CHAPTER TWO: ENCOUNTER WITH AN OLD FLAME
Peter Morrison had just dejectedly collected another rejected typescript from a cagey West End publisher and was feeling as glum as he usually did when confronted by such negativity, the fruit, he reckoned, of the extent to which most publishers had 'gone to the dogs' of heathenistic commerce. His small leather bag now contained three typescripts which the publishing establishment had seen fit to reject, largely, he suspected, because they were too ideologically progressive and hence insufficiently commercial to guarantee their publisher a substantial profit. It was becoming more than a little frustrating, especially as one knew that one was developing Truth to an unparalleled degree ... where the more important subjects in life, such as religion and culture, were concerned. One had no option but to accept the fact that one was a literary outsider for whom commercial criteria were anathema, a hater of the capitalist status quo, with its market slavery. No matter how much work one put into one's writings, no matter how technically or thematically accomplished they became, there was scant prospect of publication under the circumstances of continued market domination, least of all for somebody who was about as far removed from influential connections as it was possible to be, short of not being a human being at all, and a borderline if not confirmed misogynist, to boot! One was simply knocking one's progressive, unworldly head against a solid wall of commercial reaction. And Peter Morrison's head was severely bruised by now, after well over a hundred rejections of more than eighteen different typescripts! Verily, life was no easy or laughing matter. It was all too often an evil and troublesome affair!
Gripping his burden to his chest, the literary outsider crossed the busy road along which he had been dejectedly walking and turned down a side street towards the little restaurant where he usually ate lunch whenever he visited the West End on a typescript-delivering and/or collecting mission these days. It was a decent restaurant, the 'Three Lanterns', with a copious helping of tasty food at a very reasonable price. Greeks ran the place and, as he well-knew by now, Greeks were usually a generous people - unlike the English, with their stinginess and money-grubbing commercialism!
Ugh, how Peter Morrison loathed England! He hadn't made a single friend during the past eight years of his residence in the north London borough of Haringey, and neither could he reasonably expect to make any. For one thing, he was too poor to regularly venture beyond the depressing confines of the overcrowded environment in which he languished, a prisoner of penurious circumstances, and, for another, he disliked London anyway, especially his part of it, instinctively equating it with something inherently alien to himself, a sort of quasi-lunar Protestant-dominated environment in which the madness of commercial materialism prevailed, and to which he, an Irish-born Catholic outsider, had been exiled by unaccommodating people, who weren't really of his calibre, several years ago. Besides, when one lives on a low income one can't afford to go to pubs or restaurants or cinemas or clubs on a regular basis, even if, by any chance, one wanted to, and neither can one afford to date women. One remains, if one is in any degree a cultural cut-above-the-common-philistine-herd, a lonely celibate. And a lonely, depressed, 'Steppenwolfian' celibate was exactly what Peter Morrison considered himself to be, despite his undeniably handsome appearance and relatively high intelligence.
To some extent, it was a combination of these and other qualities which had kept him solitary, since he regarded himself as both culturally and intellectually superior to most of the local people among whom he was obliged to live. Women were rarely attractive to him in Hornsey, a factor which further contributed to his solitude, since he was incapable of fancying a woman unless she was both beautiful and, more importantly, intelligent with it, as few of them in the neighbourhood ever were. And coupled to a negative response to an uncongenial environment, solitude inevitably led to depression, thereby strengthening the bars of the prison in which he morosely languished, forcing him, against his will, to lead a sort of psychologically crippled life.
Yet at least women could be beautiful in the West End, which was some consolation. There was usually at least one good-looking woman to be encountered every hundred or so yards, and sometimes more than one - women who either came from a different part of London or from outside it, and had the look, in consequence, of belonging to a superior milieu. Ah, but how tantalizing and frustrating such women could be! Sometimes he could hardly bear to look at them, so painfully conscious did they make him feel of what he ordinarily lacked. He hadn't even so much as kissed anyone in over nine years! Nine long years! Ah God, what deprivation and misfortune! What a way to live one's life, bereft of even the faintest shred of romance! To be sure, one had a right to feel sorry for oneself under those circumstances, to curse one's fate for keeping one poor and, most especially, to curse the bourgeois publishing establishment for preventing one's work from reaching a potential public. For, of course, there would be a public for his work, Morrison sensed that much. There were always people who could be depended upon to take an interest in works which attacked capitalism for its competitive individualism and pointed the way towards a more civilized or, better, cultured future. But, not altogether surprisingly, such people were usually denied access to works of a progressive nature by the capitalistic publishers, who controlled the flow of typescripts in-and-out of their offices and only published what they felt would make them a profitable return at that juncture in time, discarding literary merit in response to pragmatic considerations of the kind that turned the world into a place where 'smartness', or 'cleverness', was conceived in terms of opportunistic relevance rather than in relation to the intrinsic artistic or philosophic excellence of any given work! The more progressive people were obliged to suffer the consequences of this deplorably immoral state-of-affairs, to make do with what they were supplied with or, assuming that was beneath them, to search further afield for more congenial publications elsewhere, perhaps scorning books altogether in favour of some more radical medium of literary dissemination which, in any case, would do greater service to the content and scope of their work than ever the overly liberal medium of books could, what with their rectilinear and other limitations that, certainly in the case of paperbacks, owed more to the earth than to any other-worldly transcendence of it. Sometimes they were lucky, sometimes not. All too often they became either embittered enemies of the capitalist status quo or defeated pessimists, refusing to accept that things could ever be any different.
Arriving at the 'Three Lanterns', Morrison ill-temperedly pushed his way through the crowded doorway where, as ever, people were queuing to pay their bills and, seeing that the upstairs part of the restaurant was full, he quickly descended the stairs to the basement. Once there, he straightaway established himself at an empty table and gratefully disburdened himself of the seemingly ever-increasing weight of his typescript-laden bag, putting it to one side of himself on the elongated leather bench which stretched beyond his table to the adjacent ones on either side. Almost immediately a waiter descended on him with bill-pad in hand and, after a brief scrutiny of the menu, he nervously ordered curried beef, which was about the cheapest thing on it. Then he poured himself a glass of water and took a casual look round the tables in order to ascertain the approximate nature of his fellow-diners. It was pretty crowded down here too, for the most part with people in suits and dresses, but it didn't take him long to recognize the face of a young woman seated at the table almost exactly opposite his own. For a moment, he thought his eyes were deceiving him. But there was nothing about the sudden increase in the pace of his heart, or the equally sudden nervousness in his hands, which would have confirmed that supposition! Rather, these all-too-real physical factors combined to assure him that the woman with whom he had so tragically fallen in love some nine years ago, the only woman with whom he had ever been deeply in love, was now sitting no more than a few yards away, and talking to a female companion who sat in front of her. Amazed, he continued to stare at her, forgetful of the glass of water he held in his trembling right hand and only conscious of the extraordinary beauty of this woman whose love he had sought in vain, all those years before.
Yes, it was Julie all right, what with that unmistakably cultured and self-confident voice, but now more beautiful than ever, her blue eyes brighter and her blonde hair blonder than when he had last seen her. Oh God, what a tragedy it had proved to be for him, not having secured her love and taken her as his girlfriend, if not, eventually, his wife! No other woman had come to take her place in his affections since that magical moment when he had fallen in love with her at Victoria Station on his way home from work, one fateful evening in March or April 1972, during the days when he used to commute up and down from Surrey by train. And hardly a day had passed, in the meantime, when she had not entered his thoughts at some time, no matter how briefly, or played a star role in his fantasy life. At times it seemed as though he would go mad from thinking about her, so tight a grip did her beauty still have on him. She was like a Solonge de Cleda for him and he was her hapless Grandsailles, loving from a distance. No wonder he was still alone! It appeared that only a certain type of woman could please him, and that once such a woman had got an emotional hold on him he was incapable of taking an interest in anyone else. There was more than a passing comparison not only with Dali's fictional characters, but with Dante's factual reality in his life and experiences. Had not Julie become a kind of Beatrice for him throughout these solitary, celibate years?
Inevitably, his curiosity aroused her attention and in some degree obliged her to reciprocate. He blushed violently and lowered his eyes in shame, though not before he had noticed that she, too, had recognized him and was becoming subject to more than a hint of emotional confusion. Indeed, her expression betrayed a momentary astonishment. But she had recognized him, of that there could be little doubt, and, in spite of the intervening years, was prepared to offer him a modest smile by way of acknowledgement. His blush deepened, though not before he had returned the compliment and made an attempt at acknowledging her table companion, who, with some reluctance, had half-turned around to see who or what had attracted Julie's attention. However, the arrival of his dinner precluded him from getting to his feet and worming his way into their conversation - a thing he might have felt obliged to do under different circumstances. For Julie was not now the woman she had appeared to be a few minutes ago, prior to his appearance on the scene, but had become strangely self-conscious and seemingly absorbed in her meal. He thought maybe she was regretting that she wasn't alone at table. For he knew that she had always liked him, in spite of his failure to secure her love. He still believed her excuses, all those years ago, about already being engaged to be genuine, and wasn't prepared to accept that he had been coldly snubbed. Besides, it was usually possible to tell when a woman fancied one, and he had been given little cause to doubt that his desire for her was the converse side of her desire for him, being but one side of a two-way reflection. There was always a basic logic to love, which made it natural for the attractiveness of the persons involved to be mutually acknowledged. Comparatively rare was the fate of the man whose tastes were not subject to a reciprocal response!
Meanwhile Julie had finished her meal and was doing what she could to keep her attention to herself; though Morrison could see that his presence in front of her was still causing her a degree of emotional confusion. He wondered if he oughtn't to carry his dinner over to their table, but somehow that seemed out of the question, especially with the other woman there. He had always been shy and reserved, in any case, and never more so than in the company of female strangers! There seemed to be no alternative but to sit still and pretend that Julie wasn't there. Yet she wasn't making this easy, what with her furtive glances and the occasional comment that passed between the two women. On the contrary, it was becoming steadily harder. So much so that when, less than five minutes later, they both got up from their table and slowly headed towards the stairs, it was quite impossible for Morrison to restrain the impulse to follow suit. Grabbing his leather bag, he staggered up from his table, leaving the curried beef less than half-eaten, and followed them up the stairs. He had waited several years for the opportunity of seeing her again, and now that it had so unexpectedly arrived, he wasn't going to let it slip away from him that easily. Rather, he wished to renew their tenuous links of the past and, if possible, acquire what he had lacked all these years - namely a girlfriend.
But Julie appeared not to want to make the task very easy for him. For she was already half-way up the stairs in close pursuance of her companion. Only when she reached the top of them did she cast a brief glance over her shoulder, in order to verify whether she was being followed and, when this became evident, succumb to a faint smile, accompanied by a fresh wave of embarrassment. For his part, Morrison was as nervous and self-conscious as he had ever been, but, at the same time, strangely detached, like he had some imperative task to attend to which had to be accomplished whatever the consequences. That task was made more imperative now as he, too, reached the top of the stairs and stood immediately behind her, behind that tantalizing rump and wavy-blonde hair which had caused him so much frustration in the past! Today, as luck would have it, Julie was dressed in a pair of tight-fitting pink cords which more than amply emphasized the curvaceous outlines of her highly seductive behind, making it difficult for him to restrain the impulse to reach out a hand and caress it. But restrain himself he did, if only because he was holding his leather bag in one hand and searching for some money with the other, in order to pay the bill or, at any rate, expenses (since he had left his table before the waiter could hand him one) at the door. His tongue, however, was quite free, and he used it to stammer a few words to the effect that he hadn't seen her for a long time.
She turned briefly towards him, smiled, but made no comment upon what was, after all, a self-evident admission.
"You do remember me, don't you?" he asked, feeling pathetic.
Again she turned and smiled. "Am I supposed to?" she evasively replied.
"Well ...” He hesitated on the verge of an explanation, not knowing where to begin. It was evident that she wasn't particularly happy to see him after all - possibly owing to the presence of her female companion or perhaps even his down-at-heels look. "You might recall that I ...” But again he couldn't bring himself to continue and, to his dismay, blushed crimson. Meanwhile her companion had paid her bill and she was next in line. He didn't have time to say anything further to her, under the circumstances, but nonetheless edged a little closer, so that they were almost touching and he could distinctly smell the scent of her hair, despite the immense variety of conflicting aromas in the room.
"Next please," beckoned the white-coated waiter on the till, and now it was Morrison's turn to pay, which he reluctantly proceeded to do, albeit with a shaky hand in view of the state of near arousal to which the close proximity of Julie's body had brought him. She, however, had left the restaurant in silence, leaving him staring out onto the pavement while he waited for his change.
Not to be rebuffed, he hurried out after her, determined to follow whichever way she went, and was more than a trifle surprised to discover her standing to one side of the entrance, ostensibly staring into the window of an adjacent shop. Her companion, however, was walking on down the street, apparently having decided to go her separate way. It didn't take much imagination for Morrison to grasp that they had probably arranged to split-up in order to allow him to renew his acquaintance with Julie and, basing his next move on that supposition, he walked over to where she was standing and smiled a tentative but engaging smile at her. "Yes, what a long time it is since we last met," he remarked, without further ado. "You were still a student then, if I remember correctly."
"A teacher now," Julie admitted, in a soft though firm voice.
"Oh, really?" It came as quite a surprise to the literary outsider, who could hardly disguise his relief at getting a reply. Her subject, he remembered, was geography, so doubtless she was teaching that now. "And where?" he wanted to know.
"In London," was all she would say, which quite puzzled him. "And what are you doing?" she asked in due course.
"Oh ..." he hesitated, blushing anew "... I'm a writer actually. Have been so for a number of years - since 1976 in fact." He almost regretted having said this. For he had still not found a publisher several years on, as confirmed by the typescripts in his leather bag.
"My, so that's what all this is about, is it?" She was eyeing the bag in question.
"Yes," he shamefacedly replied, hardly daring to look. "These are the typescripts of three recent novels."
She looked at him suspiciously, almost mockingly, and then turned her attention towards the shop window again. "Who's your publisher?" she wanted to know.
He felt a lump in his throat and a sort of sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Unfortunately, I haven't acquired one as yet," he managed to confess, averting his eyes from her. "My attempts to find one have met with no success."
"What, since 1976?"
She looked slightly concerned, if not worried. "But how do you manage to survive?" she asked.
"I have a part-time job," he lyingly replied, fearing that if he told her the shameful truth about being on the dole and officially unemployed, she would simply walk away.
"And presumably that leaves you enough free time to write, does it?" she conjectured.
"Yes, three whole days a week, plus some time at the weekends," he admitted.
"But don't you find it depressing, being alone so much?" she remarked.
"Sure it is," he conceded, grimacing slightly in spite of himself. "But one learns to live with that fact and to carry on as best one can, since one can't very well write in company or with other people hanging around one all the time, you know. A writer's lot is mainly solitary, in any case. Though, for me, solitude is largely a consequence of exile in this city, not to mention country, and of not having very much money to live on."
Julie blushed in spite of herself and quickly lowered her eyes. She felt momentarily sorry for him, since she could tell that he wasn't bluffing. "Don't you have any friends at all?" she asked, curious to discover something more about his private life.
"None whatsoever," he confessed. "I lost the last friend I had about eight years ago, when circumstances beyond my control obliged me to leave Surrey and move to London. Since then, apart from a brief stay at my mother's flat during my first year in London, I've lived entirely alone."
Julie could hardly believe her ears. "No wonder you're depressed!" she exclaimed. "One can't live alone all that time and not suffer the consequences." Frankly, she was almost afraid of him. For he suddenly seemed, on the face of it, more like a monster than a human being. To be sure, there was always an element of self-defence in ordinary people that drove them to scorn those more unfortunate than themselves, rather than to help them or show compassion towards them, and she was beginning to feel the pressure of this ignoble element now, as she stood beside him, as beside an outcast from society who was likely to be more of an enemy than a friend. Maybe he was no longer capable of friendship, in any case? She didn't know how next to speak to him and was surprised when she heard him ask her if she wouldn't like to come back to his bedsitter, since it was cold standing out here on the pavement and, anyway, they could talk better in private. It was an offer which also caused her a degree of trepidation. For she didn't know whether she could trust him to behave decently or considerately if she did by any chance accept his invitation, especially since he couldn't have invited all that many people to visit him in the past. Nevertheless, since she had no specific plans for the afternoon (it being the first week of the Christmas holidays), she felt vaguely attracted to the idea, if for no other reason than simple curiosity. "Where exactly do you live?" she at length asked, blushing faintly.
He told her.
"Well, if you promise not to detain me beyond four o'clock, as I have a friend to meet later this afternoon, I think I can accept your invitation," she informed him, doing her best to sound grateful. Her heart was beating fiercely while she spoke, partly because it seemed to her a betrayal, implicitly or otherwise, of her husband, whom she had never been unfaithful to before. Perhaps, however, now was the time, bearing in mind the deceitful nature of his behaviour towards her on Saturday evening, when he had led her on under false pretences and then forced himself upon her in such a callous manner? Of course, she couldn't be sure that this Peter Morrison had sexual ambitions in mind, though it seemed unlikely, if he still fancied her, that he would remain content merely with conversation for very long. After all, he evidently wasn't the kind of guy to go out of his way to establish purely friendly relations with anyone. There had to be some ulterior motive and, as she now knew, he had no shortage of serious problems - not least of all where sex was concerned!
Despite her surface misgivings, however, she realized, deep down, that she was agreeing to his proposal not only out of simple curiosity or, indeed, the desire to avenge herself on Dennis Foster, but, more significantly, as a means of atoning, in some degree, for all the suffering she had unwittingly inflicted upon him in consequence of his unrequited love. She felt that a sacrifice of some kind on her part was long overdue, especially now that the Christmas spirit had taken hold of her and made her more willing to befriend someone. Besides, it seemed to her that it was partly her fault that he was now in the fix he was in, hiding away from people, and women in particular, out of a fear that he might get dragged into another unrequited love-affair, and have to suffer the bitter consequences all over again.