I met the great man’s wife at the Sunday dinner. She had flown in that afternoon. She was not a trophy: only five years younger, the mother of his children, and with a self-deprecating husky voice. She carried off peacock-blue silk with aplomb; she brought glamour and style to our dowdy writers’ gathering. She had all-American confidence. He was holding forth at his end of the table, and she sat some distance from him, but their eyes still met from time to time. They were a couple. I thought about what I could tell her.
On the day your husband arrived he was purely obnoxious. The silence of the writers’ retreat was shattered. The whole place was thrown into a flutter by him. He thundered up and down the stairs demanding bottled water, Internet, a better desk lamp, coffee. We had been told he was there to finish his memoir; it was implicit that we were privileged to be in his company. But please consider: does the world need another politician’s memoir? Is it likely that a motley selection of little-known writers and poets would rally to feed such a man’s ego?
We lingered stubbornly in our rooms, pretending to redraft, ears attuned to his every move. He played Beethoven’s Seventh (for goodness’ sake); he ran an endless bath; he talked importantly on his mobile, which house rules state must remain switched off at all times. It was clear he wasn’t writing for a minute. He was on the floor below our garrets, in a proper en suite double room. But he invaded our headspace. We were filled with unspoken resentment.
Of one telepathic accord, we skipped the predinner drinking hour and sidled down to the dining room only when we knew food was about to be served. Imagine our disappointment, then, at finding the great man was not there to be snubbed: he had been invited out to dinner. Of course. We ate meagerly and retired early to our monklike cells, irritated with ourselves and each other.
The next day his radio went on at six. I wasted half an hour second-guessing when he would go to breakfast so I could avoid him. He played Beethoven all day and when I complained to the administrator I was told the great man couldn’t write without music, and that he was playing it softly especially to accommodate the other writers. I asked if he had heard of headphones but I am not sure the message was passed on.
He finally made his appearance when the rest of us were already at the dinner table that night. He nodded briskly and set two bottles of wine on the table, announcing that the wine here was piss. The administrator introduced us all and your husband gave us each a curt nod. There was a pile of lamb chops on the big serving dish, and when it was passed to him he took four. He declined all vegetables with an impatient wave, and when everyone had helped themselves to a single chop, he took the remaining three, and set about eating all seven with focused intensity. Someone muttered that the Atkins diet had been discredited but he affected not to hear. A desultory conversation about what to do with a jammed printer continued on one side of the table; the rest of us kept our eyes on our plates and ate in silence. He drank off a glass of wine like orange juice, then asked us to excuse him as he had work to do. Beethoven (the First, for the second time) was still playing at 11:00 p.m. when I turned out my light.
On Friday night we had planned to go out to the pub. It would be the social highlight of our week. We were dismayed when the administrator told us the great man would like to read a chapter to us, after dinner. “But it’s Friday night,” we objected. “Readings happen on the last night.”
“It’s his last night, for reading,” the administrator replied. Your husband was giving an after-dinner speech at a charity do on Saturday, and then you were arriving on Sunday prior to your departure together on Monday morning. Clearly the GM knows better than to read in front of you.
After Friday dinner we lounged like recalcitrant teenagers on the sofas and armchairs that were all slightly too far from the fire. It was bitterly cold: drafts rattled the single glazing and sliced in under the hems of shrunken velvet curtains. The great man positioned himself with his back to the fire, effectively blocking it from the rest of us. He gave us a big, warm public smile, arranged his typescript, and launched into a self-serving rendition of his rebellious but politically aware teenage years. He read for twenty-five minutes, which is a long time when you’re cold.
At the end he flourished the pages and bowed, which obliged us to give him a thin spatter of clapping. Maria, who is young and enthusiastic, but who I had assumed knew better, asked him a sycophantic question. He produced a bottle of Scotch from his briefcase, poured himself a good slug, and sent the bottle off around the room, then answered her at length—mellow, smiling and relaxed. He was the nicest man in the world. Barmy Chris and poet Steve ventured nervous contributions, and he expanded, embracing us all in the warm glow of his switched-on personality. To them he is a celebrity. They grew up seeing his face on TV, reading his views in the papers. I thought of him as a chancer who must, by definition, be fraudulent and unscrupulous to have reached so elevated a position. As an American you are probably more generous. When the first small silence offered itself, I chipped in, ‘‘Are we going to the pub, then?’’
The great man stood up, rubbing his hands. “An excellent suggestion, yes. You people must be demob happy, after a week cooped up in here.” People scattered to find coats and boots, taxis were phoned, and when I went out of the front door the GM was standing there with his head tilted back and clouds of steam rising from his nostrils. “Wonderful stars up here.”
“Yes. We’re not cooped up, actually, we can always go for a walk. There are some beautiful walks along the river.”
“Is that what you writers do for inspiration?” He made it sound rather pathetic.
“For exercise. For the joy of it.”
“I like walking,” he said. “How far’s the pub, Lily?”
I was surprised he remembered my name. “Not that far. But there are no streetlights. It’s very dark.”
“I’m game. Are you?”
It was anger as much as anything that made me agree to walk with him while the others rode off in warm, lit vehicles. And it was certainly anger that helped me set our pace, while the GM talked about his travels, name-dropping world leaders and celebrities, and then about his good fortune in having a beautiful and witty wife (he can’t praise you enough) and two high-achieving children. He boasted simply and enthusiastically, like a child. There was no moon. As we moved away from the lights of the big house, the stars shone more and more brightly, and there were answering sparkles from frost on the grass. The air was so cold it numbed my face and felt solid as ice cream in my lungs.
He began to boast about his very expensive hat, which has special thermal properties and was purchased at a ski resort in Canada. I laughed. There was a short silence, then he asked me what I wrote.
“Here,” he said. I made out a glinting in the solid darkness that was him, and he passed it to me—the whiskey bottle. I uncorked it and glugged; it lit a line like the trace of a sparkler, from my mouth to my belly. “So why d’you do it?”
It was hard to maintain my policy of monosyllabic answers, and by the time we got to the pub the whiskey and exercise had thawed me out. He questioned everything I said, as if he knew better, and it ignited a flame of indignant volubility in me. Both of us had raised our voices—we were talking over each other as much as listening; in the pub hallway I felt my cheeks flare red with the sudden heat, and saw his face crimson too. We looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“More of the same?” he asked, and eased his way through to the bar. The pub was packed; I saw a few people glance at him, then stare—perhaps wondering if they really did recognize him. He looked more ordinary than he does on TV. I could see some of my fellow writers squeezed into the corner by the slot machine—two of them were leaning against the wall; there were no spare seats.
I made for a bench under the window and asked the girl sitting at the end to squeeze up a bit. I was peering about for another seat when the GM appeared, bearing double whiskeys in one hand and a stool in the other. He installed himself at the corner of the table, and we launched into another fierce debate, until a general shushing made it possible to hear the sweet lamenting voice of a young female singer, accompanied by two wild-looking men on guitar and bass.
Time passed quickly, as it does when measured in double shots and music and laughter. When I glanced at my watch it was nearly midnight. The heat in the place was incredible; I felt the bright red flush on my cheeks spreading through my whole body until I was radiating heat like a glowing coal. I pulled my jumper over my head; I was wearing my blue V-neck T-shirt, the one that only gets worn under a jumper because it’s too revealing. I saw the GM note the cleavage and I laughed. He looked straight up into my face, grinning, caught in the act. “Let’s get outta here!” The grin and the look were unmistakable.
“What?” I pretended I hadn’t heard.
He leaned forward and breathed his hot words into my ear, cupping his hand around my neck to draw me near. “Let’s get outta here. There’s more whiskey in my room, Lily-gal.”
Your husband was propositioning me.
I laughed again. “It’s probably not a good idea,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows, as if he expected me to explain why. The evening was punctured. His hand had gone from my neck but I could still feel his touch. “I think I’d better go,” I said lamely. He swigged from his glass, then nodded at me with a half smile. He turned his head to the girl who had squeezed up for me. She was twenty years my junior, with smooth olive shoulders and a black fringe over her eyes. He jacked the smile up to full radiance again.
“And where have you sprung from? You live here?”
When I’d hauled on my big coat in the lobby, I went out into the icy night. Glancing back through the window I saw their heads bent close together over their drinks, then the girl threw back her head in joyous laughter. She would be sharing the bedroom whiskey, then. Easy come, easy go.
There was a taxi waiting, and I climbed into it and rode back to the writers’ retreat feeling bereft. I like sex. Your husband was sexy and he was funny. I didn’t particularly like him (the shit—do you?) but he did make me laugh. Fancy the GM fancying me!
Have a bit more self-respect, I told myself.
Oh, stop being such a prude, I replied.
Why encourage him to think he’s god’s bloody gift?
Sweetie, he won’t even have noticed you turned him down.
This pointless schizophrenic squabble dragged on through the night; together with my determination not to hear any sounds from another room, it kept me well and truly awake.
I got up at six, since I was there, after all, to write. I immersed myself in my work and went down for breakfast at half past eight. The GM was sitting with the others at table, and Barmy Chris and Maria were rattling on about hangover cures. When I went to the hatch to serve myself porridge the GM joined me with alacrity, holding out his own bowl for a dollop. “Thank you for being sensible for both of us, last night.” He spoke so low and fast I didn’t take it in till he had turned back toward the table. He finished his breakfast with the same efficient speed and left the table with a brief “Excuse me.”
Replies milled through my head, but on the whole I was glad there hadn’t been time for one, since none of them hit quite the right note. The right note, it seemed to me, was ironic dignity, but any words I thought of sounded both arch and bitter. I admired him for acknowledging what had happened. I had assumed he would pretend it hadn’t. Which made me dislike myself, for my meanness.
Querulous self-interrogation put paid to any further work; after sitting futilely at my desk for an hour, I gave in and went for a walk. The day was thick and damp and cold, with leaden clouds and no movement in the air. The leafless trees jutted out from the sides of the gorge like skeletons arrested in a desperate dance. If I see a squirrel, I thought. Or a bird. Or anything alive. But there was nothing, nature was dead as I clomped dully through it.
On my return the house was silent (no Beethoven) and I took off my muddy boots and crept up the stairs. I was pulling off my coat as I went and when I got to the first-floor landing I somehow managed to flick myself in the eye with the sleeve. You always know the split second before you lose it. My contact lens was gone.
“Shit!” I dropped to my knees, peering at the swirling green-and-brown carpet. I heard the GM open his door.
“All right?” he said.
“Ah, bad luck. Which way did it go?”
I shook my head. “It wouldn’t matter, only it’s my spare. I lost the same eye in the bath last week.”
He knelt down on all fours and rested his cheek against the carpet, staring sideways across the pile. He began to inch across the floor. I ran my hands over my clothes, then picked up the coat and began to examine it. He tilted his head up to look at me. “Do you favor hard or soft?” with a grin.
“Ha ha. It’s hard.”
“Good. Easier to feel.” He pushed his hands in front of him across the carpet. We searched for a while in silence. There were a surprising number of small gritty items in the carpet pile; we agreed the place needed a good vacuuming.
“It’s gone,” I said. “Thanks for looking. I don’t want to interrupt your work.”
“Rubbish,” he said. ”It’s here and we’ll find it.”
‘‘I will keep looking,’’ I said, ‘‘because my glasses give me a headache. But I’d much rather creep about in my own time and not feel I’m wasting yours.’’
‘‘D’you think I don’t waste it myself? This is a far better excuse for not writing than what I was doing before.’’
‘‘What were you doing before?’’
We were gradually moving in a wider and wider radius around the spot where I had lost the lens. Your husband came to the edge of the top stair and felt along it. ‘‘It could have flown downstairs,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re so light they can go anywhere on a random draft.’’
‘‘I know. D’you wear them?’’
‘‘My wife does.’’ He stretched out flat on his front and peered over the top of the stairs, slowly tilting his head from side to side. Then he descended a few steps and crouched against the stairs so his eyes were level with the carpet pile at the top. He scanned the carpet like a searchlight. ‘‘Have you looked properly on yourself?’’
I shrugged. I wanted him to go back in his room so I could be pitiful on my own. He came slowly up the stairs and toward me, peering at the floor all the way. Then he began to scrutinize me, starting at my feet and working up. I was embarrassed.
‘‘Turn around,’’ he said. And then, ‘‘Turn again.’’ Suddenly he stretched his hand toward my head. ‘‘Ah ha!’’ He plucked the lens from my hair like a magician finding a red silk scarf.
I thanked him profusely and he asked me into his room for a coffee. It would have been churlish to refuse. I sucked the lens and popped it back in while he poured coffee from a flask and grimaced. ‘‘Sorry, there’s no way of making fresh.’’
‘‘I know. You’re lucky they gave you a flask!’’ I wandered over to the desk, where his laptop hibernated next to a closed A4 Pad. ‘‘So how were you wasting time?’’
‘‘Texting jokes to my daughter.’’ I looked at him and he shrugged. ‘‘She’s unhappy at university. I’ve got a book, see?’’ He picked up a worn paperback from the sofa arm and passed it to me. It was entitled Best Jokes of 1997.
I laughed. ‘‘Was that a vintage year?’’
‘‘God knows. I always pick up joke books when I see them. You need jokes in speeches.’’
‘‘You’re not going to tell me you write your own speeches?’’
‘‘Why not? From time to time.’’ He looked at me levelly. ‘‘But not the jokes, obviously.’’
There was a silence while we drained our coffee. Why was I so harsh on him? Your husband, the great man. ‘‘I’m sorry,’’ I said.
But he wasn’t paying attention. ‘’What do you do for headaches?’’
‘‘Your glasses give you a headache.’’
‘‘Oh—they can start if off, yes. I need a new prescription. I get migraines.’’
‘‘Me too. Have you tried Migraigone?’’
‘‘No.’’ When I have a migraine I lie prostrate in the dark. People who can sit up and eat and watch TV say they have migraines. There’s no point in talking about it.
‘‘This stuff is good. If you take it soon enough, before the thing really gets a grip—’’
‘‘Right. Can you get it on prescription?’’
‘‘No. I get it from America. Hang on.’’ He went into his bathroom and returned with a box of pills. ‘‘These are all I have with me but why don’t I give you four, that’s enough to see how you go on. You start taking them as soon as you sense it coming.’’ He slipped some pills into an envelope, wrote the name on it, and passed it to me. I started to protest but he cut me off. ‘‘I know how it feels. Nobody should have to feel like that.’’
‘‘Thank you.’’ I got to my feet. ‘‘We should both do some work, I guess.’’
He nodded. ‘‘What are you working on?’’
‘‘A collection of stories.’’
‘‘Really? I like stories. Novels are too long. Tell me when they’re published, I’d like to read them.’’
I felt myself blushing. He knew I didn’t believe him. Your husband knew just how mean I was. I moved toward the door and he stood up and followed me. ‘‘Thank you for finding my lens,’’ I said. ‘‘And thank you for the tablets.’’
‘‘Enough of the thanks,’’ he said. ‘‘I like you.’’ He leaned forward slowly and kissed me. His lips were warm and firm and dry, they lingered against mine and I felt the sudden swooping intensity of skin, of flesh. I closed my eyes. I imagined the rosy stone gateway to a big sunlit house. I opened my eyes and the GM smiled at me, then he held the door open for me to leave.
Up in my own room I analyzed the meaning of your husband’s kiss. I considered its taste, its texture, its warmth, its promise and its lack of promise. It said things we had not articulated. It said them lightly, without assigning undue importance. And yet it honored them.