"Don't you object to people staring at your wife?" asked a voice behind me, causing me to start suddenly out of my daydream.  I turned round to see who my latest potential tormentor was, and discovered the pale, rather lean face of Major Ronald Saunders staring up at me from behind his dense whiskers.  He smiled defensively, as though to apologize for this sudden intrusion into my private world, and cast a veiled glance in the direction of Leslie Richardson, a glance I automatically followed, though only to the extent of acquiring the briefest of confirmations that someone evidently had eyes for Susan.  "He's been staring at her, on and off, all bloody evening!" the Major continued, ignoring my feigned indifference.  "You oughtn't to let her out of your sight, old man!"

     I gently shrugged my shoulders, as though to demonstrate indifference, then drank a little more of the sweet wine I held between clenched fingers in one of the thinnest glasses I had ever beheld.  What did it matter to me that someone was staring at her?  Let him, if that was all he wanted.  Voyeurism was all the rage nowadays, anyway.  And if he had more concrete objectives in mind, so what?  Let him satisfy them, though preferably on terms acceptable to myself!  I wasn't one to be offended by this show of interest in a woman with whom I had long ceased to be in love.  Indeed, if I thought it could increase his pleasure, I would have gone across to where Susan was standing, interrupted her conversation with the other women, and lifted-up her skirt, so that he could see what type and colour panties she was wearing.  Only I knew that at present, since I had watched her dress before coming along to this informal gathering, and knew exactly what she was 'up to' underneath her skirt.  It would have been nice to show those purple nylon panties with the frilly edgings to Dr Richardson and thereby enable him to flesh out, as it were, his growing appreciation of her physical anatomy.  Nicer still to be showing off the seductive curvature of her rump and hips, the enticing sexuality of her thighs, which the skirt she wore was discreetly hiding.  Then he could have made up his mind about her and taken whatever measures he thought necessary to extend his appreciation, with or without my knowledge and consent.

     "Too many people stare at other people's wives these days," Major Saunders went on, even though I had said not a word about his allegations and knew better than to spoil other people's fun.

     "Well," I said, growing slightly weary, "at least she's a rather pretty woman, so one can't entirely blame a handsome young man like Dr Richardson for taking an interest in her.  I'm not at all possessive myself."

     "Really?" the Major exclaimed, evidently feeling a degree of surprise was called for here.  "You wouldn't like another man to get her pregnant or give her the clap or whatever behind your damn back though, would you?"

     "Not particularly," I conceded.  "But, then, she'd have to put up with the consequences, not me."  No, that wasn't quite true, and I half-regretted having said it.  But even if she got the clap, as he put it in that colloquially military way of his, she wasn't likely to become pregnant, since she had regular recourse to the pill.  Besides, she knew that I had no desire to give her children, since I loathed them.  A child from her and we would part company.  I had made that fact perfectly clear to her some time ago.  Now she took it for granted and swore that she had no real desire for motherhood again anyway, since looking after a genius was more than enough work.  And if she needed any extra work, she could always write a new novel or take up full-time teaching again.  As for the clap ... no decent man would go near her if he suffered a dose of it, least of all Dr Richardson.  As usual Major Saunders was exaggerating, as they usually did in the army.  Possibly on account of celibacy, or something.  "Anyway," I added, after my reflective pause, "Susan's too possessive, where I'm concerned, to risk putting our relationship in jeopardy over someone else.  She's got a martyr streak in her - fidelity to me at the expense of more traditional responsibilities, including motherhood.  She needs the pride that comes from living with someone famous and moderately wealthy.  It appeals to her ego and sense of being a truly modern, or liberated, woman."

     "But don't you think that most women are possessive where we men are concerned?" Major Saunders rejoined, as he blew out the red-tipped match he had just used to light a cumbersome-looking cigar.

     "Oh definitely," I agreed.  "They can't help it, for we're sexual subjects to them and the sexual is ever a part of the sensual realm, the realm peculiar to female priorities.  Even the so-called liberated ones are possessive in that respect.  They need our bodies for their sexual fulfilment, and so they cling to us, metaphorically speaking as well as literally, like leeches.  My wife's just the same, even though she's resigned to not being a mother."

     Major Saunders momentarily concealed himself and part of me in a dense cloud of tobacco smoke, probably more out of a desire to hide his embarrassment from me than to savour the dubious aroma of his latest fat cigar.  I waited patiently for the air to clear, as from the onslaught of battle, before continuing the conversation, but he beat me to it.

     "You know, I just can't understand why you refuse to become a father," he confessed, blowing more smoke in my face.  He was doubtless envious of my freedom from parental responsibilities and troubles, I thought, and had determined to test my will, in consequence.

     "Frankly, I detest children," I informed him, almost hissing the words in my besieged condition.  "Especially young ones – for instance, babies and tiny tots.  They're far too raw, too natural and ... uncultured.  A man of genius, who cultivates the most artificial standards in his work, as in his life, can hardly be expected to abide with his very antithesis - a creature in which natural determinism predominates over free will to such an alarming extent ... that there seems to be very little of the latter in evidence.  Even my wife is at times too naturalistic for me, though, being an intelligent woman, she does at least possess a veneer, as it were, of culture over her sensuous nature.  Fortunately, however, she doesn't require children from me, since she had two of them by her first marriage and they're away at boarding school most of the time.  She pays for that, I might add, not me."

     I was lying slightly, but it didn't matter too much.  I knew, anyway, that Major Saunders had little interest in Susan's children by her previous marriage, only in her lack of them from her current one.  But that was simply because he couldn't understand why she tolerated me.  No doubt, his concern over Dr Richardson's behaviour this evening was a manifestation of jealousy on his part, born of fear, perhaps, that young Richardson would beat him to her affections?

     "Well, I think children are the very raison d'être of marriage," he opined, showing grim determination not to be side-tracked.  "Otherwise, why get married in the first place?"

     "For a variety of reasons," I declared, undeterred by the latest smoke screen he was puffing up, as though to intimidate me.  "Not least of all because one wants company and sex."

     "But sex without the goods?"  It was evidently his way of saying babies, and I just had to smile.

     "Certainly for a man of genius like myself," I immodestly reminded him, blushing faintly unbeknownst to anyone else, since it was not every day that one described oneself in such elevated terms and thereby sought to justify one's unusual position in life on the basis that one was as far removed from the common run as men like Sartre, Koestler, Dali, et al.  "I simply couldn't be responsible for putting something new into the world naturally - through coital means.  For me, only artificial creations count.  I want that known for the record.  I, Jason Crilly, absolutely refuse to be accredited the perpetrator of a natural creation!  My paintings are the only things to which I'll sign my name."

     "As formerly it was your books," Major Saunders reminded me.  "Whereas your wife would seem to have gravitated from natural creations, through her first marriage, to artificial ones, in the form of novels, with you."

     I nodded my aching head through the smoke and knocked back the remaining wine in my glass, before returning the slender item to the cabinet top from which I had initially plucked it.  Yes, Susan had taken to writing shortly after I had abandoned it in favour of painting.  There was still a considerable backlog of works for my agent to deal with, some of which, however, I knew would never be published in Britain.  I had other plans for them, to be sure!  But, at present, there was little possibility of their implementation.  At present, on the contrary, it was more expedient to live off the royalties and contracts accruing to the earliest and least controversial of my works.  At least that enabled me to dabble in painting, to give myself Mondrianesque airs as the exponent of a truly transcendental mode of abstraction.  People I knew now saw me as an artist, even though I had made my reputation from writing.  Major Saunders, for instance, knew little about my published works and still less about the unpublished ones.  I kept them to myself and to an intimate circle of kindred spirits.  Susan, of course, knew all about them, and so, too, did Robert Dunne, an inventor who also happened to be one of her close friends from college days.  Robert was Irish, like us, and not one to spill the beans about such matters.  He was over the other side of this rather large room now, engaged in animated conversation with both his girlfriend, Mary, and a fellow-inventor by name of Edmond Shead.  I had yet to make Shead's acquaintance, but I gleaned from Dunne that he and his colleague had recently completed work on a somewhat special machine which would completely revolutionize - his very words - our sexual behaviour.  A demonstration of this enigmatic device had been promised me, though when and where ... I had yet to learn.  Perhaps they would inform me this very evening?  But to return to Major Saunders ...

     "Of course, if, as you claim, she fulfilled herself as a mother before you ever met her," he went on, "then your position becomes a lot clearer, I might even say more reasonable, since your opposition to babies would then be less objectionable to her than would otherwise be the case ... had she never had any."  He was clearly losing ground and becoming progressively more muddled, partly, no doubt, as a result of all the sherry he had imbibed and was still imbibing, despite the obviously poor quality of the stuff.  I felt both pity and contempt for him at the same time, wondering when he would break off and leave me to my thoughts again.  Explaining and justifying oneself to people was a difficult enough task at the best of times, but virtually impossible when one was confronted by the very antithesis of a kindred spirit!  Yet being invited to a house where one endeavoured to explain or justify oneself to such people as him was simply a hazard of being famous and living in the provinces, where all one's neighbours knew who one was and somehow managed to keep a tag on one.  In the city I had known no-one and never been invited anywhere, nor, for that matter, had I ever invited anyone back to my address.  But Norfolk was an altogether different proposition from London, as I was constantly finding out.

     And yet, if I was to rid myself of the crippling depression to which I had succumbed whilst in London, compliments of the massive amount of ugliness there, I had need of the country.  Even had need of such people as were gathered together at Matthew Sharpe's house, ostensibly to celebrate his tenth wedding anniversary but, in reality, to boast of their respective sexual achievements, or lack of them, and pry further into one-another's private lives.  Obviously there was a limit to all that, but it was also a limit subject to periodic infringement, as Major Saunders had succeeded in reminding me!

     But then I did something I had never done before.  I left the Major standing in a fresh cloud of cigar smoke, while he babbled on unintelligibly about my wife, and proceeded as rapidly as I could towards the door, where I hoped I would discover some pretext for leaving early.  I hadn't got more than a dozen yards beyond the smoke screen, however, when I felt a hand on my arm and heard the suave voice of Dr Richardson informing me that he had recently had the pleasure of reading my wife's latest novel.  Could that be the principal reason behind his interest in her this evening, I wondered?  Anyway, I stood, halted in my negative tracks, whilst he congratulated Susan through me.  It was evident that he had been dying for an opportunity to buttonhole me like this and boast of his literary appreciations, but that the proximity of Major Saunders or, more likely, the Major's ugly-looking cigar had obliged him to keep his distance, as from a chemical weapon.

     "And what do you think of it?" he wanted to know, referring to the novel in question.

     "I really don't think anything of it," I bluntly replied, slightly offended by his bad breath, which had somehow escaped or overcome the pressure of booze.  "And for the simple reason that I haven't read it."

     Much to my disgust his mouth fell open, like he had just received a blow on the chin.  "Haven't read it?" he echoed, evidently shocked by my confession.

     "No, I never read her novels."

     I thought for a moment he was about to fall to the floor in a swoon, but he managed to remain on his feet, partly, I suspect, because he was still clinging to my arm.

     "But why ever not?" he gasped.

     "Because I've no interest whatsoever in my wife's novels, nor, for that matter, in anyone else's, since I stopped reading novels shortly before I stopped writing and took-up with painting instead.  For me, literature is a dead letter, unlikely ever to be resurrected.  Admittedly, I wrote something approximating to novels in the past, but that was only because I couldn't afford to do anything else.  They were a kind of extension of adolescent poetry into my late twenties, and by the time I reached early middle-age I had other ambitions, not the least of which was to do a little painting."

     It wouldn't have been fair on him for me to have spilled the beans about any additional ambitions, so I let the matter rest there in the hope that he would change the subject or just piss off.  But to my dismay he persisted in his old tack.

     "But doesn't your wife object to the fact that you take no interest in her work?" he painfully asked, tactfully omitting the word 'whatsoever'.

     "Not a bit," I assured him, casting Susan a brief glance in order to ascertain whether she happened to be overhearing us or speaking to someone else.  In point of fact, she could have been doing either, since someone else - Edmond Shead, it appeared - was speaking to the group in which she was standing and not specifically to her, thereby permitting her the possibility of an ear cocked in our direction.  "You see," I continued, "Susan understands that literature, as she writes it, isn't really my forte but, rather, something intensely objectionable to me which I grew out of quite some time ago.  Mind you, I never wrote in a conventional narrative fashion, since I had strong ideological inclinations and a corresponding desire to upgrade or, depending on your viewpoint, subvert literature along intensely philosophical lines.  Thus my novels were predominantly theoretical or speculative works, in the manner of Hermann Hesse or Arthur Koestler.  I never described the physical characteristics of my leading male characters in anything but the sketchiest sort of way; for it wasn't their appearance so much as their essence, their intellectual and spiritual worlds, which chiefly interested me.  Likewise it wasn't activity but passivity, in the contemplative sense, that formed the basis of my works, thereby making them more divine-orientated than would otherwise have been the case.  I loathe and despise the other, more traditional kinds of novels, which strike me as stemming from the Devil in their fixation on action and appearance.  They're passé, so far as I'm concerned, and only women of a comparatively unliberated disposition and the less-intelligent male authors still write them.  Unfortunately, Susan Crilly can't help showing more interest in these traditional literary ingredients, and that's why, much as I may admire her as a woman, I categorically avoid reading her novels!"

     Dr Richardson had gone quite pale with this confession from me, and looked as though he might puke at any moment.  He had ceased, however, to cling to my arm, and I now sensed that he was becoming resigned, not to say accustomed, to the bitter disillusionment I had so candidly and, some would say, callously inflicted upon him.  It was as if, psychologically speaking, he had already puked and was now experiencing that wave of cathartic relief which usually follows in its turbulent wake.

     "Well," he at length sighed, "I sincerely apologize for having bored you with the subject of your wife's work, which I had naively imagined would be of genuine interest to you.  As it happens, I don't read all that many novels myself these days, but I was intrigued by the familiarity of the name, since Mrs Crilly is one of my patients and one is always liable, as a doctor, to take an interest in one's patients' affairs - I mean, work."

     "Really?" I responded noncommittally, knowing full-well what the Freud-obsessed bastard really meant!  "But if you enjoyed the novel as much as you say you did, why not discuss it directly with Susan this very evening?"  I realized, by the sudden upward curve of his facial expression, that this was what the bugger had been wanting to do all along, and had probably only been waiting for a chance to intrude into her conversation or, at any rate, take over from someone else at the most opportune moment.  But although I would have preferred to drag Susan away from this anniversary gathering and get to bed, with or without her, nevertheless I wanted Dr Richardson to satisfy his social ambitions, if only for the benefit of my wife, who would appreciate some professional flattery.  It was as if, with the absence of any such flattery from me, I felt she was entitled to someone else's, and that, by personally introducing him to her, I would be to some extent compensating her for my habitual indifference.

     Thus, despite his superficial protests and last-minute show of modesty, I dragged him across to where Susan was standing, on the edge of the small group of rather bored conversationalists, and, as it were, thrust him upon her, thereby endeavouring to unburden myself of his company and find an excuse for breaking away from them all on my own.  I could tell that Susan wasn't particularly grateful to me for this, since she was growing tired of things herself.  But I somehow explained to her that, as I was feeling slightly queasy and felt I ought to leave, Dr Richardson would keep her company for the rest of the evening and, if necessary, escort her back to our house in due course.  She gave me a knowing, albeit fleetingly critical, look, and obediently resigned herself to the good doctor's bad breath.  For my part, I hastened to the door, brushing aside a last-minute attempt by Matthew Sharpe to detain me and assuring him, as best I could, that I had thoroughly enjoyed the evening.  A blatant lie, of course, but, then, what else could I have said in the circumstances?