on second thoughts, to treat it with a kind of scientific detachment, as though one had been entrusted with the responsibility of studying, at relatively close-quarters, a species of life which, though personally abhorrent to one, it was nevertheless necessary to treat with a modicum of respect, if only to complete one's studies.  It might, after all, lead to some as-yet unimagined revelation.  At least it had already led to a better understanding of Gwen, which was something.

     "I really ought to have warned you, in advance, of what my father was like," she remarked sympathetically.  "But I wasn't altogether sure of how he would react to you.  Besides, I was afraid that you might not have agreed to come here, had I given you prior warning about him."

     Matthew smiled dismissively.  "Oh, don't worry yourself about it," he advised her.  "I didn't exactly expect him to be an exact replica of myself.  He's entitled to his views, after all, even if I can't share them."

     There ensued a further short period of silence, before Gwen asked: "What d'you think of my mother?"

     It was a question Matthew had half-expected, but he still blushed slightly as he replied: "She seems quite pleasant really, quite polite and friendly; though I haven't yet had a chance to form a clear impression of her.  Like you, she tends to keep quiet when Mr Evans is speaking."

     "Yes, that's true enough," Gwen admitted.  "She's not a particularly talkative person anyway, even given the fact that dad doesn't exactly encourage conversation.  He mostly keeps to himself in the house."

     "Don't your parents get on very well together?" Matthew asked, partly in response to this remark and partly from a vague premonition to the contrary.

     "No, not for the past five or six years," Gwen revealed, blushing slightly.  "Largely in consequence of dad's poor health - his fits of depression and bad heart, his liver and bronchial trouble - which seems to have come between them and isolated them from each other to a certain extent.  Not that mum's health is entirely good.  But she does at least fare better than him, as a rule."

     "She certainly looks well," Matthew candidly opined.  "And young, too.  Indeed, I was more than a little surprised to learn that the woman who answered the door to us was in fact your mother.  She seemed more like an elder sister."

     Gwen smiled faintly and then said: "Yes, she's only seventeen years older than me actually.  But that, too, is one of the reasons why my parents don't get on as well as they formerly did.  For dad is ten years her senior and tends to behave as if he were a member of an older generation ... which, when you consider the nature of his health, effectively appears to be the case.  It's as though he has already crossed the threshold into old age, while she has hardly entered middle age."

     Matthew couldn't argue with that observation!  "And you're their only child?" he conjectured.

     "Yes, though mum lost two children prematurely, and I had a brother who died of pneumonia at six," Gwen answered on a note of sadness.  "He was two years younger than me."

     "I'm sorry to hear it," said Matthew, respectfully deferring to convention.  "It must have been rather upsetting for you."

     "Yes, for a while," Gwen admitted.  "But more so for mum, who was very fond of him.  She had always wanted a boy."  There was a tinge of self-pity in her voice, as though indicative of the fact that, as a girl, she had rated lower in her mother's estimation and grown to resent it.  But she didn't say anything else about the subject, and Matthew tactfully refrained from further inquiry.  

     Indeed, he was secretly gratified when, instead of continuing the conversation along other lines, his girlfriend relapsed into one of her characteristic silences, abandoning her face to the sunlight, which caused it to take on an almost angelic aura of transcendent spirituality, like Rossetti's Beatrice.  To be sure, there was certainly something Pre-Raphaelite about her at this moment, something ethereal and not-quite-there.  Yet such an illusion was quickly dispelled from Matthew's mind as she turned her face to one side and caught some shadow from the nearby rhododendrons.  Now she was simply Gwendolyn Evans again, devoid of spiritual nobility, the daughter of a provincial bourgeois.  Her attractiveness, suddenly released from transcendent pretensions, assumed more earthly proportions.  But for her delicacy of build, one might have taken her for an average sensualist.  Instead of which, one had no option but to acknowledge her for the dualistic compromise she was - both sensual and spiritual in approximately equal degrees.

     Turning his gaze away from her impassive face, Matthew focused his attention on the detached house in front of them, the rear windows of which glinted in the soft sunlight.  Its perfectly conventional middle-class respectability suddenly became a source of annoyance to him as he recalled, not without a pang of regret, that he had allowed himself to be drawn into a context for which he had no real sympathy and absolutely no desire to emulate in his own life - namely, the context of bourgeois compromise.  For the fairly large house that his vision now embraced stood as a symbol to him of most of the things he was in rebellion against and preferred not to see.  It stood, above all, as a symbol of the class which had come to power after the aristocracy and now prospered on the sweat of the proletariat.  Yet it also stood as a symbol, in large measure, of the class which took the middle road between the aristocracy and the proletariat, and signified a kind of midway stage of human evolution.  Not as materialistic as the former nor as spiritualistic as the latter, the bourgeoisie were resigned to a compromise formula which, while leaving them cognizant of the fact that excessive wealth was a grave obstacle to spiritual enlightenment, precluded them from relinquishing the benefits of materialism to any appreciable extent, least of all to an extent which made them candidates for spiritual enlightenment personally! 

     Quite the contrary, the bourgeois was very firmly, now as before, a creature of the middle road, the dualistic material/spiritual compromise which found its religious home in Christianity and its political home in parliamentary democracy.  If his house wasn't as grand as an aristocrat's, well and good!  He had no great difficulty living with that fact.  But to suggest to him that he should go one stage further up the ladder of human evolution and relinquish private property altogether, resigning himself to life in a comparatively small council house or flat, would be tantamount to depriving him of his very existence, and such a suggestion would meet with very little approval!  Indeed, it would probably meet with none!  For the bourgeois was not an animal which could turn itself into a proletarian, any more than an aristocrat was an animal which could turn itself into a bourgeois.  If a bourgeois was spiritually superior to an aristocrat, he was yet spiritually inferior to a proletarian, and could never alter himself one way or the other.  By his very compromise nature, he was condemned to the twilight stage of human evolution in between the darkness and the light - a perfectly legitimate position while the twilight was inevitable, but an increasingly questionable, not to say untenable, one the more the twilight changed to light and society accordingly progressed away from its former dualistic compromise towards a stage of life that transcended dualism, a stage in which only proletarian criteria were relevant.  As a creature who signified a kind of dovetailed combination of aristocratic and proletarian elements within himself, the bourgeois could never emerge from the moral twilight.  If it came to an end under the sway of an increasingly strong barrage of light, the bourgeois would perish too.  He wasn't capable of living solely in the light, for it would be a refutation of his other half, an abnegation of his dualism.  No, he could only flourish and perpetuate himself while the twilight prevailed.  Once it had gone - whoosh, no more bourgeois!

     Whatever pertained to the light was proletarian; was man become wary of materialism and living in smaller houses, smaller apartments, or flats because he was too evolved to require large-scale property, because, in other words, his superconscious predominated over his subconscious rather than existed in a balanced compromise with it; was man born and bred in the city, away from the sensuous influence of nature; was transcendental man.  Yes, but not the bourgeois, not Christian man.  There could be no question of his transformation.  This house, sparkling in the sunlight, was destined to be superseded world-wide - and in a sense already had been - by a less materialistic scale-of-values. 

     In the overall progression of evolution through approximately three stages ... from a dominating materialistic class to a liberated spiritualistic class via a worldly compromise class, this house undoubtedly signified something morally better, higher, and more humane than the typical aristocratic dwellings which had preceded it.  It was certainly less glaringly materialistic than the huge castles, palaces, and country houses favoured by the nobility.  It was not the repository of so many possessions, and such possessions as it housed were generally of a less-ornate and expensive variety than those favoured by the overtly materialistic class.  They were unlikely to distract the eye from spiritual preoccupations to anything like the same extent as those possessions which had been specifically designed to glorify matter.  The library, for instance, would not be nearly so large or contain as many weighty and expensively-tooled, leather-backed books.  On the contrary, it would be of moderate proportions, containing, at most, a few thousand books, and most if not all of those less-expensive hardbacks would have been read, not simply owned for the mere sake of collecting or signifying the extent of one's wealth and/or materialistic power. 

     Indeed, there may even be, among the ranks of such bourgeois tomes, a few paperbacks, as befitting an age in which the spiritual predominates over the material and a book is accordingly judged more by what it contains by way of intellectual or cultural nourishment than with what care or materials it was made.  Yet it was highly unlikely that such a library would house any great number of paperbacks.  For the bourgeois would not want to deprive himself of hardbacks to an extent which made his collection lack a certain amount of materialistic elegance.  Oh, no!  If he instinctively looks down on the extensive materialism of an aristocrat's library, he yet shies away from the prospect of relinquishing his taste for hardbacks to the extent required by a proletarian library, in which, one may surmise, only paperbacks would exist.  Furthermore, he would not wish to reduce the number of books in his collection, either.  For the few thousand he owns seems to him more becoming than the mere 500-odd books to be found in the average proletarian collection.  After all, his house is somewhat larger than the average proletarian dwelling, and therefore it's likely that his library will have to be correspondingly larger, if it isn't to look ridiculously out-of-scale with its surroundings.  As the man of the middle road, he knows exactly where he stands.  His library, like just about everything else about him, is somewhere in-between the alternative extremes.  It corresponds to stage two of human evolution.

     Yes, and although Thomas Evans wasn't the most scholarly or bookish of middle-class people, it could certainly be said of his library - which Matthew had taken a glance at prior to dinner - that it represented the requisite compromise of scale and favoured books in-between the extensive materialism of the previous historical class and the intensive spirituality of the ultimate one.  Nothing extreme would be found there!

     A gentle sigh beside him caused the artist to abandon his philosophical reflections and turn his attention back towards Gwen who, with eyes closed, seemed perfectly resigned to the absence of conversation and only too happy for a chance to vegetate in the warm evening air, feeling the caress of the sun upon her upturned face, which had assumed a mellow glow.  Watching her thus, seemingly oblivious of his presence beside her, Matthew experienced a moment of tenderness towards her and gently but firmly placed a hand on her nearest leg, just above the knee and below the rim of her pale-cream skirt, which she had drawn-up slightly in response to the sun.  This presence of his hand on her flesh caused her to smile in a subtly sensual way, yet she kept her eyes closed.  She looked perfectly complacent, like a softly purring cat - submerged in soft sensuality.  At any other time Matthew would probably have raised the rim of her skirt until her thighs were completely naked and her panties exposed to view, content to focus his attention upon that part of them behind which her crotch would be gently stewing in its own sexual gravy, leading a kind of vegetable existence of its own - soft and languid.  But in the back garden of her parents' house, what with the prospect of someone spying on them through one or another of the rear windows, he had to resign himself to gently patting her nearest leg instead, not exposing the outer reaches of her more private parts to his tender gaze. 

     And this he continued to do even after his thoughts had once more turned away from Gwen's body and become entangled in intellectual matters again, this time concerning the architectural innovations of Gottfried Semper, the nineteenth-century German architect who occasionally designed buildings with a view to reflecting different stages of architectural evolution - the façade beginning on the ground floor with a coarse appearance and ascending, through successive floors, to a smoother one, with a corresponding change of materials in the overall construction.  At present, Matthew couldn't remember very much about the man from what he had read, some years before, in the local public library; though he knew that, if he were an architect bent on illustrating evolutionary transformations from one floor to another, he would adopt a somewhat different approach from Semper - one emphasizing the growing predilection for the light which characterized our evolutionary struggle.

     Thus, taking the façade as its most representative component, his projected building would have a row of small windows on the ground floor spaced at regular, if quite distant, intervals, so that the overall impression was one of darkness or, rather, of the ego - that fusion-point of the subconscious and superconscious minds - under subconscious dominion.  The subconscious would be represented by the concrete, the superconscious by the windows, and the ratio of the one to the other would be approximately in the region of 3:1.  Thus the ego of pre-dualistic man would be represented as a predominantly dark phenomenon.  Aristocratic materialism would have the advantage.

     With the first floor, however, indicative of stage two of human evolution, the ratio of concrete to windows would be transformed into a dualistic balance, so that the increase in window space came to signify a greater degree of superconscious influence, commensurate with bourgeois consciousness, and the overall impression was accordingly of an ego balanced, in twilight compromise, between the dark and the light.  In this section of the façade, the percentage which the material aspect had lost would have been gained by the spiritual one.  Heaven and Hell would be kept in dualistic equilibrium.

     Not so, however, with the second and final floor, representative of the third stage of human evolution, in which the ratio of concrete to windows or, rather, of windows to concrete had become the converse of that exhibited on the ground floor, and the light of the superconscious accordingly prevailed over the darkness of the subconscious in the ratio of 3:1, reducing the material part of this upper section of the façade to but a quarter of the total space.  Here, then, it would be the turn of proletarian man to advertise his predilection for the light, his ego being decidedly under the sway of the superconscious and thus partial to a spiritual bias.  Here, on the second floor, human evolution attained to its climax.  And after that - well, it only remained for proletarian man to transcend his humanity altogether, namely by dispensing with the remaining influence of the subconscious, for him to enter the post-human millennium and thus become divine.  In the meantime, however, a lot of work to be done, not least of all in using more window space than hitherto, which is to say, than the bourgeoisie could countenance!

     Such, at any rate, was the plan Matthew thought he would put into architectural operation, were he an architect bent on expanding and refining upon the techniques first propounded by Gottfried Semper.  Indeed, he might even do a variation on that, in which the façade of his evolutionary building, while retaining the respective ratios of concrete to windows on each floor, was less part of one house than indicative of three different buildings built one atop the other - the one on the ground floor, so to speak, three times as large as its top-floor counterpart, while the one in the middle, suggestive of bourgeois compromise, signified a sort of cross between the other two.... Or, alternatively, to conceive of such a wedding-cake building as one house in which three separate apartments, viz. an aristocratic, a bourgeois, and a proletarian, were arranged in vertical juxtaposition, the overall pyramidal shape of the building indicative of the diminishing scale of materialism as one approached the top floor.  Thus one could speak of an aristocratic floor, a bourgeois floor, and a proletarian floor, each of which reflected the aforementioned evolutionary transformations in the psyche.  It would be an evolutionary building more comprehensive and profoundly significant than anything of which Semper had ever dreamed!

     The sight of Mrs Evans emerging from the house suddenly put a stop to further musings on Matthew's part, bringing him sharply back to the provincial surroundings in which he somewhat ironically found himself.  She was crossing the lawn in their direction, heading, it appeared, for Gwen.

     "It looks as though your mother has something to tell you," Matthew softly remarked, for the benefit of the tranquil figure beside him.

     "Oh?"  She opened her eyes and cast the approaching figure an inquisitive glance.  She didn't appear too disconcerted by this interruption.

     "Your friend Linda's on the phone," Mrs Evans informed her, as soon as she came within speaking distance.

     "Oh, really?" Gwen responded in a genuinely surprised tone-of-voice.  "I hadn't expected her to phone today."  She got up from her deck-chair and turned towards Matthew, who was on the point of getting up himself.  "You needn't disturb yourself, Matt," she reassured him.  "I won't be long."

     "No, and if Mr Pearce doesn't object, I'll keep him company in your absence, Gwendolyn," said Mrs Evans, simultaneously sitting herself down in the space just vacated by her daughter.  "We mustn't allow him to feel neglected, must we?"  She smiled at Gwen, who impulsively reciprocated, before setting off at a fairly brisk pace for the waiting call.

     Strange things can happen, for all of a sudden Matthew found himself transformed from a rather bored and meditative dreamer into an alert and sensitive companion of Mrs Evans.  It was as though, with the change of woman beside him, a new lease-of-life had suddenly been instilled into his veins, making him conscious of himself as a man for virtually the first time that evening.

     "Just the perfect weather for being out here, isn't it?" Mrs Evans observed, as she turned her dark-green eyes on the artist.

     "Most assuredly," he agreed, nodding profusely.  He might almost have blushed with shame for the (what seemed to him) too conspicuous response to her sensual presence beside him, the too-lingering consciousness of her beauty, tempered, as it was, by a whiff of patchouli perfume which mingled almost surrealistically with the natural scents of some nearby shrubs.  A little extra daring on his part and he would have cast a glance over her pale-blue skirt to the dark nylon-stockinged knees, as though to obtain a better idea of her beauty and achieve a more comprehensive assessment.  But such daring, he felt, would expose his consciousness of her as a sensual being to an extent which could only have compromised him further, and he lacked the courage or audacity to indulge it.  Besides, she might have taken offence, considered him ill-mannered, and embarrassed him as never before.  No, it was not for him to play the gallant where Gwen's mother was concerned, even if she did possess an uncommon degree of feminine beauty.

     "I must say, I was quite intrigued by some of the things you were saying to my husband before dinner," Mrs Evans revealed.  "Especially by the types of transcendental motifs you're currently painting.  It sounds rather fun."

     Matthew felt agreeably flattered.  "Yes, it's certainly a new direction in my art, as in my sculpture too," he averred.

     "You're also a sculptor?"

     "Well yes, at least to some extent.  I mean, I'm first and foremost a painter and only secondarily a sculptor, so to speak.  But I enjoy the one as much as the other."  Which wasn't quite true, though he could hardly elaborate on his reasons for preferring painting to sculpture at the moment.

     "What sort of things do you sculpt?" Mrs Evans wanted to know.

     "Well, quite a number of things actually.  Doves, for instance.  Symbols, one might say, of the post-Christian religious impulse."

     "Not copulating doves, by any chance?"

     "Er, no.  Not like the ones favoured by Jacob Epstein, and not particularly like Barbara Hepworth's, either.  Exclusively single doves with outstretched wings, like they were gliding through the air.  Spiritual doves rather than simply sensual ones."

     "And how big are they?" Mrs Evans asked.

     "Oh, about life-size, which is to say, quite small," Matthew informed her matter-of-factly.  "But I occasionally vary the scale, sometimes making them as large as a football, sometimes reducing them to approximately the size of a cricket ball.  The smallest ones are the hardest to do, but they provide me with a fresh challenge, which is basically why I do them."

     Mrs Evans smiled admiringly.  "And what else do you do?" she pressed him.

     "Oh, figures meditating, seated cross-legged on a small pedestal or cushion, as in my paintings," he revealed, blushing slightly.  "There are only a few of those at present, but they signify a development which I intend to expand on over the course of time, provided they meet with public approval.  Otherwise I shall be stuck with an unmarketable product.  However, all this is a comparatively recent development, not at all typical of my sculpture in general, which, in any case, tends to be less representational, as befitting the age."

     "You mean, it's abstract?" Mrs Evans conjectured.

     "Essentially biomorphic, like the sculptures of Henry Moore and Jean Arp, two of my principal influences," Matthew declared, smiling.  "Like Arp, I generally tend to work to a small scale, using marble or lignum vitae.  Yet, unlike him, I don't quite possess the talent for naming works with such poetic skill or imagination!  His titles are really quite surreal, you know, usually having no apparent bearing on the nature of the work itself, which, in any case, is pretty nondescript.  Besides, he's such a great sculptor - as, of course, is Henry Moore, who is really the sculptor of our time."

     "Really?" responded Mrs Evans excitedly.  "I'm afraid I know very little about either of them, though I've seen photographic reproductions of one or two of Moore's works, which, however, I could make neither head nor tail of.  I mean, why so abstract?"

     "Simply because it's relevant to the age," Matthew replied at once.  "We've gone beyond the merely representational, the truth-to-nature school, as one might term the more traditional sculptors.  Admittedly, there are exceptions - sculptors, for instance, like Jacob Epstein and David Wynne, who are generally more traditional in their approach to sculpture, more given to representations of one sort or another.  But sculptors like Moore and Arp are, on the whole, more representative of the times.  Indeed, even they are being surpassed now, since they pertain to a generation whose approach to sculpture was less transcendent than the leading sculptors of my generation, like Phillip King and Bruce Beasley, who, naturally enough, have taken sculpture one stage further in its evolution."

     "In what way?" Mrs Evans queried.

     "Well, it's not easy to say in a few words," Matthew confessed, frowning gently, for the reverse of a critic like Mr Evans was not particularly easy to accommodate either, "but, fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that they've dispensed with such natural materials as marble, stone, and wood, and constructed lightweight sculpture out of synthetic materials, like plastic, fibreglass, plexiglas, and acrylic, which tend to make their works transcendentally superior to those of their predecessors.  Superior on account of the fact that they're made from synthetic materials and also because they're less heavy, less solid - altogether more lightweight in appearance.  They often have an effect of expanding space and dissolving or disintegrating matter, making careful use of light and transparency, perspective and positioning.  For instance, Dan Flavin has constructed sculpture from fluorescent tubes, which aptly illustrates what I mean by the more transcendental nature of contemporary sculpture.  At times it tends to merge with Kinetic Art, and it can be difficult to tell them apart - Kinetics sometimes making use of light, as in the work of Takis."

     "I'm afraid you're going way above my head," Mrs Evans protested, offering him a revealingly bewildered facial expression.  "I've never even heard of such sculpture, never mind seen it!  Yet what especially puzzles me is why the transcendental?  Why the use of synthetic materials?"

     Matthew had to smile slightly.  It was always the same with average people.  Why this, why that, why not something else?  And, just as often, why not something better?  In Mrs Evans' case it was evident that her ignorance was partly a consequence of her husband's hostility to such things, since an investigation of modern art and sculpture wouldn't have been encouraged or tolerated by the philistine in question.  And, of course, some of his prejudices had rubbed off onto her in any case, making her almost as suspicious as him of contemporary trends.  She was, after all, a bourgeois, even if a very attractive and relatively pleasant one.  Yet the question she had raised was begging for an answer.

     "Well, it just so happens that, being a comparatively recent development, synthetic materials haven't been used in this context before," Matthew obligingly informed her.  "Now as the genuine artist is always ready to avail himself of new procedures, indeed is virtually compelled to, it follows that the use of synthetics appeals to him.  However, one could also claim that the tendency towards enhanced artificiality is a consequence of modern man's environmental severance from nature, and is accordingly justified on that account.  We live at such a remove from the country - and consequently from its influence - in our great cities, that it becomes increasingly difficult for us to relate to natural patterns and correspondingly unattractive.  Hence the rise of non-representational art this century, with the use of synthetic rather than natural materials.  We wish to achieve a victory over nature, and the more our cities evolve and the more civilized we become, the greater, by a corresponding degree, is the magnitude of that victory.  You see, the city itself is essentially a victory over nature, a something apart from and in opposition to it, and everyone who lives in the city partakes of and, sooner or later, relates to that victory.  At one time, in the far-off days of our earliest civilizations, we were dominated by nature, under the sway of sensuous phenomena to an extent which made us very little different from the beasts.  But, fortunately, we continued to pit ourselves against it, to assert the uniquely human world over the impersonal and often hostile natural one, and gradually we got the better of it, evolved to where we are today - participators in an advanced civilization, anti-natural and/or transcendental men.  Needless to say, most of this has come about within the past 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution and the consequent expansion of our towns and cities to their current gigantic scales."

     "I think it's all evil," Mrs Evans opined, a gentle though earnest frown of disapproval on her brow.  "All this severance from nature which urban life seems to signify, it isn't good."

     "That's where I believe you're wrong," Matthew retorted, if in a relatively gentle way.  "It isn't as bad as might at first appear."   Yet he was conscious, once more, that he was speaking to a female bourgeois, a bourgeoise, not to a proletarian, and that his words were consequently wasted on her.  For the bourgeoisie, he had little need to remind himself, were ever a compromise between nature and civilization, the sensual and the spiritual, and accordingly they had little taste for the big city, which, in both its extensive and intensive artificiality, constituted a threat to their integrity - indeed, a refutation of their very existence.  The bourgeoisie could only tolerate life in the big city provided they had a country or suburban house to return home to in the evenings, after their office work was over and done with for another day.  They were constitutionally able to manage this kind of compromise, and the bigger the city professional commitments obliged them to frequent, the more they preferred a correspondingly extreme rural retreat.  Oscillating between essentially proletarian and aristocratic environments, they retained their class integrity and were relatively content. 

     Yet they would have been still more content if, as in Thomas Evans' case, business could have been conducted in a medium-sized town and it wasn't therefore necessary to oscillate between radical extremes - his house being situated in a pleasantly residential section of town and affording him a welcome relief from its busy main streets.  For the bourgeois was traditionally a man of the town rather than the city, and although he could cope with the latter in small doses, i.e. for the duration of his working day, he felt much more at-home between the closer-to-nature walls of the town than in the large-scale artificial environments of the city.  Having both nature and civilization within easy reach was, after all, more reassuring for a dualistic mentality than being isolated or threatened with isolation in one or the other.  To a bourgeois, extremes were equally fatal.  Not to be countenanced!  And, as Matthew Pearce had been reminded, Mrs Evans couldn't possibly countenance them.  She saw advanced civilization as evil - like D.H. Lawrence, who, in this respect, was fundamentally a bourgeois, despite his partly proletarian origins.  And there was nothing that Matthew could do or say to convince her otherwise.  No use telling her that the artificial environment was a passport to the post-human millennium, to the ultimate victory of the spirit.  The post-human millennium wasn't something to which a bourgeois could relate.  In the journey of man from the beastly to the godly, the bourgeois could go no further than two-thirds of the way up the ladder of human evolution, having a life-span, so to speak, that lasted throughout the time when the ego was in its twilight prime.  Beyond that, he would cease to be a bourgeois - indeed, cease to live.  No wonder the prospect of a post-human millennium met with no sympathy or encouragement on his part!  It was a refutation of him!

     "And do you also sculpt in or with the aid of synthetic materials?" Mrs Evans tentatively inquired of Matthew, as though the possibility that he did so was a kind of evil to be held against him.

     "Naturally," the 'sculptor' replied, somewhat paradoxically.  "After all, I'm a member of the younger generation of artists, and so I should be contemporary.  There isn't much point in trying to emulate Moore or Arp now, if you see what I mean.  As an artist, one should be a sort of spiritual antenna of the race, no matter in what medium one happens to work.  For if you write or paint or sculpt or compose in a style that's outmoded, you're either a reactionary or a dilettante, and therefore not strictly necessary.  In fact, you're more than likely to be a curse, assuming, of course, that you're given an opportunity to advertise yourself.  So you've got to be up-to-date if you hope to achieve anything worthwhile, and one of the best ways - if not the only way - of assuring that you are up-to-date is to live in the big city and thus relate to the foremost spiritual thrust of the age.  You can't reflect late twentieth-century civilization if you spend most of your time in a village."

     "No, I suppose not," Mrs Evans conceded begrudgingly.  "One would simply relate to the surrounding environment."

     "Precisely!" Matthew confirmed.  "So if you're to become a bona fide artist, you've got to relate to an advanced environment, it's as simple as that!  And if, having once related to it, you subsequently abandon it for something lower, like, say, a small town, the chances are that you'll gradually come to relate more to the spirit of the town and consequently cease being an advanced artist.  You might well end-up an unenlightened dilettante, consciously or unconsciously praising the shit out of nature and bourgeois values generally."

     It wasn't too difficult for Matthew to see that Mrs Evans had been slightly wounded by this, though she did her best to conceal the fact by distancing herself from the latter part of his previous remark.  But, as usual, he couldn't resist the temptation to be true to himself and speak his mind.  If the bourgeoise in her had been offended, it was just too damn bad!  He had no intention of betraying his allegiance to something higher on account of her!  After all, people who did that remained victims of the status quo and not potential or actual victors over it.

     "And do you have these, er, advanced works in your London studio?" she asked.  "I mean, would it be possible for people to visit you and see them?"

     "Yes, at least to see such of them as I haven't already sold," Matthew answered, somewhat surprised by the nature of her second question.  "Why do you ask?"

     "Simply because I'll be in London next week to visit a cousin of mine who has recently had a baby, and would be grateful for an opportunity to see these rather enigmatic works," she revealed, smiling.  "I'm sure I'll profit from it."

     Matthew was indeed surprised.  "Well, please take the opportunity," he responded, a shade nervously under pressure of the regret that was now pervading his soul, like a dark cloud, for having mentioned the stuff in the first place.  "I'll be at hand most of next week, so you can come whenever you like."

     "Thanks," Mrs Evans responded with alacrity.  "I look forward to seeing them," she added, principally alluding to his sculptures, though also unconsciously including his paintings.  There was a pause, before she continued: "It will probably be on the Wednesday.  It's in the Highgate area of north London that you live and work, isn't it?"

     "Yes," confirmed Matthew, who then verbally supplied her with the address of his studio.

     "Right," said Mrs Evans, making a mental note of it.  "I shouldn't have any trouble finding my way there.  I'll get a taxi up from the West End in the afternoon, after I've been to see my cousin, Stephanie.  But don't say anything about this to Gwendolyn, else she might get silly ideas into her young head!  If you could arrange not to see her on Wednesday, assuming that's all right with you, then I should be able to visit your studio without causing her to feel either jealous or suspicious."

     Mrs Evans' blunt frankness had the effect of making Matthew blush slightly.  "I don't normally see Gwen during the day in any case, because I have my work to do," he assured her.  "She stays in her Chelsea flat or goes out visiting friends, only coming-up to Highgate or meeting me somewhere in the West End during the evening.  Admittedly, she has spent a day or two in my flat, but the studio is situated in a different building, some two hundred yards away.  So even if she were to be in Highgate during the day next week, I wouldn't see her until the evening.  As it happens, I believe her new school term is due to start fairly soon, so she's likely, as a teacher, to be more preoccupied with preparing herself for that than with traipsing around after me.  She has her own work to do, after all."

     "Yes, I'm sure she has," Mrs Evans agreed, with what seemed to Matthew like a small sigh of relief.  Then, turning her attention in the direction of the house, she exclaimed: "Ah, here comes Gwendolyn now!  My word, that was quite a long phone conversation, wasn't it?"

     "Just under twenty-five minutes," the artist estimated, consulting his digital watch.

     Gwen arrived back fairly flushed.  "Sorry to have deserted you for so long, Matt," she said in a lightly apologetic tone-of-voice, "but I haven't heard anything from Linda for a few weeks because she's been unwell, so I felt it incumbent on me, as her colleague, to chat her up a bit."

     "No problem," he assured her, smiling thinly.  "Your mother has kept me company."   Which was, to be sure, obvious enough.

     "Well, I'd better leave the pair of you to your private devices again, assuming, of course, you want to stay out here," Mrs Evans remarked, getting up from the deck-chair on her daughter's return.  She looked at both of them with searching eyes.

     "For a little longer, I suppose," said Gwen.  "Provided you're not bored with it, Matt."

     "No, not particularly," the latter responded.  "While the sun's still up, we may as well continue to take heathen advantage of its vitamin-shedding warmth a while longer."

     "Yes, I guess so," Gwen agreed.  And with that, she sat down and closed her eyes upon her mother's retreating form.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Linda Daniels gently replaced the telephone receiver and returned to the company of her husband, who was sitting in the adjoining room.  He was bent over the pages of a political novel and briefly looked up at the approach of the medium-built, dark-skinned young woman who happened to be his second wife.  She tentatively smiled through closed lips and sat down opposite him in her customary armchair.  He was anxious to learn what she had been discussing all this time with Gwen.

     "Principally her latest boyfriend," she declared, with an ironic chuckle which momentarily exposed her brilliant white teeth.

     "Oh?"  Peter Daniels was instantly intrigued.  "I didn't realize she had a new one."

     "Well, she still sees Mark Taber on occasion, but apparently not with any real enthusiasm.  And she doesn't seem to be all that keen on her latest boyfriend either, if what she told me about him is anything to judge by."

     "How did she meet him?" Peter asked.

     "Apparently quite by accident outside Kenwood House in north London, about four years ago," Linda replied.

     "Four years?"  Peter looked as astounded as he sounded.

     "Yes, but since she was deeply engaged in an affair at the time, she didn't give him much satisfaction," Linda declared.  "In fact, she was waiting for her then-current boyfriend to meet her there, later that same afternoon.  But then this guy, Matthew Pearce, suddenly appeared out-of-the-blue and started chatting her up."

     "How curious!" Peter opined, putting his book to one side and then leaning back in his capacious armchair.  "And didn't she like him?"

     "Well, she liked him enough to give him her address, and not only that, but her parents' one too," said Linda.  'As she'd been obliged to spend the best part of the afternoon by herself, just casually watching people passing to-and-fro from a bench outside Kenwood House, she wasn't averse to a little conversation with this fairly handsome stranger, who seemed to have taken a distinct fancy to her.  She even accompanied him back to his nearby bedsitter, where she gave him the aforementioned addresses and I don't know what else besides.  But she got away from him in good time anyway, evidently by telling him that she had a rendezvous with some friends, which was partly the case.  And so nothing more was heard of this Matthew guy until he wrote to her parents' address last month and invited her to meet him, which, curiously enough, she decided to do, if only because her relationship with Mark had become such a bore and she was accordingly anxious to expand her romantic horizons a bit.  She felt that Matthew, being an artist, would be more interesting or, at any rate, less boring.  The fact that he also lived in London prompted her to give him a try."

     "But what-on-earth induced him to write to her after four bloody years!" Peter exclaimed.  "I mean, surely he ought to have forgotten about her by then, considering they hadn't had very much to do with each other in any case?"

     "Yes, so one would imagine," Linda agreed.  "But you know what artists can be like.  Evidently he's a little cracked.  Either that, or he must have been extremely hard-up and desperate enough to try anything, even contacting someone he hadn't seen in years who was basically a stranger to him at the time.  Perhaps, on the other hand, their brief meeting outside Kenwood House, that day, and subsequent affair made a stronger impression on him than either we or Gwen could understand."

     "Well, it certainly seems strange to me," Peter confessed, smiling wryly.

     "Be that as it may, this Matthew Pearce isn't quite as interesting as she had hoped," Linda rejoined, "and principally because he's too serious-minded and so involved with his art as not to be particularly interested in her as a person.  Or so it appears on the surface.  For she's now under the impression that he's somehow disappointed in her and unable, in consequence, to take her seriously."

     Patently puzzled, Peter Daniels asked: "Disappointed in what way?"

     "She doesn't quite know, though she has a feeling it's because she isn't sufficiently on his progressive wavelength and may not be as sexually attractive to him as he'd remembered."

     Peter Daniels chuckled sarcastically.  "One wonders what he could have remembered after four frigging years!" he remarked.  "If the poor fellow's disappointed in her, it serves him bloody-well right for taking such a gamble.  You wouldn't catch me inviting a woman I hadn't seen in years to meet me for a date or whatever.  No way!"

     "Yes, well, we're all different," Linda smilingly assured him.  "And different we'll doubtless remain."

     "Humph!  What it really boils down to is that some people are less sane than others," Peter bluntly declared.

     Linda had to laugh.  "One of your notorious over-simplifications," she averred.  "But, seriously, Gwen seems rather upset by the fact of Matthew's apparent disappointment in her, despite her secret disapproval of his serious-mindedness.  After all, if he severs connections with her she'll be back to square-one again, back to occasional visits from Mark and the desire to find someone else.  Not that he has shown any immediate desire to break with her.  But she isn't altogether confident that he won't do so before long.  And she's afraid that her parents haven't made the best of impressions on him either, especially her father, who apparently started questioning and arguing with the poor guy almost from the moment he first clapped eyes on him!  Jealousy at first sight would appear to be the explanation of it."

     "Why did she have to invite him to meet them anyway?" Peter remarked.  "I mean, it wasn't strictly necessary to drag him all the way up to Northampton just to introduce him to them, surely?"

     "No, but I suppose she thought he might think better of her if she showed him where her parents lived and how respectable they were," Linda conjectured.  "Make him feel he was associating with the well-to-do, or something of the kind.  You know how snobbish she can be like that, eager to prove she comes from a solidly middle-class background and all that.  Funny really, but I suspect it's a result of some kind of inferiority complex she suffers from, especially where the artistically and/or intellectually perspicacious are concerned.  Yet it appears that her method of ingratiation in this regard hasn't quite paid off.  For Matthew seems not to like the place, never mind her father.  He hasn't said as much, but she feels that he has somehow clammed-up on her, withdrawn into himself and left her stranded on the beach of his receding interest.  Rather than impressing him, his visit to their place seems rather to have depressed him."

     There then ensued a short reflective silence on Peter's part before he commented: "So that was the gist of her conversation, was it?"

     "Yes, more or less," Linda confirmed, nodding.  "Not a particularly inspiring one, to say the least!  But since I phoned her, I suppose I've only got myself to blame.  Anyway, I was interested to find out how she was getting on and what she was doing, not having spoken to her for so long."

     "You'd have found out soon enough anyway, had you waited for the new school term to start before talking to her," Peter averred.  "I'm sure she'll tell you all about her problems in more depth when you return to the teaching grind again."

     "I dare say so," Linda agreed, slightly offended by her husband's lack of sympathy for Gwen.  "But that's another week away, and, in the meantime, we've been invited over to her flat to meet Matthew."

     "Oh?  On which day?" Peter wanted to know, turning defensive.

     "Either the Thursday or Friday of next week, depending on his availability," Linda explained.  "She said she'd phone me on Tuesday to finalize it.  For she didn't have Matthew to-hand when I spoke to her and could only give me a provisional date in consequence.  Had I not been ill, these past three weeks, she said she'd have invited us over to meet him before going up to Northampton.  But, personally, I can't see that a few days one way or the other makes much difference.  After all, it isn't a matter of life-and-death to us."

     "I entirely agree!" said Peter gruffly.  "Though it might have more significance for Gwen."

     "Yes, I incline to think so too," Linda chuckled, "especially in view of her current romantic insecurity and incertitude.  For she seems to imagine that we'll get along well with him - me in particular."

     "Not too far along, I hope," Peter snorted, throwing back his head in a posture of feigned reproach.  "Though if he's an artist, and a so-called progressive one at that, you ought to have something in common, since modern art is one of your specialities."

     "Was one of my specialities."

     "Still is, so far as I'm concerned.  At least you still paint from time to time, don't you?"

     "Only when I can do so without running the risk of offending you with the nature of my canvases or the smell of my paints."

     "Oh, come now!  I'm not as prohibitive as all that!  You needn't wait until my back's turned before dabbling in paint.  I'm not a bloody schoolmaster, you know.  Nor a gaoler."

     "No.  But you aren't exactly a champion of modern art, either.  You don't like to see me indulging in activities you personally take umbrage at."

     Peter Daniels emitted a heartfelt sigh.  "Well, of course, I'd much rather you did something I could relate to, like, for instance, photography," he asserted.  "Yes, why not?  Since we live together we should do our level best to get on together, to refrain from doing things that will cause a rift to come between us.  Now since you're my wife  ..."

     "I should presumably do my utmost to kow-tow to your desires!" Linda interpolated with sarcastic relish, finishing off what she assumed to be the gist of his statement.

     "Well, that's putting it rather crudely," Peter objected, blushing in the process.  "But you might at least do what you can to prevent unnecessary friction.  I mean, it's too vulgar, too demeaning.  My first marriage was ruined by it, and I have no desire to encourage a repeat performance in my second one.  All I ask of you is to back me up in my professional endeavours, to offer me support in my struggle against the decadent and feeble, the world-weary and anarchic - in short, the enemies of Western civilization!  And to do that you've got to refrain from behaving like an enemy of it yourself."

     "But do you seriously believe that my paintings turn me into an enemy of Western civilization?" Linda ejaculated on a wave of intensely sceptical incredulity.

     "Some of them do," Peter averred.  "I mean, they're such a mess, dear.  They're a species of anti-art, not art.  One gets the impression that you simply throw paint onto the canvas without caring where-the-hell it lands.  Now I know you're not a professional artist.  But, damn it all, why waste time behaving as though you didn't care a jot about the rules of composition and were only interested in making a pitiful mess!"

     "But what are the rules of composition?" Linda angrily protested, losing patience with her husband's conservatism.  "After all, there's no one eternal set of sacrosanct rules, you know!"

     Becoming angry, as though by contagion, with his wife's intractability, Peter Daniels sternly countered: "Of course there is!  As far as Western civilization is concerned, there's a set of rules that apply to painting techniques whatever the generation one happens to belong to."

     "You're talking absolute rubbish and you know it!" Linda retorted no less sternly.

     "Damn you, woman, how can you be so bloody thick?  I mean, if you don't keep to the rules, you can only frigging-well break them."

     "On the contrary, you can only change them," Linda asseverated defiantly.  "They're not something static, you know.  There's continuous evolution.  The rules you allude to - and I'm far from sure which ones you have in mind - were evolved from something earlier and have duly been superseded by rules more pertinent to the present."

     "Rules?" snorted Peter incredulously.  "I can hardly believe the efforts of most contemporary painters are governed by them!"

     "Well, they are!" Linda declared.  "And usually by pretty stringent ones, too!  But let's not waste our time arguing like this, Pete.  It doesn't exactly contribute towards the harmonious relationship you're always talking about."

     "'Unnecessary friction' was the phrase I used," he reminded her, calming down a bit, "and this is something I regard as a certain amount of necessary friction, if only to impress upon you the importance of avoiding the unnecessary."

     "You're becoming quite irrational," Linda objected, automatically succumbing to a degree of forced amusement at his expense.  "Your distinction between the one and the other becomes increasingly arbitrary."  She stared at him in light-hearted bewilderment a moment, then continued: "Anyway, getting back to the subject of Gwen, I assured her that we'd be available to meet Matthew on whichever evening she specified.  So it's up to her to confirm a date."

     "Humph! I wish you hadn't done anything of the kind, since I probably won't get on with him," Peter sullenly rejoined.  "If he's avant-garde, he'll probably be too anarchic for my tastes - assuming the word 'avant-garde' implies what I imagine it to."

     "Well, she did say he was into minimalist and transcendentalist art, but she wouldn't enlarge on it, even when I pressed her," Linda revealed.  "Apparently, she isn't particularly keen on the subject."

     "Then I can't see that I shall be either, considering our tastes are pretty close," said Peter, frowning.  "Like me, she shies away from most of the modern stuff."

     "Yes, but it's rather unlikely that we'll be confronted by his work at Gwen's place, isn't it?" Linda remarked.  "After all, it's not his studio we'll be going to, so there's a fairly good chance you won't have to take offence at his work.  Provided you don't inquire too deeply into it and refrain from attacking modern art, we might get along quite pleasantly with him."

     "Bah, I shouldn't wish to get along with an ideological enemy!" exclaimed Peter Daniels in a tone of obdurate defiance that always suggested to Linda a degree of arrested development in her husband.  "If I don't find out what kind of art he does, I shan't know how to treat him.  I mean, I'll have to probe him to some extent, if only to get him into perspective.  And if he transpires to being as radical as I assume, from Gwen's attitude, that he is, then I'll have no option but to tell the bugger what I think of him and his kind and, if necessary, bloody-well send him to Coventry!  Otherwise I'd be a hypocrite, wouldn't I?  Writing for a periodical which respects the European classical tradition and strives to be of some service in stemming the rising flood of inanity and vulgarity in the arts, and then rubbing shoulders with a man who dedicates the greater part of his time to the destruction or, at the very least, disruption of that tradition - how could I possibly allow myself to do that?  No, if he's an enemy of my cause I'll let him know it, believe me!"

     "Really, Pete, you take yourself far too seriously!" Linda chided him.

     "It's essentially my cause that I take seriously, my dear, not myself!" her husband reminded her.  "The cause of Western civilization and all it represents.  How can one not be serious where the life or death of that is concerned?  How can one allow it to crumble to bits right before one's very eyes?  No, there are some of us who are too lucid to sit back and allow the destroyers of civilization to have their barbarous way.  We have to fight them, impede their degenerate activities as much as possible.  Else all will be lost.  The libertarian trash will overrun us and we shall all perish.  Don't you believe me?"

     "I try to, darling, but sometimes I think you indulge in hyperbole, exaggerating your Spenglerian pessimism to a point where you're virtually fascist," Linda caustically opined.

     "Fascist?" echoed Peter Daniels in a tone of outraged innocence.  "No, not that!  Simply conservative."

     "Maybe."  And not for the first time an overwhelming sadness descended upon Linda Daniels at the realization of the fundamental and seemingly ineradicable incompatibility which existed between them.  She wished, at this moment, that she had never married the man in the first place, never been gulled by his good looks and considerable wealth into taking him for a lover.  At the time, some ten months ago, she hadn't known him long enough to be able to form a clear impression of what he was like, nor had she been confronted by his conservative views to any appreciable extent and, consequently, had no way of really comparing herself with him.  Now, however, she was in possession of all the information she needed to disillusion herself with their relationship, and she felt terribly humiliated by it.  Her efforts to align herself with his beliefs were proving too much for her, and transpired to being a source of self-betrayal with which she was becoming increasingly dissatisfied.  Sooner or later a split would have to come, if not in her own life, then certainly with him.  It was impossible to carry-on deceiving both him and herself indefinitely.  Impossible and, what's more, morally indefensible!

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Wednesday afternoon came all too quickly and Matthew Pearce was resigned to awaiting the arrival of Mrs Evans at his Highgate studio to see ('view' would hardly be the appropriate word in her case) the works, finished or unfinished, which he kept there.  In all, there were at least thirty canvases and twenty pieces of sculpture to-hand, as well as an indefinite number of drawings and a few engravings.

     Indeed, now that he had cleaned and tidied the studio up a bit, brought some of his old canvases out of hiding and hidden some of his new ones away, it seemed to Matthew that it was not so much a studio as an art gallery in which he was standing, even though there was still sufficient evidence of his painting utensils and a pervasive smell of stale paint about the fairly large ground-floor premises which left one in no doubt as to its actual purpose!

     However, the rearrangements which he had seen fit to make, earlier that day, were not without some justification, in view of the customary anarchic state of his studio - a thing which Mrs Evans, with her provincial tidiness, would hardly have welcomed!  Recalling the poor impression it had made on Gwen, a week or so previously, he thought he might as well do what he could to save her mother from such a fate.  After all, if she was prepared to travel down from Northampton via the West End, she might as well be provided with something decent to look at, be given an opportunity to learn something about contemporary art in relatively congenial surroundings, assuming, of course, that she was really interested in doing so - an assumption which, Matthew had to admit to himself, was by no means guaranteed!

     For it had occurred to him more than once during the past couple of days, and even before he arrived back from Northampton on the Monday, that Mrs Evans might well have an ulterior motive for visiting him which was less concerned with his art than with himself as a potential or actual lover.  After all, she had certainly done her best, over the weekend, to make a favourable impression on him, and, despite his distaste for her provincialism and comparative ignorance of modern art, she hadn't entirely been without some success in that respect.  She was unquestionably a very attractive woman, superior to her daughter in some ways, and not simply because she was older or more sexually mature.  One also had to take account of the fact that she was better-proportioned, which is to say altogether more fleshy and buxom without being flabby or fat.

     Such, at any rate, was how she seemed to Matthew, who had taken a certain low-key interest in her physical person, despite the ten-year age gap between them.  And he was mindful, moreover, of what Gwen had told him about her parents' growing estrangement from each other, the fact of her father's ill-health having an adverse effect on their marriage.  Was it stretching the imagination too far, therefore, to deduce from this the existence in Deirdre Evans of a degree of sexual frustration which resulted from her husband's inability to satisfy her any longer and consequently sought release elsewhere?  No, he didn't think so; though he wasn't prepared to jump to any over-confident conclusions either.

     Besides, he wasn't sure he liked Gwen's mother enough as a person to risk succumbing to carnal intimacies with her, even if what he supposed was true and she was only too willing, in consequence, to throw herself into the arms of the first able-bodied man who presented himself as a suitable replacement for her ailing and, in may ways, distinctly irascible husband, whether or not the two were connected.  Wasn't she a bourgeois, a member of a class which, with his artist's independence and self-determination, Matthew instinctively despised?  Yes, all too palpably!  Yet, there again, so was her husband who, if his lifestyle and opinions were anything to judge by, was even more bourgeois than herself, and consequently all the more despicable from an artist's standpoint.

     Would it not be a kind of revenge, therefore, to 'have' Mr Evans' wife behind his back, more satisfying even than 'having' his daughter?  There was indeed a vague possibility that it would be, though deep down Matthew wasn't particularly impressed by the idea, which seemed of him somehow too mean and underhand.  Better to 'have' her simply because she appealed to him and genuinely desired to be 'had', rather than from a desire for cold-blooded revenge.  But that would depend on what happened when Mrs Evans arrived, how they got on together, what she said to him, and so on.  He had no intention of raping the woman just because she might happen, in due course, to be available and at his mercy.  If she kept him at a distance and only desired to see his art, well and good!  He had no intentions of forcing anything upon her, least of all himself.

     It was almost two o'clock when the doorbell rang and Mrs Evans presented herself to his hospitality in a tight-fitting red cotton dress.  He was politely pleased to hear that her taxi had found its way to his address without undue difficulty or hold-up in the traffic, and duly escorted her through the narrow passage which led from the front door to his studio at the rear.  She seemed delighted to be there.

     "My, so this is it!" she exclaimed, as they stepped across the threshold.

     Matthew felt under no obligation to answer, so he simply closed the door behind her and, disdaining ceremony, walked slowly across to the nearest canvas - a large white one with the outlines of a seated figure painted in black.  It was one of his meditation illustrations.

     Mrs Evans automatically followed him across the intervening space and stood beside him to contemplate it.   She smelt strongly of patchouli, as before, and wore eye shadow and face powder.  There was more than a hint of bright red lipstick about her mouth.  Her fine dark-brown hair, framed by two large turquoise earrings, was tied-up in a thick plait at the back of her head.  Her nape, pale and slender, bore evidence of a thin gold chain that obviously formed part of a personal necklace.  Her arms were bare but for a gold bracelet.  "So this is one of your Western meditators, I take it?" she commented, after a short inspection of the canvas.

     "In a kind of minimalist technique," he confirmed.  "Just the bare outlines."

     "Hmm, I quite like it actually," Mrs Evans admitted.

     He felt strangely nervous with the woman standing so close to him, and also slightly unsure of how best to conduct proceedings.  He reckoned he ought to have offered her a seat before drawing attention to this painting, asked how her cousin was and what the baby was like, whether it was a boy or a girl, etc.  But partly through nervousness, and partly because of the nature of some of his previous reflections, he had felt strangely inhibited before her and curiously shy, as though afraid to appear guilty of more than met the eye.  The painting in question served as a kind of support for his verbal impotence at this moment, but only for a short while.  For already the woman was showing signs of impatience with it and turning her head in the direction of some of the others.  He would have to act.  "Well, would you like a cup of tea or something else to drink prior to your cultural sightseeing, as it were, or would you prefer me to show you around the, er, studio now?"  He was aware that he sounded false to himself and still more than a little nervous.

     "I think you'd better show me round first and give me a cup of tea afterwards," she replied without hesitation.  "I really ought to earn it."

     "Yes, I suppose you ought," he half-humorously agreed, cackling understandingly, and immediately led her past a couple of similar cross-legged meditating figures to a small canvas on which a brightly painted white dove appeared to be flying in a silvery-blue  sky, as though in a halo of mystical transcendence.

     "Ah, so this is your propaganda of the Holy Ghost!" Mrs Evans deduced, recalling what he had told her husband on the subject over the weekend.  "My, it's really quite beautiful!"

     Beauty hadn't been Matthew's intention, but he graciously thanked her for the compliment all the same, which was only to be expected from somebody who had only a conventional notion of the meaning and purpose of art.  "This is one of my more successful versions ... unlike the one to its right, which is a shade too animated," he went on.  "The objective of transcendent tranquillity in optimum truth hasn't quite been achieved there, owing to the fact that the dove appears to be flapping its wings rather than just gliding or hovering."

     "I can't honestly see any great difference," she confessed, going up to the second version and scrutinizing it close-up.  "Unless you're alluding to the higher angle of the wings and to the forward position of its head in relation to the neck."

     "Partly that, but partly also to the size of the wings, which are a shade too short, too contracted, it might seem, with the muscular effort of flying," Matthew informed her, unable to suppress another cackle which was partly a result of the good lady's powers of observation.

     Already Mrs Evans had grown tired of doves and slight variations in their physical deportment and was heading, to her host's horrified surprise, in the direction of the next related theme - one that took the form of an intensely pure globe of silver paint at the centre of a predominantly gold surround, which could be said to serve as a transcendent halo for the self-contained globe.  Matthew thought she would remember what this type of painting was supposed to signify, but she hadn't.  Or, at least, she appeared not to have done.

     "This is a more abstract painterly interpretation of the millennial Beyond," he crisply informed her, as they came to a sudden halt in front of the work, Matthew fairly proud of his achievement, Mrs Evans somewhat puzzled and even dazzled by it.  "Another symbol of ultimate reality, universal consciousness, or whatever you prefer to call that which pertains to pure superconsciousness - the spiritual focus of transcendental man."  He could tell she was quite impressed by the concept, if still somewhat puzzled.  She stared intently at the painting's mystical cynosure for some time, as though looking for a clue as to the nature of ultimate reality, but made no constructive comment, evidently because it wasn't something to which she could properly relate.

     There were one or two other equally puzzling versions of the theme in question to pass before they arrived at the next variation on a transcendental theme - a medium-sized canvas painted silver.  To Mrs Evans it came as something of a let-down after the globular one, a thing to be slightly irritated about.  "And what, exactly, does this signify?" she asked in a faintly condescending tone-of-voice.

     "It's one of my rare experiments in spatial reality," he calmly replied.  "After the manner of the late Yvres Klein, who painted monochromes with a view to creating real space, in which the viewer becomes mystically and optically immersed rather than simply passively curious.  It isn't a form of abstraction so much as a delineation of space.  Hence in this kind of work one is a spatial realist."

     "Really?" Mrs Evans responded half-sceptically, the hint of a smirk upon her luscious lips.  For it wasn't a work she was prepared to take seriously.  To her, space was exclusively of the air and sky, not something one could immerse oneself in on a canvas!  She didn't much care for the idea of looking too intently at a bright silver monochrome, nor, for that matter, at the gold and pale-blue ones beside it.  There wasn't much there to look at, after all.

     Sensing her impatience, Matthew drew the woman in the direction of his sculpture, some of which he knew she would appreciate, if only because, in taking the forms of doves and meditating figures, it was largely representational.  He didn't think it expedient to impose the plexiglas and acrylic biomorphic sculptures inspired by the more transcendental sculptors, like Gabo and Beasley, upon her at this point, so led the way, instead, to his overtly religious works, which stood together on a small table to the right of his paintings.  Mrs Evans seemed decidedly pleased at the sight of them all.

     "So these are you sculptured doves!" she exclaimed, automatically picking up the nearest one to-hand and gently stroking its smooth back.  "I'd quite forgotten about them, actually."  She suddenly became self-conscious of her action and blushed slightly.  "I do hope you don't mind my picking it up," she apologized, fearing that he would be offended.

     "Not at all," he assured her.  "They ought to bear being stroked, considering that sculpture is fundamentally a tactile art."

     She smiled her appreciation of this esoteric fact and turned the small dove over and over in her hands, looking at it from a variety of angles.

     "That one, as you doubtless realize, happens to be in marble," he remarked.  "But I've also done one in lignum vitae ..." he pointed it out "... and another in bronze ..." which he also pointed out.  "More recently, however, I've constructed one out of nylon strings and a steel frame ..." again he pointed to the relevant sculpture "... which, from a transcendental viewpoint, I regard as my best work to-date."  He was conscious, as he spoke, that he had lost his initial nervousness and become almost overbearing in his eagerness to inform her of his cultural achievements, to impress his creative significance upon her.  She was no longer someone to be feared as a potential critic, but simply someone to instruct, enlighten, and convert.  Yet this consciousness, momentarily intruding itself between the sight of his religious sculptures and his comments on them, caused him to lose a little of his didactic absorption, his self-confidence, and grow conscious of the figure standing beside him as a woman again, and a very attractive and sweet-smelling one, to boot!  However, he was not to be thrown off course but continued: "Hopefully I shall be able to proceed to more transcendent versions of the dove and, for that matter, the beatific meditators in due course, making use of transparent plastic materials and possibly acrylic to obtain the desired effect.  At present I'm not altogether satisfied with the use of marble, bronze, and wood, which seem to me somewhat outdated.  I need to bring the symbol of the Holy Ghost more up-to-date, to spiritualize it as much as possible.  Else I'll be working at cross-purposes, if you see what I mean."

     "Yes, I think I do," Mrs Evans assured him, returning the marble dove in her hand to its space beside the others on the table.  "At least I recall what you told me in the garden of my house about it - in other words, of the need to use synthetic materials in accordance with the artificial nature of the contemporary urban environment."

     "Precisely," Matthew agreed, not a little surprised by the fact that she had in fact remembered all that, despite the manifest paradox of the phrase 'artificial nature'.  "It's a matter of responding to the environment in which one lives in an appropriately relevant way.  And the modern city inspires a degree of transcendentalism quite unprecedented in the history of man.  Whether one is talking of acrylic, biomorphics, punk rockers with green or blue hair, computer dating, light shows, lasers, contraceptives, skyscrapers with more window-space than concrete or metal infills, supersonic aircraft, digital watches, or cassette recorders, it all comes down to the same thing - namely, our growing severance from the sensual and greater predilection for the spiritual, for the superconscious as opposed to the subconscious.  That's why our art, no less than everything else these days, is generally what it is, and why an ever-increasing number of us are more inclined to meditate than to pray."

     "Presumably including you," Mrs Evans commented, turning her attention away from the small sculptures of meditating figures to the man beside her.

     "Yes, from time to time," he admitted, breaking into a mild blush at what appeared to be a gently mocking look in her bright eyes.  "Not that I'm a fanatic.  But I do find it pleasant to indulge in when the mood takes me.  It's a form of relaxation, you know."

     "Really?"  Mrs Evans seemed interested.  "And do you come face-to-face with the Holy Spirit or whatever when you do it?" she asked.

     "Yes, in a manner of speaking I suppose one does," he replied.  "At least one gets into a state of mind in which peace, tranquillity, stillness, even bliss predominate, and that seems to me very heavenly.  It brings one into contact with the reality beyond appearances, beyond verbal concepts in the ego-bound self, which mystics tend to equate with the Godhead.  One gets out of one's shadow and into the light.  That's the important thing about it, and that's essentially why one does it - to get away from the illusory and strive to experience undiluted truth.  One tunes-in to one's superconscious mind and is lifted above the petty worries and miseries of diurnal life.  Lifted above the sway of the subconscious to the realm of pure spirit.  It's a pleasant experience, believe me, this wavelength of tranquillity and blessed peace!"

     "Well, seeing as you've intrigued me about it, perhaps you'd be kind enough to give me a lesson," Mrs Evans proposed, gently smiling.  "If it's not a mode of religious solemnity but a form of spiritual relaxation, I don't see why I shouldn't give it a try.  Unless, however, you've got better or more pressing things to do?"  She stared at him half-curiously, half-mockingly.

     Matthew Pearce was indeed surprised!  This was the last thing he had expected her to say!  He didn't quite know how to reply, never having been confronted with the prospect of teaching a woman to meditate before - least of all in his studio!  It was rather unnerving.  But there were, after all, a couple of cushions on the floor not far from where he stood, large puffy velvet-covered cushions which he habitually used when meditating or just resting prior or subsequent to work.  So there was no reason to suppose it wasn't possible to utilize the studio for purposes of spiritual instruction.  He had no real alternative, therefore, but to consent to her proposal and teach or, at any rate, make a stab at teaching her to meditate.

     "And you say it's easy," Mrs Evans murmured, as he led her across the intervening space to where the cushions lay.

     "Very," he affirmed, bending down to arrange them in an acceptable manner, one in front of the other at a distance of about three feet; though, in point of fact, he wasn't so confident where she was concerned.  Perhaps she would be too egocentric?

     She put her white handbag onto a table not far from where they were now standing and then proceeded to survey the area in which Matthew proposed to instruct her in meditation.  It was perfectly clean and brightly lit by a large window which gave on to a neatly trimmed and secluded back-garden - all in all, quite a pleasant prospect!  The weather, fortunately, was still unusually fine.

     "Now, ideally, you should sit down upon one of these cushions, like this, and cross your legs," he averred, leading the way with an unselfconscious demonstration.  "Though if, on account of your close-fitting dress, you would prefer to kneel ..."

     But Mrs Evans had already taken to her cushion in a manner similar to Matthew and made an effort to cross her legs, exposing, to his startled gaze, the greater part of her copious thighs, which were not without a certain seductive potency.  Indeed, her dress had ridden so far up her legs, as she sat down, that he could see more than a little of her nylon panties, which were pale pink, about the area of her crotch.  He was unable to prevent himself from blushing a similar colour at the sight of them!

     "Perhaps I ought to remove my dress," Mrs Evans suggested, realizing that its displacement had become both a source of distraction for Matthew and not altogether comfortable for herself.  "It might be better if I had a bit more physical freedom."

     "Well, it isn't absolutely necessary for you to sit cross-legged," he reminded her, blushing a shade deeper.  But before he could say anything else she had got to her feet, turned her back on him, and started to unzip her dress which, because of its tightness, she was obliged to ease to the floor, revealing, to his astonished gaze, one of the most attractive figures the mind of man could ever hope to rest upon - a figure in which rump and thighs conspired to seduce the eye to a mouth-watering appreciation of the flesh.  Then as she bent down to pick up her dress, threw it in the direction of the nearby table, and bent down again to remove her high heels, Matthew became so conscious of the curvaceous seductiveness of the flesh in question ... that he could scarcely take his eyes off it, especially since she was wearing but the skimpiest of briefs through which the mound of her pubic bush was darkly visible.  He was almost drooling with incipient lust as she turned around to face him again and, aided by a no-less skimpy brassiere, confronted him with frontal charms the likes of which he hadn't seen in years.

     "Sorry to have kept you waiting," she nonchalantly remarked, as she sat down in front of him in the rudiments of a cross-legged position.  "Now, what do I do next?"

     Matthew wasn't altogether sure.  Or, rather, he was beginning to wonder whether she could still be serious.  But he made an effort to pretend that he had been unaffected by her impromptu striptease, and duly proceeded with a word of advice concerning the necessity of emptying the mind of distracting thoughts.  "Just relax as much as possible and listen-in to such thoughts as still occur to you without passing judgement on them, as though they weren't really yours."  He felt peculiarly self-conscious with her sharp eyes directly focused upon him, drilling, it seemed, into the depths of his mind.  He wondered if she was secretly mocking him now, what with that cool regard.  Did he look more distracted than he felt?  Somewhat embarrassed perhaps?  He tried not to dwell on the possibility.  "Now that you are aware of your thinking mind as a kind of separate entity," he continued, ignoring his subjective insecurity as best he could, "you can listen-in to your breathing as though that, too, came from outside you and wasn't strictly dependent on your conscious control.  Just let your breathing take care of itself.  Let it happen to you."  He felt even more self-conscious under the resolute fixity of her stare, which seemed to indicate a certain disappointment in him, an impatience with the pedantic course of events.  He wanted to escape from it, to hide from her.  "And as you become aware of your breathing, er, happening to you, you'll find that you can increase its flow, making it gradually deeper with the inhalation, smoother and more precipitant with the exhalation, allowing your breath to tumble out of you, so to speak, of its own accord."  His words were sounding increasingly false and strained to him, especially as her posture was insufficiently straight.  In fact, it appeared to have sagged slightly forwards, causing the upper halves of her breasts to become more conspicuous than before.  A little further and she might have toppled over onto him, her eyes still fixedly staring into his face, as though for a clue to the millennial Beyond.

     Abandoning the relative physical comfort of his cushion, he crawled over to a position immediately behind her, as much to escape her Zen-like stare as to correct her posture, and advised her to straighten up a little, placing a hand on her back to encourage such an adjustment.  He was made acutely aware, in the process, of her perfume, which teased his nostrils and gave him a degree of nasal pleasure he had rarely experienced from standard perfumes before.  It seemed stronger and sweeter than anything Gwen was in the habit of using.  "Now continue to breathe more consciously with the inhalation and less consciously with the exhalation," he advised her, as soon as she had responded to his previous advice, "using gradually deeper and deeper breaths, in and out, in and out, in ... and ... out."  He adjusted his position slightly and, as though partly in response to his breathing instructions and partly in response to the inviting proximity of her body, slid his hands under her arms and around to the bulging contours of her breasts, cupping them in each hand and applying a little extra pressure in accordance with the demands of the in-breaths, relaxing his pressure with the out-breaths, so that the steady "in ... and ... out, in ... and ... out" of her breathing routine acquired physical support.  He realized, all too soon, that her breathing was becoming progressively quicker as well as deeper, doubtless due to his presence immediately behind her and the effect of his physical assistance.  It was also acquiring, in response to the variable pressure of his hands upon her breasts, a certain vocal accompaniment not ordinarily associated with meditation - a sighing and moaning which suggested the onslaught of sensual abandon.  He wondered whether he hadn't better draw away from her before he got too physically involved.  But, as though in anticipation of some such retreat, Mrs Evans suddenly reached her hands back behind herself and unclipped her bra, with the inevitable consequence that, following further promptings on her part, it slid away from her breasts, leaving his hands stranded, as it were, on the heaving mounds of naked flesh.  "In ... and ... out, in ... and ... out" he continued, growing all the time more excited and sensuously committed to her physical beauty himself. 

     Yet now that he felt the soft, smooth surface of her naked breasts against his fingers, it was only a matter of time, more precisely a few seconds, before they closed over her nipples and he proceeded to caress them gently and slowly, backwards and forwards, to the mounting accompaniment, now somewhat more uninhibited, of her sighings and moanings.  Already she had turned her head back towards him, resting it on his nearest shoulder, and he found himself kissing her neck and shoulder blade, becoming ever more turned-on by the sweet perfume behind her ears.  From the neck to the cheek, the cheek to the mouth, and the mouth to the tongue ... required only a slight adjustment of their respective limbs, an adjustment which made it perfectly beyond doubt that he had been successfully seduced by Mrs Evans and was now unequivocally committed to exploring the potential for sensual gratification which her maturely attractive body held out to him.

     "Ah, Matthew, you shouldn't ...” she gently reproved him, as he became progressively bolder, stretching out a hand to caress her between the thighs while simultaneously applying his tongue to the protruding nipple of one of her breasts.  "You mustn't do this," she added.  "I thought you were teaching me to meditate, to gain spiritual insight.  You're not going to fuck me surely, not after what you said you'd do?  Really, Matthew, I don't know how ..."

     But he had already removed from her heaving body the final flimsy obstacle to his sexual objective, and was now struggling to remove his own rather more substantial obstacles to it, whilst endeavouring to maintain the impetus of his carnal assault and thus keep her sexually aroused.  He knew enough about the devil in woman not to be impressed by Mrs Evans' low-key reproaches, which seemed, in any case, specifically designed to channel and further inflame his passion.  He knew exactly what she wanted and, as much from the promptings of the demon in himself as from the devil in her, he intended to let her have it, to make her squirm in an ecstasy of sensual abandon, forgetting who or where she was and even who she was with.  If her husband, with his failing health, had been unable to satisfy her, then Matthew Pearce would make doubly sure he did, applying to her body the physical commitment which recent circumstances had prevented him from applying to Gwen.  He wouldn't let her go until he had fully expended himself on her, avenging himself not only on her beauty but on her husband as well - indeed, on the entire bourgeois establishment of which this woman was but an epitome, a microcosm of the whole.  If it was sensuality she was really after, he would do his level best to make sure she got it, even if he had to go through hell in the process!

     "Ah, Matthew ..." she was moaning as, freed from his constricting jeans and underpants, he applied himself to her distended sex with a vigour he never suspected himself capable of, so long was it since he had really screwed a woman - a real sensuous woman and not a frigid simulacrum of one, like Gwen.  "You'll kill me, Matthew.  You'll break me.  Ah, no, not so violently, not so deeply!" Mrs Evans feebly protested.  "My God, I never thought you'd be so virile!  You'll rupture me.  Ah, free me, take me, do it harder, Matthew!  Still more, aaaaahhhgh ..."  Her delirium mounted in intensity, reached a peak of unintelligibility, and slowly trailed off after she had succumbed to her orgasm and been freed from the mounting tension which his thrusts, ever quicker and deeper, imperiously inspired.  She took his climax with scarcely a murmur, submerged, as she already was, in a sea of warm sensual gratification.  Her body had become sex from head to feet, not just in the pubic region where it was focused.  Rather, it had been subtly diffused throughout her, like a ray of bright sunshine, causing sensations she hadn't experienced in years to float to the surface and bask in its gentle warmth.  She was left agreeably speechless as his passion reached its consummation and began to ebb away, gradually withdrawing from her as from a foreign beach.  It was withdrawing, yes, but it had left its mark on her, left the imprint of its flow!  She hadn't known this degree of cathartic release in years.  She could hardly recognize herself.  "Don't leave me, darling," she murmured, reaching out a restraining hand to her lover's neck as he began to disengage himself from her tender flesh.  She was afraid that his total withdrawal would cause her to plunge back into the memory of her old self, the self from which she had temporarily escaped.

     Gently he bent down over her again and kissed her lengthily on the mouth, allowing his tongue to meet hers in a whirlpool of sensual caressing.  He felt that he could choke her with the force of his pressure on her tongue; that, by a renewed burst of passion, he could drive his tongue down her throat whilst simultaneously driving his penis deeper into her cleft vagina under the perverse notion that the one would eventually meet-up with the other somewhere in the pit of her stomach, and so bring him into the utmost physical and even metaphysical intimacy with her.  It was as though, with the python-like tightening of her grip about him and his sexual responses to it, they were desperately trying to merge their separate bodies into one writhing being, to become fused together in an ecstasy of undifferentiated carnality.  But, of course, he knew there were strict limits to the degree of his carnal commitment to her which could not be transgressed without the desire for increased sexual gratification turning into a form of sadism, so he wisely refrained from choking her with his tongue and began, instead, to playfully caress it in response to her wishes.  He, too, was afraid to abandon her and face-up, albeit from a different angle, to the immediate consequences of his actions.  It was easier, for the time being, to sample a little more of her body, to play along with the pretence of innocence which now prevailed between them.

     Yet it wasn't long before he felt obliged to desist from his attentions and repulse her renewed attempt to kindle the dying embers of his passion.  The weariness of having expended oneself and done what there was to do with a woman of her sort had come upon him, rendering the pursuit of further pleasure all but impossible.  The limit of sensual gratification had been reached.  Beyond it, barring the possibility of sadism, there was only the madness and futility of superfluous kissings and fondlings, of a mere physical engagement without enthusiasm or passion, a fall from metaphysical grace.  Sated as he now was, her body had suddenly become a repugnant thing to him, unable to perpetuate further pleasure.

     He pushed her unreasonably imploring hands away from himself and stumbled towards his clothes, which lay heaped together on the floor not far from hers.  He got dressed quickly and quietly, almost self-consciously ashamed of his nudity and the concomitant fact that he was, after all, a separate person, different and remote.  He didn't want his body to be exposed as the repugnant thing Mrs Evans' body had suddenly become to him.  He was conscious of a sort of fall from spiritual grace.  Conscious, too, that he had allowed himself to be seduced by her at the very time when he was most intent upon teaching her to meditate.  It came as a kind of condemnatory blow to him, this secondary consciousness, and made him feel both ashamed and humiliated.  It was as though the illusion of his spiritual probity had been shattered by the ease with which Mrs Evans had achieved her carnal objectives.  Hitherto, no such temptation had presented itself, least of all from an attractive married woman, and he was accordingly able to sustain a comforting belief in the earnestness of his spiritual endeavour and the commendable extent of his fidelity to it.  Yet now that he had succumbed to the flesh at the very time when he ought to have shown loyalty to the spirit, he was less confident that he was in fact as spiritually earnest as he had previously imagined himself to be!  Perhaps, on the other hand, his spiritual pretensions were largely a consequence of the regrettable fact that social, professional, ideological, and financial circumstances had not hitherto particularly favoured his romantic or sex life, making it necessary for him to seek compensation for and oblivion from his solitary plight in spiritual strivings?

     No, that couldn't be!  He refused to acknowledge the possibility!  It was far too humiliating, altogether too self-effacing!  He had always known himself to be a predominantly spiritual being, an extreme ectomorph, or thin man, with intellectual motivations.  There could be no question of his being confounded with L'homme moyen sensuel, the average sensual man.  But why, then, had he succumbed to Mrs Evans' seductive influence with so little hesitation or resistance?  Was it simply because of her exceptional good-looks?  Or was it because of the ten-year age gap between them which, besides exciting his curiosity, endowed her with a sort of moral authority over him?  Or was it, perhaps, because of her bourgeois status and a correlative desire, on his part, to avenge himself on her in some way, either on account of her husband or Gwen or indeed, by association, the bourgeois establishment in general?  In all probability, all three considerations had played a part and possibly one or two others besides, though he couldn't determine to what extent.  All he knew for certain was that he felt somewhat ashamed of himself and deeply humiliated by what he had done.  If his religious pretensions could be shattered so easily, what hope was there that he could prevent the same thing from happening again in future, either with Mrs Evans or someone like her? 

     Indeed, how would those pretensions now appear to the woman herself, she who had so easily succeeded in overcoming them?  How convinced would she be, on the evidence of his carnal appetite, that he was in fact as spiritual as, largely through his paintings and sculptures, he made himself out to be?  She would probably be laughing at him behind his back, mocking him for his inconsistencies.  Yes, why not?  Hadn't she won a victory over him and exploited his moral weakness at the very time when it would be most vulnerable to attack, when his spiritual pretensions were most clearly exposed and a victory over them prove correspondingly more gratifying?  Yes, indeed she had!  Her sensuality had overcome his spirituality at the very moment when it was most exposed to its own pretensions and had gobbled it up - lock, stock, and fucking barrel.  No wonder she had implored him to stay with her longer!

     Turning round to face her, he saw, with resentful eyes, that she had got to her feet and was in the process of getting dressed, pulling her slender briefs into place over the mound of dark pubic hair that crowned her sex.  She appeared perfectly content with herself, which wasn't altogether surprising really, considering that she had got what she wanted.  To a certain extent she had no further need of him, just as he had no further need of her.  No further sexual need, at any rate; though he couldn't help admiring the ample bulk of her thighs and the generous curve of her hips, as she lowered her dress over her head preparatory to covering them.  There could be no denying her physical attractiveness!

     She smiled warmly at him as she eased her dress back into place and invited him, with an appropriate twist on her heels, to zip her up, which he obligingly did, though not before taking one last lingering look at her smooth back, the smooth nature of which both charmed and fascinated him.  "You aren't angry with me, are you?" she asked, turning around to face him and placing an affectionate, almost maternal hand on his arm.

     "Of course not!" he automatically replied, a faint blush suffusing his cheeks in telltale self-abnegation, as he fought against the sordid temptation to reveal what he really felt.  It was no use being frank with her.

     "And not angry with yourself, I trust?" she inquired.

     "No."

     "Good!  That's as it should be.  I was a little worried about you actually."

     "Oh, in what way?"

     Mrs Evans resumed her warm, teasing smile and lightly squeezed his arm, as though to kindle a spark of his former passion from it.  "About the extent of your spiritual commitment principally," she revealed.  "The degree of your spiritual earnestness."

     Matthew blushed more deeply, almost like a shy adolescent.  "I don't quite understand," he said.

     "Well, I thought perhaps you were a little too spiritual for your own good, a little too ascetically earnest," Mrs Evans informed him, vaguely waving a hand in the direction of the paintings and sculptures to their right.  "I was afraid, from the nature of your work, that you were rather too preoccupied with transcendentalism, virtually obsessed by it.  But I'm glad to say that you aren't altogether immune to fleshy enticements, and that I was accordingly able to broaden your horizon a little.  And I'm no-less glad to say that you gave me more sexual satisfaction than my husband has done, over the past five or six years.  You're not at all a bad lover, actually."

     Matthew didn't know whether to be grateful for this unexpectedly frank piece of information or further ashamed of himself, so overwhelmed was he by conflicting emotions.  To some extent it delivered him from a number of pessimistic suppositions concerning himself or, rather, his sexual performance.  But, all the same, it didn't exactly flatter his spiritual integrity!  It was like a kiss and a slap on the face at the same time.  He had been set up as a lover, only to be knocked down as a sage.  Her frankness disarmed him.

     "Yet all these doves and meditating figures had me worried for a time, I must confess," Mrs Evans resumed, ignoring his ambivalent facial expression, "and got me to thinking that perhaps you weren't really a man at all but a kind of deity or angel or something.  At least I now know that, even with all your transcendental loyalties and noble strivings, you're essentially a man, and a jolly good one too!  For what is man, after all, but a creature balanced between the sensual and the spiritual in harmony with the laws of what mankind should be?"

     Matthew winced perceptibly with this paradoxical comment.  For it was almost painful for him to have to listen to it.  "Man isn't a creature that's fixed in its ways or being, like an animal," he sternly countered, "but an evolutionary experiment, a continuous transformation.  If he began as a beast, he must end as a god.  Or, to put it more concretely, he must slough off more and more of his beastliness as he evolves towards a higher state of being, one in which only the spiritual counts for anything."

     "Now you're talking nonsense!" Mrs Evans opined half-jokingly.  "You're trying to contradict your own manhood no sooner than five minutes after I've had first-hand experience of it."

     "Not at all!" Matthew protested.  "I'm merely saying that this balance you refer to is an illusion, a temporary situation, and that man needn't necessarily be forced into any particular mould."  Yet, once again, he realized that he was speaking to a bourgeois, a species of 'man' whose mean it was to be balanced in the aforesaid manner, and that she could no more be expected to share his view than he ... hers.  What she understood by 'man' was essentially egocentric man, man in his prime as man - the middle stage in the spectrum of human evolution.  It was the mean of D.H. Lawrence, as of Rampion, the Lawrence-like character in Huxley's Point Counter Point, a mean that signified a sensual/spiritual integrity, an all-roundedness of being which fought shy of saints and sinners alike, being prepared to brand all those who didn't or couldn't subscribe to its dualistic integrity as failures or perverts.  To go beyond the dualistic mean was, to its devotees, just as bad as, if not worse than, failing to come up to it.  Either way, one would not be a man, which, in a sense, was true.  That is to say, one would not be man in his prime as man - a bourgeois.  No, one would be either an early or a late man, a subman or a superman.  If early, then one would be lopsided on the side of the subconscious and thus ... predominantly sensual, fundamentally pagan.  If late, on the other hand, one would be lopsided on the side of the superconscious and thus ... predominantly spiritual, essentially transcendental.  The subman, being closer to the beasts, would be inferior to the balanced, egocentric man.  The superman, being closer to the godlike, would be his superior.  Now, naturally, if one is in-between these two extremes one isn't going to endorse the superiority of the spiritually lopsided man, even if, at least tacitly, one inclines to look down upon the pagan.  No, as a bourgeois, one remains loyal to oneself, since anything else would be self-defeating. 

     Accordingly one dismisses the lopsided as failures or perverts, content with the assumption that the mean is ever dualistic and cannot be bettered.  Yet the fact is that, contrary to the bourgeois' complacent entrenchment in relativity, it can and is being bettered, and by no less than the spiritually lopsided!  If they are not yet godly, testifying to the complete sovereignty of the superconscious over the subconscious, they are at least on the road to eventually becoming such, being a good deal closer to the culmination of human evolution in the millennial Beyond than ever their egocentric detractors or bourgeois predecessors were, and consequently of a more fortunate disposition.

     But Matthew had to admit to himself that such knowledge was hardly likely to make a profound impression on Mrs Evans, who seemed to be too resigned to the dualistic mean to have any use for whatever stood above it.  And so he refrained from launching out in defence of lopsided spirituality, contenting himself, instead, with an ironic smile and shrug of the shoulders, as though to impress upon her the futility of their arguing about it.  Besides, hadn't his passion for her body demonstrated that he was not all that far removed from such a balanced dualism himself, but only incipiently transcendental or, at any rate, of a consciousness which was probably compounded of no more than two-thirds superconscious mind and one-third subconscious mind, leaving room for a fair amount of sensuality?  As it happened, he wasn't exactly in the strongest of positions to defend transcendentalism from the claims of dualism.  Neither, for that matter, were the vast majority of latter-day transcendentalists, who were probably little further advanced than himself along the long and narrow road that led to the post-human millennium, and thus to the possibility of ultimate salvation.  Yet at least one had the consolation of knowing that one belonged to a class of persons which would eventually reach paradise, even if it took a number of decades or even centuries.

     Meanwhile Mrs Evans had put on her black high-heels, straightened her nylon stockings, and tidied her hair, using the small portable mirror she habitually carried in her handbag to check and modify her facial appearance into the bargain.  She seemed to have grown tired of discussing the nature of man too, since more interested in herself and the application of a smear or two of lipstick to her sensuously pouting lips.  Then she turned back to Matthew and, with gentle application of a paper tissue, wiped some lipstick from his face, commenting all the while on his funny appearance.  "You could be taken for some kind of half-arsed punk," she joked in quasi-American fashion, as the last traces of its smear were gently removed from his cheeks.

     For an instant he wanted to kiss her anew, so attractive did she seem all of a sudden.  But he realized that he would only succeed in getting her to reciprocate and thereby mess-up his face all over again.

     "Now we wouldn't want Gwen to discover you've been making love to a woman who wears bright-red lipstick, would we?" she added, with a teasingly conspiratorial look in her eyes.

     "No, I guess not," he conceded.  "Especially when that woman was her mother."

     "Quite!" Mrs Evans agreed.  "It wouldn't help to improve your relationship any."  She turned away from him and, with nervous hesitation, duly returned the crumpled, lipstick-smeared tissue to her handbag.  Her face in profile appeared exquisitely refined, more so than her daughter's ever did.  A sudden beam of light shooting through the window caused the bright red of her dress to be momentarily intensified, making it appear as though she were on fire.  A hairgrip on her piled-up mass of hair sparkled like a diamond.  She turned back towards him, losing some of the otherworldly significance which the sun had gratuitously and even paradoxically granted her.  "Now then," she murmured, "what about that cup of tea you promised me earlier?"

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

The following Thursday evening Matthew Pearce set off by taxi for Gwen's Chelsea flat, in accordance with the invitation he had received, a few days previously, to meet a couple of her friends there - namely Peter and Linda Daniels.  Since he hadn't seen Gwen since Monday, following their joint return from Northampton, he was rather looking forward to the visit, if only to quieten his conscience a little over the affair with her mother.  The fact that, contrary to all previous arrangements, he had told her not to visit him Wednesday afternoon ... was still troubling his peace-of-mind; though he felt relatively confident that the excuse he had made about having important work to do was fundamentally cogent, and therefore wouldn't arouse her suspicions in any way.  Nevertheless he was anxious to see her, in order to be left in absolutely no doubt concerning her innocence of his real motives.  Besides, he wanted to be near her and, if possible, to improve his relations with her as a kind of defence against Mrs Evans, whom he was afraid might wish to make a habit of visiting his studio and thus exposing him to the risk of emotional attachment.... Not that she had made any immediate arrangements to visit him again, or indeed claimed his time beyond a couple of hours the previous afternoon.  But he was less than confident that she wouldn't do so in future, especially as she had found him so sexually satisfying and was unlikely to get on better sexual terms with her ailing husband.

     Arriving at Gwen's address at about seven-thirty, he rang the bell and was duly admitted by the young lady in person, who seemed pleased to see him and relieved that he had in fact been able to make it after all, contrary to his initial misgivings about the evening in question.

     "Have your friends arrived yet?" he asked, following her up the thickly carpeted wooden stairs to her second-floor apartment.

     "Just a few minutes ago," she replied, glancing over her shoulder at the denim-clad ascending figure behind.  "Which was pretty good timing on their part, too."

     He was led into the lounge and introduced first to Peter and then to Linda Daniels, the former extending a rather stiff white hand, the latter a more flexible black one.

     "Glad to meet you," he averred, as he shook hands with each of the Daniels and briefly scanned their faces - the man's firm and set, rather hard and aristocratic; the woman's, by contrast, quite fluid and gentle, pleasantly serene.  He took an immediate liking to her, though the husband repelled him a little and immediately put him on his guard.

     "So you're the artist Gwen has been telling us about," Peter Daniels remarked, no sooner than the introductions had run their customary course.

     "Yes, I guess so," said Matthew, smiling.

     "Well, I'm a writer myself, of mostly journalistic tendency, though occasionally a poet and novelist as well," Peter Daniels declared.  "And my wife is a fellow-teacher at Gwendolyn’s school."

     "A physical education teacher if I remember correctly, isn't it?" Matthew responded, recalling to mind what he had already learnt from Gwen.

     "Yes, unfortunately so," Linda admitted, with a gentle self-deprecatory sigh.

     "I think she would rather be an art teacher actually," Gwen opined, for the artist's benefit.

     "Is that so?"

     "Well, not specifically," Linda admitted.  "Though I do have an interest in art, both ancient and modern."

     Peter Daniels frowned enigmatically, or at least that's how it appeared to Matthew.  "I suppose your interest is chiefly in the modern, is it?" he said to the latter, who, at Gwen's request, had just sat down in a nearby armchair. 

     "Well, as a practising artist I guess it has to be," he replied.  "I'm not one to either copy or strive to emulate the old masters, you know."

     "Ah, so you're anti-representational?" Peter Daniels conjectured enigmatically.

     The inference struck Matthew as a bit odd, but he smiled and simply said: "Not so much anti-representational as pro-transcendental."

     Peter Daniels raised his brows in acute surprise.  "And what exactly is that?" he asked.

     Matthew attempted to explain, using as few words as possible, the basis of his allegiance to the Holy Ghost and correlative penchant for the superconscious.  However, the journalist transpired not to being particularly impressed by his explanation, having no prior knowledge of the superconscious and its role in shaping the arts.  To him, it sounded like a figment of the imagination.  And not only that but, worse still, a threat to his egocentric integrity, with its empirical objectivity.  He had no desire to revise his philosophical viewpoint of Spenglerian pessimism and opposition to decadence, including, not least of all, its mystical manifestations.  He was a champion of Western civilization, with its scientific rationality, and he lost no time in letting the transcendentalist know it!  Needless to say, Matthew was somewhat taken-aback, suddenly confronted, as he now was, by a sense of deja vu in the presence of what seemed to him like a carbon copy of Gwen's father.  "I don't quite understand you," he confessed.

     "Well, whether you realize it or not," Peter Daniels rejoined, with an air of didactic earnestness, "Western civilization is seriously threatened by certain destructive elements in contemporary society whose only desire is to bring about its complete and utter downfall, and so enable the opponents of civilization to triumph.  The decline of the West, as outlined by Spengler in his seminal work of that name, is an indisputable fact which cannot be denied, no matter how repugnant it may appear to us or, at any rate, to those of us with an interest in preventing and perhaps even reversing its decline.  It's an extremely regrettable fact, but there it is!  The enemies of Western civilization, who patently include mystical transcendentalists of a non-empirical disposition, are slowly but steadily gaining the ascendancy."

     Matthew was virtually thunderstruck.  He could scarcely believe his ears!  Was this what he had come along to Gwen's flat to hear - the prejudices of a reactionary bourgeois?  He was almost on the point of exploding with laughter.  "But the civilization to which you allude," he responded, as soon as he could get over the initial shock of what he had just heard, "is being superseded by that which stands above it and signifies the next and probably final rung on the ladder of human evolution.  If anything is in decline it's only the bourgeois world, which cannot last for ever but is destined to be superseded in due course.  Indeed, it has already been superseded to a large extent, as a cursory glance at the contemporary world, with its photography and films and pop music, would adequately confirm."

     Peter Daniels seemed not to have heard aright.  "Are you seriously trying to tell me that what's currently happening to our civilization is for the better?" he objected incredulously.

     "Yes, naturally," Matthew maintained.  "It may not be for the better as far as the bourgeoisie are concerned, but it's certainly so for the proletariat, who have largely superseded them.  If bourgeois civilization didn't decline - and it's no longer in effective operation anyway - there would be a frightful stasis, a horrible permanence of egocentric dualism, which it would be impossible to endure.  I mean, what could be more absurd and fundamentally tragic than that?  The idea simply doesn't bear thinking about!  Fortunately, however, life is a perpetual evolution, not a permanent stasis, so we needn't fear that the changes which are occurring to and in our society are inevitably for the worse.  We're climbing up higher, not falling down lower."

     "Bullshit!" cried Peter Daniels, who had become flushed from suppressed rage.  "How can so many of the changes which have come over the Western and, in particular, West European world this century possibly signify progress?  Are you seriously trying to tell me that modern art, for instance, is superior to traditional art - to the representational art, shall we say, of the 16-19th centuries?"

     "Superior in one respect it most certainly is," Matthew affirmed, trying to avoid thinking of Mr Evans.  "It's not so much balanced between illusion and truth as distinctly biased on the side of truth, distinctly a product of the superconscious, with its non-representational subjectivity.  Which is why I said that, as a product of egocentric tension, Western civilization is effectively no longer in operation, having been superseded by what stands above it - the transcendental bias of post-egocentric man."

     "Don't you really mean what stands beneath it?" Peter Daniels protested defiantly.

     "On the contrary, what stands beneath it is the pre-egocentric, in which the balanced dualism to which you evidently subscribe hadn't yet come properly into existence," Matthew retorted, "the reason being that, at that stage in his evolution, Western man was distinctly biased on the side of the subconscious and thus given to an art form which reflected his sensual predominance and correlative predilection for the illusory.  But modern art generally reflects the opposite tendency and, consequently, is of a far superior nature.  At its best, its most abstract, it tends to reflect a superior development to both the religious and secular art of the representational past, which is either sensuously lopsided or balanced between the sensual and spiritual realms in what amounts to an egocentric compromise.  A spiritualized abstract canvas is closer to truth, whereas a beautiful representational one, particularly such as was produced during the cultural heyday of Western civilization, contains a great deal of illusion - namely the thing or person or whatever being represented, and the way in which the subject-matter is handled.  Now if these days we, or at least the more spiritually evolved of us, prefer the sight of an abstract or monochromatic canvas to a fully representational one, it's largely because we've lost our taste and capacity for illusion, having evolved to a point which is so biased in favour of the superconscious ... that only what intimates of or reflects truth has any real relevance to us.  The other, though still intelligible, becomes something of an anachronism for us."

     Peter Daniels grunted his animal disapproval of this radical statement.  "Not for me it doesn't," he grimly declared.  "I take no pleasure in abstract or monochromatic canvases.  And neither, I should imagine, does anyone with the least degree of sense, taste, or intelligence!"

     "I'm bound to say that's a highly presumptuous claim," Matthew averred, giving way to a degree of emotional contempt for the journalist.  "The fact is that the most enlightened people tend to relate more to modern non-representational art than to any traditional art, great or otherwise."

     A smile of undisguised satisfaction passed across Linda Daniels' attractively oval face at this remark, whereas Gwen's remained rather stern.  The former felt secretly gratified by it, whereas the latter, conscious of her inability to understand most of Matthew's art, took it as a personal affront.

     "Even where monochromatic canvases are concerned?" said Peter Daniels sarcastically.

     "Yes, though it's not necessary to dwell on extremes or to equate the bulk of modern art with such radical experiments," Matthew objected.  "There's a lot more to it than that, as I think you would realize if you visited any large gallery of modern art or glanced through the pages of any comprehensively illustrated encyclopaedia on the subject.  Even my work, at present focusing on certain religious ideals, with particular reference to the inner light of meditation, is not without a degree of variety."

     "Humph, of a rather simplistic order I should imagine!" the journalist sneered, to the evident disapproval of his wife, who immediately reproved him with a curt, emphatic utterance of his Christian name.

     But Matthew remained unperturbed.  "As a matter of fact, my work is generally rather simplistic," he confessed.  "For it wouldn't serve my illustrative purposes to make it otherwise.  My basic adherence to what are termed minimalist techniques is a reflection, in large measure, of fidelity to the superconscious as opposed to the ego.  Or, to be more precise, of fidelity to an ego which is more under the sway of the superconscious than of the subconscious, and accordingly less given to egocentric embellishments and self-aggrandizing complexities than would otherwise be the case."

     "Bah! that's only to say you'd be incapable of producing great art, which of necessity demands a high level of complexity," Peter Daniels exclaimed.

     "Yes, I dare say I am incapable of producing the kind of art that appertains to the egocentric past," Matthew admitted, anticipating some such objection on the journalist's part, "but that's exactly as it should be.  For I live in an intensely artificial environment and am the recipient of post-egocentric standards and predilections.  I'm very much a product of the big city and therefore don't feel qualified to paint or sculpt in a manner which, strictly speaking, pertains chiefly to a medium-sized town or a small city, where nature and, needless to say, nature's sensuous influence are never very far away, and man is accordingly more under the dominion of his subconscious, with its penchant for the illusory.  No, if I were able and qualified to paint in a style approximating to the representational tradition, I'd be an anachronism, not a bona fide contemporary artist."

     Peter Daniels snorted contemptuously at what seemed to him like a narrowly one-sided viewpoint.  "And you regard what you do paint as art rather than anti-art?" he asked sceptically.

     "Yes, most certainly!" Matthew replied.  "Only, it's an art centred on truth rather than balanced between truth and illusion, essence and appearance, the subjective and the objective.  In short, a sort of superart.... However, the fact that there has been an outpouring of anti-art this century is something I won't, of course, deny.  Yet even that was partly founded on the delusion that art is essentially a matter of illusion, like religion, rather than a phenomenon which evolves into truth, as in fact it can do and subsequently has done.  No, I don't concentrate on anti-art, any more than on the negativity of Spenglerian pessimism concerning the West, because I prefer to take a positive line and thus accept the applicability of truth to art, whether in the realm of the spiritual or the secular, the transcendent or the mundane.  To me, art isn't simply something that comes to an end with the passing of an egocentric age, in which myth and sensuality play a significant part, but something that continues on up the ladder of human evolution to the reflection of a transcendental age, in which truth and spirituality are the leading factors.  Why therefore should I waste time producing anti-art - which, in any case, has already been produced in sufficient abundance this century, and seems primarily intended to belittle and undermine the old representational mode of art - when there's a new art-sense to consider and much work to be done in consolidating and perfecting it?  Gone are the days when it was respectable or, at any rate, credible to be an anti-artist.  If I knew anyone who was one these days, I shouldn't wish to associate with him.  He'd only bore and confuse me."

     "Which is precisely what you do to me!" snapped Peter Daniels, to the verbal disapproval, once again, of his wife.  "Whether or not it's because I was born and bred in the country, I don't know.  But, whatever the reason, I can't relate to what you're saying.  As a conservative, I find a great deal of modern art, of whatever tendency, totally unacceptable and completely without justification.  It palls to insignificance by comparison with the greatest art produced by European civilization right up to the mid-nineteenth century, which seems to be the turning-point, the beginning of the rot, the gradual decline in our significance as a cultural power.  One need only read a work like The Hour of Decision by Oswald Spengler, to obtain a fair idea of what is happening to us and why we're in decline, not only as regards the arts but ..."

     "Fortunately I have no use for neo-royalist solutions to the apparent dilemma which confronts us," Matthew interposed, on the crest of another wave of contempt which had built-up inside him at the mention of Spengler again.  "And no sympathy for the book to which you refer, which, in my honest opinion, is one of the most depressing, if not reactionary, works ever written."

     Peter Daniels flinched sharply, as though from a sudden blow to the face.  "I can hardly agree with that statement!" he ejaculated, patently shocked and offended.

     "Oh, so you're a neo-royalist, are you?" Matthew deduced.

     "No, damn it, a conservative, as I told you a moment ago!"

     "Ah yes, a democratic royalist," the artist concluded inferentially.

     There was a period of strained silence before, with an obvious air of constraint, Peter Daniels confessed: "I'm afraid I don't quite follow you."

     "It simply means that you're not as extreme as your authoritarian counterparts," Matthew calmly remarked.  "As a royalist, you can only be one of three principal types, viz. a genuine royalist, a democratic royalist, or a neo-royalist."

     "I fail to appreciate the distinction between a genuine royalist and a neo-royalist," said Peter Daniels with a thinly ironic smile on his lips.

     "So do a lot of people," Matthew retorted, "but that's only because they're ignorant."

     "How dare you!"  The journalist had got to his feet and was staring down at Matthew in a highly threatening manner, his fists tightly clenched at his sides.

     "Peter!"  Linda Daniels had also got to her feet and put a restraining hand on her husband's nearest arm.  "Are you going to behave reasonably, or must we leave the room?"

     "It would be better if we left this place altogether," rasped Peter Daniels, still staring down at the seated artist.

     "Please, I'd rather you didn't," pleaded Gwen, stepping up to his other side.  "I have some dinner on at the moment, after all."

     The mention of dinner appeared to calm Peter Daniels down a little and induced him to return to his seat, accompanied by the faithful and ever-persevering presence of his wife.  Gwen sighed her relief and excused herself on the pretext of having to return to the kitchen.  There was an uneasy silence in the room, disturbed only by the heavy ticking of an old-fashioned wall clock.  It was Matthew, however, who first broke it or, rather, broke out of it.

     "I didn't intend to offend you personally," he averred, speaking directly to the journalist, "but was simply trying to point out a fact.  And if you're still interested in hearing my notion, erroneous or not, of the distinction between royalism and a neo-royalism, I'll give it to you."

     Peter Daniels emitted a fulsome sigh of regret.  "Very well, what is it?" he rasped.

     "Essentially the difference between a Henry VIII or a Louis XIV and a Franco or a Mussolini," replied Matthew, blushing slightly in response to what he basically knew to be an unorthodox viewpoint, but one which circumstances had launched him into without proper preparation or indeed complete conviction.  "The difference, in other words, between a genuine aristocratic dictatorship and a dictatorship which is anything but aristocratic.  Genuine royalism pertains to an epoch in which the aristocracy govern, an epoch preceding the bourgeois one of royalist/socialist compromise.  Neo-royalism, or fascism, is only possible in an age like our own, which is in transition to a proletarian one and consequently subject to confusions and extreme reactionary tendencies.  It's a species of authoritarianism which may triumph for a time but never for very long, since the current of evolution is against it and, in the end, it must succumb to the prevailing Zeitgeist, which, especially these days, is decidedly socialistic.  Not being a genuine article but a bogus, anachronistic, plebeianized form of royalism, it is doomed to extinction and failure, even if, for a while, it has the appearance of strength.  No, the legitimate epoch for royalism is one in which man hasn't yet attained to a balance between the subconscious and superconscious minds but is under the dominion of the former, and thus given to the perpetuation of a society which upholds the sovereignty of the sensual and materialistic over the spiritual and idealistic.  Royalism is an elitist phenomenon, and therefore it emphasizes differences between men, as between the nobility and the commonality.  It is fundamentally dark, cruel, evil, illusory - in a word, pagan.  And its upholders are generally men of action, which, in any case, is what every genuine aristocracy should be.  Only after they've been dethroned by the bourgeoisie do the aristocracy - or such of them as are left - begin to cultivate a more studious and contemplative mode of life.  Yet the more they feel obliged to do this, the less genuinely aristocratic they become, with a result that, after centuries of progressive atrophying of the truly aristocratic instincts, one arrives at the equivalent of the poor wretch whom Huysmans delineates in his classic novel Against Nature through the character of Des Esseintes - a sickly dilettante and dandy, the degenerate consequence of bourgeois rule.  Of that race of proud and ruthless predators from which he was descended, scarcely a trace remains.  The fact is you can't be a genuine aristocrat, and hence royalist, after the termination of your governing epoch.  You become progressively spurious to the point where, if you have any fight left in you, you may well be prepared to clutch at any fascist straw which the wind of reactionary conservatism may blow your way."

     "Well, fortunately for me, I happen to be middle class," Daniels responded, "so I can't pretend it bothers me all that much if the aristocracy are not what they used to be.  And my politics are neither royalist nor neo-royalist and/or fascist, as you define it, but conservative."

     "Yes, democratic royalist," Matthew repeated, "because the bourgeois is ever a compromise animal, indisposed to the authoritarian.  Appertaining to the middle, or second, stage of human evolution in between the aristocracy and the proletariat, you divide into two main camps - one camp with closer ties to the dethroned aristocracy, the other with closer ties to the ascending proletariat.  Thus arises the prolonged parliamentary struggle between the right-wing conservative bourgeoisie and their left-wing liberal counterparts, with the former growing steadily weaker as the latter grow stronger, the political pendulum gradually swinging from the Right to the Left, even given all the relatively minor election oscillations coming in-between, as can be verified, I believe, by the increasing radicalism which the parliamentary progression from Whig and Liberal to Labour governments implies."

     "Humph, you make it all sound too philosophically neat and simple!" Peter Daniels objected.

     "Maybe that's because I happen to look down on it all from a higher vantage-point," Matthew declared.

     "What, democratic socialist?" the journalist scoffed, turning briefly towards Linda Daniels for support.

     "Totalitarian, if you please," came the instant rejoinder.

     "What, you a communist?"  Peter Daniels was almost on the verge of getting to his feet again, so taken-aback was he by the artist's complacent admission.

     "Yes, in a manner of speaking," Matthew admitted, blushing slightly in spite of himself, for he was aware now that part of what he said was not so much him speaking as an argumentative persona which the debate had conjured up from the nether depths of his psyche like some kind of demented demon of wilful intent.  "Which is to say, to the extent," he rejoined, "that I perceive totalitarian socialism as a means to social democracy and thus to the achievement of real political power by the proletariat."

     "But you're an educated and well-spoken man, you're not a proletarian!" Peter Daniels hotly protested, exhaling what might have been dragon's breath towards his obdurate interlocutor.

     "As a matter of fact, whether I'm educated and well-spoken or the converse has absolutely nothing to do with it," Matthew rejoined, unmoved.  "The fact remains that I can understand the development of evolution away from a royalist/socialist dualism towards what transcends it and accordingly stands at the opposite pole to royalism, being the dictatorship of the proletariat rather than of the aristocracy.  Now whether or not I'm a genuine socialist is another matter, seeing that, just as one cannot be a genuine royalist when the aristocracy are no longer in power but have been superseded by the bourgeoisie, so, it seems to me, one cannot be a genuine socialist when the proletariat have not yet attained to power, through the agency of totalitarian socialism, but are still subject to the control, no matter how tenuously, of the bourgeois status quo, with its capitalist base.  Democratic socialists, on the other hand, are no closer to being genuine socialists ... than democratic royalists, or conservatives, to being genuine royalists or, rather, neo-royalists and, hence, fascists.  They are tainted by the bourgeois brush of dualistic compromise, they're part of the parliamentary tension between royalism and socialism and, as such, they pertain to a parliamentary epoch, even if and when that epoch is drawing towards a close.  A genuine socialist, however, could only look down on them from the idealistic vantage-point of one who has evolved beyond the middle, or twilight, stage of the political spectrum, with its capitalist exploitation.  Standing in the light of proletarian triumph, he would not care for the relative darkness appertaining to the epoch of bourgeois democracy.  But I don't stand in such a light, not even in the inceptive context of communist authoritarianism, when the proletariat, having wrenched power from the bourgeoisie through a revolutionary elite, have yet to come into their own political maturity and are accordingly subject to the paternalistic control of the Communist Party, like a child dependent on the guidance of a stern parent.  No, I simply realize that such a light is one day destined to materialize, and that it's therefore impossible to regard democratic socialism as an end-in-itself, with nothing higher above or beyond it.  Thanks to my knowledge and insight, I'm obliged to live as an outsider, unable to commit myself to the compromise integrity of democratic socialism, which is Welfare State socialism coupled to state capitalism, but simultaneously unable to enter into the true spirit of genuine socialism, and for the simple reason that such a spirit doesn't yet exist, the proletariat not having officially come to power, since still living under the economic heel of bourgeois capitalism."

     Peter Daniels could hardly believe his ears!  It was as though the fact that he found himself in close proximity to a man who belittled and contradicted all his own views and standards was too much to take, too difficult to comprehend.  He had never been politically face-to-face with 'the enemy' before, with a person so unequivocally and radically left wing, and now it appeared that he was in fact face-to-face with such a person he found it strangely unreal, as though he were simply the hapless victim of a bad dream.  It was really quite different from what he had imagined it would be, and largely because he was no longer as confident as before about the virtues of parliamentary democracy.  He almost felt humiliated!  And not only on account of Matthew Pearce but, no less evidently, also on account his wife, who, although sitting next to him, seemed spiritually far removed from him, drawn to the substance of the artist's remarks, wrapped-up in an attentive silence which somehow only served to emphasize the temperamental and ideological incompatibility which he knew to exist between them but did his best to minimize or ignore.  There seemed to be a conspiracy against him in the air. 

     But he would not be humiliated, least of all by a frigging advocate of totalitarian socialism!  His middle-class dignity rebelled against the prospect.  He would speak out, defend the cause and reality of parliamentary freedom if it was the last thing he did!  And Matthew Pearce, socialist or no socialist, would have to listen, irrespective of how abhorrent he found it.  Maybe there was a chance that he could be reformed, made to see sense while the opportunity prevailed, encouraged to grow up and put his wishful and largely over-simplistic thinking behind him. 

     Thus Peter Daniels responded to the challenge in the only way he knew how - with a wholehearted defence of parliamentary democracy, a defence designed to remind Matthew Pearce that, although such democracy was not without its faults, it was still a damn sight better than the chaos and tyranny which inevitably accompanied socialist revolutions.

     The artist listened patiently but, even with a consciousness of his own ideological shortcomings, remained unimpressed.  He had heard such arguments before, accompanied by the usual welter of platitudes concerning the virtues of capitalist freedom and the superiority of liberal over totalitarian systems.  It was what one had to expect from a bourgeois, that man of the compromise stage of evolution.  To him, dictatorships of whatever description were equally objectionable.  And why?  Because they deprived him of his power, took away his freedom to exploit as he thought fit.  Royalist autocracies kept economic power in the hands of the aristocracy.  Communist autocracies would share power amongst the proletariat once they came of age and could be more democratically entrusted with its management themselves.  No wonder he feared and hated them!  Either way - with the possible exception of a fascist regime partial to the monied interests of the conservative bourgeoisie - a regression to feudalism or a progression to socialism signalled the end of his capitalist power.  Consequently he had no option but to uphold the parliamentary system, that compromise of the bourgeois world.  Four years of a democratic-socialist government, with its state capitalism, would be easier or less hard to bear, depending on one's viewpoint, than an indefinite period of totalitarian socialism which, if it didn't do away with one as an individual, would almost certainly put an end to one's economic exploitation.  For after those four years had elapsed, there was at least a chance, indeed a very good chance, a more than even chance, that the party closer to his own heart and economic interests would be returned to power, and matters accordingly take a turn for the better.  It was a compromise worth putting-up with!

     But not for any socialist, any genuine socialist, that is.  Oh, no!  Such a person had no patience with the government, intermittent or otherwise, of a party in the pay of, and thus sympathetic to, the capitalistic interests of the bourgeoisie, particularly the grand-bourgeoisie.  He wanted their party done away with, so that the road would be clear for socialism.  And with the end of the democratic royalists would come the demise of the democratic socialists who, although left wing, were insufficiently extreme to function in the guise of genuine socialism.  With the demise of parliamentary democracy, an undiluted socialist party would prevail, to signal the beginnings of a new era of political development in which, eventually, the proletariat would take over from Big Daddy the economic, political, and judicial management of their affairs.  That was what every progressive proletarian wanted to see and, unless a catastrophe of unimaginable horror or disaster overtook the world in the near future, it would surely happen, evolutionary progress continuing along the path opened-up by the growth of urban civilization. 

     Yet it was impossible for Matthew to say all this to Peter Daniels, who probably wouldn't have understood or appreciated it.  Instead, he contented himself with words to the effect that he had no use or respect for the type of freedom, so dear to the bourgeois heart, which enabled capitalist exploiters to amass private fortunes at the proletariat's expense, growing ever more corrupt the richer they became.

     "Yes, but really," the journalist rejoined, his voice strained with self-righteous emotion, "surely you must realize that dictatorial regimes are essentially evil and cruel.  I mean, just look at the examples the world has seen this century, Stalin's most especially, not to mention those currently still in existence."

     "Of course, I strongly object to fascist regimes," Matthew countered, "since they're against the grain of evolution and a scourge to the most progressive people.  When I think of the number of socialists killed or tortured by Hitler's accomplices, my blood positively boils with anger at the magnitude of the reactionary tyranny unleashed at the time.  But there's one hell of a difference between a neo-feudal regime and a socialist regime, and that's a fact which you parliamentary people don't always appreciate.  You cite Stalin as an example of communist tyranny, and no-one would doubt that Stalin was effectively a cold-blooded autocrat who ruled the Soviet Union with a tyrannous hand.  Yet Stalin was still a progressive revolutionary and not a regressive reactionary, like Hitler.  He was virtually an angel compared to Hitler, even if a somewhat fallen one."

     "Oh, come now!" Peter Daniels protested, becoming red in the face with suppressed rage.  "I would hesitate to describe someone responsible for the butchering of some twenty million people in quite such euphemistic terms!"

     "Yes, but one must remember that Stalin was under a considerable amount of internal pressure from rival factions and consequently felt obliged to take extremely stringent measures to safeguard his regime," Matthew averred.  "As to the full facts of the matter, I'm not of course sufficiently well-informed, since that is something for the historian or politician.  But I do know that I'd rather hear about the erection of concentration camps by a Stalin than by a Hitler, or any other fascist dictator for that matter."

     "Even with the murder of several million people?" queried Peter Daniels incredulously.

     "Even then."

     "You mean you're not against the mass murder of millions of innocent people?" gasped Peter Daniels, patently astounded.

     Matthew was about to reply in the negative, but then wisely hesitated on the verge of speaking.  No, he wasn't going to be duped by bourgeois humanism.  "As to the mass murder of millions of innocent people, I would most certainly object, and in the strongest possible terms!" he averred.  "But not to the liquidation - an altogether more pertinent term - of millions of guilty people, or people, in other words, whom it's necessary for one to remove in order to further and safeguard the new society.  I strongly object to the indiscriminate murder of millions of innocent people, such as was sanctioned by Hitler's regime on chiefly racial grounds.  For such cold-blooded genocide is patently criminal.  It leads to the elimination of millions of the best as well as the worst, socialists as well as capitalists, the oppressed as well as their class oppressors.  It doesn't hit the nail on the head, so to speak, and these days more than ever it's precisely the head which needs hitting - namely the bourgeois one!"

     "You mean you wouldn't object to a purge of the bourgeoisie by any prospective socialist regime which came to power in the near future?" exclaimed Peter Daniels, his strained tone-of-voice indicating a mixture of horror and accusation.

     "No, of course not!" Matthew admitted.  "For it's pretty obvious that the bourgeoisie would be somewhat incompatible with the socialistic requirements of such a regime.  They would be far from enthusiastic about sacrificing their competitiveness for the sake of a uniformly co-operative framework within the context of public ownership, and for the simple reason that such a sacrifice would run contrary to their material interests as capitalist exploiters and free-market predators.  One couldn't expect them to suddenly become proletarians, as though by the wave of a magic wand.  You can't simply slip out of one soul and into another, out of a private domain which has done a Faustian pact with the Devil and into a public one which repudiates any such pact.  No, they'd have to be interned, and not simply because they were adjudged incompatible with the socialistic requirements of a truly co-operative society, but also as retribution for their capitalist crimes and exploitative past.  The proletariat would have to be avenged on their historical oppressors!"

     "And who exactly would those oppressors be?" Peter Daniels wanted to know, a mildly ironic humour replacing his previous sombre response to the artist's apocalyptic revelations.  For it was as though the tragedy of what he had just heard had suddenly been transmuted into farce, albeit of a slightly sinister order.  He wasn't prepared to accept the guilt of the bourgeoisie, since bourgeois blood ran in his veins.  He knew that, historically, the bourgeoisie were justified, even if he wasn't prepared to admit to the fact that their justification was transitory.

     "Obviously a great number of them would be businessmen," Matthew obliged, after a few seconds thoughtful deliberation during which time he cleared his throat with guttural relish, as though in preparation for an arduous task.  "And, most especially, those businessmen, in particular, who had oppressed the workers the most and reaped the biggest dividends from the capitalist system.  The largest sharks above all!  But also a number of smaller ones, staunch believers in free enterprise, i.e. the right of private entrepreneurs to pursue their capitalist interests irrespective of the moral and spiritual cost to society in general, and with a view to becoming rich and powerful, like their more successful exemplars.  Then, of course, a number of professionals, including private doctors, private dentists, and public-school teachers - in short, those professionals who weren't salaried employees of the State but distinctly independent.  And, needless to say, fascists and conservative politicians, artists and writers of a reactionary or conservative turn-of-mind, royals and peers, reactionary priests, especially those who had belonged to the Established Church and thus recognized the monarch as head of the Church - a thing which no genuine Christian would ever do, since alpha and omega, power and peace, are quite incommensurate, and the Church is supposed to be on the side of ecclesiastic truth and not, as would appear to be the case with the Church of England, on the side of monarchic strength!  Such a paradoxical Church, which has the embodiment of autocratic power as its head and a long tradition of invasive imperialism behind it, could only be incompatible with socialist requirements."

     "I see," sighed Peter Daniels, following a short but anguished pause during which he mopped his brow with a linen handkerchief.  "And presumably this hypothetical socialist regime would liquidate, if that's the correct word, journalists like myself, who profess to distinctly conservative viewpoints."

     "Naturally," Matthew rejoined.  "It would intern anyone who was in any way opposed to its policies of socialist progress and either incapable of or unwilling to contemplate reform."

     "Well, thank goodness it doesn't exist at present, and that a certain amount of sanity and decency still prevail in the world, especially the Western half of it!" cried Peter Daniels triumphantly.  "I very much doubt that such a godforsaken regime will ever exist, and not only because we, the right-thinking individuals of society, wouldn't allow it to, but, no less probably, because the catastrophe that would most likely precipitate such a horrible state-of-affairs - namely a third world war - would more than likely result in the wholesale destruction of life on this planet and consequently in the elimination of all political parties, whether Right, Left, or Centre, moderate or extreme, and not in what I suspect you would hope to be a socialist victory!"

     "Oh, let's not drag Armageddon into it!" protested Linda Daniels, breaking the long silence she had patiently kept while the two men waged their own verbal war in front of her - an ideological one which she had tactfully preferred to keep out of.  "A third world war would be too unspeakably vile, too unspeakably horrendous!  Let's hope it will never come about, and that some sense and decency will accordingly continue to prevail.  We want life, not death!"

     As though that were a signal for a fresh beginning, Gwen suddenly returned to the room and announced, rather to everyone's relief, that dinner was ready.  Accordingly, Matthew followed the others out through the open door and into the dining-room across the hallway.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Consisting of roast lamb and assorted vegetables, diner provided a slight reprieve from the ideological tension and mutual antipathy which had sprung-up between the two men in the lounge.  But only, alas, a slight one!  Although their conversation was somewhat muted by preoccupation with food, the close proximity into which they had been thrown by the relatively small circular table at which they were sitting caused them to feel psychologically uncomfortable, especially Peter Daniels, who felt the physical closeness to his ideological rival as a kind of humiliation and personal betrayal.  But for the women, he would have got up from the table and sat himself down, plate in hand, on one of the spare chairs the far side of the dining-room (which in any case wasn't a particularly large room), in order to be delivered, in some degree, from the oppression of social intimacy with his political enemy.  Indeed, he would have refused to eat dinner altogether!  But, of course, such a refusal would hardly have pleased his hostess, who had put so much effort into getting it ready, and so he was obliged to resign himself, like Matthew, to the rather trying situation which circumstances had forced upon him.  Taking refuge, as far as possible, in the meal itself was the only solution, it seemed, to present itself to either man's imagination.

     Yet the women, though scarcely on the best of terms with each other, were not prepared to allow the occasion to sink into a boorish silence, interrupted only by the mundane sound of chewing and swallowing, but made an effort to lift it above the merely bestial level by indulging in a little sporadic conversation, Gwen especially doing her best to raise the atmosphere slightly, her sociability doubtless owing something to the fact that she had not been present throughout the greater part of the male-dominated conversation in the adjoining room.

     Nor altogether surprisingly, the principal subject of their conversation was the new school term and the likelihood of their having to work harder then than during the previous one, which, despite the summer exams, seemed to them more like an anti-climax to the year.  Linda Daniels, in particular, was especially anxious to improve the quality of her teaching next term, since she felt that it had somehow suffered from her generally poor health in recent months, while Gwen, though not over-complacent about her own past teaching record, was confident that her talents would stand the test of time and be adequately rewarded when the next batch of examination results were due, come Christmas.

     The men listened in solemn silence, rather bored by the topic under discussion yet secretly grateful, all the same, for something external to cling-on to and relieve them, slightly, from the psychological pressure of their mutual antipathy.  Matthew might have questioned Linda Daniels about her teaching of physical education had he not been constrained to silence by the brooding presence of her husband, who seemed equally disinclined to ask questions of Gwen.  All in all, dinner transpired to be more of an ordeal than a pleasure and, when it was over, both men were relieved to drift as far apart as possible, even if this meant they were obliged to enter into conversation with the women instead. 

     However, it wasn't about school life that Matthew talked, as he found himself being escorted back towards the lounge by Mr Daniels' attractive and curiously-interested wife, but about art and, in particular, his art, upon which he proceeded to enlarge to the extent that circumstances would permit.  It was evident that the women were determined to prevent a repeat performance of the bourgeois/proletarian antagonism by keeping the men apart (not that they had any desire to remain together!), Gwen likewise having battened-on to Peter Daniels' arm and escorted him in the opposite direction from Matthew, so that they would be out of harm's reach.

     To be sure, this arrangement soon proved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.  For it wasn't long before, warming to Linda's curiosity and spurred-on by the wine he had dispatched at table, Matthew forgot about his antipathy towards her husband and immersed himself in the subject to-hand - one that was always most dear to him, since the focal-point of his life's endeavour.  He explained how he was striving to make his art more transcendental by using minimalist techniques and exploiting the application of synthetics, like acrylic, nylon, and plastic, in order to divorce it still further from natural origins or influences.

     Linda listened attentively.  She recalled what he had said earlier, about the synthetic nature of his art, and inquired a little more deeply into some of the subjects he had touched upon - namely, the fact of the superconscious and its relation to the inner light.  She was also curious to learn who his chief influences were, who he particularly admired.

     Matthew deliberated with himself a moment, as though the answer to this question required a meticulous mental sifting through dozens of possible names, before replying: "Of the painters, I think probably Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian have had the greatest influence on my development, especially the latter, whose Neo-Plasticism I particularly admire.  He was very spiritual, you know.  Very committed to reflecting the effects of urban environments on the psyche, to making his work as internal and abstract as possible.  And, of course, he was a mystic to boot - a theosophist.  From the modern viewpoint, a tremendously significant and important artist!  Not one of your anti-science and anti-technology types, by any means.  Nor a traitor to evolution and bourgeois apologist, like certain other so-called modern artists.  Very much a believer in the big city and its spiritualizing effects upon our lives.  Very much an artistic leader."

     "Yes, I do know a thing or two about him actually," Linda revealed, smiling appreciatively.  "He painted a work entitled Broadway Boogie-Woogie, didn't he?"

     "Correct.  One of his most complex and famous works, paying due tribute to New York, the city he admired above all others," Matthew confirmed.

     "And what about Ben Nicholson?" she asked, anxious to keep the conversation on the same rails.  "How did he influence you?"

     "Well, in pretty much the same way," the artist replied, "that's to say, by being so transcendentally abstract and pertinent to the times.  I particularly admire his relief work, especially the more formalized and geometrically congruous examples of it constructed largely in the 'thirties; though it has had less overall influence on me than his minimalist still-lives, which were to set the tone, to some extent, of my meditating figures, in which only the bare outlines, executed in acrylic on a monochromatic ground, are allowed to emerge.  That gives them a kind of transparency which emphasizes the spiritual over the material, you see.  Makes them pertinent to the superconscious and therefore to transcendentalism.  If I were more egocentric, on the other hand, I would undoubtedly have filled them in with various corporeal elaborations and embellishments, so they'd look more like traditional portraits of seated figures.  But such a procedure wouldn't really have established me as a modern artist, or enabled me to consider myself one of the spiritual antennae of the race.  It would simply have shown that I was backward, lagging behind the times, and therefore not entitled to consider myself a genuine artist.  For such an artist is less a person who can paint well or elaborately, displaying all manner of complex techniques, than a person who is relevant to the age and best capable of illustrating the nature of that age.... Which is why, in my opinion, an artist like Ben Nicholson is greater than, say, Stanley Spencer, who, though possessing a technical facility that suggests true greatness, lacks real relevance and is effectively anachronistic.  At times, you would hardly think he lived in the twentieth century, especially where his Christ at Cookham works are concerned.  Yet there could be no doubt in your mind that Ben Nicholson did.  For most of his work is appropriately abstract and therefore indicative of a society biased towards the superconscious.  Thus, bearing in mind the criterion of relevance, one can only conclude Nicholson to be the greater artist.  Indeed, I'm inclined to regard him as the finest British artist this century, bearing in mind his sustained commitment to transcendentalism."

     "Even finer than Graham Sutherland?" Linda queried.

     "Certainly more consistently abstract than Sutherland," Matthew opined, "which isn't to say that the latter's work is relatively inconsequential.  On the contrary, I'd place it above Stanley Spencer's any day.  Yet, unlike Nicholson's best work, it strikes me as mainly being a kind of secular art, a machine art which brings to mind strong connotations with works by Matta, Tanguy, Wyndham Lewis, and even that arch-surrealist writer Raymond Roussel, with his elaborate contraption in Locus Solus for making a mosaic out of hundreds of teeth."

     "I'm afraid you've gone a little out of my depth," Linda confessed, feeling slightly puzzled.  "I know there's a kind of jaggedness to some of Sutherland's works, if that's what you mean."

     "Yes, at times a rather fearsome jaggedness," Matthew confirmed, smiling weakly.  "Which fact doubtless owed something to his experiences as a war artist, a recorder of the frightful destruction which assailed London during the Blitz.  But, even then, his work is largely abstract, and that's the important thing!  It couldn't have been done by a nineteenth-century painter, not even Turner.  And it doesn't necessarily imply horror and disgust with modern life, like so much Expressionist work.  Indeed, you can judge whether art is good or bad not simply in terms of relevance to the age but also - and no less importantly - in terms of whether it accepts and encourages progress or, alternatively, rebels against it, mistaking progress for regress."

     "How d'you mean?" Linda asked, with a puzzled look on her pretty face.

     "Well, I mean whatever rebels against the rise of technology and science, the expansion of the city, and other related phenomena, considering such developments pernicious to the welfare of mankind, is essentially bad art," Matthew responded almost matter-of-factly.  "For it misleads people by giving them the impression that things are either worse than or not as good as they really are; that instead of progressing, we're indulging in a kind of suicidal regression which it's in the interests of art to point out and, if possible, correct and/or stem - assuming it were still possible for people to respond to it in terms of a desire to correct and/or stem.  I mean, there's inevitably a point at which such pessimistic art becomes merely fatalistic, with no other motive than to record the degree of that fatality, in relation to society, as the artist perceives it.  Perhaps it's mostly like that?  I don't know.  But one thing I am sure of is that such art is bad, because it has turned against the age rather than accepted it, and accordingly refused to see the changes which have come about as manifestations of evolutionary progress.  One gets the impression that the artists concerned are either too stupid to recognize progress when they see it or, alternatively, are bourgeois apologists, hirelings of a reactionary establishment who regret the decay of traditional, egocentric values.  Whatever the case - and they may even be both - their art isn't what I would regard as a reflection of the age but, rather, a distortion and denigration of it, and that's bad!  It can cause a lot of confusion in people's minds, and not only directly, by attacking the modern world, but indirectly, by turning away from it.  A truly great artist, however, can only be loyal and relevant to the age, not reactionary or anachronistic.  He doesn't seek oblivion in some imaginary Golden Age of the past, or endeavour to resurrect certain aristocratic values long after they've ceased to have any applicability to the times, but forges ahead, content in the knowledge, like Mondrian, that life is gradually changing for the better, remaining faithful, again like Mondrian, to the exigencies of evolution, and not either stagnating in a stasis of perpetual dualism or reverting to a context of pre-dualistic sensual and material one-sidedness.  The true artist is ever the advocate of his age, not a rebel against it!  And if the age demands that art becomes a reflection of truth rather than a propagator of truthful illusions or illusory truths, well then, truthful his art must be, no matter how anti-traditional it may appear to the philistines!

     "The representative art of the past hundred years, including that of the novel," he went on, growing in confidence, "testifies to the mounting influence of the superconscious at the expense of the subconscious.  It aims at truth and light, not their negation.  In literature it takes the form of Flaubert and Zola rather than Huysmans or Wilde.  It adopts a scientific detachment, an impersonality and impartiality towards the facts under surveillance.  That humility and painstaking patience before the phenomena of existence which is the hallmark of the true scientific temper - what is that if not a reflection of our mounting allegiance to the superconscious at the expense of mere egotistical self-indulgence?  Was it something that Descartes or Leibniz really understood?  No, they lived in an egocentric age which was as much governed by illusion as by truth.  They wouldn't have understood the patience and self-effacing intellectual humility of a Pasteur or a Darwin.  Still less would they have approved of the literature of Flaubert or Zola or any of the other great moderns.  Admittedly, they might have approved of Tolkien in some measure, but that's only because he was one of the most unequivocally illusory writers who ever lived, an exponent of bad art, or art that defies the transcendental preoccupation with truth which characterizes our age and propagates a species of illusion which stands out like a literary sore thumb in the march of evolutionary progress!  Just as politics has its Hitlers, so literature has its Tolkiens.  It also has its D.H. Lawrences and John Cowper Powyses.  But that, I think, is really quite another story!"

     "In what way?" Linda eagerly wanted to know, becoming puzzled.

     "Oh, in a variety of ways actually," Matthew rejoined, pulling a wry face as though to indicate his distaste for the subject.  "I mean, from the viewpoint of relevance to the age, D.H. Lawrence was a very bad artist, a deplorable novelist.  His rebellion against science and technology, post-Christian transcendentalism, the city, and so on, was thoroughly misguided and unenlightened, eventually leading him to a kind of neo-pagan acceptance of nature and belief in sex as a mode, nay, the principal mode of salvation, like Wilhelm Reich, his rather more sophisticated German counterpart.  Whether in regard to The Plumed Serpent or Lady Chatterley's Lover or, indeed, half-a-dozen other novels, one is led to the conclusion that he was one of the most reactionary and worldly writers of his time.  The very fact that he ended-up virtually worshipping the 'dark gods of the loins', or whatever it was, speaks for itself.  Instead of being among the ideological antennae of the race, as a genuine artist should be, D.H. Lawrence became a kind of tail to it, a down-dragging influence who related to pre-dualistic criteria, as germane to a pagan age, in which the senses predominate, under the auspices of subconsciousness, in response to the sensuous presence of untrammelled nature.  One could hardly be more anti-modern than him, not even if one were intent upon propagating a philosophy of nature-worship, or Elementalism, like John Cowper Powys, who, to judge from his elementary books, wasn't the most genuine of artists either!"

     "Wasn't he the one who wrote In Defence of Sensuality?"  Linda tentatively commented, recalling to mind the only J.C. Powys title she knew.

     "So I recall," Matthew admitted, a faintly ironic smile appearing on his thin lips in response to Linda's prompting.  "Hardly the kind of book to have appealed to someone like Mondrian, who was truly modern.  But Powys was essentially a bourgeois anachronism with a strong admiration for people like Rousseau and Wordsworth, and consequently much of what he wrote is irrelevant or contrary to the trend of evolution, including his paradoxical belief in a two-faced First Cause, which he would have us all ambiguously responding to in an appropriately grateful or defiant manner, depending on our circumstances at any given time!  Not quite the religious viewpoint that Aldous Huxley grew to endorse, is it?  But, then, artists of Huxley's calibre are few-and-far-between anyway, so one can't be particularly surprised!

     "For every genuine and truly modern artist," Matthew continued, unconsciously slipping into a terminology more congenial to himself, "there seems to be at least a dozen sham ones - men who lack both the nerve and the ability to come properly to terms with their age.  Powys and Lawrence are simply two of the more conspicuous examples of bad artists, and not simply because of what they wrote but also in terms of how they wrote.  I mean, the most significant twentieth-century novels aren't those which tell a story, and thus promulgate fictions in one context or another, but those which are overtly autobiographical and/or philosophical, and thereby attest to the swing of the literary pendulum from illusion towards truth.  To produce fictions, in this day and age, is contrary to the dictates of transcendentalism and liable to result in one's being branded an anachronism.  A novelist who gives us something approximating to traditional literature, with plot, characterization, long descriptive passages, narrative, and so forth, is equivalent to a painter who produces representational canvases, or a composer whose music is tonal and harmonic, or a sculptor whose sculptures are figurative.  He isn't truly contemporary, for his head is full of traditional criteria and it's precisely those criteria which, in their classical objectivity, are no longer relevant.  By not relating to the foremost developments of the age he reduces himself to the level of an anachronistic dilettante, and consequently whatever he does is of little evolutionary import.  His storytelling, accomplished or otherwise, will simply make for bad art or, rather, for no art at all, insofar as former criteria of literature no longer apply - except, that is, in the popular context, where they both intimate of cinema and to some extent serve the insatiable hunger of the film industry for narrative productions.  As a victim of atavistic inheritance or historic class-fixation, his work will simply be out-of-place.  It may be as good as if not better than novels used to be when the canons of illusion applied.  But that won't alter its irrelevance to the present by one jot!  At best, one can congratulate him for his ability to emulate past masters, his antiquarian capacities, but hardly anything else - least of all his refusal or inability to satisfy the demands of contemporary art!  For, these days, the artist is very much, to repeat, a man of inner truth and light, not their objective negation!"

     "Which is presumably what you are?" Linda concluded sympathetically.

     "I hope so," said Matthew, blushing.  "At least I try to be such as much as possible, though only, of course, within the spheres of painting and sculpture, which are my principal concerns.  As to literature, I don't apply myself, since unable to practise three professions simultaneously.  But I had a friend who was a novelist and a very progressive one, too!  He used to write more philosophically than autobiographically, but he also experimented with a variety of radical techniques, including a species of verbal abstraction which aimed at depriving his work of intelligibility."

     "How d'you mean?" Linda queried, not altogether unreasonably in the circumstances.

     Matthew hesitated a moment before replying.  For he was obliged to stifle a degree of amusement at his late-friend's expense.  "Well, he wanted some of his writings to directly parallel, so far as possible, the development of abstraction in painting and music, since he believed that, due to commercial pressures, literature had fallen behind the other arts in this respect," the artist at length responded.  "For instance, he would write sentences like 'This munching got or placing use cat to their run taken over shoes,' or something of the sort.  I can't remember his exact verbal constructions but, anyway, words were arranged in such fashion as to avoid all sense or, at any rate, as much sense as possible."

     Linda had to giggle at the mention of this, which sounded somehow crazy to her.  "You mean to say he used a kind of automatic writing technique!" she doubtfully exclaimed.

     "No, since he often deliberated over his choice of words for hours on-end," Matthew revealed.  "After all, when you write automatically you still find yourself making some kind of sense here and there.  Familiar words and phrases hang together.  But he wanted to reduce meaning as much as possible in order to be thoroughly abstract, and this he systematically endeavoured to do, though mostly in short poems, which were really Mallarmé ten or twenty times over, so to speak.  Not the sort of thing that would have appealed to Tolstoy, who failed even to make any sense of Mallarmé, but arguably compatible with a kind of avant-garde abstraction which the French poet seems to have anticipated.  Anyway, before his death - he was killed in a road crash early last year - my late-friend was working on what he called an avant-garde supernovel, using this abstract technique of his, which he regarded as more radical than anything James Joyce or William Burroughs had ever done.  Had he lived to finish the work, I'm confident it would have been the most revolutionary example of literary abstraction ever penned or, rather, typed.  Yet such wasn't to be the case, and, so far as I know, the world still awaits a novel which purports to make as little sense as possible."

     "Maybe that's just as well!" Linda commented, offering Matthew a wry smile.

     "Well, however nonsensical the idea may seem," he rejoined, "it has a certain contemporary relevance, insofar as similar if less radical experiments have already been made.  Yet, in a way, the idea of breaking-up meaningful language is no less significant than breaking-up or transcending representational form in art or diatonic melody in music, and corresponds to the same post-egocentric urge.  I, for one, wouldn't be at all surprised if we abandoned language altogether, in the future, and resorted to pure awareness and non-verbal contemplation as a means to enlightenment.  After all, if early man, grovelling in the dirt of prehistoric survival, was beneath language, not having evolved to a civilized framework, why shouldn't late man be above it, having evolved beyond such a framework and, thanks to his mastery of the machine, entered a non-verbal epoch primarily dedicated to the attainment of spiritual salvation.  It seems a perfectly credible contention to me, at any rate.  And I'm convinced it would have seemed no less credible to Aldous Huxley, who was an advocate of pure contemplation, or 'cleansing the doors of perception' through the removal of verbal distractions.  For the trend of evolution is certainly in the direction of spiritual salvation, as our growing allegiance to the inner light adequately attests, and, as such, it's to our advantage to transcend the constraints of language in due course, since it has no relevance to 'the peace that surpasses all understanding', i.e. intellectuality."

     "No, I guess not," Linda conceded doubtfully.  "Though it seems unlikely that we'll outgrow our verbal preoccupations for some time yet, even if certain avant-garde writers are anxious to break up language at present."

     "Oh, I quite agree," Matthew admitted, smiling.  "Yet that isn't to say the attempts which are currently being made to transcend such preoccupations are without justification or meaning.  They're essentially symptomatic of a long, slow process of de-verbalization upon which the modern world would seem to be embarked, not arbitrary indulgences imposed upon society out of mere whim or in consequence of a fad.  They're bound to have a significant influence upon our future development.  For the more godlike we become, the less need we'll have of language.  If the beast is beneath speech, then the god is very much above it.  And modern man is closer to becoming godly than to remaining beastly."

     "Yes, though some modern men are evidently less far removed from the beastly than others," Linda Daniels averred, jerking her head back in the general direction of her husband, across the far side of the room.

     Matthew automatically smiled and nodded his head in tacit confirmation of Linda's suggestion, which left him agreeably surprised and even flattered.  He hadn't expected her to be quite so sympathetic to himself and contemptuous of her husband, and was somewhat relieved to discover that his preconceptions about her, in regard to Peter Daniels, had been proven inaccurate. 

     Indeed, judging by the interest she had shown in his art, it was difficult not to conclude that Linda was a very different type of person from her husband, much more culturally and temperamentally akin to himself.  He was certainly intrigued by her and glad to have someone intelligent and sympathetic with whom to talk for a change, someone who, unlike Gwen and even Mrs Evans, suggested a wavelength similar to his own.  And he was well aware, as he sat opposite her, no more than three feet away, that she was a more attractive woman than Gwen, not to mention Gwen's mother, who, though far from unattractive, was probably a little past her prime.

     Yes, he liked the look of her richly plaited hair, dark-brown eyes, aquiline nose, and nobly shaped lips, which suggested refined sensuality.  He also liked her dark-green satin minidress, which was eye-catchingly décolleté, and the ample contours of her breasts, which were not without a certain seductive charm for him.  And then, too, her voice had a pleasing resonance, a feminine depth and huskiness to it which was far from devoid of sensual overtones.  All things considered (or, at any rate, as much of her as he could see), she struck him as of superior physical quality to Gwen and much too good for the reactionary fool to whom she was married. 

     He wondered how she had got herself hitched to him in the first place, though he had no intention of asking her about it while Peter Daniels was still in the flat, even if at a fairly safe distance from them both, and with the suggestion of being too engaged in conversation with Gwen to be in a position to overhear anything.  Still, there was always the possibility that he could find out in due course, say, through inviting her over to his flat or studio one evening.  After all, if she was as interested in his art as she appeared to be, why not invite her over to scrutinize it close-up, and thus have the opportunity to discuss art in more congenial surroundings?  Particularly since, according to what he had already learnt about her, she was something of an artist herself, with distinct leanings towards abstraction and the avant-garde in general?

     Yes, it would be refreshingly tonic to have a kindred spirit to address, if not undress.  He was always on the lookout for understanding, and Linda Daniels, with her attentive nature, seemed more than adequately qualified to provide it, even if she was less of an artist than a schoolmistress.  At least she had a progressive disposition, which was more than could be said for a fair number of professional artists - sculptors no less than painters.  Yes, he would definitely invite her over!

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

"Had a busy day at the office?" Mrs Evans asked her husband, as he entered the kitchen minus his bowler hat and leather briefcase.

     "Not really," he replied, going up to and giving her a perfunctory peck on the cheek, as per custom.  "Pretty quiet, in the main."  He briefly glanced round the kitchen, before asking her what was for dinner?

     "Boiled bacon, potatoes, and carrots," she replied.  "Can't you smell it?"

     "I've got a blocked nose actually," he informed her.  "Must have caught another damn cold."

     Mrs Evans made an effort to appear sympathetic, but, privately, she was disgusted with him and fearful of catching his germs.  She'd had enough colds for one year and didn't relish the prospect of catching yet another!  Indeed, now that she had it in mind to send a letter to Matthew Pearce, arranging to visit him again the following week, a new cold was the last thing she wanted!  How would he feel if she went to him snivelling or all blocked-up with her husband's stinking germs?  Not particularly amorous, she thought.  So, feigning concern for the food, she swiftly turned away from Thomas Evans and proceeded to apply a fork to the potatoes, gently prodding them through the turbulent water in which they were fiercely simmering.

     Mr Evans took a seat at the kitchen table and then vigorously blew his nose.  "At least I haven't lost my appetite," he remarked at length.

     "Dinner will be ready in about five minutes," Mrs Evans announced, with her back still turned on him.

     There was a strained silence before Mr Evans next ventured to open his mouth, saying: "You might be interested to learn that I discovered a crumpled, lipstick-smeared paper tissue in our bedroom this morning."

     "Oh?"  Mrs Evans carried on prodding individual potatoes as though the fact of this discovery was nothing out-of-the-ordinary, though she felt anything but comfortable at the mention of it.

     "Found it in the bottom of our blue wardrobe while looking for my best shoes there," he went on.  "It must have fallen out of a pocket or something."

     Mrs Evans recalled that she had transferred the paper tissue in question from her handbag to the side pocket of one of her dresses, the green one, shortly after arriving back from London a few days previously.  The pocket must have had a hole in it!  Either that or the tissue had not been safely deposited there and subsequent buffetings of the dress by both herself and her husband, who kept some of his suits in the same wardrobe, had dislodged it from its precarious perch, causing it to tumble to the bottom shelf.

     "Since you were asleep at the time, I didn't care to make a fuss," Mr Evans continued calmly.  "But I picked the tissue up, all the same, and put it in my trouser pocket.  I have it here now."

     Mrs Evans turned around in manifest disbelief, as her husband dangled the said item between the forefinger and thumb of his right hand.  She was on the point of reaching out and snatching it from him, when a sudden realization of the fact it was the very same tissue upon which he had just blown his snotty nose made her hesitate and then recoil in disgust.  She stared at it speechlessly.

     "What puzzles me about this rather soiled item," Mr Evans remarked, "is that you don't usually use red lipstick these days, and that when you do very occasionally use any you don't wipe it off on a paper tissue, like this, but wash it off.  And you certainly don't make a point of hiding such crumpled items in wardrobes."

     "I wasn't hiding it!" Mrs Evans protested.  "I had simply forgotten to throw it away."

     "What, after you had used it to wipe lipstick off someone else's face?" Mr Evans conjectured sarcastically.

     Mrs Evans had begun to blush as brightly as the lipstick in question.  "No, of c-course not," she stammered.  "I must have used it on myself, some m-months ago, and then put it into the p-pocket of the dress I was w-wearing at the time."

     "Which strikes me as being singularly uncharacteristic of your habits," Mr Evans declared in a brusque manner.  "Besides, a tissue directly used on your lips would surely have more lipstick on it than this one does.  And the lipstick wouldn't be so faint or widely diffused."  He paused for effect a moment, then continued: "Now if you had used it some time ago, you would surely have discovered it, in the meantime, and thrown it away, since you don't keep all that many dresses in that particular wardrobe, and those you do keep there are in fairly regular use."

     Mrs Evans was beginning to feel insulted.  "Are you suggesting I'm a liar?" she shouted.

     "I'm not suggesting anything of the kind, my dear," her husband calmly responded.  "I'm merely intrigued by the discovery of this item.  Intrigued by that and by one or two other things, including what appears to be a noticeable change in your behaviour recently, as though you had other and better things to think about."

     "Such as?"

     "Oh, that's not for me to say, is it?" Mr Evans retorted.  "I'd rather you told me."

     Mrs Evans' blush had attained to such a blistering peak by now that she was obliged to turn back to the oven in order to hide her emotions from him as best she could.  "I've nothing to tell you," she confessed.

     "I must say, I am surprised to hear that," Mr Evans resumed, his tone quietly confident, "especially after the impressions I formed of your attitude towards that artist-fellow whom Gwendolyn brought here recently."

     "I don't know what you're talking about," Mrs Evans declared.

     "Ah well, perhaps I was mistaken," Mr Evans conceded sceptically.  "Only it seemed to me that you took rather a fancy to him, even to the point of sitting next to him in the garden while Gwendolyn was on the phone that evening.  I was observing you through the sitting-room's rear windows a good deal of the time, wondering what the hell you could be talking about."

     "Mostly about modern art, if you must know," Mrs Evans confessed.

     Mr Evans fidgeted nervously on his chair.  "Is that so?" he remarked almost offhandedly.  "Well, the artist was evidently gratified by your company and not as tongue-tied as with Gwendolyn.  Prior to your appearance they hardly said a word to each other, you know.  One got the impression they were bored with themselves.  But when you arrived on the scene, my word, what a difference came over the fellow!  How delighted he seemed to be, having you instead of Gwendolyn beside him!"

     "I think you're imagining things," Mrs Evans opined, bending over the carrots with fork unsteadily in hand.

     "I rather doubt it," Mr Evans countered.  "After all, my eyes don't usually deceive me, no more, for that matter, than do my ears, which were well aware of the fact that you were very polite and hospitable towards him at dinner.  Far more so than you usually are towards strangers.  And you found him handsome too, if I remember your first impressions correctly.  Better-looking than Gwendolyn’s previous boyfriends."

     Mrs Evans sighed in exasperation.  "I can't see how that can have anything to do with it, since one would have to be blind to doubt his good-looks," she objected.

     "Yet not so blind to doubt his sanity, if his theories on art and religious evolution were anything to judge by!" Mr Evans responded with a sarcastic relish that belied his ill-health.  "Why, the man's cracked, positively cracked!  All that nonsense about transcendental meditation and abstract art, the Holy Ghost and ultimate truth - it didn't even begin to make sense to me!  If that's the kind of enlightenment Gwendolyn is getting herself involved with, then I have to say I feel sorry for her!  She ought to know better than to bring a pathetic little wimp like that into the house.  Indeed, she oughtn't to have replied to his letter in the first place, since he was virtually a complete stranger to her.... Writing to someone he hadn't seen in over four years, and then only very briefly and for the first time - what's that if not a clear indication of how cracked he is?  D'you think any man in his right mind would have done such a thing?  No, really, I'm both surprised and disappointed at Gwendolyn for having taken an interest in him!  She ought to have ignored his letter and left him to his abstract doodles, the little fairy!  Had she not fallen out with her previous boyfriend, a couple of weeks before, I expect she would have ignored it.  Unfortunately for her, she was at a loose-end at the time.... Yet that colleague from her school, Mark bloody Taber or something, was much more sensible and of her type, the way I saw it.  Not one of these eccentric avant-garde types anyway - bloody stuck-up Nazi subjectivists who resent the fact that photography has left them in the petty-bourgeois lurch and that they aren't really as contemporary or progressive as they like to imagine.... A pity he couldn't have made it up again, and thus prevented her from making a damn fool of herself with this artist character.  After all, she's likely to gain more from a kindred spirit like Mark than ever she will from this trumped-up transcendentalist, or whatever he calls himself.  At least Taber's down-to-earth and of a decently solid middle-class background.  You know where you stand with him.  But the artist?"  Again he blew his nose, to Mrs Evans' renewed distress and further disgust, on the lipstick-smeared tissue and, getting up from the table, deposited it in the plastic rubbish-bin with a sigh of relief.  Then he returned to his place and poured himself a glass of mineral water.  "No, I didn't like him one little bit.  His transcendentalism, or whatever he called it, strikes me as nothing more than a figment of his perverted imagination.  And his art, assuming he wasn't bluffing us about it, strikes me as constituting a mode of degeneracy and charlatanism.  Not really art at all but anti-art - bogus, decadent, puerile, and feeble, like most of it tends to be these days!  However, since you spent so much time in compassionate discussion with him, I expect you have different opinions."

     Mrs Evans frowned severely and, turning sharply around, glared ferociously at her husband a moment.  "What if I do, is that any damn business of yours?" she cried.

     "Not particularly," conceded Mr Evans, who was slightly taken-aback by her anger.  "Though it might have some bearing on your strange behaviour these past four or five days.  It might even have some bearing on the paper tissue I had the ill-fortune to chance upon this morning.  After all, if you're not altogether opposed to his art, I can't see that you need be opposed to certain other things about him, least of all his capacities as a lover.  I mean, he's likely to be more virile than me, despite his art."

     "You don't know what you're saying!" Mrs Evans weakly protested.

     "Well, maybe that's because I haven't got all the facts and can only go on conjecture," Mr Evans declared.  "Of course, I'm well aware that you went to London, early Wednesday morning last week, to pay cousin Stephanie a visit and see her baby.  But I can't be sure if that's all you did."

     "What are you trying to insinuate?" Mrs Evans exclaimed, turning completely away from the oven in order to look her husband squarely in the face.

     "Well, through having phoned Stephanie from the office today, I'm aware that you only spent the morning with her, since you apparently had to dash off, shortly before lunch, to attend to what she described to me as some 'pressing business'," Mr Evans revealed.

     Mrs Evans felt a lump in her throat and a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach at the mention of this.  "You phoned Stephanie this morning?" she gasped.

     "This afternoon actually, after I had earlier deliberated over the possibility of your paying a visit to someone whose face needed wiping," Mr Evans calmly corrected.  "And she obligingly informed me that you spent only a couple of hours with her.  Now since you didn't arrive back here till gone eight o'clock, you must have done something with yourself in the meantime - either paid a visit to someone else or walked around the West End all afternoon or ... attended to some 'pressing business'."

     Mrs Evans flushed deeply.  She wondered why she had said such a thing to Stephanie at the time.  Was it because she felt guilty about what she had actually arranged to do and was secretly afraid that her cousin would be offended by her premature departure, if she didn't endow it with some more cogent excuse than merely wanting to look around town?  Not surprisingly, Stephanie had been delighted to see her again, after over five months, and keen to make her visit as pleasant as possible, which, of course, it had been, especially since the baby - a boy of six weeks - was such a treasure to behold.  But ironically, what with the exciting prospect of seeing Matthew Pearce in the afternoon, her visit had not been as pleasurable as it might otherwise have been, and it wasn't altogether impossible that Stephanie had noticed a slight impatience on her part which made it seem necessary for her to invent a cogent excuse in the form of pressing business.  However, whether or not Stephanie had been offended by her premature departure shortly before lunch, the fact remained that she hadn't inquired into its motive, which, in view of Thomas Evans' current suspicions, was probably just as well!  Yet it didn't exactly make life any easier for her at present.  An explanation was still required and, against the surge of embarrassment which had overcome her, Mrs Evans struggled to find one.

     "As a matter of fact I went along to Gwendolyn’s school to watch her preparing things for the new term," she blurted out, forced, on the spur-of-the-moment, to grasp at the first seemingly credible straw of an excuse that floated to the turbulent surface of her hard-pressed mind.  It sounded false and ridiculous, but she couldn't think of anything better, in the circumstances.

     Mr Evans raised an eyebrow in a show of ironic surprise.  "And you call that 'pressing business'?" he sneered.

     "No, not exactly," Mrs Evans conceded.  "But it just so happens that I'd been invited by Gwendolyn to visit her while in London anyway, so it was like a kind of obligation to me, especially as I hadn't seen her school before.  I ought perhaps to have told you of her invitation while she was here.  But as I didn't think you'd be interested, I kept it to myself.  In point of fact I was quite impressed by the place, as also by her new flat, which is situated conveniently close by.  You'd be surprised how spacious it is."

     "Really?" Mr Evans responded thoughtfully, with a vague nod.  "And presumably that's where you saw the artist again and had recourse to the use of a paper tissue on his face?"

     "Yes, I mean no, of course not!" Mrs Evans replied.  "Gwendolyn and I were alone together throughout the entire time."  Once again she regretted her words, of having been obliged to improvise such a flimsy excuse.  If Thomas Evans were to contact Gwendolyn and ask her what had been going on on the afternoon in question, it would be exposed for the blatant lie it was.  Fortunately, the chances of him telephoning her were pretty slight, since he was partly deaf in his right ear and generally averse to making phone calls to people out of the blue, especially to soft speakers like his daughter, so, short of visiting her in person, his most likely approach would be to write to her.  Yet that didn't make matters a great deal better either, especially if he got it into his suspicious head to write to her straightaway, before Mrs Evans could do anything to influence her daughter against him. 

     Really, it was very foolish to drag Gwendolyn into it, particularly as she would almost certainly become suspicious if her father started asking awkward questions and intimated that an affair was secretly going on between Matthew and her mother.  It was hardly likely that she would prove the most reliable of allies, under the circumstances!  But, alas, no other idea vaguely corresponding to the pitiful excuse of 'pressing business' had presented itself to Deirdre Evans' beleaguered imagination, so it was now a question of sticking to one's guns and hoping for the best, hoping, in other words, that Thomas Evans wouldn't contact Gwendolyn in due course.  And, needless to say, it was no less necessary to hope that Gwendolyn wouldn't get it into her capricious head to phone home, over the next few days, for the sake of a chat or in order to find out how her father, with his persistently poor health, was faring.  It was, of course, to be hoped that he wouldn't be at home or available for comment if, by any chance, she did so.

     However, the reality of his presence in their house at present was no easy matter for Mrs Evans to live with, especially as she felt that her excuses weren't really passing muster with him.  On the contrary, her embarrassment, coupled to the nervous and, at times, angry tone of her voice, had the effect of making her feel exposed and unconvincing.  She felt that he could see through her to the lie beneath.  But she couldn't go back on it, not after all she had said.  Besides, she couldn't have told him the truth at the beginning even if she had wanted to; for it would have led to her being disgraced to an extent beyond anything she had ever known.  And not only with regard to him but in the eyes of Gwendolyn as well, who would almost certainly get to hear about it in due course.  No, better to risk anything than that, even if one had to lie oneself red in the face!

     Oh, what a mistake it had been not to throw the used tissue away,   but to have held-on to it as a kind of memento of her conquest!  Had she not been so infatuated with Matthew Pearce, she would never have allowed herself to attach such sentimental value to it in the first place.  Yet because it had touched his face and bore the marks of her love, she had chosen to hang-on to it, like a young adolescent in the first flush of romantic passion.  Now, of all her regrets, this was the worst, the one she could least countenance.  The tissue ought never to have found its way into her handbag, let alone the blue wardrobe!  It ought to have been deposited in Matthew's wastepaper basket.  But where the self-recriminations ended, the sentimentality began.  And with that came the suffering, not least of all in relation to the fact that he, Thomas Evans, had blown his snotty nose on it!  Blown his dirty nose on her love, he who had been unable to inspire so much as a genuine kiss from her in over ten years!  Really, she could have killed the bastard!  No doubt, his impudence had achieved something by way of exposing her feelings for Matthew.  He must have relished the fact!

     But at that moment Mr Evans had other things to relish, including the impending prospect of his evening meal, which Mrs Evans was making a gallant effort, in spite of her nerves, to transfer from the various saucepans to his plate.  "I'll have a double helping of bacon while you're at it," he requested, momentarily discarding his air of outraged innocence.  "And one or two extra potatoes."

     Obediently his wife added an extra sliver of boiled bacon to the plate and another potato, before placing his dinner in front of him.  Then she returned to the oven and, having turned it off, put lids on the saucepans.

     "Aren't you going to eat anything yourself?" asked Mr Evans, visibly surprised.  For, normally, his wife sat down to dinner with him.

     "Not now."

     Mr Evans looked genuinely concerned, almost worried.  "Have I taken away your appetite, then?" he said.

     "For the time being, yes, you damn-well have!" cried Mrs Evans, who briefly flashed him a defiant look and then continued to busy herself about the oven, applying a damp cloth to the stains there.  She was well-nigh convulsed with hatred towards him, hatred for all the humiliations he had forced upon her, both today and in the past.  A tear welled-up in her left eye and slowly slid down her cheek.  Then another, followed by one in her right eye.  She turned away from the oven and mumbled some quick barely audible excuse.  She couldn't stand his hostile, mocking proximity any longer.  Blindly, she dashed out of the kitchen and ran upstairs, heading for their bedroom.

     Once there, she locked the door behind her, threw herself down on the bed, and sobbed like a child, wept out the bitterness that had welled-up inside her during her ordeal downstairs.  Her tears were like poison to taste, bitter with pain.  Not for years had she cried like this, out of a deep-seated loathing for her legal oppressor and the fate he had so callously inflicted upon her.  What if she had been unfaithful to him, was that a crime under the circumstances of his inability to satisfy her, to bring her true knowledge of her womanhood?  Did his ill-health mean she would have to continuously suffer as well, to rot away in sexual deprivation?  Hadn't she suffered enough from it already?  God, what a nerve he had, to interrogate her like she was some kind of wayward adolescent who needed correcting!  What if he had noticed a change in her since her return from London - wasn't that a change for the better, a consequence of the fact that she had experienced a new lease-of-life through Matthew Pearce, been brought back from the dead and given fresh strength, hope, and courage for the future?  To think he begrudged her what little satisfaction she could find elsewhere, as though she should always be a member of the sick-house in which he bad-temperedly languished, a hired nurse with no right to a life of her own - really, his selfishness could go no further!  One was indeed unfortunate to be married to such a pig!

     Raising herself from the pillows onto which she had plunged her tear-drenched face, Mrs Evans unlocked the bottom drawer of her bedside locker and extracted from it the novel she was currently reading.  Since her eyes were too dimmed by tears for her to see clearly, it was necessary for her to make an attempt to dry them before opening the book and taking from between its pages the letter she had written, during the morning, to Matthew.  Unfolding it, she slowly and not without physical difficulty began to read:-

 

Dearest Matthew

     Just a short letter to thank you for the warm hospitality you showed me last Wednesday.  I was indeed grateful for the opportunity to view your paintings and sculptures at first-hand, and, although not properly qualified to judge in such matters, I am of the opinion that they are a credit to your powers of imagination and invention.  Of the sculptures, I particularly admired the small white dove I had the pleasure to examine closely, whilst your painting of 'ultimate reality', with its centripetal essence, made a profounder impression on me than anything else I saw on canvas that day.  I can still see it before me as I write, which doubtless speaks highly of its clarity, or perhaps I should say memorability?

     Anyway, it wasn't so much your work which gave me most pleasure in the long-run as - need I say? - you yourself, what with that pleasantly mundane body of yours, a pleasure which is still to some extent with me whenever I think of you.  Had you actually taught me to meditate, as for a while I feared you might, I would never have known the sweet thrill of your love, nor the peace that comes from satisfied desire.  I am sincerely glad I persuaded you to abandon your transcendentalism for a while.  It seemed to me that you needed a reprieve from its ascetic demands on you.

     But don't be angry with me now, I beg you!  I'm not quite the enemy of the spirit that you might take me for, even if I may now appear a shade more mundane in your estimation than you would like.  I am not entirely devoid of spiritual aspirations, despite my matrimonial alliance to a rather unprepossessing materialist in the ungainly form of Mr Thomas Evans!  No, if you'll allow me to say so, I'm still interested in learning to meditate, in continuing the lesson we were nobly embarked upon prior to the intrusion of the senses in such a delightfully subtle fashion.

     Consequently I would appreciate an opportunity to visit you again in the near future - possibly next week or the week after, if you aren't otherwise engaged.  My best days are always Wednesdays and Thursdays, though, should either of these prove inconvenient for you, I can always arrange to visit your studio some alternative weekday, the middle of the morning as well as early afternoon.  I hope such a request won't strike you as in any degree importunate or unreasonable, bearing in mind the fact that you're obviously a busy man.  But as we got on so well on Wednesday, I can't see why we shouldn't get on still better, if you follow me, in future - provided I can learn to meditate properly and we both keep a cool head about it.

     So if you're prepared to see me again, would you please pen me a brief reply, addressing the letter to me personally.... On second thoughts, why bother to reply at all?  Why not simply allow me to assume that a Wednesday or, failing that, Thursday afternoon visit will be acceptable to you anyway, and that, if not, you'll let me know by return post.  That way no-one but me will be any the wiser, least of all my husband.  After all, I would rather avoid arousing his suspicions, as I'm sure you can appreciate.

     So, until next week or the following one, I look forward to not hearing from you, but to seeing you in your true light.

 

Yours sincerely

Deirdre Evans.

 

     Having read the letter, she refolded and returned it to its hiding place.  Already, no more than five hours after putting pen to paper in such thoughtful fashion, it was out-of-date, certainly as far as the reference to her husband's assumed ignorance of their affair was concerned!  Indeed, it had been out-of-date in that respect even while she wrote it, since he had discovered the paper tissue earlier that morning and therefore had his suspicions aroused a good three hours before.  Now one need hardly fear that a reply from Matthew Pearce would necessarily arouse his suspicions any further, since they had already been aroused to an extent which made them the precursors of certain knowledge.  If anything, it would only confirm him in his opinion of what was going on between them, provide him with fresh evidence of her betrayal - assuming, of course, she didn't get to the post before him or it didn't arrive after he had gone to the office, as was sometimes the case.

     In the event of her getting to the post first or in his absence, she wouldn't have anything to fear.  But due to his habit of early rising and leaving for work just after eight o'clock, when the post usually came, she couldn't be guaranteed of success.  On the contrary, it was more likely that he would receive it and, since she didn't often get any letters addressed directly to herself, have his suspicions confirmed by the sight of any envelope with her name on the front.  And that would only lead to further trouble between them, to more hostility and recriminations.

     No, it was certainly wiser not to encourage Matthew to write to her personally, even though there was no guarantee, under the terms she had suggested, that he wouldn't do so.  But was there really any point in sending him the letter now, seeing her husband wasn't altogether unaware that something was going on between them and could hardly be depended upon to encourage further developments in that direction?  Surely it was safer, in the circumstances, to drop the affair altogether and resign oneself to living in sexual frustration again, lest Thomas Evans became still more beastly towards her and dedicated himself to making her life even more of a misery than at present.  After all, he wouldn't take kindly to any future visits to London, on her part, if he thought she was continuing to be unfaithful to him.

     Besides, there was no guarantee that Matthew would welcome her again, that he would want to get involved with her on a regular basis.  His relationship with Gwendolyn could only suffer in the process, and there was no real evidence, as yet, that he welcomed the prospect of deceiving her.  Either way, it seemed unwise to send the letter - firstly because of her husband's strong suspicions, and secondly because of Matthew's relationship with her daughter and the correlative possibility that Gwendolyn might get wind of it, one way or another, in due course.

     But even with those prohibitive factors, even taking into account the additional shame which could befall her if Gwendolyn got to learn of the affair, she still felt the lure of her desire for Matthew, felt the emotional commitment which had imperiously thrust itself upon her, following their clandestine meeting, and made her conscious of a richness of emotional depth she hadn't experienced in years and had virtually ceased to regard as possible.  Yes, even given all the prohibitive factors founded upon what other people would think of her, the voice of her own soul still clamoured for attention, spoke to her of the duty she owed to herself and the indisputable reality of her feelings for the artist.  No matter how foolish or dangerous it appeared, on the surface, to send the letter to Matthew in the face of the other, external voices which spoke to her, this personal and unique voice of her self-interest would not be quietened but, rather, grew increasingly insistent the more she endeavoured to suppress it!

     Now it reminded her that she was thirty-nine and would soon be forty, soon have crossed the threshold into an age-group which was resigned to growing progressively less attractive, less sensuously seductive, as, one by one, the years slipped away.  To some extent fortune had been kind to her, it had at least enabled her to preserve a fairly youthful appearance well into her thirties - an appearance which even now was not devoid of a certain juvenile charm.  Perhaps this was in part due to the quiet life she generally led in Northampton, what with her ailing husband and the few if any sexual demands he placed upon her?  Perhaps also to the fact that she had only had two children?  Whatever it was, she couldn't rely on fate to retard her ageing much longer.  One of these days she would wake up to discover the ugly spectacle of wrinkles where, previously, the skin had been relatively smooth.  She would encounter bags under the eyes where, previously, the skin had been firm, if not taut, and on her fine brown hair, one of her chief prides in life, a scattering of grey or partly grey hairs would appear, as though from nowhere, obliging her to abandon the illusion that she was still young and worthy of physical admiration.

     As yet, she still had a few months to go, possibly even years, if fate continued to favour her with a youthful longevity.  Why therefore should she waste what precious time remained before the curtain of old age, with its introspective painfulness, closed down upon her, shutting her off, for the remainder of her life, from such pleasures as were still within her grasp?  Hadn't she wasted enough valuable time already, thanks in large measure to the wretched health of her husband in recent years?  Wasn't it therefore fitting to atone, in some degree, for the neglect she had suffered at his hands throughout the time in question?  And how better to atone for this enforced celibacy than by visiting Matthew Pearce in person - he who had brought her back from the dead and enabled her to feel powerful emotions again?  Not as powerful, admittedly, as those she had experienced in her late teens and early twenties, but still more powerful than anything she had known either before or since.  Surely he wouldn't turn her down, he whom fate would seem not to have treated particularly kindly as far as regular sexual satisfaction was concerned, either.  Had it done so, he would never have written to Gwendolyn after so many years and requested her company.  After all, there were plenty of women in London as attractive as her from whom Matthew might alternatively have solicited favours, had circumstances encouraged him to do so.  Plenty!  But for some reason best known to himself, they hadn't.  And so he had clutched at the only straw to-hand - clutched, in all probability, out of desperation, an implacable discontent with his celibacy and solitude, he who was so obviously and naturally a ladies' man.

     But if Gwendolyn was one straw, then Deirdre Evans felt herself to be quite another and, in her own estimation, a much bigger and tougher one - almost a log.  He couldn't, surely, turn her away if she visited him again, especially if she took every precaution to make herself as attractive as possible?  No, she owed it to herself to exploit this channel of satisfaction to the hilt, no matter how much opposition Thomas Evans might choose to place in her way.  She would send the letter regardless, just as Matthew had sent his own letter to Gwendolyn without any guarantee of a positive response, and hope for the best.  For Matthew's approval would far outweigh any disapproval from her husband - of that she was in no doubt whatsoever!

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

It was in mid-September, a week or two after the beginning of the new school term, that Linda Daniels literally responded to Matthew's invitation to visit him, whenever she liked, by calling at his Highgate flat, one fine evening, following a brief pre-arrangement over the phone.  To Matthew's satisfaction it happened to be an evening when Gwen had decided to stay at home to mark school work, while to Linda's satisfaction it happened to be an evening when her husband had apparently gone to a journalist's conference, leaving her relatively free to please herself. 

     Thus it was to their mutual satisfaction that Matthew answered the door to his small ground-floor flat.  He had so looked forward to seeing her again, and she, for her part, had not been without a similar desire in regard to him - one fostered as much on her interest in modern art as on a need to get away from the oppressive conservatism of Peter Daniels and expand her somewhat limited social horizons, which, until then, had been mostly confined to the conflicting currents of fellow-teachers and journalistic colleagues of her husband.  So the advent of Matthew into her life, coming completely out-of-the-blue, wasn't without its secret allurements, especially as she'd had so little contact with anyone even remotely resembling him in the past.

     "Did you tell Gwen you'd be coming up here this evening?" he asked, as soon as she was comfortably seated in one of the two small armchairs in his living room.

     "In point of fact, I hardly saw her at all today," Linda confessed, blushing slightly.  "But when she did briefly cross my path, I made no mention of any intention of visiting you.  Why, are you afraid she might disapprove?"

     He smiled dismissively in response to her ironic humour, and said: "No, but I'd rather she wasn't given grounds for becoming jealous, that's all.  You never know how she might decide to take it out on me in future."

     Linda giggled a bit.  "Perhaps she's already taking it out on you by staying in tonight," she remarked.

     "What d'you mean?" he ejaculated, wondering if she could have found out about Mrs Evans through Gwen or something.

     "Oh, nothing in particular," Linda chuckled.  "Just a little private joke.  Though, now I come to think of it, she did seem somewhat distant and ... abstracted today.  Yes, it was as if something was troubling her and she didn't want to discuss it or commit herself to the usual social camaraderie which is all the time going on between her and various other members of the teaching staff, myself included.  I recall someone else remarking that she wasn't quite her usual self."

     Matthew became puzzled and vaguely worried on Gwen's behalf.  "Maybe she still hasn't got used to being back to school," he suggested half-facetiously.

     "Yes, that could be it," said Linda, nodding ironically.  "It's certainly the case with me, at any rate!  However, let's not discuss school now.  I usually try to forget about my work in the evenings."

     "I'm sure you do," he sympathetically responded, smiling.  "What would you like to drink - a beer or a cola?" 

     "I think I'll have a beer," she answered, without much hesitation.

     Matthew disappeared into the kitchen and, in view of the fact that Linda was wearing a skirt, came back with two full glasses of lager in his hands.  There then ensued a brief silence while they tasted their respective drinks, though it wasn't that often he had recourse to anything alcoholic these days, since he preferred cola in view of his transcendental predilections.

     "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" Linda inquired of him in due course, the light ale evidently to her taste.

     "Not at all," he replied, licking some froth from his upper lip.

     The P.E. teacher cleared her throat and swallowed hard, so to speak.  "Are you in love with Gwen?" she asked.

     The artist almost choked with astonishment.  "Good God, no!" he exclaimed impulsively.

     "I see."  Linda seemed slightly relieved.

     "Why, were you afraid I might be?"

     "No, not specifically.  Though, to be honest, I didn't think you were."

     Matthew gently smiled his approval.  "And what about you?" he asked.  "Are you in love with your husband?"

     "No, although there was a time, shortly before and after our marriage, when I thought I was.  But, these days, I rather doubt it."  She felt consumed, all of a sudden, by a piercing stab of self-pity and remorse, took a large gulp of beer, as though to drown her feelings, and stared ruefully at the afghan carpet just in front of her feet.

     "Somehow I didn't think that you and he were really cut-out for each other," Matthew opined, desiring to break the slightly oppressive silence which had fallen between them, like a ton-weight of psychological debris.  "You strike me as being an altogether more radical person.  Or perhaps I should say less conservative?" he added, as an afterthought.

     Linda had to smile at this remark, which struck her as slightly impertinent.  "Frankly, I don't consider myself at all conservative - at any rate, not politically," she revealed.  "On the contrary, my political bias tends towards the Left, but such a bias isn't encouraged by my husband, as you well know.  Unfortunately, I only discovered that after I'd married him.  Had I realized what his true inclinations were before our marriage, I would never even have got engaged to the sod!"

     "How come you got involved with him in the first place?" Matthew wanted to know, becoming intrigued by the apparent implausibility of their marriage.

     "Well, I had the ill-fortune, I can now say, to be invited along to a party, shortly after I'd graduated from college, at which we met," Linda confessed, blushing faintly in spite of her apparent calm, "and as he rather took a fancy to me and was quite good-looking, I allowed things to develop from there.  Coming from a relatively poor background, both my parents being Jamaican immigrants, I allowed myself to become foolishly impressed by his wealth and social status.  For I thought it would open up new doors to me and at last bring happiness within my grasp.  His father was a prosperous banker actually, and when he died, a few years ago, he left most of his wealth to Peter, including a large detached house in Dulwich.  Personally, I dislike the place because it's too big and requires so much upkeep.  But since I'd never lived in anything even remotely resembling such a place before, I suppose it appealed to my curiosity and sense of adventure, not to mention my pressing desire to escape from the rather cramped flat I'd been sharing with a couple of fellow-undergraduates.  So I plunged into the deep end, as it were, only to belatedly discover that I couldn't swim there.  Unfortunately there's a lot of me that I have to suppress when in Peter's company, including my penchant for modern art.  Yet even if I am of a relatively socialistic disposition, I can't pretend that I'm as left-wing as you seemed to be when in conversation with him the other week.  I don't think I could go as far as sanctioning purges or dictatorships!"

     Matthew smiled understandingly and quaffed back some more beer.  He was by no means surprised to hear this, since it stood to reason that the conservative environment in which she lived wouldn't permit her bias for socialism to develop particularly far.  The worldly influence of the monied bourgeoisie would always be around her, thwarting her political development.  Given a change of environment for the better, that is to say, within a less materialistic and naturalistic context, one needn't be surprised if her political orientation underwent a corresponding transformation, and thus became more radical.  As things stood, however, she was fundamentally a victim of her suburban milieu, and consequently what she said would have to be evaluated in terms of that.  It wasn't something which any radical socialist need be impressed by, anyway.  "Well, most of what I said to your husband was inspired by an uncharitable impulse to shock and bewilder him," the artist at length confessed, placing the by-now near-empty beer glass by the side of his chair, "in that I took an immediate dislike to the bugger and thought it fitting to display my contempt for his politics.  I didn't imagine that he'd feel very comfortable, under the circumstances of my professed allegiance to socialism, so I tried my best to make him feel damned uncomfortable.  Which, as you'll doubtless recall, he most certainly did feel after a while!"

     "Yes, you needn't remind me," sighed Linda, a mock frown in attendance.  "Had it not been for my restraining influence, he'd probably have come to blows with you or stamped out of the room or something.  For I'd never seen him lose his cool so quickly before."

     "How flattering for me!" exclaimed Matthew, feeling perversely proud of himself.  "Still, I had to impress upon him my extreme distaste for his politics somehow, and an unabashed advocacy of something closer to what I believe in seemed to me the best way of doing so.  It's good to speak out, to give one's thoughts free rein when the need or opportunity presents itself.... Not that I believe in free speech as such.  Oh, no!  The society I want to see come about certainly wouldn't encourage people of a reactionary turn-of-mind to air their capitalist views - assuming there were any such people left.  But the society in which we're living at present hasn't evolved to a stage where the capitalist/socialist dichotomy which characterizes it has been transcended in favour of socialism, or ownership of the means of production by a politically sovereign proletariat.  And so a situation prevails in which the mouthpieces of the bourgeois right continue to promulgate their capitalist policies at the proletariat's expense.  Yet, one way or another, the future belongs to the proletariat, and consequently you can rest assured that the said mouthpieces won't be able to continue in their well-worn tracks for ever.  At present, however, free speech still prevails, and so one is obliged to tolerate the views of people whose politics run contrary to one's own and who, by their grasp on power, effectively prevent the advent of a better and fairer society - one in which there are no privately owned firms but only publicly owned ones, in line with the impersonality of the Holy Ghost.  Although the balance of free speech is tipped against people like us, that's no reason why we should abdicate our principles and better knowledge to suit the vested interests of a fundamentally immoral status quo, in which some individuals can become extremely wealthy, while the great majority of people languish in abject poverty and neglect.  The struggle for a better world can only be an uphill one, since contrary to the materialistic grain of life ... with its predatory roots, and therefore it behoves us to carry-on with it, no matter how tough the going in this respect.  Good things take time, after all, and we cannot expect a social revolution to come about without an immense struggle, one of probably global dimensions."

     He realized, by now, that he must have sounded somewhat pompous, if not conceited, to her.  Yet, despite his intense dislike of entering into political discussions with women, he knew that her husband's extreme conservatism had, even in recollection, carried him away in a torrent of righteous indignation ... such as he usually succumbed to within the concealed confines of his mind.  When such a torrent assailed him, as unfortunately it all-too-often did these days, he would end-up cursing his lucidity and status as an ideological outsider, an Irish-born though English-raised outsider who, owing to circumstances which had catapulted him through both a Catholic and a Protestant upbringing in painful succession, could take neither the Father nor Christ seriously but only the Holy Ghost, the third and, as yet, unrealized part of the Trinity, each of whose components he believed to be subdivisible into autocratic, democratic, and theocratic parts, with Communism signifying the autocracy of the Holy Ghost no less than Social Democracy its democracy and, for all he knew, some kind of socialistic transcendentalism its future theocracy.  He would see himself as a kind of martyr and dissident, obliged, through ideological lucidity, to turn his gaze towards a brighter future and take the existing state-of-affairs, with its liberal democracy of Christ and protestant theocracy of Christ (the Cromwellian autocracy of Christ having been consigned to the rubbish heap of history some three centuries ago), with a considerable pinch of sceptical salt.  He couldn't enter into the spirit of this existing state-of-affairs - it just wasn't for him, the Christic British never having done much for his native land, neither autocratically, democratically, nor theocratically.  All he could do was look down on it from what he regarded, not without moral justification, as a higher vantage-point, namely that of the Holy Ghost, and hope that, one day, it would be swept away, so that the more progressive and enlightened people could be delivered from their current political spleen, and enter into a positive relationship to society which would both redeem and save them.

     However, Matthew was anxious not to spoil the rest of the evening for both Linda and himself with any more such weighty talk, being mindful, by the rather pained expression on the young P.E. teacher's ordinarily passive face, that most of what he had said must have sounded somewhat strange to someone who lived in a detached house and, despite an inclination towards socialism, was the recipient of much conservative influence.  No doubt, she would have come to appreciate it better had she been living with him for any length of time!  For there was certainly something about her that suggested a kindred spirit.  But she was a kindred spirit, alas, who had come to experience such a dissimilar pattern of environmental and social influence, in recent days, that one might have taken her for a bourgeois philistine, might have taken her for someone whose spiritual orientation was fundamentally contrary to and, hence, incompatible with one's own - not perhaps diametrically opposed to it (for she wasn't an aristocrat and therefore aligned with either the royalist autocracy, the peerist democracy, or the anglo-catholic theocracy of the Father), but certainly of an order which could never be transmuted into something higher!  However, bearing in mind her dissatisfaction with her husband's conservative lifestyle, it seemed indisputable that Linda Daniels was essentially a proletarian intellectual who'd had the grave misfortune, through her exceptionally fine looks, to get herself tied-up with a damned bourgeois, a man who related, in his parliamentary disposition, to the democracy of Christ.  At least she was progressive rather than reactionary.

     "Can I get you another beer?" Matthew offered, by way of seeking to conciliate her in some measure.  For he didn't like to see her consumed with self-pity.

     "Yes, I'd like that very much," she said, holding out her glass to him.

     Within less than a minute he was back from the kitchen with two further full glasses of ice-cold lager, the fridge being well-stocked with cans of beer and soft drinks at present.  Returning to his armchair, he asked: "Does your husband drink regularly?"

     "No, not in my company," she replied.  "But he does drink both light ale and wine quite heavily at times.  Like his intellectual hero, Oswald Spengler."

     "Who also smoked cigars, I believe?"

     "Well, fortunately, Peter smokes nothing worse than small cigars, so I don't have to put-up with too much nasal inconvenience or tobacco pollution - not at table, at any rate!  His drinking and smoking mostly take place in private, or in the company of some of his journalistic colleagues from 'The Cultural Heritage', who occasionally pay us a visit."

     Matthew self-consciously gulped down a rather large mouthful of beer, since the habit of drinking from a glass was foreign to him these days, and he felt uncomfortably bourgeois in a liberal sort of way, which reduced him, in his own estimation, to the level of Peter Daniels or, at least, to how he supposed Daniels would drink.  Nevertheless, he managed to shrug off his subjective qualm sufficiently to be able to ask: "And are the people who contribute towards this 'Cultural Heritage', or whatever its called, all like himself, meaning principally strait-laced conservatives?"

     "Mostly," Linda admitted, smiling in her customary ironic fashion.  "Though they aren't all neo-Nazi, Bible-punching, tight-lipped paragons of bourgeois respectability, by any means!  One or two of them are even dandy in appearance and behaviour.  I mean, Peter was himself a kind of dandy at one time, always wearing bright velvet suits and sporting flash silk ties.  However, the influence of Spengler and various other right-wing intellectuals evidently diminished his taste for such garish apparel.  But he was decidedly beau himself before his conversion to a sort of political activism.  He admired the Decadents and Symbolists immensely, and was all for turning himself into a late twentieth-century version of Oscar Wilde, albeit a Wilde minus the socialism.  His sophisticated aestheticism even extended to an admiration of Huysmans' Against Nature, which, for a time, he regarded as a kind of Bible.  Fortunately, he never went quite as far as its reactionary protagonist, Des Esseintes, in his disdain for and rebellion against modern trends.  But it's not altogether surprising that he subsequently gravitated from Huysmans to Spengler and took refuge in The Decline of the West.  After all, the lamentation over the collapse of Western and, in particular, Catholic culture, in the last chapter of Against Nature, isn't exactly irrelevant to the latter work, is it?"

     "No, I guess not," Matthew conceded, endeavouring to recall the said chapter to mind; for he was in fact familiar, through past reading, with Huysmans.  "But I'm surprised to learn that your husband was a kind of dandy," he continued, his mind turning somersaults of intellectual daring, as it began to conjecture the likelihood of a bourgeois dandy appertaining to the bureaucracy of Christ in worldly femininity.  "I would never have suspected such from his appearance and conversation last week.  He looked very plain and sounded even plainer.  I couldn't detect anything effeminate about him.  It seems that Spengler must have made a man of him."

     "Yes, up to a point," Linda confirmed, smiling.  "Though he still wears a bright velvet suit from time to time and indulges in a limited amount of aestheticism, including a taste for various fin-de-siècle artists and writers.  Then there are twentieth-century aesthetes like Drieu La Rochelle and Phillippe Jullian for whom he still has a taste.  He recently read the latter's book on the Symbolists."

     Matthew winced slightly.  He didn't care much for the Symbolists personally, nor for the Aesthetes and Decadents, whose pseudo-aristocratic refinements and cultural snobbery struck him as constituting but another instance of the reactionary.  Even Baudelaire, that arch-dandy and forerunner of fin-de-siècle decadence, had been tarred by the aristocratic brush.  Excellent as an advocate of the modern, a champion of the new in art, he was yet tied to the past in a way which Zola, with his strong advocacy of socialist progress, never had been.  He would have preferred Schopenhauer or Nietzsche to Hegel or Marx, the monarchical system to the dictatorship of the proletariat.  However, if he was politically reactionary, he was spiritually progressive, a believer in the new, the city, the anti-natural, the contemplative - in a word, the transcendent.  And so Matthew found himself forced into an ambivalence of mind over him - as, for that matter, over most of his decadent successors, whom he admired so far as the anti-natural, and  hence pro-artificial, was concerned, but despised for their allegiance to the aristocratic. 

     The cult of the artificial - witness Wilde and Huysmans - was thoroughly modern and indicative of spiritual progress, of a sophisticated response to large-scale urban civilization.  But the snobbish belief in and insistence on caste, the emphasis on aristocratic detachment and privilege, was somewhat antiquated, and thus indicative of social regress and rebellion against the city.  To have been artificial and socialist, like Oscar Wilde, seemed to him a more consistent approach to the problem of modernity than that adopted by, say, Mallarmé, Huysmans, Pater, or, indeed, Baudelaire himself.  On the other hand, there were those who were socialist or, at any rate, in favour of socialism, but not artificial, like Zola and Nordau, and even some who, strictly speaking, were neither socialist nor artificial, like the great Leo Tolstoy, who of course became a Christian, if a rather anarchic one!

     "I used to be a bit of an aesthete myself, at one time, though that was before my conversion to transcendentalism and its modernist implications," Matthew confessed, blushing faintly from recollective shame of the fact that he had once worn purple pants and written short lyric poems in deference to female beauty, which subsequently served as a springboard to art.  "Nowadays, however, I try not to have anything to do with works of art, whether literary, musical, or plastic, that pertain to the pre-modern.  I find they are largely irrelevant to me, since somewhat anachronistic.  Either they're too sensuous or too Christian or too dualistic or too romantic or too naturalist or something of the kind.  They don't speak to me personally - unlike, for example, the abstract works of Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson.  They would only confuse me and weaken my modernism in some way, were I to become seriously involved with them.  So, as a rule, I confine myself to twentieth-century art, occasionally going back as far as the late-nineteenth century, but rarely or never beyond.  I imbibe whatever speaks to the man of the big city - the post-cultural man of a superconscious bias.  'The truly modern artist', wrote Mondrian in 1918, 'sees the metropolis as the supreme form of abstract life; it stands closer to him than Nature.'  And, in consequence, whatever he does should pertain to the anti-natural and pro-spiritual, whether it is to exclude representational elements from his canvas or to advocate, in suitably modern terms, the importance of light.  He must avoid the reactionary at all costs, and one of the best ways of ensuring that he does so ... is to turn his gaze away from the art of the past and concentrate solely on the contemporary.  Not an easy thing to do, by any means, since I often feel tempted to study paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto, etc., but certainly not impossible!  In the future, it will doubtless come more easily.  But, at present, what with so much transitional activity going on around us all the time, it's often an uphill struggle.  After all, none of us is, as yet, that transcendental, even granted all the spiritual progress which has been made during the course of the past century.  We all have reactionary tendencies of one sort and degree or another, even if only in terms of preferring hardbacks to paperbacks or materialistic architecture to idealistic architecture.  And how many of us are fully committed to the idea of laser beams as the relevant weapons for transcendental man?"

     "Not I, for one!" Linda replied, with a facial show of distaste for the subject.

     "No, but the fact is that the use of light for military purposes corresponds to our growing allegiance to the spiritual, and must inevitably come to replace the old, materialistic modes of weaponry," Matthew averred confidently.  "Intensified beams of light would certainly constitute a more transcendental mode of defence than the use of, say, bullets or missiles.  However, all that is simply by way of saying that, as yet, we're by no means as transcendentalist as we might be and will doubtless eventually become.  We still have a long way to go to the post-human millennium, the coming time of a transcendental lead!"

     "In certain respects, that's probably just as well," Linda averred.  "Though I'm still not quite sure what this post-human millennium of yours exactly signifies?"

     "Simply the ultimate point of spiritual triumph, the ultimate triumph, on earth, of the spiritual principle," Matthew informed her, "and thus the reign of light, peace, bliss - in a word, Heaven.  Yes, that's what it signifies to me, at any rate!  A kind of transcendent state in which man, having thrown off the last vestiges of his traditional dualism and thereby transcended nature, becomes godly, becomes something above and beyond man - as far above dualistic man as that man was above the beasts.  But such a metamorphosis is by no means in sight at present, even given the recent spurt in spiritual progress.  All we can be certain of is that man is a phenomenon in the process of evolving towards something greater, not a fixed form.  The changes he creates in his environment guarantee that he continues to evolve, not remain static like a beast.  The difference between us and the caveman is really quite considerable.  Unlike him, we aren't living under a subconscious dominion but have evolved to a point, the other side of the ego, where the superconscious increasingly prevails."

     "And so the chances are that we'll evolve even further and eventually enter a post-human millennium?" Linda deduced with, in spite of herself, a hint of scepticism in her voice.

     "I can't see why not," Matthew affirmed, smiling optimistically.  "Unless, of course, we're all killed in a nuclear apocalypse and no-one survives to continue our progress.  Personally, however, I'd find that very difficult to believe.  After all, we haven't evolved this far just to blow ourselves to smithereens, have we?  Nuclear weapons may be terrible things but, given our transcendental progress generally, they would seem to be relative to the times, to an age which is splitting the atom and thus effectively engaged in the process of severing the proletariat from bourgeois and/or aristocratic control.  It's highly unlikely that any future world war would be waged solely with conventional weapons anyway, since, quite apart from the fact that one couldn't risk allowing one's own nuclear installations to be overrun, they would be largely irrelevant to the global nature of the conflict and inadequate, moreover, for purposes of permitting one side to achieve an ascendancy over the other."

     "Yes, I suppose so," Linda wearily conceded, resigning herself, it seemed, to the logic of post-atomic modernity.  However, it wasn't a subject she particularly cared to dwell on, not really believing in the possibility of future world wars anyway, least of all of a nuclear order, so she made an effort to find something more congenial and, catching sight of an abstract painting behind Matthew's head, inquired of him whether it was one of his works.

     "Actually it's a variation on one of Mondrian's paintings, based on a square and colour composition," the artist replied on what sounded like a more cheerful note, "like the one over there in fact."  He pointed to a small painting hung above a table across to Linda's right, which was of similar abstract design.  "I did them both earlier in the year, principally because I couldn't get hold of an original Mondrian and wanted at least a copy or a variation on one of his themes to-hand.  I flatter myself to think that they could be mistaken for the genuine article, and a number of people have in fact subsequently mistaken them for it."

     "Really?" Linda exclaimed, looking intently from the one to the other.  She was indeed intrigued by them.  Their simplicity and purity of colour endowed them with a certain classicism which she found agreeably reassuring.  They blended-in well with the overall neatness and cleanliness of the room, which was itself mostly in white, like an Ivres Klein void.  "You evidently think very highly of Mondrian's art," she at length remarked, refocusing her increasingly beer-clouded attention upon him.

     "Yes, that has to be admitted.   In fact, I regard him as the finest painter of the early-twentieth century, the most consistently and systematically modern painter."

     "Even finer than Ben Nicholson?"

     "Yes, though not perhaps a great deal so!  Despite his considerable achievement, however, Nicholson wasn't as systematically abstract or transcendentalist, as his drawings, usually done in a kind of minimalist representational style often focusing on landscapes, adequately demonstrate.  Then, of course, his reliefs, which are undoubtedly his main claim to fame, could be described as a sort of cross between painting and sculpture rather than pure painting.  Maybe even as a kind of decadent, quasi-sculptural painting in which aesthetic considerations are compromised by materialism.  But Mondrian never deviated from painting, and, once he attained to his mature abstract style, what he painted was spiritually streets ahead of most other painters, even if, on the surface, its simplicity and impersonality superficially lead one to regard it as of a lesser importance than, say, the relatively complex, personal work of artists like Dali, Spencer, Ernst, Delvaux, Bonnard, et al.  Yet that, paradoxically, is precisely why it's so significant; because it has abandoned the old cultural criteria of greatness and wholly adapted itself to the abstract, post-egocentric and, hence, less-complex standards of transcendental man.  The greatness of someone like, say, Salvador Dali owes more than a little to the past, and to the aristocratic past not least of all, whereas Mondrian's importance is largely if not entirely relevant to the present."

     "I recall your having said something similar at Gwen's place the other week," Linda declared, alluding to his statement concerning the relative merits of Spencer and Nicholson on the basis of contemporary relevance.  "Yet what you're saying also presupposes that the more abstract or transcendental an artist's work becomes, the more significant he is in relation to the present, so that anyone who produces work of a consistently more abstract order than Mondrian's should rank higher than him as an artist."

     Matthew nodded with alacrity.  "To be sure, someone currently at work in Mondrian's footsteps might well be producing - if he hasn't already done so - a corpus of work which excels his in transcendental standing, bringing the late-twentieth century to a painterly climax," he averred.  "But as far as his generation is concerned, I can't think of anyone who stands above him.  To the best of my knowledge, none of his contemporaries, not even Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Bomberg, and Balla, related to the urban milieu in quite such positive and philosophically systematic terms.  In fact, it would be truer to say that most of them were in rebellion against the city.  However, I don't wish to sound unduly pedantic or presumptuous.  Suffice it to say that, like life itself, art is ever a source of ambivalence and complexity, even when it endeavours to clarify or simplify itself!  It could well be that Mondrian's art, with its geometrical patterns and black grids, signifies not so much a religious as a secular greatness, which might well find itself taking second place to a predominantly religious art-form in the eyes of future generations - an art form giving greater attention to the Light and the correlative significance of the Holy Ghost to the modern mind."

     "Such as your art?" Linda suggested light-heartedly.

     "One shouldn't entirely rule out that possibility!" Matthew chuckled.  "Though I'm perfectly resigned to standing in Mondrian's shadow at present."  He realized that the beer had gone to his head, making him slightly waver in his judgement and shed some of his intellectual inhibitions.  The extent to which Mondrian's art could be regarded as secular was indeed open to debate; though it seemed unlikely that such paintings as Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Foxtrot A could be classified as religious.  Abstract they might well be, but that didn't necessarily have any bearing on the Holy Ghost, the mystic's focal-point for ultimate divinity, even granted their creator's avowed commitment to theosophy.  The lines and colour areas of his Compositions, for instance, seemed rather to suggest an in-between realm of moral illegibility which could be interpreted neither solely in terms of the secular nor of the religious.  The two were somehow fused together - products of both a positive response to the urban environment and a spiritual aspiration towards the Infinite.  There was little in the individual paintings to suggest that the artist was endeavouring to portray, in somewhat skeletal terms, an outline of the city or, alternatively, to lead one towards a contemplation of the Infinite.  Their abstraction was complete.

     Yet this indeterminate status, born of their inscrutability, was precisely what Matthew had decided to turn against off late, preferring to be a specifically religious painter, and so draw the viewer's attention, by means of such transcendental symbols as doves, globes of infused light and meditating figures, towards the Holy Ghost.  If Christianity had its painters, then he saw no reason why transcendentalism shouldn't also be served by art, though, of necessity, in a much-less representational way. 

     To be sure, the concessions to representation which the symbolic illustration of superconscious fidelity had forced upon him were not without their shortcomings in relation to contemporary abstraction, yet seemed impossible to surmount without necessarily appearing vague and indeterminate again.  Unfortunately, the production of bright monochromatic canvases wouldn't automatically have connoted with transcendental meditation and the claims of the spiritual life, but might just as easily have been confounded with Kleinesque experiments in spatial reality - pertinent and valid as such experiments undoubtedly were.  No, he somehow wanted to put people in mind of the fact that they were living in the age of the Holy Ghost, and to do this he felt he had to have recourse to a limited amount of symbolic representation.  Time would doubtless tell whether or not he had made a mistake.  For the present, however, he was convinced of the validity of this specifically religious orientation.

     But what of Linda?  Was that a hint she had given him that she wanted to see his art, since he had promised to show it to her at Gwen's place?  He felt a sudden qualm at the prospect of having to go to the trouble of taking her over to his studio and then go through the rigmarole of pointing out and explaining what was what, especially as he was beginning to succumb to beer-induced lethargy and muddle-headedness.  Surely she wasn't expecting him to take her over there now?

     No, it would be too inconvenient under the circumstances.  Besides, the alcohol would doubtless be having its effect on her too, making her unsteady on her legs and slightly incoherent.  Now was hardly the time to explore the studio!  Better, perhaps, to play some music in his flat and just take things easy.  That way no-one would be any the worse off - least of all himself!

     He returned his empty glass to the table and ambled across to his midi system, which stood next to his bookcase immediately in front of the brighter of the room's two side walls.  "Would you like to listen to some music?" he asked.

     "Hmm, what have you got?" Linda wanted to know, automatically depositing her own empty beer glass on the same table.

     "Come and see for yourself!" he advised her, stooping down in front of the racks which housed the bulk of his music collection.

     Obediently, she vacated her chair and knelt down beside him.  "Hmm, mostly modern jazz," she observed, as her eyes scanned the titles of a number of albums by musicians such as Narada Michael Walden, Jean-Luc Ponty, Chick Corea, Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, and Herbie Hancock.

     "I imagine your husband doesn't approve of or relate to this kind of music."

     "No, unfortunately not!  He avoids modern jazz of any description - religious, secular, or in-between."

     "And presumably that means you have to avoid it too, does it?"

     Linda sighed her indignant confirmation of this inference and said: "Yes, generally speaking; though I occasionally tune-in to some good soul or rap music on my radio, when he's out.  But he certainly wouldn't approve of my buying this kind of music and playing it on a regular basis - not while he's in, at any rate!  It has to be Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, or nothing.  He's even against modern classical, as a rule, with the exception of stuffy composers like Elgar and Walton, who aren't really that modern anyway."

     Matthew smiled ironically, almost in imitation of Linda. "Do you have to listen to them with him, then?" he asked her.

     "Not if I can avoid it, I don't!  For I usually contrive to be elsewhere, in some other part of the house.  But he occasionally takes umbrage at that and obliges me to keep him company while he listens to Mozart or Beethoven for the umpteenth frigging time!  Fortunately for me, he doesn't indulge in his musical tastes more than once or twice a week, so I don't have to put-up with it too often.  Yet he seems not to accredit me with any taste at all!  The mention of soul and he throws a fit!  There's no compromise in him.  Either one sacrifices oneself to him completely or he takes umbrage and flies into a reactionary rage."

     "Sounds positively Victorian!" Matthew objected, wincing slightly in involuntary revulsion.  "Bourgeois snobbery could hardly go any further!"

     "So it would seem," sighed Linda, who by this time had her hands on a cassette by Narada Michael Walden.  "Do you think we could play this?" she requested, holding it out to him.

     "Sure," he agreed, taking it from her.  Although it wasn't one of his modern jazz tapes as such, its musical excellence was beyond dispute and highly appropriate, he thought, in view of Linda's close proximity to him at this moment, her close-fitting leather miniskirt having ridden up her black-stockinged thighs to a degree which made it impossible for him to ignore their seductive appeal.  The cassette in question, with its soulful fervour, seemed to him an excellent choice on her part and, no sooner had he set it in motion and knelt down beside her again, than he felt a consciousness of her sexuality growing inside him, pervading his mind and senses with a suggestibility it would have been not only impossible but imbecile to ignore.  She was indeed a beautiful woman, and the longer he was close to her, the more beautiful she seemed to become.  So much so, that he soon found himself irresistibly drawn, like a magnet, to the alluring oasis of her dark flesh; found himself endeavouring to quench a thirst from which he had too long suffered, even given his brief affairs with Deirdre and Gwen Evans.  It wasn't sex as such ... so much as sex with the right person, sex with someone one could genuinely respect and feel proud to possess - in a word, love.  And now, with Linda, it seemed possible this thirst would be quenched and an old nagging want finally laid to rest. 

     Instinctively, he drew himself still closer to her and, putting an arm round her slender waist, slowly brought his lips to bear on her face, applying himself to her nearest cheek and then, as she impulsively turned towards him, gently switching to her lips and mouth.  She made no protest, not even verbally, but submitted to his attentions with a willingness which suggested that she had been waiting for this all along and was only too relieved that he had finally got round to expressing his desire for her in more concrete terms.

     She gave him responsive access to herself and he pursued his desire to the very best of his ability, caressing and kissing her in a mounting crescendo of passionate embraces which had the effect of diminishing whatever reserve may still have existed between them and precipitating each into the sexual clutches of the other.  It wasn't long before his hands had reached under her vest and up her skirt to more pressing objectives, freeing her from her underclothes and exposing the totality of her flesh to his sturdy advance.  They made love in the centre of the room, on the afghan carpet between the armchairs.  It was superior to anything he had known with women before, much better than with Gwen or her mother; better even than it probably would have been with the two of them together.  Linda was an altogether different kind of woman - more responsive and sensitive, less bashfully self-conscious, tougher and slicker, altogether more to his liking.  She was neither frigid nor lascivious.  And to judge by her capacity for carnal pleasure, she was in earnest need of what he had to give her, in need of a reprieve from her bourgeois husband. 

     He thrust himself upon her in a frenzy of quickening lust and humped her like he had never humped anyone before, catching hold of her buttocks and driving himself deep inside her convulsed flesh with what seemed like a determination to get to the very centre of her womb, the kernel of her sex, which was the final goal of all passion, the resolution of all earthly desire, the heavenly resting place of the world.  The contrast between his white skin and her black skin only intensified his passion.  For it seemed like they were opposites who had come together to cancel each other out in the culmination of their coupling, thereby achieving a golden mean which would signify the overcoming of thesis and antithesis in a dialectical synthesis of perfect racial harmony.  He held nothing back, but gave it all to her.  For he had no shame in his commitment to her and would gladly have accepted a child in the event of her becoming pregnant, far as the thought of pregnancy was from his mind that evening!  He ejaculated every last globule of sperm into her with a thoroughness which completely drained him.

     The Narada tape had progressed to side two by the time he relaxed his ardour for her body and, satisfied by his carnal achievement, duly abandoned the pursuit of further pleasure. They lay quiet and still for some time in each other's arms, listening to the remaining tracks and just savouring the sensual warmth in which they basked, like softly-purring cats.  However, it was Matthew who eventually broke the silence by asking if she had expected him to make it with her that evening?

     "Yes, I suppose so," she smilingly confessed, blushing in spite of everything.

     He smiled back at her.  "So you hadn't come all the way up here just to look at paintings and talk about modern art, then?" he teased.

     "No, I was under the impression that you wouldn't have invited me all the way up here just to discuss art," she bluntly declared.

     "Even after what I'd said about my transcendentalism, or the spirituality to which I aspire?"

     "Even then.   I could tell you had a crush on me."

     Matthew had to chuckle.  "And what about Gwen, could you tell that I was bored and frustrated by her?" he asked.

     "Of course!  You wouldn't have been so keen on my conversation had that not been the case.  Besides, I learnt from Gwen that she was under the impression that you were somehow disappointed in her and consequently less than happy in your relationship."

     "Oh?"  Matthew was instantly intrigued.  "When did she tell you that?" he pressed her.

     "On the phone one day."

     "I see."  He meditated in silence a moment, but didn't desire to inquire any further into the matter.  Frankly, the subject of Gwen rather bored him, especially as there was another one on his mind which he realized would have to be dealt with in due course, since it would almost certainly lead to unfortunate complications if neglected.  But, in the meantime, there was Linda, who was something else or, at least, he hoped so.  "Tell me, this little affair of ours - is it a once-only thing, or are you prepared to visit me again in the near future?" he asked.

     "Well, if you really want to see me again, I'm more than prepared to come here," she replied, smiling faintly.  "Or to go anywhere, for that matter, where we can be alone together."

     He heaved a sigh of gratified relief and hugged her tenderly.  "Good!" he cried.  "Then we'll see a lot more of each other in future."

     She smiled tenderly, happy in the knowledge that he was genuinely interested in her.  It seemed that love had returned to her life.  "But the next time we meet, I'd like to see your studio and examine some of your works, if that's okay," she reminded him.

     "Sure.  I had intended to take you over there tonight, but, what with the beer and everything, it seemed somehow inappropriate."  He was still feeling a bit tipsy, despite the fact that he had drunk only two full glasses of beer.  It was doubtless due to his relatively high metabolism and habitual abstinence.  Due, too, in some measure, to the presence of Linda and the delightful experiences he had shared with her.  Yet he was not so tipsy, all the same, that he couldn't see through the optimism their evening together had engendered and wonder whether they would, in fact, be able to see very much of each other in future?  After all, Linda's husband still had to be taken into consideration.  He would doubtless become suspicious if she were away from home too often.  And what about tonight - would he still be at the journalist's conference he was apparently attending?  Matthew glanced at his watch and, noting it was now 9.30pm, turned to Linda for reassurance.

     "Fortunately, he won't get home till around midnight," she informed him, "so you needn't worry.  Provided I leave here by ten, I should get back in good time."

     "And the future?” Matthew asked.  "I mean, do you think he'll prove a major obstacle?"

     She had risen from the carpet and started to dress, putting on her pink bra and matching panties.  It wasn't a question she particularly cared to answer.  Speculation seemed futile to her, since it partly depended on Matthew in any case, on whether he would be prepared to marry her if she got a divorce; on whether he would be prepared to put himself out a little in the meantime - to visit her after school hours or go down to Dulwich with her.  It depended on a lot of things, not least of all her husband's social and professional commitments.  But she couldn't see why, if he was really determined, they couldn't arrange to see each other quite regularly.  After all, Peter Daniels might be her legal spouse but he wasn't her gaoler.  He couldn't prevent her from going out.  She could always plead school commitments or invitations from Gwen.  Besides, she had a few relatives in town, including a rather ailing mother, who could serve as useful alibis if necessary.  Thus Matthew needn't worry himself about it, and, having imparted as much to him, Linda ventured to relieve her own mind of a nagging doubt by saying: "I take it you won't be seeing Gwen so much in future?"

     "No, not if I can help it," he smilingly assured her, pulling up his black jeans, which were the tightest pair of denims he had ever worn.  "I don't want to arouse your jealousy, do I?"

     She giggled her approval of this rhetorical question and quipped: "As long as I know who you really want, you're unlikely to do that!"

     He advanced towards her half-dressed, his T-shirt still hanging loose, and kissed her tenderly on the lips, proceeding to caress her backside in a correspondingly tender fashion with both hands, one of which gradually worked its way back around and under her short skirt to rest, palm upwards, against her pantied crotch in a gesture of sly intimacy such that would convey his tender respect for her.  To his further pleasure, she accepted without demur.  It seemed that she was his woman, after all, and that nothing could alter the fact of their mutual trust and admiration.  They had a pact with each other, and it was not between incommensurables but, on the contrary, partners in love.

     It had just gone 10pm when Matthew Pearce closed his door behind Linda's departing car and returned to an empty living room.  He was relieved beyond words to have obtained an assurance of trust from her, and simultaneously proud of himself for having behaved so romantically.  He hadn't expected the evening to turn out nearly so well, even given his awareness of the fact she was naturally sympathetic towards him.  In inviting her up to Highgate, he hadn't specifically intended to become intimate with her but, rather, to extend his previous conversation on art and thus establish their friendship on a firmer footing.  If the possibility of becoming her lover had occurred to him before, it had only done so tentatively, as a consequence, the way he saw it, of a gradual intimacy, a broadening of their relationship, rather than as a kind of lightning strategy of peremptory seduction.  He had not expected himself to get so carried away by her and, notwithstanding the influence of beer and music, propelled into one of the quickest and easiest affairs of his life.  He could still hardly believe he had in fact succeeded with her; though, at the back of his mind, a little intuitive voice had intimated to him the unlikelihood of such an attractive woman dragging herself all the way up to his Highgate flat just to discuss art.  And when, from nagging curiosity, he had put the question of motivation to her, that little voice had received exactly the confirmation it required!

     Yes, so now he was her lover, more or less, and what he had done with her had given him one of the most gratifyingly memorable evenings of his entire life.  He was her lover, and what he would do with her in future would be no less gratifying!  He would have plenty of time to gaze in voyeuristic rapture at her suspender-sporting thighs, if that was what turned him on.  Or remove her bra and fondle one or both of her mouth-watering breasts.  Or take instamatic photos of her in a variety of erotic poses.  Or make a video with her which, together with the photos, might serve him usefully in old age when, lacking the will or ability to maintain coital relations with anyone, he was obliged to enter into the comparative salvation of a theocratic sexuality, and thus allow himself to be served by a combination of erotic material and plastic vibrator, his penis encapsulated, in centripetal smugness, by it vagina-like contours.  As yet, however, there was no real need or desire, in his life, for such a sexual salvation but, rather, a pressing desire to continue seeing Linda and thus maintain a democratic sexuality on suitably socialistic terms.  Certainly, there could be no question of a masturbatory autocratic one, least of all since the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe!  Besides, he had no desire to treat the inner light of the world in a disrespectful fashion, shooting it off into thin air.  That was for jerks and other such moral cretins.

     Yet Linda's entry into his life did mean that he would not now be in a position to carry-on seeing Gwen, as though nothing had happened.  He would have to get rid of her and, no less importantly, her mother as well.  Indeed, especially Deirdre Evans, who, on the strength of the importunate letter he had recently received from her, was becoming rather too demanding.  He could not have three women 'on the go' at once, nor even two, considering his dedication to the spirit and the exacting claims of transcendentalism.  Even one woman was, according to the highest spiritual authorities, more of a hindrance than a help to the spiritual life, a worldly omega which, especially if she was so sensuously attractive as to demand too much of one's time, could become an end-in-itself, to the exclusion of the heavenly omega or, at any rate, the possibility of leading an idealistic lifestyle in pursuit of heavenly goals.

     Of the three women in his life at present, Linda was certainly the one most suited to himself, the one with whom he would be most likely to succeed in seeing eye-to-eye on a variety of issues, not to mention in getting to meditate with him as well as to discuss art, politics, religion, etc., and have satisfying sex to a background, if mutually desirable, of soulful or funky music.  She was the promise of companionship and understanding.  The others, being fundamentally middle class, would have to go.  He would not be swallowed-up or suffocated by the flesh, even if he wasn't spiritually earnest or strong enough to be able to completely turn his back on it.  His art would only suffer, and that wouldn't serve his transcendental purposes one little bit.  Had he not been so celibate in the past his art would never have evolved to the extent and in the way it had, following, in Mondrian's sacred words, 'The path of ascension; away from matter'.  But prolonged celibacy had not left him free from depression and self-deception, nor was it something he particularly wanted to live with for ever.  Provided he could keep his sexual commitments in moderation, he was perfectly resigned to fairly regular contact with at least one woman, and Linda, with her beauty and intelligence, struck him as being the most suitable of the three.  Therefore the letter from Mrs Evans would have to be answered, and preferably as soon as possible.  If he wrote to her straightaway, that evening, and sent his reply off to her early the following day, she would almost certainly receive it by Monday or, at the very latest, Tuesday, and thus have no excuse for turning-up at his studio, as she had threatened to do, on the Wednesday afternoon.

     Quickly, impatiently, he rummaged through the top drawer of his writing desk and extracted her letter which, out of undue prudence, he had hidden beneath a pile of envelopes.  Reading it through once more he was assailed by a momentary qualm and pity for the woman, reminded of the sweet scent of her perfume and the generous curve of her hips.  He was almost persuaded not to write to her and so grant her the pleasure of another visit, especially as she still seemed interested in learning to meditate.  Yet he was afraid that if he gave way to her request now he would do the same in future too, thus jeopardizing and perhaps even destroying his budding relationship with Linda.  Frankly, he couldn't risk further involvement with her, despite her obvious attractions and urgent desire to please him.  The next time she would be a little more ardent, a little more persuasive in her caresses, and, in all likelihood, a little more possessive as well.  If she wasn't already emotionally involved with him, the chances were pretty high that she would almost certainly become so on or following her next visit.  And then where would he be?  Shackled to a provincial bourgeois in a monoracial heterosexuality the equivalent of liberal democracy?

     No, he would have to write to her, giving as excuse that he would be out of the country for a number of weeks on overseas business and therefore unable to comply with her request.  Anything would do, just as long as she didn't continue to pester him.  And if she was foolish enough to ignore his response, she would find herself making the trip down to London in vain.  For he definitely wouldn't open his studio door to her, not even if she rang its frigging bell for an hour!  No, if she really wanted to learn how to meditate, he could send her an Alan Watts book and let her do it by herself.  However, despite what she had said in her letter, he rather doubted that meditation was really uppermost on her mind, especially where the 'as we got on so well together on Wednesday, I can't see why we shouldn't get on still better, if you follow me, in future' was concerned.  And neither was he convinced that they would both be able to 'keep a cool head about it', even if he could teach her 'to meditate properly' which, on a number of counts, seemed somewhat unlikely.

     Yet he was subject, all the same, to a certain amount of regret, as he reached for his writing materials and began to wield his felt-tipped pen, that he had to disappoint her, particularly as she was by no means bereft of feminine charms.  Had she been closer to him in spirit, he would almost certainly have succumbed to her influence.  But, bearing in mind her provincial background and philistine mentality, not to mention the prolonged and virtually ineradicable influence of her irascible husband, he was under no uncertainty concerning the right course of action.  The pleasure she had given him would be more than adequately replaced by the pleasure he would obtain from Linda.  And if her husband got his hands on the letter, it would be no loss to him.  On the contrary, it could only serve his purposes the more!

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

Miss Evans scanned the class for a suitable victim, someone she hadn't already picked-on during the lesson, and eventually her attention settled on the fair-haired boy in the second row.  "Parfitt, let's have the present indicative of 'to ring'," she demanded.

     Parfitt nervously began to intone: "Je sonne, tu sonne, il sonne, er, nous sonnons, vous ... sonnez, ils sonnent."

     "Correct."  She cast about her for another victim.  "Now you, Brady.  The present indicative of 'to smoke'."

     Brady obligingly intoned: "Je fume, tu fume, il fume, nous fumons, vous fumez, ils fumment."

     "Bon!  And you Cartwright, go through the verb 'to go out'."

     "Je sors, tu sors, il sort, nous sortons, vous sortez, ils sortent," was Cartwright's correct response.

     She was satisfied with their performance and quickly switched to another exercise, this time one which involved the possessive adjective.  "Give the first-person possessive adjective relative to Livre est vert, Hardy."

     "Mon," Hardy replied immediately.

     "And you, Smith, provide the third-person singular for livre anglais est bleu."

     Smith scratched his head a moment, and then stuttered "S-S-Son."

     Another correct answer.  He was duly passed over without comment.  "And, finally, the second-person familiar plural to yeux sont gris.  This time let's hear from you, Marsh."

     "Tes," the shy boy in question answered after a moment's thoughtful deliberation, during which time his face turned from pale cream to bright red.

     "Très bon!" cried Miss Evans, casting Marsh and the class in general an approving glance.  They were in form today, which was more than could be said for the previous class of the morning!  She turned over the pages of her textbook and decided to spring them a few adjectives.  "The adjective for 'brief', Murray," she demanded, picking out the small plump 13-year-old in the front row.

     Murray was startled out of the torpor into which he had fallen during the earlier parts of the lesson.  "Er, br-bref," he stammered.

     "And what about 'jealous', Hargreaves?" continued Miss Evans.

     "Jaloux!" Hargreaves replied in no uncertain manner.

     "And 'clever', Taylor?"

     The redhead to her left scratched his curly-haired head, but seemingly in vain.  "Er, er ..."

     "Tell him, Simpson!" she intervened, losing patience.

     "Habile, Miss," Taylor's immediate neighbour responded.

     "Bon!"  She was more relieved to have found a chink in their collective armour at last than to have got the correct answer second time round.  "And finally Davidson, you tell us the translation of 'reasonable'."

     Davidson was ordinarily the laziest member of the class, and today was to prove no exception.  For his version of Raisonnable was duly pronounced raison-able.

     "Not 'able' but 'arble'!" Miss Evans objected, over-emphasizing the 'ar' sound.  "You still tend to pronounce your French 'a's as though they were English 'a's.  Make them more like 'r' in future."  She knew, from bitter experience, that an approximation was the best that could be expected where he was concerned.  "D'accord?"

     "Oui, mademoiselle," Davidson meekly promised, the silent 'd' of the pronoun duly being replaced by an audible 'r'.

     She smiled in half-hearted approval and, putting aside her textbook, turned to the volume of French poetry which had been reserved for last, instructing her pupils to follow suit. "Aujourd'hui, nous lirons un poème par Paul Verlaine," she informed them, selecting La Lune Blanche.  "Page Quarante-neuf."   She began to read:-

 

                            "La lune blanche

                                        Luit dans les bois,

                                        De chaque branche

                                        Part une voix

                                        Sous la Ramée ...

 

                                                         O bien-aimée.

 

 

                                        L'étang reflete,

                                        Profound miroir,

                                        La silhouette

                                        De saule noir

                                        Ou le vent pleure ..

 

                                                         Revons, c'est l'heure.

 

 

                                        Un vaste et tendre

                                        Apaisement

                                        Semble descendre

                                        Du firmament

                                        que l'astre irise ...

 

                                                         C'est l'heure exquise."

 

     The pupils nervously followed the lines in their books.

     "Now then, where does the white moon shine, Sinclair?" she asked the tall, thin, dark-haired boy in the back row.

     "In the wood, Miss," came his correct answer.

     "And where does a voice come from, Crabb?" she asked, turning to Sinclair's plump neighbour.

     Crabb looked blank.

     "From each branch," a boy to his right whispered.

     "I didn't ask you, Ryan," countered Miss Evans, casting the offender a disapproving glance.

     There was a tiny snigger from someone a few desks back from the front row.

     "Perhaps you could tell us what the pond reflects then, Crabb?" she suggested, changing tack.

     "Er, the pond reflects ...” An uneasy silence supervened while he endeavoured to find the right line.

     "Second verse," Miss Evans charitably informed him.

     "Ah! the silhouette of ... the black ... willow."

     "In which, Taylor?" she demanded, picking out the redhead to her left again.

     "In which the wind ...” It was obvious he was stuck.

     "Tell him, Ryan!" she commanded, losing patience as before.

     "Cries, Miss," the whisperer obliged.

     "Bon!  You must try to wake up, Taylor.  You're becoming lazier by the minute."  She turned her attention back to the anthology on her desk and focused on the poem's last verse.  "So perhaps you can tell us what seems to fall from the heavens, Arnold?" she suggested, choosing a fresh target.

     Arnold screwed-up his brows and put hands to his temples, as though to facilitate concentration.  "A vast and tender peacefulness," he correctly stated, struggling to his senses.

     "Good."  She smiled her approval and then asked Davidson to tell them what the firmament itself was made iridescent by.

     Surprisingly, the member of the class who was ordinarily the laziest confidently replied: "The star."

     "Which is pronounced?"

     He was on the point of giving the 'a' of l'astre an English pronunciation when he suddenly checked himself and said: "L'arstre, Miss," to general amusement around the class.

     "C'est meilleur," Miss Evans commented half-jokingly, though, in truth, she would have preferred something in-between and was slightly afraid that he might become a bad influence on some of the others.  But she had no time to tone down his 'r' a little, for, at that moment, the mid-morning bell rang, obliging her to terminate the lesson.  Altogether, she was satisfied with their performance and dismissed them without further ado.

     Yet at the back of her mind she became conscious, once more, of the dissatisfaction she was feeling with herself or, more specifically, with herself in relation to Matthew Pearce.  As she headed along the noisy corridor towards the staff room for a cup of tea, she couldn't help thinking about this dissatisfaction again and wondering whether the affair with the artist had indeed come to an end, as events during the past few days had induced her to suppose.  Not that he had categorically stated that he didn't want to see her anymore.  Yet there was definitely something reserved and even unfriendly about his attitude towards her off late, which suggested as much.  Then, too, the letter she had received from her father, the previous week, inquiring into her whereabouts and activities on the afternoon of Wednesday 26th August, made her feel distinctly uneasy, not to say bewildered, especially as he had never written such a letter before and usually preferred to keep himself out of her business.  No explanation, other than a brief word about wanting to check-up on something her mother had said concerning her doings at the time.  It was all very strange, notwithstanding the fact that she couldn't quite remember exactly what she had been doing then.  Still, she was pretty certain she had been alone and not in company, as the letter from her father seemed to imply.  Yet even though she wrote back to him with, to the best of her recollection, a resumé of that day's activities and asked what it was all about, why he had to contact her like this and request a written response, she still hadn't received a reply, and was now even more baffled by it than previously.  The fact that it probably had something to do with Matthew seemed the most credible explanation for her father's strange behaviour, though she couldn't quite see how that could be linked to his own changed attitude towards her recently.  But perhaps she would find out in due course?

     Resignedly, she pushed her way through the swing doors of the large, crowded staff room and proceeded towards the tea urn at the far end.  A number of colleagues were queuing to have their cups filled by a small black charwoman in a green overall and, as she slipped in behind them, one of them turned round and greeted her in a warmly polite manner.  It was Mark Taber, her former admirer, and, as she reciprocated, she felt herself blushing slightly, though she had known him long enough by now not to be embarrassed by his friendly attitude towards her.  However, the blush must have intrigued him a little.  For, having received his tea, he stood aside to await her as she duly approached the urn.  That was something he hadn't done in ages!

     With cup filled, she turned towards him.  They stood a moment undecided what to do, and then Taber, realizing they were in the way of those at the rear of the queue, gently drew her away in the direction of a less crowded and quieter part of the smoke-filled room.  The air stank rather of pipe and cigarette tobacco, which was always an inconvenience to those who, like them, were resolutely non-smokers.  So they went across to the proximity of one of the open windows and stood within the radius of its fresh-air ambience.  Taber especially loathed the acrid stench of stale smoke!

     "I haven't seen you that much recently," he averred, looking down at his fellow teacher from a seven-inch advantage over her.

     "No, I guess not," she conceded, casting him a brief but intentionally apologetic smile.  "I've been rather busy."  She knew that such a lame excuse for having generally avoided the staff room since their return from summer recess wasn't likely to convince him.  But, all the same, she considered it the most expedient thing to say.

     "And busy outside school as well?" he asked, responding to her smile with one of his own - in the circumstances rather more quizzical.

     "For the most part," she replied.

     The hubbub around them gave him the confidence to be more explicit.  "So you're still seeing this Matthew chap, then?" he deduced.

     She lowered her gaze and took a couple of deep sips from the steaming tea in her hand.  "To some extent," she at length admitted, not looking up.

     "You don't sound very confident," he observed.

     "Maybe that's because I'm not," she confessed.

     "You haven't yet come to a parting of the ways, then?"

     "No, though I dare say we shall before long.  At least, we seem to have become somewhat estranged from each other all of a sudden, as though the affair had petered out or lost whatever meaning it may once have possessed.  He seems to be disappointed with me and, quite frankly, I feel less than enthusiastic about him."

     "Oh, on what grounds?" Taber was keen to ask.

     At first Gwen appeared reluctant to specify, but then she relented and said: "Oh, largely as regards his artistic and philosophical predilections, which I can't subscribe to.  But also in regard to our sexual relations."

     "Really?" Taber exclaimed, patently intrigued.  "Isn't he particularly virile, then?"

     Gwen blushed anew, this time more deeply, and took momentary refuge in her still-steaming tea.  "Not particularly," she admitted.  "At least he doesn't appear to be as far as I'm concerned, whether because he doesn't find me particularly stimulating or because he just lacks the drive, I'm not absolutely sure.  Possibly a combination of both."

     "Poor you," Taber sympathized, instinctively lowering his voice.  "You seem not to have found the greatest satisfaction, after all."  This was said with a little chuckle, as though something to relish.

     "No, although when I consider the nature of his spiritual ambitions and their repercussions on his art, I can't be at all surprised," she rejoined.  "I ought to have known better in the first place, but I didn't realize, at the time, what kind of an artist he was.  I mean, I had no idea that he'd be so spiritually earnest, so set against the sensual.  Even if I had seen his works in advance, his sculptured doves and paintings of ultimate reality, as he calls them, I wouldn't necessarily have equated them with a kind of sexual inadequacy on his part.  I wouldn't have thought that because his work was transcendentalist, he would be a poor or, at any rate, perfunctory lover.  I'd simply have taken the art as one thing and the man as quite another!  But now I know better, having come to realize that his art and his life are inseparable, and that the one tends to influence and reflect the other.  So if he was unable to satisfy me in bed, it's probably because he's less sensuous than myself and not therefore committed to the senses to anything like the same extent.  A woman who was less sensuous or more spiritual than me probably wouldn't find him so inadequate - assuming he could find himself such a woman, that is!"

     Across the crowded room Linda Daniels could be seen talking with a couple of elderly colleagues, and it was at her that Gwen cast a faintly derisory glance, as she sipped some more tea and savoured the aura of intense curiosity which Taber's towering presence had already come to signify.  Mindful of Linda, she wondered whether Matthew might not be better served by someone like her, despite the fact that she was hardly the most spiritual of women, and wondered, too, whether the apparent change which had come over him recently might not be ascribed to Linda's influence in some way.  After all, she wasn't unaware of the fact that Matthew had taken a distinct liking to her colleague on the first occasion that they had met, a couple of weeks before, at her flat in Chelsea.  Neither was she unaware of the fact that Peter Daniels had taken a fresh liking to herself - one which resulted in his visiting her last Friday evening and expanding it into a loving, and a more complete and satisfying loving than anything she had known with Matthew!  He even went so far as to advise her to drop the artist, and such advice hadn't entirely fallen on deaf ears.  On the contrary, it was partly in consequence of what Peter had said to her that she was currently as dissatisfied with Matthew as she was.  Perhaps, after all, she ought to follow his advice and drop the guy altogether?

     But would that mean that she would then be reduced to the occasional visit from Pete Daniels, or was there some alternative, a possibility of more frequent satisfaction from someone already known to her?  She glanced inquiringly at Mark Taber, who appeared to be stunned by her revelation of the minute before.  He was still interested in her, she could see that, and no less handsome now than he had been prior to Matthew's unexpected intrusion into her life.  True, he wasn't the most interesting conversationalist, and his teaching of history made him somewhat conservative in his politics.  But at least he was a good lover and more on her social wavelength. 

     Indeed, she hadn't quite realized just how good until the affair with Matthew brought it home to her, until contact with a more spiritual being brought home to her the extent of her dependence on men like Taber who, for all their intellectual limitations and shortcomings, were more sensuously attuned to herself.  In that respect, the experience with the artist may well have been a blessing in disguise, if only on the grounds that it made her appreciative of what she used to have with Mark, and consequently gave her new insight into her own spiritual limitations.  After all, she was essentially conservative in her political outlook too, the product of a strict middle-class upbringing, and not attuned to such views or attitudes as professed to by Matthew Pearce.  She was essentially traditionalist too, and if the artist had done anything for her, it had been to bring this fact home to her in no uncertain terms!  The affair with him had been less of a mistake than an eye-opener.  And now that she could see herself more clearly, it did indeed seem that the only sensible thing to do was to sever connections with him and, hopefully, return to her own level again - assuming circumstances would permit.  She had, at any rate, received a push in the right direction from Pete Daniels, a push she could hardly fail to appreciate, especially with his wife standing no more than five yards away, still busily engaged in lightweight conversation with the two elderly colleagues.

     Yet if Linda was five yards away, Taber was right beside her and duly reminding her of this fact as, all too soon, the bell sounded again and she heard him asking, in a slightly nervous tone-of-voice, whether she wouldn't care to have dinner with him that evening, since he had no specific commitments.  "I mean, it would be better to discuss such matters in private, wouldn't it?" he added, glancing around the still-crowded and smoke-filled staff room.  "Unless, however, you have prior arrangements to honour?"

     Gwen thought of Peter a moment, but the arrangements he had made with her were for another night, and therefore nothing that need interfere with today.  "None I can think of," she assured him, smiling deferentially.

     "Well?" he pressed.

     "Yeah, that sounds a very good idea," she agreed, extending a grateful hand to his nearest arm.  "I'd love to!"

     "Good!" sighed Taber with considerable relief.  "In that case we needn't talk any more about your, er, sexual problems until then, need we?"

     She gulped back the rest of her, by now, lukewarm tea and returned the empty cup to a nearby tray.  It was just like old times, except that this time, thanks to the artist, there was an additional man in her life, and he was the husband of the woman in tight black slacks, who didn't in the least suspect that Peter was having an affair of his own with her best friend while she was so busily having one with that very friend's former lover, Matthew Pearce.  Well, what else were friends for but to use and deceive in the interests of lovers?

 

    

LONDON 1980 (Revised 1981-2010)

 

 

SECRET EXCHANGES

 

 

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