She was a friend of my family—the Carlins, as I have chosen to call them. She and my father met in the fifties through the editor of the architecture magazine where she began her career. My father had taken her out a few times. They were never lovers, but there had been some tenderness between them: enough that, years later, when she took to phoning our house in the middle of the night, my father would drag himself out of bed, and I would hear the low monosyllables of someone listening to another’s woes, patiently if without great interest, until I fell back to sleep. My mother, absolutely unthreatened by this sallow, angular woman with her horn-rimmed glasses and staring eyes, who by then looked unwell much of the time, would say, after these nocturnal disturbances, “Poor Helen. We ought to do something for her.”
“Ye—es,” my father would agree warily. And they would invite her to dinner in London or to Salesey for the weekend.
In fact they had already “done something” for Helen in at least one significant way. They had introduced her to their friends Renata and Otto Shenker, proprietors of the Whitethorne Press, who took her on as a proofreader and an editor after she lost her job at the architecture magazine.
Occasionally Helen would take me and my sister to a pantomime. I found her a forbidding figure, unsnapping her hard little handbag for cigarettes every few minutes and arguing viciously with the bus conductors and other officials we encountered. Later in life, I began to find her more interesting.
She came down to Salesey one weekend in the summer of 1975. My mother had invited some neighbors to join us for Sunday lunch. It was a hot July day. Helen had been out on the lawn in a deck chair with the papers since eleven, sipping her dry vermouth and smoking. She broke off with her usual irritable air when the guests arrived.
At lunch my mother placed Edward Leeto, the High Court judge who owned a weekend home nearby, on one side of Helen. He’d received some stinging rebukes in the press a couple of months earlier, in response to some controversial remarks he’d made during an IRA bombing trial he’d presided over that spring, and memory confers a slight subdued air on him at this occasion, as if he were being more than usually careful about what he said. On the other side my mother placed a young American, Ralph Pommeroy, who’d recently inherited a dilapidated old manor house in the area and was trying his hand at English country life. Helen seemed fascinated by his appearance, and at the same time intent on picking a quarrel with him. At one point I heard her snap “What a ghastly idea!” at a comment he’d made about turning his house into a commune.
“Why’s that ghastly?” Ralph asked, smiling.
“Oh dear God, where should I begin?”
“I mean … Did you ever live in an intentional community?”
“Well … on a commune?”
“You’re not serious.”
“I’ve lived on several myself. I find them to be very positive places, mostly.”
Helen looked him up and down, scrutinizing the unruly hair and excitable tawny eyes, the collarless linen shirt billowing over his robust torso, the gold-embroidered waistcoat, as if for implications she might have missed.
“Well perhaps you’re more naive than you realize.”
“Oh, I know I’m naive. Even so, I’d like to give it a try. I think human beings are inherently drawn to small communities where they have a stake in everything that goes on and everyone shares the, you know—”
“Rubbish,” Helen interrupted. “You’re talking about hobbits, not human beings.”
Ralph laughed. “Well, I am kind of a hobbit myself, at heart. But I think it’s true. We feel alienated and isolated in these vast impersonal societies we’ve created. We hanker for something more like a tribe, where we can help each other along instead of this dog-eat-dog—”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Helen interrupted, splashing some wine into her glass.
By now their conversation had attracted other people’s attention. There was an MP there, Peter Dacey, a wartime friend of my father’s, who’d been a junior minister in Harold Wilson’s first government.
“This is the Schumacher line,” he said, looking at Ralph over his wire-rimmed glasses. “Small Is Beautiful …”
Ralph looked surprised. “You’ve read that?”
Dacey nodded. “I think he’s onto something, especially with his idea of sustainable development. That makes good sense to me. Where he loses me is this obsession with pulling everything back down to the village scale. There are things a large, complex state can do that are absolutely unique.”
“Like building nuclear weapons?” Ralph said.
Dacey smiled. “Fair point. But I mean positive things—hospitals, universities, large-scale agriculture—”
“I’m not sure large-scale agriculture—” Ralph cut in but was interrupted by my father, whose ears had pricked up at the mention of Schumacher, a particular bête noire of his at that time: “Villages won’t give you the pyramids,” he growled. “And tribes won’t give you Chartres. You might get a good barn if you’re lucky—that’s about it.”
“Joseph’s right, Ralph,” the judge said, joining the discussion. “There’d be no culture worth speaking of, if we all lived in little tribal groups. Can you imagine if the Salesey village council tried to mount a production of Rigoletto?” He allowed himself a smile, before unexpectedly coming to Ralph’s defense. “All the same, I do think these alternative lifestyles offer a way of opting out of the status quo that doesn’t involve blowing everything to smithereens. To that extent I’m on Ralph’s side.” (The smithereens weren’t just a figure of speech. Even I, an obtuse, daydreaming teenager, knew what he was referring to. The IRA’s “mainland campaign” was in full spate by then, with bombs going off regularly in London, where I was at school, and a macabre new topography of rubble and carnage unfolding over the familiar map of the city, landmark by landmark, from the Old Bailey to the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds to the Earls Court Exhibition Centre, West End hotels to crowded pubs in Swiss Cottage and Woolwich, not to mention assorted tube stations, bus stops, pillar boxes, high street outfitters, restaurants, and private homes.)
Helen sat in silence while the men aired their views. She was oddly deferential toward males of established authority, tending to fix her eyes on them when she spoke, even if she was responding to something said by a woman. In fact, with few exceptions, she seemed to dislike women. The same frantic look she had when she was being disagreed with would appear in her eyes whenever another woman spoke at any length—as if she were being suffocated.
My mother leaned forward.
“Well, I’m on Helen’s side. Sorry! I just think I couldn’t put up with the lack of privacy.”
Helen flashed an irritated look that suggested she especially didn’t like to be agreed with by my mother, though before she could say anything, the judge’s wife, Elizabeth, began speaking. She was a powerful-looking woman; tall and statuesque, with shiny black eyes that had something at once inquisitive and remote about them.
“We actually had a sort of commune here once,” she said, “in one of the old farm cottages on the heath. It was filthy, by all accounts, and rife with drugs. A baby almost died and the district nurse was so appalled by the conditions she got the police to go in. She told me the kitchen had to be seen to be believed. The children were undernourished, and according to one of the neighbors they used to be given LSD and sent out to steal milk from people’s doorsteps in the village.”
Helen began to look agitated as the woman’s monologue continued.
“They had a rule that biological parents weren’t allowed to discipline their own children, but then they had another rule that if any members of the opposite sex didn’t get on, they had to sleep together. So in fact nobody knew who half the biological fathers even were.”
“Yes but that’s all utterly beside the point!” Helen burst out. “The problem has nothing to do with sex or drugs or lack of privacy or being on a small scale. You’re all simply imposing your own trifling little phobias and obsessions on the subject, whether you’re a puritan like Elizabeth or you can’t bear the thought that other people might smell your shit, like Vivian, or you think no one’s going to commission great big important buildings anymore. But that’s absolute nonsense, all of it. The problem with communes has nothing to do with any of that, I can assure you … Nothing whatsoever. Nothing!”
There was a silence. It was Ralph who broke it, turning to her with the implausible timidity of large men trying to exhibit a deferential attitude. “What is the problem, then?”
She glared at him.
“They’re a lie! That’s the problem!” she replied, her voice high and trembling. “They tell us lies about ourselves and then what happens? Charles Manson is what happens. But he’s just the most banal example. Even without him you’d all be skinning one another alive.”
“What lies?” Ralph persisted mildly. “I’m curious to hear. What are the lies they tell us about ourselves?”
She gave a toss of her head as if to say, Must I really spell it out? And yet she wouldn’t—or couldn’t—spell it out. Instead, she rummaged in her handbag for a cigarette, lit it, inhaled ferociously, and brought the base of her thumb to her forehead as though she’d been smitten by a sudden headache.
Ralph continued looking at her expectantly, but she said nothing. The effect was to compound the hostility of her behavior with the suggestion that she didn’t actually have anything to say, and had just been acting out of some odd compulsion to alienate herself from everyone present.
Eventually my mother spoke: “Elizabeth, another piece of coulibiac?”
I got in touch with Renata Shenker when I went to London after my mother died in 2016. She invited me for a drink at her office in Fulham, which was also her home. She was in poor health—swollen up and walking with a great rubber-hoofed metal stick—but still running the press.
“You came to see me about a job here once, didn’t you?” she said, lowering herself carefully into an armchair.
“I think I sat on this very sofa.” I patted the threadbare green upholstery beside me.
“I seem to remember you had somewhat exalted views about publishing. I think you thought it would all be high-flown talk about literature. I was looking for an office boy.”
“I’d have been happy as that.”
“I don’t think so. Well. And are you writing another book?”
“Sort of,” I said. “I’m trying to write about the world I grew up in. My parents’ world, I suppose. London in the seventies.”
She nodded politely.
“I’ve tried before, several times, and given up, but somehow the subject keeps coming back. It’s very vivid, at least to me. There was a very particular human atmosphere …”
A look of guarded interest flickered in her eyes.
“I’m not sure I can put my finger on it … Some sort of balance between starchiness and flexibility. Or cautious skepticism and an openness to experimentation. Possibly it had to do with that generation coming of age during the war and then attaining positions of power and influence in the wake of the sixties revolutions. They took themselves seriously in a way people don’t, or aren’t allowed to, anymore. But at the same time they …” I broke off, starting to feel self-conscious. “Anyway, at this point I’m just trying to gather details about some of the personalities and stories I might want to include.”
“I see. A Portrait of the Age. Well …” She tilted her ancient head as if weighing the possibility that there might be some civic utility, if nothing else, in such a book. I had an urge to tell her that I had in mind something at once more modest and more ambitious than her phrase suggested—that the project seemed to hold out, more promisingly than anything I’d embarked on before, a way of bringing forth the few distinct realities I felt to be present inside myself, which is all any writer really has to offer.
“I’ve been trying to remember the parties my parents gave every autumn,” I said. “There’s one in particular I’m thinking of trying to re-create. You were there. With Otto, of course.”
“We were at all of them.”
“This would have been in 1975. I found the guest list in my mother’s papers. All the usual architects and gallery people were on it. Then, you know, a smattering of the Good and the Great. That judge, Edward Leeto, was there. This was the year he presided over that disastrous IRA trial at the Old Bailey.”
“I remember that. Heavens yes. Well, he paid a price for it, poor man. Who else?”
“Oh, museum people, dignitaries from the Arts Council, a few more bohemian types …”
“I’m picturing the scene,” she said. “All those earnest men with their striped shirts and graying sideburns, spouting opinions at high volume. I have to say it seems a bit vieux jeu in this day and age, doesn’t it? It’s their long-suffering wives people want to hear about nowadays, or better still their cleaning ladies …”
“Helen Needham was there,” I said. “Your Helen.”
“Helen! Gosh. I haven’t heard her name in a while. Well, she was always there, too.”
“I think she brought someone with her that time. Some man friend of hers.”
“A man friend? That doesn’t sound like Helen. Oh, wait a moment. Was that the year she wasn’t invited? I think it was.”
I was puzzled. “I mean, she came, so …”
“Yes, yes, she was invited in the end. But not initially. She was terribly upset. She saw our invitation—mine and Otto’s—up on the mantelpiece there, and I suppose she was expecting hers to arrive any time, but it didn’t. Your parents must have run out of patience with her. I know they found her difficult. She was difficult. Anyway, we’d hear her on the office phone talking to acquaintances of hers, and trying to worm out of them whether they’d been invited or not, and when she found out they had been, she’d give a grim laugh and say, Well, I haven’t, I’ve obviously been dropped, the Carlins have finally had enough of me, and she’d try to make light of it, but she was clearly hurt. Well I know she was upset, I read about it in her journal. In the end Otto went to visit your father on some pretext and mentioned how upset she was, and of course your father had his secretary send her an invitation right away.”
I hadn’t heard this story, but more surprising to me was the news that Helen kept a journal. I’d have thought she would have considered such a thing contemptibly self-indulgent.
“I didn’t know she kept a journal,” I said, trying not to sound too interested.
“Well, really just a set of engagement diaries, but often with comments added after the events she attended. There was one open on her desk the day we broke into her flat. You’ve heard about that episode, I suppose?”
“This was when the bottles …”
“Yes, yes, hundreds of empty bottles, piled everywhere—on the shelves, under the sofa, in the bathroom, everywhere.”
“I didn’t realize you were the ones who found her.”
“Oh yes. She hadn’t come to work for several days and wasn’t answering her phone. Otto called the police, and they sent us there with a policewoman and a locksmith. The policewoman went into the bedroom and found Helen on the bed. She’d been dead for some time, apparently. Otto went in to confirm it was her, but I didn’t want to see. I noticed the diary while they were in there. Her only relative was a half brother in Canada. I had to let him in to the flat when he arrived and he asked if there was anything I’d like as a memento, and I said I’d like her diaries. I promised if I ever published them he’d get the royalties, and I did think of trying to excerpt a book from them, but they obviously weren’t written for publication.”
“Too fragmentary and impressionistic. And I’m afraid rather mean-spirited. Disappointingly so, in my view. She didn’t make much of an effort to rise above herself.”
I didn’t share Renata’s views on the importance of rising above oneself.
“Would you let me read them?” I asked.
She gave me a reproachful look: “I suppose I should have seen that coming.”
I said nothing.
“How does Helen fit into this project of yours?” she asked, a little peevishly. “She was hardly a member of the cultural establishment, was she? And she wasn’t a bohemian either. Far from it!”
“No … But she was part of that world …”
This didn’t seem to satisfy her.
“I’m also interested in the man she brought with her,” I said.
“Oh yes, you mentioned.”
“Do you remember anything about him?”
“Not much. He was rather handsome, which surprised me as I never thought of Helen as much of a beauty, but perhaps that’s unfair. He looked like Jack Palance.”
“Do you happen to know how she met him?”
“No. Or if I did I’ve forgotten.”
“Or what he did for a living?”
She thought for a moment.
“Was he a carpenter perhaps? I seem to remember he did something with his hands. What’s your interest in him?”
Nobody trusts a writer, but they will generally talk themselves into cooperating if you let them. The diaries were in a cabinet by the bay window. There were a lot. Twenty-eight, to be precise: blue clothbound volumes with the year embossed in silver on each spine.
The entries below start directly after the weekend of that lunch at my parents’ house in Salesey. It was disconcerting to see my family through Helen’s unsparing eyes. And her version of her relationship with my father, while not totally incompatible with his own, came as a surprise. I was struck, too, by her use of the word ghastly, which appears to have been her favorite adjective, even to the point of evident self-parody. I haven’t heard it much since I moved to the States. Awful or terrible are the words an American would probably use in its place. But these don’t begin to convey the state of incandescent, almost spiritual horror that ghastly spreads backward over the person using it.
Ghastly weekend with the Carlins. Ghastly people to lunch including that ghastly judge of theirs staring at one as if at some specimen squirming at the end of a pin, and his even ghastlier bluestocking wife, along with a ghastly young American who wants us all to live on his commune, and of course ghastliest of all myself, toads hopping out of my mouth whenever I open it.
There is something wrong with me. I don’t seem to work properly. I am a defective machine that ought to have been returned to its manufacturer promptly upon delivery.
Or if I am not in fact a broken version of myself, then what role in society could my peculiar traits possibly have been evolved to play? Is there some tribal need for the figure who must always disagree, excoriate, thrust the fact of people’s essential folly and banality in their faces even when they are not being especially foolish or banal? Because I seem designed to play it—to the exclusion of anything else.
Ran into Vivian Carlin at the Marlborough. She was swooning over the new production of Pelléas et Mélisande at Covent Garden, and kept repeating “It was the quintessence of melancholy.” Poor Joseph. He can’t possibly help regarding her inanities as a steep price to pay for being the possessor of her alleged beauty.
Peggy S. has been trying to make me go with her to the Staunton Hotel in Bayswater where they hold a “singles mingle” every week. I’ve told her I can’t imagine anything more ghastly. She said I needed to be more accepting of people and not make snap judgments, to which I replied, “You mean become a slut?” I didn’t add “like you” but she turned scarlet anyway and left shortly after. Later I made myself phone her to say I’d thought it over and would go with her if it would please her. She’s too good-natured to hold a grudge, and immediately pinned me down to a date next week. I shall have to come up with a plausible excuse.
The question of looks. Is one attractive or plain? Being aware of something childish and undignified in the question and yet being unable to put it away with other childish things even as one enters middle age.
Mother at Euston saying: “You can look perfectly presentable if you make an effort.” Jack and his school friends laughing at the dark hairs above my lip. Razors, bleaching cream, headaches.
June Willard came down to discuss her Lenin/Homer book. She dresses as a frumpy academic in brown tweed, with her glasses worn at the tip of her nose, as if to demonstrate her condition of having read Greer and Friedan and being absolutely liberated from and indifferent to the judgment of the male sex, but she knows she is exquisite, with cheeks like freshly opened rose petals, and so what does any of it mean? I feel like a broken umbrella in her presence. As she left she said she supposed she’d see me at the Carlins’ party if not before, so presumably invitations have arrived everywhere they were sent by now. I’d already seen the Shenkers’ on their mantelpiece.
Went shopping in Kensington High Street and had a sudden urge to smash the windows of all the chichi boutiques with a hammer. Why did they irk me so? It isn’t as if I’m some sort of Angry Brigade type at war with the consumer society. I like nice things: good shoes, well-designed kitchen gadgets, etc. Of course, it isn’t just shops. Sometimes I want to run through people’s houses cutting their ghastly pictures to ribbons, murdering their smug little pets and children. Was I always like this? Jack says Mother told him I was jealous when he came along and that I’ve been at daggers drawn with the world ever since. But why should being miffed at the arrival of a half sibling make one enraged by people talking on trains or wearing orange maxis or droning on about whales or saying we’re “conditioned” to do this or that, or merely thrusting the fact of their existence uninvited upon one’s attention?
Had another dream about Joseph Carlin. Don’t remember much—really just the sense of fading happiness as I awoke. He liked me a good deal once. He was going to propose to me that time in Spitalfields. I know it for a certainty. I could sense the words forming in his head as he stood by me looking up at that church he so admires. It was very palpable, like a pressure in the air. Something changed his mind and he made a harmless remark about Hawksmoor instead but I wasn’t unduly concerned—it would have been early days for something so momentous—and I went home feeling on the whole pleased. It seemed to confirm that the question of love was not, after all, dependent on the question of looks, or not solely. We had an affinity of intellect and temperament, Joseph and I. I was an educated, independent-minded girl who shared his enthusiasms and enjoyed his company as he enjoyed mine. What better basis for a lasting union? I even rather liked the smell of his pipe. We arranged to drive out to the Lutyens house in Abinger the following week. I was confident he would speak his mind this time and made up my own mind to give him every encouragement. Of course by then he’d attended, of all things, a debutante dance at the Dorchester and met, of all people, Vivian Hirsch. I learned all that much later but it was evident the moment I saw him that something had happened. He wasn’t distant or unfriendly—if anything he was even more gallant than usual—but the warmth of our previous outings had vanished and it was painfully clear that he was being merely kind. I was extremely upset. As we were leaving he mentioned that Gertrude Jekyll had done the gardens, and before I could stop myself I retorted, “Yes, and I’ve spent the day with Mr. Hyde.” The anguished expression that appeared on his face was worse than if he had slapped me as I deserved.
I can’t quite believe they deliberately left me off the list. Not that one has any desire to go. But I remain fond of Joseph and prefer not to think him capable of simply dropping me. (Four G&Ts later: Of course they are going to invite me! Pure childish insecurity on my part to imagine otherwise! Shan’t go, though.)
Jack writes from Calgary, suggesting I visit. He is being kind, I know, but the prospect of Canada dwells in the same part of my mind as that of death.
Peggy S. appeared on my doorstep looking like a fabric sampler from Heal’s. I’d forgotten all about the “mingle” and so had no excuse prepared and she swept me off before I could think of one. We were given wands with paper disks attached and instructed to write our names on them, then directed to a cavernous ballroom with a bar where I installed myself while Peggy went off to “mingle,” thrusting out her lollipop wand left and right like a plump fairy. After a bit she got talking to a spivvy-looking man who turned out to have a chum and the next thing I knew the four of us were at a table, with more drinks, under some dusty balloons, making conversation. Ghastliness on stilts, though I was soon in a state of peculiar detachment as if observing myself from a remote vantage, and felt nothing, not even discomfort. The spiv, Rodney, took Peggy off to dance, and I was left with the chum who grinned and said, “You don’t look like the dancing sort,” to which I replied, in Mother’s voice, “No indeed,” and we sat in frosty silence, though not for long, as the others returned sooner than expected and to my surprise Rodney invited me to dance. Detachment seemed to have made me also unusually compliant. I had a sense of being in drastically reduced circumstances in which my only option was acquiescence. It was oddly soothing, as though one were being granted a reprieve from one’s usual self, in the form of its opposite. The chum looked suitably put out as I went off but I’d have said yes to a dromedary and I seemed to watch myself dance with Rodney precisely as if he and I were animals or automata. It was most odd, as if there were a secret route to pleasure in relinquishing oneself to the will of another. Peggy’s blowsy softness is perhaps the effect of a life doing just that. She certainly had that reputation at Paddock Wood. As a slow-tempo song began, Rodney drew me rather close, and I yielded—more from a sort of passive curiosity to observe my own unfolding reactions under such unaccustomed circumstances than any attraction to Rodney himself, who though reasonably handsome smelled of cheap cologne and, as Mother would have said, exuded vulgarity from every pore. At one point I felt his mustache brush my neck, followed by the hot moistness of his lips. Again, most surprising, and more than a little disgusting, but I could only assume this must be the custom of the country, so to speak, and made myself not bridle. I was even fractionally disappointed when, at the ending of the song, he made it clear that our dance was over. I wondered if I had done something wrong. He and his friend drifted away, and nothing further of note occurred. I didn’t mention the kiss to Peggy, but I could feel it burning like a brand on my skin all the way home and I lay awake half the night, trying to understand what it could possibly have meant.
Otto and I were discussing photographs for Gerald W.’s book on public housing, and Joseph’s name came up. Otto seemed genuinely flabbergasted that I hadn’t been invited to the party. I’d stopped thinking about it but his distress made me feel the whole smarting hurt of it again. Am I really such an impossible creature? I should like to think of my “difficult” nature as something noble, rebellious, uncompromising—a refusal to be amenably ladylike—but I don’t experience it as that. I crave love and know I am as capable as anyone of abasing myself for the sake of it. And I know that my “rebarbative manner,” as Jack once described it, is purely the result of a lifelong habit of preemptive self-defense, whereby it is less painful for me to armor myself and clash violently with people than go naked and risk being rejected by them. But how did that come about and where does it get one to know it?
The long walk home from the tube station, dreary at the best of times, today was like a punishment out of Dante, as if I were a damned soul inching along some parched, interminable trail of burning sand, while everything on it, the boxes of wrinkled mangoes, the blasts of pop music, the dusty windows, the bits of littered lawn, seemed some grotesquely manifested image of oneself, and the urge to annihilate it all was suddenly so intense that it seemed I must surely be no more than a hair’s breadth away from unleashing whatever obliterating power would be required for such an act. And that, I realized, was the torment: not so much the utter ghastliness of it all as the way it persisted stubbornly in not shattering, not exploding, not bursting into flames. I imagine plunging a knife into my heart, slashing my throat and wrists, and still forever walking down the Uxbridge Road, the same desolation extending on either side of me with every step I take.
Otto this morning offered to speak to Joseph on my behalf about the party but I told him on no account to do any such thing. I consider the Carlins strangers and am steeling myself to tell Jack I shall be coming to Calgary for Christmas.
A hiatus of almost three weeks—much longer than her usual two- or three-day gaps—followed that last entry. It was mid-September when Helen next took up her pen. She had been back to the Staunton Hotel. There is no longer a Staunton Hotel listed in Bayswater, but I grew up not far from there, and I know those streets of sepulchral white buildings north of Hyde Park, with their black railings and flaking stucco facades, their atmosphere of grandeur gone to seed. I can picture Helen among them all too well, drawn there in that peculiar state she describes: at once removed from herself and yet strangely in her own element.
I have been back twice to the Staunton Hotel, both times alone. I had that ghastly restless feeling that usually resolves itself into the simple act of pouring a stiff G&T but this time came accompanied by a drastic need to change my surroundings too. I rushed from the flat, supposing I would brave one of those pubs on the Uxbridge Road, but a taxi passed and without thinking I hailed it and took it to the Staunton Hotel. It happened to be the night of their “mingle” once again, but I’d had no idea of that. Merely the physical familiarity of the place was what, I think, brought me back. Knowing the lobby, the passage down to the ballroom, the bar with its maroon-waistcoated barmen, knowing the alcoves of armchairs and low tables to the side, and the dance area beyond somehow counteracted the usual feeling I have in public places, of not belonging there and of being stared at. I sat at the bar feeling relatively calm and comfortable, and after a while ventured further afield, holding out my wand and smiling at people just as if I were Peggy S. And in fact I was half-consciously pretending to myself that I was her, which was curiously effective. Several men spoke to me, none remotely appealing, and I detached myself swiftly from each of them, yet went home feeling I had accomplished something. The next week I met Tony. He is with me now, watching a football match on television while I write. It is obviously extraordinary and yet the strangest part is how natural it feels to have him here, smoking his cigarettes and drinking his glass of whisky in my armchair in front of the TV, as if the miracle of it lay precisely in its ordinariness.
Peggy insisted on meeting him. He was charming in his courtly way and I felt she approved though I caught a glint of something snobbish in her smile as he told her he was an electrician. I daresay I’d have been as snobbish myself before I met him but that already seems another life. She did say later that he reminded her of an American actor—a handsome one though she couldn’t remember the name. He is handsome.
I am in a state of stupefaction having just been brought breakfast in bed, the first time I have enjoyed this luxury since being ill at Paddock Wood. Having also been made love to—“taken,” as the Harlequin books say—in the early hours while half-asleep. Oh, and having found, among the letters Tony brought me on the breakfast tray, an invitation to the Carlins’ party. He saw my expression as I opened it, and asked what it was. I tried to make light of the whole business but he saw I’d been upset, and made me tell him all about the Carlins and their friends. “They’re posh,” I said with a laugh. Poshness, my poshness, has been a source of amusement to Tony since we met. He teases me about my voice and I find I like being teased, which in turn makes me play up the posh aspects of my life in general, treating him to descriptions of my embassy upbringing, dances at Paddock Wood, and so on, all of which he finds highly amusing. Why do I like being teased? I think because it is the sensation of something rigid and seemingly indestructible inside oneself being, to one’s delighted astonishment, destroyed. I told him who was at the Carlins’ lunch in Salesey, and listed all the other mighty personages I should be mingling with if I went to their party in October. “If?” he said. I told him I had no intention of going. He laughed: “You’re a touchy one, aren’t you?” He is disarming in an almost literal way: I felt my offendedness loosen and fall off like armor. “All right I’ll go,” I said. “But you have to come with me!” That seemed to jolt him. He was quite firm in refusing—said he wouldn’t know anyone, didn’t have the right clothes, wasn’t invited. I didn’t press, as I hadn’t been all that serious in the first place. But on reflection I find there is something appealing about the idea of turning up with Tony on my arm. It would certainly give Vivian something to think about!
I am at my desk editing June Willard’s book. Tony is in the kitchen, replacing the thermostat on my oven, which has been burning everything to cinders. Yesterday he mended the trellis on the garden wall. The phrase “a man about the house” comes to me. I have never before had “a man about the house.” It isn’t everything, obviously. But it is something.
Tony was looking through the Yellow Pages this morning for a place to store his tools and equipment when his lease expires next month. I suggested he keep them in the old coal shed, which belongs to my flat but which I don’t use. I thought I’d said the wrong thing, as he fairly bolted out of the door. But a few minutes later he reappeared with a bunch of carnations to thank me! Thinking back to my gray pre-Tony existence, it seems inconceivable that fate could have been holding scenes of such extravagant color in store for me.
Peggy S. was here while Tony was moving his equipment in. She was asking, sotto voce, whether I wasn’t afraid of being used. I told her it was I who suggested he stay with me for the moment and bring the rest of his things, and that he insists on paying half the rent. “Well I hope you’re not being reckless,” she said, to which I replied I hoped I was. She giggled at that. She’d been frankly ogling him as he walked past the window in his short-sleeved shirt, carrying the heavy boxes and tea chests, and I suppose she must think I meant I was sexually infatuated. Am I? To a degree. To the extent that unlike his few-and-far-between predecessors he is a fine specimen of masculinity with no defects to make allowances for in the cringing way I always felt compelled to do in the past (deeming myself too defective to deserve anything better than a weak chin or halitosis). But there is something else, possibly connected, with which I am infatuated, and which I would have tried to explain to Peggy had I thought her capable of understanding. This is his calm solidity. I have never felt so soothed by another’s presence. Perhaps only Joseph Carlin’s. And there is something about Tony that reminds me of Joseph—the same kindly, unjudging expression when he listens to one, the same robust frame that conveys confidence without any hint of swagger or self-promotion, even the same high color in his cheeks, as of inner fires banked and smoldering—which is perhaps why he so precisely blots out the lingering persistence of Joseph in my mind.
The John Berger programs were being repeated and I was watching the one about female nudes. Tony joined me and, to my surprise, seemed glued. At one point Berger convened a panel of five women and with an infuriatingly solemn humility began encouraging them to speak of the demeaning nature of the female nude in European art. I was growing steadily more irritated but kept quiet, not wanting to spoil Tony’s enjoyment. Then out of the blue he said: “There is a man who gives a deal of thought to his shirt.” I laughed; it was so obviously true—Berger looking like a model for Paco Rabanne complete with bronze tan and Mick Jagger haircut—and yet so unexpected. For all Tony’s mildness there is something bracingly firm and original about him. “Ghastly, isn’t it?” I said, relieved. “You mean the peacock sermonizing his hens on their oppression?” Tony replied. And suddenly we were having a conversation about politics, in which I was not once having to stifle a scream of rage or frustration. I was even able to articulate my abiding sense of the world’s being so self-evidently beyond redemption that anyone setting up as a critic of it (in the sense of hoping to improve it) must be either a fool or else a charlatan who takes the rest of us for fools, and to do so with none of my usual pent-up bluster—indeed with something approaching lucidity. “You’re saying the whole shebang needs a rethink from the ground up?” Tony said. “I suppose I am,” I said, and we looked at each other. There is an odd affinity between us despite the obvious differences; a sympathy that perplexes almost as much as it delights me. I appear to have chanced on a kindred spirit.
We went to the Carlins’ party. It wasn’t difficult to persuade Tony to come, in the end. I’d bought a new outfit, bolder than my usual things, and was trying it on, wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake, when he came in and proceeded to shower me with compliments. He made some quip about how jealous he’d be, thinking of me being eyed up by other men while he sat stewing alone all evening, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come?” The prospect seemed to strike him from a new angle. After a moment’s thought he shrugged and in his wonderfully decisive way said, “Alright I will,” and that was that. He looked splendid in his tweed jacket and flannel shirt, like a country squire, I thought, or a soldier in mufti, something of the foxhunt or battlefield about him, but at the same time perfectly urbane and with no hint of nerves or of feeling like an imposter among the grandees. An episode that seems emblematic of his effect on people occurred as we went in. The Carlins’ son, Sebastian, was stationed at a drinks table along with a rather peculiar school friend of his whom I’d seen at the house before. As Sebastian poured us each a glass of champagne, the friend was staring at Tony in an odd way. Tony smiled at him questioningly and the boy stammered out something about having met him at the Sun in Splendour with “Russell and his sister.” Tony gently informed him that he had never met a Russell or the sister of a Russell or been inside a pub of that name. The boy was mortified by his mistake, but Tony was so human with him, so uncondescending, that his embarrassment passed almost immediately, turning to puppylike gratitude as Tony took the trouble to ask him about himself for a few moments before we went on into the party. He has a rare capacity for putting people at their ease, and I observed it several times over the evening. Vivian swept over as we entered the drawing room, her Cleopatra eyes agog with curiosity. “Are you in publishing too?” she asked Tony as I introduced them. “No, I’m an electrician.” She looked, frankly, panicked—“Oh!”—whereupon Tony, speaking with the slight burr that sometimes creeps into his voice (he was in Carlisle before coming to London), said, “I’m here to mend your wiring, ma’am.” It took her a moment to realize he was making a joke, and I don’t think she quite got it even then, but just the fact that he’d had the wherewithal to take command of the situation seemed to relieve her, and she gave that gushing, out-of-control laugh of hers. It was as if he had given her a moment’s reprieve from the treadmill of snobbishness and terror of being found snobbish that is Vivian’s private hell. He had a friendly word for the caterer’s people bustling around the buffet table (Scandinavian smorgasbord!). He even charmed Edward Leeto, whom he was curious to meet, having read about him in the papers. I introduced him—interrupting a conversation the judge was having with that earnest young American, Ralph something. The American was quizzing the judge about the IRA’s accidental killing of Dr. Gordon Fairley last week. I’d forgotten it but Fairley was of course a friend of the Carlins’ and would have been here tonight had not his dog poked its nose under a politician’s car and blown itself and the doctor to bits. The judge made a comment about the difficulty of saying anything these days without some minority group taking offense. He is evidently still smarting from his drubbing in the press over his summing-up at that trial, and was eyeing Tony warily as he spoke, as if afraid he might be another journalist out for his blood. But Tony, conveying with the lightest touch that he knew to what the judge was alluding, gracefully shifted the topic—“Helen says you have a house in Salesey. That must offer some respite from the malice of London, I would think?”—and in no time he had the judge smilingly effusing about the pleasure of sitting in his glass conservatory with its view of hop fields and oast houses, and the sound of the river falling over the weir at the end of their garden. And I thought: This man is the equal of anyone.
Another long gap—this one almost six weeks—followed. By the time of the next entry, Tony had disappeared. The entry contains only a brief, dry statement on the subject: “Tony has been gone over a month. I begin to suspect an explanation will not be forthcoming.” Further entries over the next few years mention him sporadically. They don’t directly address the circumstances of his disappearance, but it seems that Helen came home from work sometime in November to find all traces of him gone from her flat, including the boxes in the coal shed. He didn’t take anything of hers, and he’d already paid his share of the month’s rent, so there appeared to be no question of his having exploited her in any obvious way. This seems to have made the whole thing harder to understand, and, by her account, more painful than if she had simply been the victim of a con man. “The sting of rejection dulls over time,” she writes, “but the bewilderment grows more intense every day.”
The question of why Tony left gradually gives way to an even more consuming perplexity as to why he stayed with her in the first place. At one point she refers to the episode as “a golden interlude.” But meanwhile the sour, irritable flavor of her earlier entries soon returns. People are once again “ghastly.” Events and encounters are again steeped in “ghastliness” of one kind or another. So it continues to the end, the only change being a growing incoherence in the entries, and a diminishing frequency. It was as if Tony had deliberately imprisoned her in a mystery—comprised equally of the unexpected happiness he brought her and its abrupt cessation—and left her to circle endlessly inside it.
I remembered the episode she describes with that “peculiar school friend” of mine at my parents’ autumn party. His name was Simon Chartris. He’d left home aged fifteen, and lived in a rented bedsit in Earls Court, though he often deposited himself for long visits at the homes of friends whose parents, like mine, felt sorry for him. His passion in life was betting on horse races, and he spent most of his free time buying and selling tips in pubs or setting up complicated multiplier bets at the bookies around Earls Court and Ladbroke Grove. Despite this, he was extremely shy. He blushed easily, and had difficulty looking people in the eye, especially adults.
That year I was given the job of greeting guests with a glass of champagne at a table in the hallway. Simon, who was staying with us, was helping me. I remember being struck by Helen’s appearance when she arrived, when she took off her coat to reveal a tailored skirt and jacket with bright mauve piping at the cuffs and collar. Even more unexpected was the fact that she was with a man—a handsome, well-built, sandy-haired man in his forties. She introduced him as I poured their drinks, addressing me with a defiant look, as though daring me to express my astonishment.
“This is my friend Tony.”
I’d been aware of Simon staring oddly at this man from the moment he appeared before us, but I’d put it down to Simon’s usual awkward behavior around grown-ups. The man also began to notice.
“Everything all right there?” he asked amiably.
“I met you in the Sun in Splendour,” Simon said, grinning and looking away. “That time with Russell and his sister.”
The man appeared surprised, but unruffled, and answered as Helen describes in her journal. Simon put his finger to his chin in the childish way he often did, looking chastised and staring at the floor, his face scarlet. It’s possible the man lingered a bit to mollify him, as Helen recounts, but she was wrong in thinking Simon conceded that he must have been mistaken. After they went on into the drawing room, he said to me: “I did meet him. I was with a bloke who buys tips from me, and the bloke’s sister came in, with him. They bought me a pint.”
“Why would he say he hadn’t met you?” I asked.
“Could be lots of reasons. But it was definitely him. We had a talk about Grundy winning the Derby after already winning the Irish two thousand guineas. Russell’s sister was upset because he wouldn’t let her sit on his lap and the two of them started fighting, so me and Russell went into the saloon bar.”
Other guests were arriving, and as Simon’s stories tended to get murky quickly, especially when there were horse-racing characters involved, I didn’t pursue this one. Nor did I think about the man again until, many years later, I chanced on his picture in an article, and recognized the distinctive high, rounded cheekbones, the wide-flanged boxer’s nose, the hard mouth, and remembered that peculiar moment at the drinks table. The subject of the article was a seldom-discussed tactic used by a handful of IRA operators in England to blend in with the general populace. Among the better known of these were Gerard Tuite, who inveigled himself into the home of an English nurse in Greenwich for a period, and James Canning, who moved in with a sixty-year-old woman in Northolt, hiding Semtex under the bed and Kalashnikovs under a rabbit hutch in the garden.
Was there anything more to that “golden interlude” of Helen’s than that same icy-hearted opportunism? From Tony’s point of view, probably not. But would Helen have seen it in those terms, even if she had known what I know? Impossible to say, of course, but I think back to the strange violence of her emotions; the ghastliness she found in every facet of our world; and the conversation she reports, when they discovered their shared fantasies of annihilation: “There is an odd affinity between us …” And I wonder if she didn’t know more than she perhaps realized.
At any rate his name wasn’t Tony, and he had never lived in Carlisle. And he wasn’t an electrician either, or not in the usual sense.