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Secret Ballet: Part 3

Version: June 03, 2004

Go to part 2 of Secret Ballet

Version: June 03, 2004

Own up

The arbour was furnished only with a wooden seat. The washing was blowing in the wind. John leaned against a tree. He sat far away from the others, under the shade of a huge beech. His unlined face belied his fifty-five years. He had his hands in his pockets and a cigarette in his mouth. Things are really moving now. Come on, own up! I wouldn't like him to think that I am in the habit of making a nuisance of myself. It's against my principles. There were severe ambiguities and dark places in our relationship. I have of course had a chance to reflect and to think about whether or not this is a good thing. Of course it was an idiotic question to ask. I wondered what on earth could have let me to entertain so ludicrous a suspicion. He never even bothered to acknowledge her presence. You've got a very suspicious mind, Jane... jealousy is destructive and undesirable. I am determined not to be foolish. Sometimes you can be deluded into thinking that everything is going well. Animal instinct at once warned me to tread carefully. That means keeping options open...

He tends to avoid direct confrontation with unpleasant truths. He rarely bumped up against anyone who approved of what he was doing. He looks strained and tired...the man who has sufficient humility to acknowledge his own imperfections. He was too exhausted to argue. It was transparent that he was hurt and resentful. I was hoping that things would soon get back to normal.

A crisis can be a blessing in disguise. We should aim to be as candid as possible about our disappointments. ‘Oh John, cheer up—it's not the end of the world, you know. We have to sort things out between us. It's time you were getting off your butt and doing something.’

John leaned his head against the rough wood and wept anew—a butterfly that won't come out of its chrysalis. He was a babe in arms when in came to verbal quarrels.

‘You are the slave of guilt feelings. Express your emotions—don't bottle them up. English reserve is, at bottom, really fear.’

My probing was turning out to be quite successful. ‘You are fortunate you did not sexually molest that poor girl or I'd put you behind bars for life. From what I can see, John, you're in a hell of a good position.’

Tears welled up in his eyes and he brushed them aside with his sleeve.

‘How dare you feel sorry for yourself? It was your own fault!’

All the rage that had been bottled up in him for so long flooded out in a torrent of abuse. Rage was making him fluent; the words came easily, in a rush. I was startled by his anger. All the anger I felt towards the man was bubbling away deep down inside me.

Happy marriages may be more common in fiction than in real life.

A big argument

A large garden is an asset when you have small children. The wind had brought several trees down. The trees had already put out their leaves and there were buds everywhere. Below the windows some bulbs were growing. The swimming pool was full to the brim with brown, smelly water. There were white doves on the lawn.

Mr Aydie had come to clip the hedges. Two men are trying to cut down a very large tree. You can't do it without permission. A bird flew across to the tree and alighted on a branch.

She had broken her silence. Well, I reflected, I couldn't say I hadn't been warned. We didn't speak a word while the children were in the room. John seemed unusually downcast and taciturn. He lit his pipe, rushing the tobacco in the bowl with precision. The smoking of pipes is often associated with old-fashioned ‘masculine’ views. Some men measure their masculinity by anything from their jobs to their drinking habits.

‘How come you're up so early?’

He put down his glass of whisky so hard that he chipped the glass. ‘Get these kids out of here!’

I just couldn't think of a single thing to say.

‘I'm sorry I shouted at you. It's my infernal temper.’ The children remained crouching in a motionless tableau, as if frozen into stone.

I never watch breakfast television. Facing the sofa were three different television sets, each tuned to a different station. He sits for hour after hour, week after week an year after year, watching television. There was an interference with communications on all channels; he switched to the other channel. ‘Leave the television on, I'm watching.’

I choked back my anger. ‘What's the matter with your hand?’

‘I burned it on my cigar.’

‘Episode One was broadcast last night. Did you see that programme last night? The broadcast began with close-up film of babies crying.’

‘No, I didn't.’

He did not seem to have a grain of humour. ‘The programme was compiled and presented by Dr Brian Smith. If you want a drink, dear, you'll have to fix it yourself.’

He hid his feelings behind a gruff abruptness; he was biting his finger-nails, as was his habit when he was being cagey.

I started ostentatiously clearing the table. ‘We simply must face facts. Do you want a biscuit?’

‘No thanks.’ He cagily stayed clear of the subject. He was becoming as unapproachable and autocratic as his father.

‘We may not agree about this but forgive me, John, I think we could at least discuss it.’

‘You're not paying a blind bit of notice of what I'm saying, are you? It's no use—we're just going round and round in circles.’

He then tries to solve his problems by accusing me of being corrupt. There was little point in continuing so unprofitable a dialogue.

I felt thirsty and walked to the drinking fountain. ‘What went on behind that door was your own affair. I thought I could trust you not to behave like a cad. I might have known not to expect constancy from someone like you.’

‘Just get off my back, will you?’ He began to saunter off, then checked himself and turned back. He spoke with brutal frankness. ‘If there is a divorce, the husband delivers over to his wife exactly half of his wealth. The money will be paid each quarter by cheque.’

I threw a gin bottle at him.

‘There is also the legal aspect: I am the landlord and you are my tenant, don't forget. I am paying out a lot of bread for the house.’

That comment was a bit below the belt. I could have shot him without any compunction. ‘Anyone would think you owned the whole hill the way you carry on. I don't want to buck the question. Isn't it fairest to say that we disagree?’

He referred to the, quote, ‘inequality of our circumstances’, unquote. This was yet another twisted bit of masculine logic. ‘Who owns this bit of land? I do not know why you obfuscate.’

I'm very careless with money: I never bother to work out my financial position and all that caper. His threats are merely bluff. I said no and we got into a big argument about it. He finished the argument by walking out of the room. He was so drunk by midday that he could barely stand. I'll be glad to see the back of him. Keep your money or goods (assuming you have any) separate from those of your husband.

We had to keep up the fiction that we are a normal couple. It was then that I acquired the habit of deceit. His jokes got more and more overtly malicious. He was like you and me, but worse.

This last week he's overstepped the mark. ‘You could do with some help, couldn't you?’

‘In the form of legal advice, you mean? All right, what's the joke?’

With studied casualness he mentioned it to Felicity: ‘Children impose great strain on both the mental health of women and on their marriages. The other thing you might find out is who owns the land.’

That last remark was uncalled for. ‘Wake up, John!’

‘Oh, wait until I tell Howard!’ John continued.

I often felt jealous because John could go out when he wished. He can wash, change, cook the tea and be out by seven o'clock. To give himself a well-deserved break, John decided to take a trip to London. He put on one of his habitual striped shirts that were fashionable in 1963—a shirt with a company badge on the pocket. ‘I never bother to iron my shirts—I can't iron shirts.’ You could smell the booze on his breath a mile off. He was carrying a red shopping bag.

‘I'm working my fingers to the bone while you're out enjoying yourself.’

‘You're trying to stop my trip to London.’

‘You're twisting my words: you know I didn't mean it that way. If you're going out, would you mind buying some coffee?’

With a cheery 'See you later, then,’ he strolled off.

Our treatment of the old

John arrived the next day, all bouncy and enthusiastic and full of energy. After dinner, when we had cleared away and washed up, we went for a walk. The night sky was now gorgeous with billions of stars.

‘Do you think belief in an afterlife comes with old age?’

He was absent, pre-occupied.

‘John, are you listening? I think it's time we had a serious talk.’

‘I was just getting near to accepting the fact that my father was made of stone. I must phone him up tonight.’

He frequently acted on a hunch. ‘It's a long walk from Mowbray. One has the option of walking one way and boating or bussing back. The buses run every hour.’ He thought that walking was much better than standing, hot and crushed, in a bus: ‘I shan't take the bus, I'm going to walk.’

It is our treatment of the old which most shocks students of our culture. His father had his sleeves rolled up and was working with great care. Today he is thin and weak, stooped and broken by years of cruelly hard labour. God, he looks awful!

‘Hi there, Mr Swallow, good to see you.’

He was coughing away. ‘I'm pruning my roses. Cold kills off lots of pests and diseases in the soil.’

Under the hedge, the old man in some wanton mood had planted hyacinths. We were listening to yet another careful gardener with his pet theories. ‘I have to prune the roses. My fingers are so stiff from the cold.’ He found it difficult to bend these days.

He went and sat in the lounge. Some of them were sleeping, some knitting, some staring out of the windows, all unnaturally silent. The clock ticked audibly. They spend their time knitting comforters. The quality of care was often poor, with heating chiefly by oil stoves. For tea they usually had bread and butter, home-made cakes, and tea. He wanted to be moved to a nursing home where he could furnish his own room.

Life isn't all roses. Mr Swallow is an asthmatic. He was a dictatorial, bad-tempered old man. He had cancer of the throat; he'd been sick for years. He was so sick and weak that he no longer cared if he lived or died. He was, in the words of his doctor, going downhill fast. There’s no way of knowing how long he’ll linger. A common cold could kill him. He usually takes a fifteen-minute tea break at 3 o'clock. ‘Get everything else ready while the water boils. How do you like your tea?’

‘As it comes.’

‘The kettle's boiling. Fill the teapot with boiling water.’

He was eighty-two years of age, a frail old man; he was very deaf and didn't like having to make conversation. He collects his pension at the post office every fortnight. The value of the pension declines in relation to the things that it buys. But for the time being there was little I can do.

The TV set was blaring in the background. A table with a fine lace cloth... He cut the cake and gave me a piece. The cups were real china—china that was reserved for special occasions. His hand trembled as he held the spoon, dribbling sugar all over the tablecloth. There was a dark oval stain on the chair where his head had rested.

John wouldn't know where to start. They were rarely on speaking terms. ‘Your age and frailty are giving him cause for concern.’

‘What's the matter?’

John peered anxiously at his father's face. ‘Nothing.’

‘Whatever you say. You really shouldn't bother yourself on my account.’

My timing was completely wrong. I have never been able to read him. He insists there is no cause for concern. ‘John was brought up strictly. It was his mother that really pulled him down. Good old Bessie... He had run away from home at the age of thirteen. She had taunted him with not having the courage of his instincts. He did not agree with his mother's views on premarital sex. The old woman's very rich and quite barmy. She meant it all for the best. He was always trying to run home to his mother. Her sickness was so far advanced that the doctors could not save her.—Pour out the tea, Jane. It's brewed.’

The document had always been kept in a drawer in his study. He opened the envelope and drew out the contents. ‘I am giving orders that these pages shall not be delivered to you until a week after I die.’

John opened his mouth to speak.

‘Don't interrupt, John. We managed perfectly well without you.—Mrs Swallow had to pass through a few years of much bitterness. She had seen Bristol burn one night in the war. I rescued her from a burning house.’ The old man was obsessed by confused memories, and deep below these by a vague stirring of an obscure desire.

I'm waiting for the bus back to town. The bus service is a real boon to old people. The bus moved off, sending up a trail of dust and jolting them unmercifully. We were packed like sardines all the way home on the bus.

I had an infection of the ears that made me deaf for some time. My nose is all bunged up. He had lost his voice. Our relationship is falling apart at the seams.

‘You've never been as late as this without telephoning.’

‘I like the freedom to organise my day as I want to.’

I could hear Blackie miaowing outside.

He abstained from eating for six days. The gradual slowing down of metabolic processes... His stomach started to growl with hunger.

David Lodge

It's Saturday afternoon, the afternoon of 12 August. George was always prepared to put himself out. I dialled his number. The line was busy. Whenever I invite him to dinner, he pleads a prior engagement. John watched me with some impatience.

I waited for the phone to ring. At times I hardly knew what I was doing.

The phone rang.

‘I don't like people phoning at this hour,’ John complained. ‘It's anti-social.’

It was George Lithgow. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘I was hoping that you would ring. I've been trying to get hold of you..’

‘I wanted to phone you but I couldn't find a box.’

‘See you later.’

There was something a bit fishy about his explanation. I was just going out when there was a knock at the door. He was dressed rather more flashily than usual. His tie was awry, an orange tie decorated with black circles. ‘I apologize for my tardiness in getting here. I'm afraid this will only be a flying visit, as I have to be back in London tonight.’ Lithgow had gone on a monumental binge the night before and was still drunk at midday.

‘You're a bit late, aren't you? Be careful of the floor. I have just polished it.’

He stood before the panelled door leading to the cellar. He braced a hand against the door. ‘Is he at home or has he gone away?’

‘He's out in the garden.’

I brushed by him, opened the door and stopped. ‘Watch your step—it's a bit dark down here.’

‘Has the fuse blown then? Switch off the main current.’ He took a screwdriver and pried open the cabinet door. The door opened with a heavy clang. Now he could see the electronic circuitry of the unit. By the light of a torch, he began to read. He carefully unscrewed the bottom plate. ‘Your fuse has blown because you have overloaded the circuit. If the wires had met they would have fused all the lights. You can have your house fitted with circuit breakers in place of fuses. Just turn on the juice, and we'll see if it works. We'll work out where all the other bits and bobs go later.’

The lights came on. I suddenly had the idea of cutting a hole in the door.

When George was happy, he laughed and laughed. He had an aptitude for journalism. His design is to establish newspapers as the final arbiter of human destiny. ‘There's a new David Lodge out this month, a splendid book which examines the realities of marriage. He reconstructs in his books the details of unimportant lives. The whole action of the book takes place between August and December in one year. I found the book compulsive to read. Lodge was a Birmingham craftsman who came up the hard way. What I like about him is his sense of humour.’

‘I absolutely agree.. that's an absolutely fascinating piece of work—a brilliant comedy. It's a very readable book. He made another attempt to broaden his appeal. In his writing, he can bridge the distance between himself and his readers. Comedy, I would submit, is just as true as tragedy.’

He smiled apologetically. ‘I'm sorry, but I think you are on the wrong track there. What in effect I'm saying is that he couldn't write a novel. This is the sort of thing that beginners write. I think Lodge has actually looked towards British humour as a guiding light in this respect.’

‘No credible generation of artists has emerged during the 1970s. I like your books better. But another thing that he brings in is the comedy of being Jewish.’

I had forgotten how much George liked to talk. ‘Oh, I quite agree. Don't miss “The way of the World” now playing at the Haymarket. There's not much of a story to it, but the acting is wonderful. We were all bewildered by the play. Michael Hordern plays the bumbling Englishman yet again. The play was very bitty in the second act. Many of the audience walked out through sheer boredom—it's just that it's going on so long...This production can't hold a candle to Jonathan Miller's.’

I asked him how he felt about ‘Bent’ which played the Criterion this year.

‘In the play, religion is handled with quite a light, comic touch. The choreography was superb. I did not care for the play.’

‘I'll cancel those seats at the theatre.’

He had little appreciation of great plays, the audience's awareness of the play's artifice. ‘Robert Powell playing Alec, the hero of the play, was very good.’

‘Do you think he handles his other characters well? Are they believable people?’

He became more and more annoyed. Even though the packet of cigarettes lay open and was, moreover, of a very expensive brand, he took a crumpled packet out of his pocket and lit one of his own. He sat and smoked and stared out of the window.

One evening George came out with an unusual proposal. ‘I have always been terribly fond of you,’ he said. ‘Your sense of decorum may be shocked by this.’

I was guessing wildly. ‘I don't know what you are getting at.’

‘Try and get me her new address.’

‘Sorry what did you say?’

‘Forget it.’ He had a curiously husky voice.

John came silently into the room. He must have known in his intuitive way that we were there. George held up his hand to check him. ‘Can't you see this lady is telling me something? You can't just butt in on someone else's discussion.’

John clenched his fist and went very red. He lowered his head and butted George in the chest.

‘Ow! Stop it! You're hurting!’

His fingers grasped George's flesh with a convulsive clutch.

‘That seemed to me rather unnecessary, if you don't mind me saying so. Let's put a stop to all this nonsense.’

He hissed through clenched teeth, ‘You get out of here.’

‘I mustn't stay gossiping with you any longer. Give me a bell some time before the weekend, will you?’

‘Call me when you get home.’

‘I'll give you a buzz later in the week.’

‘Goodbye, I hope you'll let me see you again.’

He returned to England, repeating his disappearing act so he wouldn't have to discuss scripts.


I'm on the committee of the local film society. Visual images have a fluidity that that words can never achieve. Film censorship is a personal hobby-horse of mine. Government censorship is relaxing a bit to allow kissing on screen. I like acting but the film world bores me to tears. A lot of Hollywood types are frightfully artificial.

After dinner they were to go to a movie. They had begged and badgered me to take them to see that accursed film. ‘It's all good clean fun...’

My father appeared wheeling his bicycle up the hill. I started to walk up the hill towards him. He was something of an outsider. ‘A young Chinese lent me his bicycle. I had to keep to the paths because I've got a wonky knee.’

You may find yourself on the receiving end of my father's temper. The man's a bloody lunatic. He had long white hair that cascaded in uncombed disarray over his thin shoulders. You are judged by the company you keep. I had to learn how to elude him, outsmart him.

John fixed himself a stiff drink. He'd been brooding over how furious he was with my father. He knows I am estranged from my father; he does not know why. My father, in a rare descent to cattiness, condemned him after he had gone.

‘Please come along! We're going to be terribly late.’ They were choosing sweets from one of the stalls. The usher opened the door with a bow. With a braying flourish of trumpets, the music started up. The movie was accompanied by a full bill of cartoons, shorts and feature films. The film is a mushy, but strangely moving story of young love. It is not recommended for the faint-hearted. The directors went as far as to stage actual killings. The central character in the film is played by William Hurt. His job was to stoke the furnace. Molten metal ran out on to the flagstones. Overhead a creaking conveyor carried red hot castings.

Films easily go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ten minutes into the film somebody is messily and bloodily blown up—a spectacle designed to satisfy the blood lust of the spectators. The scene had a choreographed air about it. I wasn't enjoying it but the children were. They're sitting killing themselves with laughter. I got really annoyed because my father started to talk in the middle of the film. ‘I know that face—what has she been in?’ He had a way of snapping his fingers that annoyed the hell out of me.

The picture wouldn't end for another half hour. The plot of the film is pure baloney. In the story he bumps off his wife and goes to live in Australia. On the screen she had a feline charm that made her irresistible. Then the film plunges into a helter-skelter account of Melvin's marriage. He keeps it secret from her until a climactic point in the story. There's a real cliff-hanger in the final scene. He kills the villains, and he gets the rich girl, and it's all a bit much like most of the plot. No normal person could watch this film with dry eyes. An expression of awe animated their faces.

Father and I are very close. He coaxed out of me what I really felt about the film. ‘What did you think of the ghastly sequence at the end when she strangled him?’

‘There are scores of places in this film where I was moved to tears. The critics have been almost unanimous in their dislike of this film. Others might find odd what one finds perfectly normal oneself.’

I looked at this marvellous old codger laughing his head off.

‘Let me get you a drink.’

‘OK,’ he said. ‘The usual.’

I poured him a glass of Scotch and he downed it at a gulp.

He left with several more glasses of brandy inside him. We parted company at the bottom of the street. He limped away up a long grassy path to a big box thing. Well, it looked like a box. It stands on a sloping road which is fenced in by iron railings.

Chris cheeked his dad today. They poured catsup on their hamburgers. I even felt like apologizing to them except that they wouldn't know what I was talking about.

Birds bore me too

John took me down the river in the old boat. The clear water mirrored the blue sky. He let his oars sink into the water and commenced pulling with long strokes. The boat lurched ahead, chugging. The second boat was about 200 yards away from us but closing fast. The wind shakes a little shower of white petals from the thorn tree on the bank.

The bank was covered with coarse grass. We shed out clothes and jumped into the water. He swam down the river while families picnicking on the banks looked on in amazement. He was a remarkable diver. His movements stirred up the mud and sand, blinding him as he swam along the river bottom. The coldness of the water helped to clear his head; a gentle current carried him slowly downstream. Still hungry, I gobbled a second sandwich. He used to box, run and swim for his school. I could never do the butterfly.

Somehow John found his voice. We packed the few belongings we had and began to walk. The air was like mountain air, bracing and heady; it was not as cold as in winter, but rather chilly. His shoes were wet with dew. Hawks circled overhead looking for prey. There were real hills and trees and, best of all, a lake full of lilies: breathtaking scenery. People are parking their cars and campers all over the hillside. Birds had begun to chirp and twitter among the trees.

We clambered through broom and briar right to the top of the hill. The view is best of all towards the close of day. The light was autumnal; an evening of quite remarkable beauty. We were still out of breath from the climb. A cow browsed amid a profusion of mountain flowers. I took a camera and photographed some of the flora. Down below in the valley the first chimneys were smoking. In the distance was a line of windmills, their great arms glittering in the sun as they turned. It was an awe-inspiring sight. The mills are owned communally.

We walked for six days and six nights. As R.L. Stevenson remarked, ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.’ John's knees began to buckle beneath him. His boots had given him blisters on his heels. ‘Let's make camp for the night here. I've got sore feet after all that walking.’

‘A new pair of stiff climbing boots...I know a place where you can hire boots. Blistering can be prevented by foot powder.’

John blushed and laughed uneasily. ‘I want to change my socks.’ The blister throbbed and burned. His feet had begun to bleed.

It was a lovely setting for a picnic: hilly ridges and deep-sided gullies. He gobbled down the two remaining stuffed eggs with satisfaction. His dog waited, making happy little barks and wagging his tail; a dog whose companionship had bridged widely different phases in their lives. It is covered by a soft fury cloak of skin. He clicked his fingers and the dog immediately sat down. ‘Good dog. I enjoy the company of animals better than people.’

He had a peculiar air of child-like innocence, lighting a fire to keep dangerous animals at bay. The wood he fetched was close at hand. He stopped and lit a match. ‘Caution! All fires are dangerous.’

The fire took a long time to catch. He spent an hour carefully cleaning the rifle. I started to roast sitting by his blazing fire. He turned the rifle over and examined the underside. ‘Jane, just think, what an opportunity!’

He gave one short vicious twist to the chicken's neck. With the long knife, he lopped off its head cleanly at the shoulders. While the bird roasted he built a rough bush shelter.

We lay on our backs under the ash tree. The shyness and uncertainty of a few minutes back had gone; all things could be said on this blessed afternoon. ‘Things must change. I think we should split up.’

‘I don't understand you,’ he said heavily. ‘All the time things are changing.’

‘I don't understand your refusal to confront reality.’

John's tone became more gossipy, casual. ‘You oversimplify things as always. To settle all these differences will take time. It is a complex problem -

‘Don't interrupt, John. Let me finish. You've injured my self-esteem once too often.’

‘I still don't understand.’

Tears blurred my vision. I knew I'd be dead beat in the morning.

The evening chorus of birds' song was deafening. We let the fire burn out. The grey cinders glowed again as the air blew through.

It was very creepy in the woods. We heard the cries of the night owls. John answered the owl's cry, imitating it exactly. He cast his mind back over the day. ‘I bet nobody's been here before.’ He heard the sharp crack of a twig.

Ashes blew into John's face from the dead fire. Lightning played across the sky. The silence was uncanny. A pallid moon shone fitfully between the ragged clouds. I felt a few spots of rain. I broke a branch off and stabbed at the ground with it.

The wail rose, remote and unearthly. The voice belonged to a human being. ‘He'll be alright,’ I said to myself, trying to quell a growing unease.

When we broke camp in the morning, we found animal tracks all around us. Drops of moisture hung in the hedges and cobwebs. There was a rustle in the bracken. The beautiful bronze and green in the landscape... We were surrounded by birds and beasts and plants: forests of ash, elm, and beech. There was a bit of rabbit's fur caught on a clump of thistles. The bracken was turning to the dusky gold of a fine autumn. The tracks petered out a mile or two later. There was blink of bright light beyond the forest.

John finished his sandwich. ‘It looks almost like frost in those fields, but I guess its only dew.’

We talked for hours and hours. ‘What's that?’

‘Some sort of blackbird, I guess.’

The bird was frantically beating its stubby wings.

‘What colour was the bird?’

‘It was blue, with a yellow front. Many are brilliantly coloured. These birds live by scavenging carrion. The mother birds stay together while they're feeding the chicks.’

‘I would like to brush up my zoology.’

‘Their nests are roughly built platforms of twigs. They lay comparatively few eggs.’

The bird was busy preening his glossy blue-black feathers. There was blood on the breast feathers. With a frightened chirrup, the bird flew away.

‘People like to look at animals and birds.’ He slowed down to his usual steady amble. ‘To tell you the truth, birds bore me too. It is not in our interest to tear one another to pieces.’

The sun managed to break through for a while this afternoon. ‘We'll have to cut across country. I think I know where we are. We might have to cross a swamp or quicksand.’

We set off on another four hour trek through swamps and fields. We moved through fields and over ditches, past bushes alight with glow-worms and fireflies. He kept trying to jump over ditches and ponds, miscalculating, and then falling in. The stubble was burning on the harvested fields. The whole sky above us was filled with huge brown birds—huge brown birds flapping their wings furiously to gain height. The shape of their bodies changes with astonishing speed. They were trying to find food for their brood.

It started to bucket down. The ditches beside the fields were alive with the croaking of frogs. Frogs may grow eight inches long. They breed near stagnant water, such as a slimy pond. The males are bulkier than the females. Many frogs amplify the sound of their voices using special sacs in their throats. The water teems with thousands of organisms.

John gave vent to a strange animal sound. ‘Bother!'


‘My watch has stopped.’ John's hands trembled as he struck a match. He was deathly white. ‘Do you remember Mary Stuart?’

‘What of her?’

‘Mary Stuart put a beseeching hand on my arm.’

Then he got very mysterious and told me to think about it. ‘My mother died in a freak accident, struck by lightning at a picnic. I don't know how to explain it. Electrical storms raged in the clouds, bombarding the land and the sea with lightning. When we crossed the bridge over the Lauter, there was a tremendous flash. Lightning bolts came crashing down all around us.’

I wanted to be on my own but it seemed churlish to send him away. ‘I think we should drink to the bounty of nature.’

I was trying to quell a growing unease. Darkness was coming on apace. We were looking for a good place to camp. A glow of light appeared over the sea.

The cottage was miles from anywhere. John plucked off for himself some of the ripened fruits. He looks at the garden he has planted. ‘All the trees are grown from seed.’

At the moment our tree looks like nothing more than a branch. The roses are just coming into flower. The cabbages had already started to decay. He drew an analogy between horticulture and god watching over the world. ‘God watches over us. A million years is just a blink of an eye geologically.’ I can't help feeling repulsion. I never know what to do with rotten cabbage. I had to root up all the plants and burn them. The fire took a long time to light.

The rump assembly

The rump assembly came together in March. It was billed as an extraordinary congress. There is a storm brewing here against the Prime Minister. The theatre in King Street had an elegant auditorium. The building was being checked out for a bomb allegedly planted during the night. They searched the ground for booby traps.

The place of assembly filled quickly—bland, evasive, middle-of-the-road men exchanging such profundities as ‘Looks like rain today’. All of these people are card-carrying party members. There was a flurry of activity in the hall. The rumours bred hope and doubt.

The main point on the agenda was the election of a new chairman. The show attracted large crowds this year. There was a circus atmosphere about the whole occasion. Four brass rosettes in the floor mark the spot where the speaker's chair stood. People packed the hall from floor to ceiling, a capacity audience. They felt they should be near the centre of the action and attempted to gain access through a side entrance. The exit sign is marked with an arrow. Many people have felt aggrieved, rightly or wrongly, at being refused permission.

Howard said he wanted to go to the loo. ‘I'm sorry to bother you, but do you know where the toilets are? I think I am going to be sick. I greatly enjoy these meetings unless I have to make a speech, in which case I'm in a state of dreadful anxiety.’

He had been busier than usual for several days before the meeting. He felt bile rise in his throat; he was stricken by pain and began to vomit. Some vulgar graffiti about him in the loo...the water supply of the cistern was turned off.

Back in the central lobby, people were getting restless. Heissman looked acutely unhappy. He put up as an independent candidate. He may not win an overall majority on the first ballot. Mr Thompson was at pains to emphasize that he was threatening nobody; he wore a tweed overcoat which gave him a certain distinction. He hoped to play a significant role in the Parliamentary battle to come; he had already formally announced his candidacy. It is almost certain that he will be elected. He's been trying for years to buy into the printing industry. His wife looked at the clock. She bundled up her knitting and put it away. They have a delightful teenage daughter.

They wanted seats in the front of the hall so they could hear the speeches. Why should they, of all people, believe that this is the right thing to do? They are anachronisms in a changing world.

‘I can see you are interested in the idea, Thompson. Are you voting for or against?’

Thompson replied positively: ‘All in all, I am not in favour. There will be no change in policy.’ Thompson boasted of his influence over the Prime Minister. Shut up, big mouth... Much of his mind was taken up with visualizing the champagne buffet waiting for them. Their blindness to the problem was astonishing. They could be guaranteed to trot out the party line on all issues. I think they 're full of—pardon the expression—bull. That's what bugs me about the whole business.

Humphrey had no real chance of winning the nomination. He glared at me balefully as I entered. We did our best to bring him round to our point of view. But I was in no mood to be balked by a man like him. Humphrey is the most frightful bore. He was a dry, poor speaker, a man of few words, the antithesis of a driving politician. There were catcalls as he took his seat in the theatre.

Several people flashed glances of recognition at me. I saw Jack McFall, who gave his usual cheery wave. It seems I unintentionally made a rude gesture. During all the commotion I had hardly noticed my little brother. He's a rare bird. Maybe he'll be a prime minister one day. With a wave of the hand, he turned away. He was still a young intellectual in transition; he later became a prominent attorney. At the other side of the room Amelia was winking and raising a cautionary finger. I took care not to acknowledge Amelia with more than a nod. She regarded Howard with something that was close to fear. From the other side of the room he gave me an appealing look. I had by now astutely concluded that we could not win. There was a more sobering thought: perhaps we should not succeed.

I edged my way crabwise along the row to my allotted place. The meeting was different from any that had gone before. The assembly, sensing a crisis, was tensely expectant. All around me, I could feel morale disintegrating. Gloom began to descend on all of them. I saw Castle glancing at his watch with some agitation—a conventional, analogue watch. The prime minister had come alight. He was sweating mightily in his unseasonable suit. Silver beads of perspiration began to form on his brow. I did not know that this skirmish was going to mushroom into open warfare.

The speaker was young, ardent and appallingly long-winded, promising a ‘dynamic and go-ahead Britain’. All went well for him to begin with. He shot a suspicious glare at me. After a nervous start, the speaker began to gain confidence, walking slowly, in a relaxed, natural manner, from one side of the stage to the other. His speech was the high point of the evening. ‘This government seems to want to see the clock put back...’ He went on with wonderful aplomb considering that no one seemed interested. There was a careful avoidance of the issue. The speaker emphasized the cardinal importance of building a party to lead the country. He considered himself ideally suited for the job of Prime Minister: ‘You really need to have good leaders all clued-up. We are the trustees and guardians of the whole people. You have got to carry the people of the country with you.’ He paused, hoping for evidence of interest; he simulated a mopping of his brow. There was a rumble of appreciative laughter, displays of impatient body language. There's always a little clique of older members who are jealous of the young. My friends clapped their hands to their foreheads and groaned theatrically. He burbled about the restoration of democracy.

The simmering quarrel between the opposing parties boiled over: an acrimonious dispute broke out. We were accused of plotting to overthrow the government—a brazen accusation. The orator was trying to carry the day by an emotional appeal. His words were accompanied by exclamations from the audience. It was remarkable what you could accomplish with audacity. I would not cheapen myself by doing such a thing.

They kept up a sustained, unrelenting barrage of questions. At last the assembly was silent again. The guest speaker looked absolutely exhausted. Howard had risen to his feet. He took off his glasses and blinked at them. They watched him, their eyes heavy with belligerence. He paused, a bit uncertain how to begin. When he felt he had their attention, he began. He interrupted what had become a highly charged silence. It was a speech full of coded criticism of the government. He was speaking loudly enough for most of the audience to hear him quite clearly. ‘Mr Thompson has been capitalising on the anxiety expressed throughout the house. He played the role of a simple man very cleverly. The situation is much more complicated than that. What I have to say may be unpalatable to some of you. There is far too much political complacency in this country. We have been taught to believe in the wisdom of those who govern us; we have not always been taught to think for ourselves. Thompson plainly cannot bear to think about the unthinkable. We all know how difficult it is to reason with a prejudiced person. My first instinct was to resign.’ A shiver of excitement ran through the audience. ‘If only you were aware of all the facts, you would immediately change your mind. We are dealing with a whole complex of thoughts and prejudices. We do not doubt that England has a faithful patriot in the Lord Chancellor. It would be fatal to bring in an outsider. This is simply putting the issue on the back burner. Everything you've tried has failed to break the deadlock. We've got to break out of this vicious circle. I have never, as those of you who know me will attest, judged people by their appearance. No doubt you could shoot me down by all kinds of quotations.’ Someone in the audience began to laugh. Castle turned away. ‘He has bucked up the morale of the nation with his optimistic policies for social change. He had not conquered inflation but he had held it in check. Inflation and unemployment are two sides of the same coin. I will digress slightly at this stage: I try to bring in the moral points as well. To make this clear, I must digress. He is just what he claims he is, a natural democrat: the most dangerous substance known to man... The real beauty of democracy is that everyone has a say in how they are governed. Social change can be achieved through the ballot box. Now this, unbelievably, was precisely the phrase used by the government's spokesmen. We've managed within a few brief decades to change all that. The people of this country are ripe for freedom, the involvement of every citizen in the aims and activities of their society. This should be the aim of any government, of whatever complexion.’

His audience, I noted with regret, were beginning to look bored.—‘This long digression has led me away from my main story. This attempt to influence the ballot is in breach of the rules: canvassing and bartering are clearly forbidden under rule 7. It ill befits somebody who represents a political party to behave in such an immoral fashion. It is clearly not germane to present-day conditions. We must wrench the Parliamentary system away from its feudal origin, we must rid the country of this wickedness. The power of the gentry has gone, most people in Parliament have no hereditary claims to power or status. An election will allow pent-up political forces to burst out. These were the unspoken reasons behind Castle's statement that legislation was necessary: he accepted the suggestions given to him by his closest advisers. Heissman has got to be brought into this. If you agree, put a tick in the box marked “yes”. I'd like to come back to this later. I suggest we break for lunch now rather than going straight on to the second part.’

His words were drowned by loud cheers from the crowd. There is always a proportion of the crowd bent on harrying the speakers. He was constantly interrupted by organized barracking. Howard heaved a exaggerated sigh. ‘If you will excuse me, gentlemen...I am not accustomed to being interrupted.—Other leaders have stated their views with equal bluntness. Are you voting for or against? Any votes for him will be votes thrown away.’ This coincided with my own private opinion. I found comfort in his words, and reassurance that I had made the right decision. Under no circumstances whatsoever will I support Mr Thompson. It would patently be a nonsense to put him in complete control.

There was comparatively little pressure for change. If no candidate gets 50 per cent or more, a second ballot must be held. The vote was close. They had elected Thompson in the belief that he would be better at getting government support. He won the contest for the deputy leadership. The buzz of conversation around him was mostly about the election. It is borne in upon him that he is being entrusted with a great responsibility; he should get in at the General Election if he plays his cards right. He vowed not to be lured into any associations that might compromise him. Lord Exeter presented the medals for this event, wearing a pair of goofy overalls, as if it were the performance of some elaborate court ritual. The breast pocket of his overalls was filled with tools. Now he revealed himself, complete with multi-coloured hat. The room soon filled with mutterings of approval. Smiles spread across every face. The assembly broke into a chant. ‘What's your name? What's your name?’ It was all mumbo-jumbo and I didn't understand a word. The whole assembly applauded them. At the end they march triumphantly upstage. The ovation rose in a new crescendo: the congregation went into delirium. We found the whole ceremony quite risible.

The big windows had been opened to air the room. I stood there at the bottom of the steps. At the top of the steps was a bust of Shakespeare on a pedestal. There was a little cluster of admirers round the guest speaker. Heissman, inconveniently and most annoyingly, was nowhere to be seen. Our scheme had miscarried. Howard stood at the head of the stairs. He had his papers in one hand, his hat in the other. People rushed by us.

Howard spoke in a tone of philosophical resignation. ‘I'm afraid we've been taken for a ride. What you and I think doesn't carry much weight around here. Someone faced with a choice between Thompson and Heismann may be pardoned for making no choice at all. They have gradually been sucked into this nexus of non-opposition. Everybody told us we were in for a letdown when we came here. We came to a decision, took a gamble, and lost. We came very close to success. It was not in the interests of the body politic at the present moment.’

‘I couldn't decide how to cast my vote. I suppose you voted against.’

‘I abstained, actually. We could vote for Heissman, or, even worse, for the local bigwig who was a member of everything! Is this decision in the nature of a U-turn, or merely a modification of policy? ’

‘That sounds, if I can interrupt you, that sounds a very complicated argument.’

He kept up his balancing act between the two parties. The member who made that speech was booted out by Conservative Party leaders. We considered issuing some sort of press release afterwards.

Life does not always reflect our ideals. I was bitterly disappointed. The result has left everybody unsatisfied. We are in a time of profound re-thinking in the centre, the left, and the far left. The SDP is not a centre party. It is a socialist party. A break-away organisation rapidly appeared. Their aim is to promote clearer thinking on social policy issues. They can offer no coherent answer; they've got to clearly define their policies. Politicians want to hold on to power at all costs. The realignment produced two clear-cut camps, reformists and reactionaries. They began to build an independent organization. The subject is not dead; people are not going to stop discussing it now.

The choices were agonizingly difficult. We must explore every avenue before admitting defeat. There was no other way to do it. Secrecy was all.

‘Can you help?’

Howard was in the midst of swallowing a bite of egg sandwich. ‘Pardon me if I sound cynical, but what did you expect? You sometimes have to make a hundred false casts before you place the fly.’

‘We can't stop now. We've got to keep on struggling. You have no other choice, you must go on!’

‘All right. What do you want me to do?’

‘It's a little late in the day to start talking about policy changes. What is needed is something more radical. Rumour had it that he was no model of faithfulness. We have to act quickly. You see, there is no alternative.’

Howard gave a snort of disapproval. ‘What the hell would you know about it? I refuse to have you stirring up a lot of publicity about a foolish thing like this.’

I realized how inadequate words could be when it came to defining a very large idea. ‘All right, all right, sorry I spoke.’ I don't want to agitate him unduly. I dreaded to think what he might do.

He sighed a deep sigh. ‘Let me see if I can help you. You always were an idealist. Your campaign must not be allowed to obscure the wider political issues...you go ahead this time. Anything is possible with enough time and planning. You must proceed with extreme caution. Put down what we've just said. I can't afford more than a day or so.’

Words cannot describe the tremor of pleasure that went through me.

‘I'm booked up all next week. Let's fix a time. This Sunday. Four o'clock...neither tomorrow, nor Friday, nor any other day. If you do not come, I shall presume the deal is off.’

A butcher's shop

There was a butcher's shop alongside the theatre. I pulled up at the curb. Barber welcomed me with a smile. My butcher sells completely boned sirloins of Scotch beef. ‘I thought I’d do a roast for dinner.’ The meat was sold for over $7 a pound. Along came the porters, immensely meaty, in bloodstained blue or white. It's their living, it's their bread and butter. Those kinds of people stay put in one job all their lives.

‘What do you think?’ asked the Belgian with a touch of anxiety. Jacques had bludgeoned his wife and put her into a car. There is an unnecessary amount of this sort of crime. He noticed the blood on his hands and grimaced distastefully.

Sonny beckoned to him excitedly. ‘Come here, come here!’

‘Don't, I beg you.’

‘Your fears are groundless. You behave yourself or you’d better watch out.’

Sonny was a strong, stocky boy, pugnacious and quick to take offence. I have seen him nearly beat a man to death. He pulled off his shirt. Sonny squeezed shaving foam from an aerosol and patted it on his chin. He washed off every bit of dirt. Cleanliness is essential in all butchery operations.

Two customers came into the shop. ‘Two chicken breasts, please.’

‘So what?’ he said with his usual pugnacity. He was scratching under his armpit. He enjoys life. He can be rather a clown actually. Getting information out of Sonny is like getting blood from a stone. He went to the small counter at the back of the store. Then they buried the meat in salt.

The heat was so great I took off my sweater. Sonny spat on the palms of his hands and rubbed them together. He had my hands behind my back in a hold that was impossible to break. This is the old fashioned policeman’s grip. The shop was freshly painted, with a large green awning to protect the plate glass window.

Sonny stuffed a mass of papers into his briefcase. He squeezed in beside me on the seat. Jacques danced out into the street. He was frightened, desperate with fright. Sonny could scarcely believe his eyes when he saw tough old Jacques dancing and laughing. He turned the ignition key. Then he burst out, ‘Get into the car, Jacques, will you?’

‘Nice work, Sonny.’

‘There is nothing personal in all this, you know. Purely a routine check.’

I admire the directness of the language.

The car turned into a dark driveway. The house is centuries old and steeped in history. They forced Jacques into a small room. He finds himself in a den of frightful ruffians running their tongues over their lips. Here floggings and tortures were carried out. Jacques bravely bit his lip to avoid crying out.

‘He's not being very communicative.’

‘Oh, I am not complaining,’ Jacques said, pulling at his cigarette. ‘Can we just get this questioning over with?’

‘Who knows we're here? Eh?’

Jacques squealed in mock terror, then in real pain.

Joyce was the daughter of the butcher. She had blonde hair and green eyes. She appeared with a small bucket she'd apparently conjured from nowhere. They held his head under the water.

Methods vary dramatically in effectiveness. A plastic box was secured to the wall by screws. Water is sucked in at one end of the cavity and expelled at the other. He proceeded to force into the prisoner’s mouth a hollow tube and pour the gruel through it.

‘Ow!’ he screamed. ‘Ow! Stop it! You're hurting!’

‘I'll be back in five minutes.’

How much can a man stand? I don't want to go into detail about the actual methods used. Terror was depriving Jacques of his wits. The man had begun to scream horribly. He was letting out loud uncontrolled shrieks—the shrieks of someone caught by some ferocious animal. This scene unfolded before me in all its horror. I went stiff with terror. My cheeks would begin burning like mad, my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth.

Sonny and his kind were not civilized. There followed a game of cat and mouse with my tormentor. ‘Do you play the guitar?’ His statement was made to a chorus of groans. The guitar player started strumming softly. He played some random chords, guitar music. ‘Your compere tonight is Jimmy Tarbuck.’

‘Unbind him, let him go free.’

Sonny is a great believer in jogging. He was funny, engaging and a real card in many ways. A big archway leads through into a courtyard, the old cobblestone courtyard. He beckoned me to follow him. We moved out into the blazing sun, the brightly lit forecourt. The courtyard was paved in black and white marble squares. Almost immediately you are out again, through an arch and into a huge square, an extension of the main shopping area, behind Lord Street: Penn Close, Court Road and all the little side streets in between. Over this vista broods a terrace of tall houses. It has been like this since the area was built up several years ago. High blocks of flats seem inevitable in overcrowded cities.

Sonny was carrying a briefcase. He held my arm with a grip of steel. He is tremendously sexy. The last thing he wished at this stage was to be halted by a cheery ‘Well, fancy seeing you here’. Already the square was blazing hot. A statue of a beggar girl with a baby at her breast; it sparkles so brightly. The statue was carved by John Gibson. There were performing monkeys, dancers, clowns and acrobats. A church tower... from this tower you get a bird's eye view of the city, including the race course and the airport.

A real misery

Howard was not someone to be trifled with. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘I've come to ask a favour. It’s a woman, a friend of mine—actually I was at school with her—and she needs your help. I couldn't very well turn her down. Could you come up here and I'll arrange a meeting?’

He sighed a deep sigh. ‘I shall make some enquiries and call you back.’

Sheila and I are just good friends. I was at school with her. After that our ways led apart. Apropos, I have often wondered what became of my old school friends.

Her father was a builder and decorator in Birmingham. She has a husband whose job took him away a lot. His enjoyments in life are limited to fighting and drinking. I wouldn't touch him with a barge pole! I was one of her bridesmaids. With fashionable clothes and good make-up she might have passed muster. She had coarsened since she married Charlie; she's subjugated her own desires to those of her husband. His love-making was odious to her.

She had arrived just after breakfast on her bicycle. ‘I've got a better bicycle than yours,’ she said boastfully. I shut the door after her and sat down. We had a nice long chat about our schooldays.

She was anxious about her job. Low profits gave the company an excuse to clean out the dead wood: 2,600 workers are due to be shed by the company. She had been there for twenty-five years without progressing one inch beyond her secretarial status. Many people were leaving because the pay was so bad. At the director's command, the thirty or forty people left. She sought temporary work as a strategy for finding friends. ‘Enterprises are becoming increasingly chary of taking on new workers. You can't get a job if you haven't got experience, and you can't get experience if you haven't got a job—it's Catch-22.’

She's forced to rely on social security money. Its often difficult for mothers to get back to work after raising a family. The council had checked up on her and decided that she was unsuitable for employment. I can't say she's applied herself very energetically to looking for a job. Armed with secretarial skills, a woman will easily find a job.

She brushed out the wrinkles in her dress nervously. An averagely attractive woman, she looked dishevelled and agitated. ‘Well, after what you'd said in your last letter about Mr Howard I didn't particularly want to meet him.’ She was staring at me with great beseeching eyes. She was desperate to find a satisfying job. She did not earn sufficient to provide for the comforts she needed. Her husband was an animal. They were always having terrible rows. They would suddenly, out of the blue, for no reason at all, start shouting and screaming. Such parents have been known to batter their children. Her children always showed signs of recent beatings.

His bossiness as a husband didn't worry her unduly. They slide through life, getting by as best they can. He had taken some valuables belonging to another person: a flat case about two feet long by eighteen inches broad. There was another side to his character: he used to send her daffodils or gladioli—whatever was cheap at the florist. This side of his personality has been blunted and crushed by toil. He only received a miserly, beggarly, begrudging pittance. ‘He's earning chickenfeed compared to what you get. I've applied for another job. Some of the jobs were downright disgusting.’ The children could not even afford to buy a bag of potato chips for lunch.

‘Who's going to bring home the bacon if you quit your job?’

‘I'm not earning any money. Those under 35 might have bright futures; I'm not going anywhere. The only work available is dirty, unpleasant and dangerous. The job centre has things like cleaning jobs... it won't take me longer than an hour to do the cleaning.’

Why not get a job as a shop assistant: hard on the feet but it can be more interesting than you think...’

She continued to harp on the theme of her wasted life. She had no intention of spending the rest of her life working as a waitress; she wanted a life of reasonable comfort. ‘I'm not boring you am I?’

‘No, no, carry on.’ I began to probe and try to find out why they had employed her. ‘It must be very depressing to spend your life cleaning up after people you never see. It will be much more satisfactory from your point of view if you are given more responsibility in your job.’

‘The point is taken,’ Sheila said archly. She started to cry. I looked the other way.

Felicity brought a fresh dish of kidneys. They stopped talking as soon as they saw Howard enter. There is something slightly comical about him. Howard hung up his coat on the hook behind the door—his pale beige summer coat. I never seem to have enough coat hangers. He took our coats and hung them in the closet, an old, worm-eaten piece of furniture. He took John's battered hat and laid it on the table. Hats are coming back into fashion. Howard took off his jacket and put it neatly over the back of the chair. He took off his shirt, put it on a hanger, and hung it in the wardrobe. What would she think if people went naked? That such a modest man should be unclothed seems highly improbable.

His eyes took on a slightly glazed, distant look. ‘What can I do for you?’

She shook her head, annoyed with herself for forgetting his name. ‘God bless you, it's terribly good of you to come. I had better introduce myself.’ She was speaking with a terrible bogus accent.

Howard caught the tone of incipient hysteria in her voice. He pointed at her as if he meant her to stand up.

Sheila's voice brought me back to the present. I tried to smooth over the awkwardness of this first meeting. ‘Her name is Sheila. She's been working in a pub.’

‘Since when?’

‘About a month ago.’

She was faintly bemused by his questions. The conversation that followed was animated.

‘What would be for you a typical working day?’

She had to empty bed pans, do the cleaning, make beds, etc, etc. She wanted to start up a little country pub; she spend an hour drivelling on about it. ‘That's the kind of job I should be doing.’ She made a number of remarks that did not need an answer.

Howard listened, his angular face placid. He would steal upward glances at the clock. He had taken out his handkerchief several times while talking to her and blown his nose.

‘I'm not boring you?’ she said, anxiously.

‘I don't know,’ he admitted. ‘I appreciate the reasons for your anxiety. People decide on their aims in life according to their inclinations. Let me go back for a moment to what you think are the main causes of the problem. We have to do more for the poor and the jobless, the growing army of the unemployed; we need a more caring society, job creation schemes and the like. Rather than compensate people for unemployment should we not rebuild the economy? Women are currently becoming unemployed almost twice as fast as men.’

‘What does your party have to gain by casting the unemployed as work-shy?’

He did not look at all pleased. ‘For each man who loses his job unemployment is a personal catastrophe. Government money should be diverted to unemployment black spots. The economic outlook is bright. There is a vast surplus of workers crying out for employment. These men stand between you and the top jobs. The system is biased in favour of young people.’

She looked blank. I thought this a very fair reflection upon the way in which she lived her life.

Sheila reads avidly. I pulled down a dull-looking book from an upper shelf.

‘Catch,’ said Howard. He threw the book over to her. ‘Look at the chart to see which benefits you can get if you are unemployed. All bona fide cases of hardship will receive help. It is not always clear whether a claimant is entitled to benefit. When the Social Security office gets your claim form they will arrange for you to see them. You can re-enter the job market at a later stage. Everyone comes up against discrimination sooner or later. Think big! If you want to make money you've got to take chances. This is the secret to success. Try to dress attractively. If you are at the bottom of the pile, your first efforts must be directed to changing your status. Starting off as a secretary on a local paper may give you a toehold in journalism. A perfect job for ambitious females. There tends to be a sameness about the job, which can be a bit of a let-down. Here's my card if you need any help.’

What are her chances of getting the job? He spoke as though he wanted to close the conversation. Hardly had he uttered the words when he began laughing. He tried to focus his eyes on a painting above Sheila's head. Howard guessed with growing exultation that this must be the painting he had been searching for, a large painting by Rossetti.

Her face went blank. ‘Thank you very much indeed for coming to see me. I shall make up my own mind on the basis of the advice I have been given.’ She felt she was being fobbed off.

Though we were as rude as possible, she wouldn't go. She put the book back in its place on the shelf. Sheila has never had the slightest interest in politics, the party's generally leftward movement. She would have been better off simply to say, ‘No’. She glumly forked her way through the risotto. ‘All that work on the cycle has given me an appetite...thank you very much for granting me so much of your valuable time.’

Howard put on his hat and gloves. It seemed appropriate to end with a joke. ‘Have you heard the one about the actress and the bishop?

“I have a confession to make...I can't make love in my own language for some reason. Congreve's language is wonderful—I just can't get my tongue round his name.”

“English people often find the pronunciation of French difficult. There must be a reason.”

“I never have an orgasm with him.”

“If that's the case, his sacrifice no longer has any meaning. Don't fret, there's plenty more where that came from.”

“I do not think I love him enough to marry him.”

“You are not marrying for love. Make the most of today and blow what happens tomorrow.”

“I disagree with much of what he says.”

“And what started the quarrel?”

“An insult. From him. A rude joke, the crudest kind of racial prejudice. I gave him what I hoped would be translated as a thoughtful look.”

“Mind you, he had very nice manners, didn't he?”

“Not at the moment,” she said after a slight hesitation.

The Bishop now looked distinctly irate. “I think we could all do with a good night's sleep.” The bishop concluded that she had missed his point entirely. He withdrew in a fit of pique.’

‘What's funny?' she asked.

Sheila had left her cloak behind. ‘He seems to think that poverty is a punishment of idleness.’ She's always complaining, she's such a pain in the neck. She's a real misery. I felt an unreasonable hatred for that witless woman.

John’s having a bit of a sulk upstairs. I bragged of my connections with the aristocracy, the upper strata of society. ‘Mr and Mrs Peter Hochstadt request the pleasure of your company at a dinner to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary.’ His invitations to dinner were famous.

‘Those ghastly Hochstadts and their idiot guests...’ He was depressed, for he saw something ominous in this dinner party. ‘How did the invitation come about?’

‘There are always people to ask me out. You can come along too, if you like—it doesn't bother me.’

‘The gracious world of the Hochstadts...do they bother about things like long hair? I don't have the backbone to do it.’

‘They go round kissing one another when they meet.’

‘No they don't.’

‘Yes they do. I've seen them doing it.’

He once confessed to Felicity that he really hated parties.

Dinner party

I happened to meet his boss at a dinner party. Cliff's calmness and self-control was very impressive. He was forced to talk to his singularly unappealing hostess. ‘I talked to a colleague of yours recently...’

Cliff talked to me a few times but we couldn't really communicate. He wasn't coming across as the idiot I had expected him to be. He belongs by birth to the elite: he talked with a clipped, upper-class accent. The more I talked, the more silent Cliff became. I stood there, feeling self-conscious. Was my hair out of place? I am not a lady, and never will be.

Britain dearly loves its little closed societies. The drive was cluttered with half a dozen cars. A servant came to the door and showed me in; a maid in a white apron over a short black dress. She bustled about, all smiles. Waiters in white jackets arrived with drinks. This reception made me nervous and threw me off-balance—the sort of parties at which footmen announced duchesses. To begin with, the invitation for eight really means eight-thirty to nine. The patio lighting was artfully arranged to flatter people's faces. Little elegant ship models ride buoyantly in mid-air. All those boats brought Bellini's Venetian landscape to mind.

It was very pleasant at the Hochstadt's—people who share the same interests and aptitudes. Nellie was a soft, caring person. She even sent her car and chauffeur to collect her guests. Her German husband was a naturalised Englishman. Most of them speak either good English or good German or both. They appeared to possess all the attributes of a ruling class: the position of control that enables them to usurp power and privilege. I was impressed by their friendliness, ease and naturalness, and their total lack of shyness. They all have an unreal politeness and phony manners. They believed that the working class were somehow ‘different from us’, to quote Lord Curzon: a remark that was later attributed to Hochstadt himself. They rush to defend any breach in the walls.

Mr Hochstadt began clattering with his fire-irons among the cold ashes. The number of nouveaux-riches who appeared on the scene, people who have fought their way to the top of the human pile... He treated them as savages to be tamed and civilised. He was selfish, arrogant and often callous: he liked to unmask his guests' disreputable pasts. He didn't spare my blushes. ‘She seemed to like me and encourage me..’ He began to dwell on memories of how his mother had lived her life, his bachelor pad in Davies Street, sexual encounters, appalling stories of hatred and violence.

The log fire gave the room a bit of atmosphere. ‘Mr Desmond Burton Cox’, announced George, showing the guest into the room. ‘You look very apropos today in that suit!’ Desmond's presence or absence was a matter of total indifference to him. His profile was like a caricature of a Roman Emperor; there is something very dishonourable about him. He had a reputation for arrogance; his lordly manners were quite repulsive. His aquiline features held a mixture of reverence and contempt: a superb line from nose to brow, a real conqueror's face. Bureaucracy, he argues, is killing the spirit of spontaneity.

I remained completely unmoved in Desmond's antiseptic presence: that tall, slightly stooped, and distinguished bearing. ‘How do you square being a Lord with being a Marxist?’

He threw another log on the fire. ‘I don't know an awful lot about it.’ This statement was a classic illustration of British politeness.

‘You have the spirit of a bourgeois.’

He readily accepted an invitation to dinner.

Peter gives out drinks to all the guests. He smiled cheerfully at everybody. The claps on the back and the smiles are heartier than before. We are unaware of the subtle complexities of many of our gestures and expressions.

After Peter had circulated amongst his guests, dinner was announced. I made my erratic way through the dining saloon. The first three women to arrive had the comfy chairs. They had an abnormal interest in food. The meal is appetizingly prepared and presented. The trout lay in a deep copper dish, in a kind of broth. Cod is expensive at the moment; price rises had made it a rare delicacy for ordinary citizens. The pears are heavy and ripe. An apple pie stood beside a joint of roast beef. One can always be assured of the best in Nellie's place. She carved the bird roughly, but competently. Lady Sackville, as usual, took command, a woman of iron character who had ruled the roost for years. Dr. Hochstadt pinched Caro's cheek as she passed. ‘Don't do that,’ she snapped. She made a toast, clinking her glass against Cliff's. She had a very large bosom. The guests were sipping their drinks. Some people experienced a burning sensation. It often seemed that the main topic of conversation was food.

John was still peering round with sharp, anxious looks. His horn-rimmed spectacles rested on the bridge of his nose. He made a conscious effort to look as though he was enjoying himself. ‘What comes next, then?’ He buttered himself a piece of bread. His behaviour is deliberately intended to be off-putting. He held out his plate for a second portion.

‘Ladies first, John.’

There wasn't much meat left on the bone by the time he had had his third helping. ‘How long are you staying?’ I asked him uncivilly. Luckily, Nellie was out of earshot. He helped himself from the sauce boat proffered to him. We used to tease John, just for the sport of it; at first we cold-shouldered him. John grabbed the bottle, twisted off the cap, and sniffed. He could not resist being unkind to people, making cheap jokes at their expense. Anyone can see that he is nothing but a roué and not to be trusted. There is little call for his services; there's just no reason for him to be here. Peter Hochstadt circulated the sherry; the Christmas pudding was set on the table.

The English aristocracy have always been most eccentric. I find it quite difficult to understand what people are saying. Beneath the veneer of civilisation lay something very crude indeed. The room was full of VIPs; the draped curtains add to the effect of decaying splendour. The Vanbrugh sisters were remarkably alike in appearance; one tends to think of their characteristics as being more or less identical. Their assessment of character was uncannily accurate. A family of landed gentry, they both were proud and shy and anti-social; their talk was slightly malicious and gossipy. The sisters had both been sponsored in their girlhood by Irving and Ellen Terry. I am expecting to hear from them any day now.

The Marquis de la Falaise, a penniless French aristocrat; he got angry with both of them. He will have to leave early because his wife is so awkward. Everybody shuts up like a clam as soon as you mention it. He had a belligerent and deeply suspicious look on his face. I really need to brush up on my French.

The Baroness von Hodenburg; she had beautiful manners. For some reason, her name did stick in my mind. She was one of Lady Keeble's greatest friends. A stout lady with a raven-black bob, she has become the reigning belle. She wore a hat with a huge brim. Her exquisite jewel casket was painted by Rossetti. She had won for her family a position immune to censure. She was being unusually charitable to me today. Her fourth husband was a wealthy Irish playboy, a man who by caricature exposed the pretensions of the nobility. He was a distant relative of the archbishop. In her husband's biased eyes she is the most beautiful creature on earth; he treated her with great gentleness, as though she were made of china. Her husband is reserved and cautious, never making a swift decision about anything.

John stopped at their table to exchange greetings. During the meal this strangely assorted pair had the first opportunity to talk. ‘Can I bum a cigarette off you?’ What he lacked in charm he could make up in loquacity. Irony was the effect he worked for in conversation. ‘Smokers are my bète noire.’ He paused in mid-sentence, lighting—horror of horrors—a cigarette. ‘This trout is delicious,’ he added, with appreciation. ‘I've never had an hors d'oeuvre that I liked.’

She started to get very angry, before she realised he was joking. With deliberate coarseness, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘As you can see, I don't know what I'm talking about.’ He parodied George, making his eyes wide with false disapproval. We didn't pay any attention to him—it was a case of monumental bad-manners. He was clearly not expected to dinner this evening. He rose and walked slowly away, his departure as unnoticed as his arrival had been—like a scene from a novel by Henry James.

Von Hodenburg was beginning to lose interest. His father-in-law was a count, and exceedingly wealthy: Count Lanfranco Rasponi, a leading industrialist with business interests in Germany. He comes of royal blood; he had not come by these things through his own labour. Rasponi had bee whiling away the time with his flow of reminiscences. I left George and joined the Count at his table.

‘How is your mother?’ Rasponi asked with formal politeness.

‘We get on fine.’

The Count was an arbiter between the States and the federal government. I asked him whether there was much difference between British and European law. ‘Do other countries have the same distinction between amateur and professional that we do?’

‘That's the trouble with the Civil Service nowadays—too many chiefs and not enough Indians. We are all professionals at our jobs. I was involved in an advisory capacity with a parliamentary committee last year. People like you and me are too busy chasing after money to care about such things.’ A civil, but evasive answer.

Rasponi had been whiling away the time with this flow of reminiscences. He gave cameos of debates with exquisite touches of irony. He can impersonate most well-known politicians on demand.

Simcox was manifestly too important to be left off the guest list. His tone of voice tends to be rather arch. Sir Edwin Simcox, the sixth baronet, Caro's rejected beau; he is the current bearer of the Sackville title. Edwin was very conscious of his ancestry. He had come into the title the previous year. His fondness for name-dropping was irritating to say the least. I talked to his wife (Lady Clarissa, the daughter of Lord Elasson). She told me that the second proposal of marriage which she received came from an Italian prince. Edwin had always been so reserved and gentlemanly and had never called her by her first name. ‘Edwin proposed to me in the corridor at work and I accepted.’ They behaved as if they were fearful of committing a faux-pas. We all clubbed together to buy him a present when he retired. All his life he would remain the dull, sedate, and reliable person he had always been.

Sir Oswald was immaculately dressed. Diana Mitford, daughter of Baron Redesdale; the name rings a bell. Her husband is a very dignified man with, I suggest, a very obscure past. There was a wasp buzzing about her ear and she wanted to kill it. She lunged at the wasp with a rolled-up newspaper. She laughed, and her buck teeth showed.

‘Don't look at me,’ Caro broke in brusquely.

Behind her was the unmistakable bulk of Harry Meadows. His voice had an unfamiliar cadence; Caro recollected that he was Welsh. He has become obese and lazy. He sat down on his big fat bum. For a man of his vast bulk, Harry had a surprisingly high voice. ‘I've had some bumf through the post from the trade department...’

Nellie clucked over him and kept giving him glasses of orange juice. She was comfortable, even wealthy by old standards. She was distantly connected on her mother's side with the Rothschilds.

Sir Arthur was the holder of a baronetcy dating back to Charles I. He was our next-door neighbour in Carlton Gardens. He was something of a trouble-maker but was never censured for it. His manifold absurdities might have been forgotten. They had no money beyond Sir Arthur's salary. Arthur's garden was the laughing stock of the neighbourhood.

The Marquis of Stafford; he simply decided to be a prince. He had splashed wine into Arthur's glass until it had brimmed over onto the tablecloth. Mr Zoyland was the bastard son of the Marquis; a charming and gregarious man whose dinner parties were always lively. He hurled himself bodily at the Prince. At least fifteen persons witnessed the attack on Edgar. This was the first time I was witness to one of his rages. The Prince leaned over to me and said, ‘That's him.’

William Wilson, Labour MP for Coventry South; this used to be a boom town until they closed down all the car factories. I had grown up in the district; he clawed his way up from the back streets of Glasgow. Mr Wilson is a very obliging, amiable Gentleman. The Foster Smith branch of the family emigrated to Australia.

Dr Joseph Court, an American citizen living in Britain...he became a British citizen. He entertained the company with an account of the personal habits of great opera singers.

Mr Perkins, always the showman, arrived on the back of an elephant. Their eyes lit up at Mr. Perkin's advent. He was a great womanizer. He claimed to be a Scot but had a powerful Liverpool accent. His appearance was so outlandish that it compelled attention. He has a new office in the City at Angel Court.

The last on the list was Dunn. He had been invited to make up the numbers at dinner. Mr Dunn seemed to know the place well. I can't make out if Nell likes him or not. Fred Dunn, a one-time stockyard worker, a tall blond man in check suit; he was working on his invention. With all his experience abroad he was a major asset to the company: he proposed a characteristically brilliant solution. The firm benefited from his ingenuity: they gave him carte blanche to publish his proposal. He built a robot capable of understanding spoken commands. It's designed to keep out intruders. ‘Let me describe some of the developments waiting to burst from our laboratories and factories. Scientists are hovering on the brink of a major breakthrough. The universal power of the chip affects every aspect of our society. America and Japan are working on chips which will hold a million words. We have shown that computers can be intelligent. As a last resort the sceptic may fall back on cataloguing Man's supposedly unique abilities. Man will find a way of making use of them; which brings us to the question of just what that use could be. Robots are now manufactured by the million. I refer to the built-in safeguards in this system. This is an age of high technology and automation, an age besotted with the concept of the unattainable. Most sciences and technologies have become woefully compartmentalized and specialized. Come and have some more champers.’

Fred poured himself another glass of champagne. ‘There is a causal chain involved in all technological developments. It completely by-passes the whole question of ethics. Computing is a boom industry. It ought to be possible to automate the control process; there will come a point in the future when computers will be able to make these decisions for us.’

I found it hard to keep a straight face. ‘It's no good talking to me about physics. It's a closed book to me. Nobody has ever explained electricity to me in a meaningful way. Who's the brains behind the project?’

He smiled frostily. ‘The project was the brainchild of Max Nicholson. I'd like to change the subject because I think we're getting too personal.’

He is to be congratulated on his success. A steel disc had been welded onto the mechanism. ‘If you look at its shape you'll see that it's slightly wider at the bottom. The pin is centrally positioned on the circle.’ He pushed the bolt back in and twisted it clockwise. ‘These are common or garden transistors.’

We all admired the cleverness of the device. Various metals and ceramics are used in making these components. Part of the disc was cut out to allow free passage backwards of the bolt. The device made a noise when you blew through it. The machine was very awkward to use. The slightest atom of dust can harm the workings. It has to be chucked away because it hasn't worked. A lot of the technology, in inverted commas, is virtually useless. Not even the great brains of Cambridge can solve his problem.

‘Do the results have any practical application?’

He is really not amused but wishes to hide the fact. ‘As Dr Hochstadt so aptly remarked to his wife, “I don't think there is any evidence of that whatsoever.” Contrary to popular belief, science does not offer us certainties. There's no reason on earth why it shouldn't work. The more useful a thing appears, the more it comes to be used. If it also works, that is an added bonus.’ He tugged at the metal handle and it came off in his hand. ‘I'm sorry, it just came apart in my hands.’

Lady Sackville levelled her lorgnette at him. Her detachment was a mask for a meddlesome nature. She didn't want to let the conversation drift. ‘Can I just intervene for one moment? Don't believe a word he says.’

Once gnawed, ground, and pulped, the food has to be digested. There was a general movement to leave the table at this point, there was a scraping of chairs. George blew out the candles. I glanced around, satisfied myself that the last diner had left, and turned off the lights. The room beyond proved to be a mirror image of the first room. Haydn's clavichord is on display here. I was sitting somewhat apart from the rest. I saw through all the ballyhoo. There was a pause at the end of each cadence. I hated the big formal dances and felt very awkward and out of place.

Mrs Hochstadt prided herself on her intelligence. She knows all about these fashionable people like Chomsky and Saussure. Her beauty grew in her old age. ‘What was the book called?’ Mrs Hochstadt said, casting her mind back.

‘She wrote a novel called “Memoirs of a Survivor”. Her books have been boosted in the Sunday Observer recently.’

'Okay,' she said. ‘It must be quite interesting for you.’

I made no bones about criticizing the book. ‘I've been looking for literature of a more cheerful nature. I found the book virtually unreadable. I should hate her for all the trouble she has caused me. I began to suffer from sleeplessness.’

She smiled benevolently. ‘I don't think you can generalize about that. I don't know why you must always fuss so much.’

Diana hated to hear Mrs Hochstadt talk like that. She put her coffee cup down with an angry little clatter. ‘She was not the victim of circumstance that she made herself out to be.’

Nellie clasped her hands in mute protest. She started to wag her finger in front of my face while she spoke. ‘Oh, come, come! No, I can't possibly agree with that. That remark was in rather poor taste. The inhabitants were tortured to death or exterminated by starvation.’

I said something that might have been misconstrued as an apology. ‘The book says one thing and you say another. I don't know which to believe.’

Perkins stifled a belch. He is a biggish man with very dark black hair. He gave an admiring account of John's doings. By ‘John’ I assumed he meant John Fletcher. Stories about him circulated at his club, the local Liberal club. I remembered how sick he had been.

Nellie glanced at her watch. ‘I didn't know that Fletcher was ill. It's nothing serious, I hope.’ She glanced slyly at Caro. Nell had conditioned her to see me as an enemy.

He lowered his voice and leaned forward. ‘The stroke paralysed half his face.’

‘Is he Jewish?’ she asked.

I smiled uncertainly, feeling woozy from the whisky. ‘He was in the German army.’

She smiled amused. ‘You mustn't tease me like that, Jane.’

I've boobed again! What a clod she must think I am. Mrs Hochstadt, who hated to see litter, had to check an impulse to run after it and pick it up. She dressed austerely rather than smartly: she liked to see people sensibly clad. She has managed to break out of the mould and achieve something individual. She liked big cars. Dignity is the quality which I associate mostly with her. She said ‘excuse me’ whenever a slight burp interrupted her flowing speech. An older woman, certain of her attractions, she hated all the publicity and gossip which attended her activities. She has a very large bust; her spectacles were nestling in her grey bush of hair. She had a great aversion to children. What gets me is the way Nellie implies that I'm fascinated by her husband.

Dr Hochstadt leaned forward and patted Nellie's hand. A dead cigar lay in the ashtray. Dr Hochstadt swept all his coins back into the cigar-box, a wooden box with instructions on the lid. A casually acquired object, he opened it slowly. Not to torture me, I don't think, but to stall for time. The box smelled of stale tobacco. ‘Okay, do you mind if we speak a bit of German now?’ He spoke his own special variety of German.

‘Maybe you could teach me,’ said Caro hesitantly.

If I understood his pedantic German correctly, he was expressing an admiration for her. He found her loose dress erotically appealing. He sang a verse of ‘Lili Marlene’. ‘Goodnight, and call again. Anytime,’ Hochstadt added meaningfully. ‘I'll see you at the club.’

Nellie started to worry about how to get rid of her guests—she was terribly afraid of offending anyone.

‘Remind him in a friendly, firm, and breezy tone that he has just had a drink.’

The guests prepared for their departure. We all said goodnight and went through the motions. He was in full cry when the hall suddenly emptied.

She had often turned a blind eye to Dunn's drinking sessions. He is a notorious boozer; he will linger behind occasionally to chat. He tried to start a conversation, but she brushed him off. She brushed his protests aside, politely. ‘There's the bell, it's time to go home.’

An elderly servant slowly brushed the carpet. ‘If you give the carpet a hard brush, maybe that'll help.’ For a ghastly moment I thought she was going to ask me to stay.

‘Good night. Do call again.’

A tall lean woman with a long dress climbed into a Rolls Royce. She was acting as a companion to the old lady.

‘Goodbye, dear,’ Mrs Hochstadt said.

She bid her an unusually ceremonious farewell. ‘Goodbye, Miss Hochstadt,’ she said, bowing to her.

A diversion was caused when Mrs Drew's chauffeur came back with the flowers. A bum looking bloke, he was a total stranger who had been bullied unmercifully into driving her home. Almost by chance I found myself involved in trying to talk to her: ‘What is the point of having a mink coat or a Rolls Royce if everybody else does too?’

She gave me a look of the sort usually reserved for naughty schoolchildren. However, I left thinking that I had created quite an impression.

Howard's turn

The village where Howard lives is a bit off the beaten track. I can still remember every single detail of that night. Five inches of snow had fallen. It must have been about ten o'clock or later; half the country was snowbound. John had left his car for repairs in some garage or other. It was Howard's turn to drive the car home through the snow. ‘There it is,’ he said, indicating the car with a nod of his head. ‘The ride may be a bit bumpy but at least you'll get there.’

‘John disgraced himself last night at the party. He takes a perverse delight in irritating people.’

‘Poor old John, he can't do a thing right. It is very difficult to overcome your early conditioning.’

Howard was leaning forward over the steering wheel. He couldn't get his engine started. ‘The car won't start.’

‘Have you switched the ignition on?’

‘As you can see, we've got a problem with the engine. It's a terrible car, and what annoys me is that I paid through the nose for it. Selling cars is big business in which the buccaneers make huge profits.’

‘Use the choke to start the car when the engine is cold.’

‘It's right on full choke and it still won't start.’ Wiping his hands on a rag, he went out to where the car was. ‘Is the boot open?’

I unlocked the boot and laid the tools on the bonnet. The battery was dead. ‘Of course the car won't start; the battery's completely dead! Can you give it a shove?’

The engine was running. ‘Stop shoving, Howard.’

He tried to drive off in second. The streets followed irregular patterns. He followed the arrows and directional marks—the white lines painted along the middle of the road. Snow gusted past the street lamps. We drove through some of the dingiest streets of the town; the stream of traffic now flowed unceasingly. He began to talk to me about his boyhood in London. I kept glancing in the rear-view mirror to see if we were being followed. Dots and dashes blinked out from a signal light. He thought the traffic lights weren't working. The lights constantly switched from red to amber, then green. An omen portending our future victory?

The lights changed to green, then the traffic moved again. Howard pushed the gear lever in. He made a bad gear-change and grimaced. ‘I find changing gear is awkward in this car.’

The engine's pitch changed from a low murmur to an urgent growl. He took to the little byways and one-way streets. The track got bumpier and muddier the further we went. A thaw had set in and the streets were slushy. We drove under a gloomy sky. Every so often along the road a sign proclaimed the name of another village. The weather had indeed deteriorated. Because of the snow, visibility was drastically reduced. Cars went by with headlights blazing. A car passed him at top speed, sounding its horn. The driver slowed down and poked his head out of the window to stare. ‘They were afraid of you. Mr Heissman was away for quite a bit.’

‘Did you have to involve me in this?’

‘I am badly in need of advice. You're our only hope now.’

‘I don't have any intention of giving up politics. Not yet.’ This brief riposte indicated that he considered the subject closed. He asked me if I was clever. I was forced to admit that I was not. He became huffy and said he'd scrap the whole idea: ‘Well, to tell you the honest truth, I think its all a bit too much trouble. I can't be bothered. It's too much aggro.’

‘Don't you play the wise old professor with me, Howard. Great minds think alike.’

We covered the last five miles on a narrow bumpy track. He had to change from third to second gear. The driving snow had increased. The road finally widened and turned into a courtyard; the address is 33 Laurel drive. The gate slid open at the push of a button. We turned through the arch into the yard. He brought the car to a stop. The big block proves on approach to be blind, with all the windows boarded up. ‘If you want to stop burglars you have to board or brick the windows up.’

It's a very fine example of traditional architecture. The house looked desolate, ready to be torn down; it will be all the better for a coat of paint. The backyard was infested with rats. Rats carry very nasty diseases. His flat is on the fourth floor of this five-storey block.

The lift was long dead, and the shaft bricked off. ‘Durand’ read the name plate screwed into the door frame. He had two small rooms, with a kitchenette and a tiny bathroom—the abode of a man of substance. Howard tossed his shoes into a corner. He didn't pay much attention to his surroundings. He brewed cups of thick Turkish coffee. There had always been an aura of despair about the flat. The room was furnished with low tables, mattresses, and cushions. Inside the flat was a musty smell of stale air. Daggers and pistols were arrayed on the mouldy walls. In the corners were pockets of dust enriched with cobweb. There were clothes and old shoes all over the place.

‘No offence, but there's a terrible smell in here. Shall I open the window?’

‘I'm not bothered.’ Walking over to the chair, he plopped down into it. ‘I know the place is a mess, but make yourself at home...’

I noticed that he was wearing built-up boots. ‘I must ask your pardon for this intrusion. I know how desperately busy you are.’


‘You probably do mind, but you're too polite to say so.’

He had some very nice oils. ‘Can I light the fire? I am cold.’ I switched on the electric fire. There was a charming bucolic print above the fireplace.

Entering politics seemed an absurd goal for one so tongue-tied and gauche. Of course he drank, and he dosed himself with pills. His skin was blotchy. He still bore the scars of maternal rejections. Howard's nanny chose his books, his food and his friends. Too little bone and brawn had isolated Howard from his fellow men. He had a fairly closed circle of friends. Up close he was a man with inquisitive twinkling eyes. He has plainly done a painful amount of brooding and self-analysis. He wore thick glasses, and dribbled. His friends were all intensely dogmatic theoreticians, always clinging to some big noble abstract. These gentlemen are usually bogged down in a morass of superfluous paperwork. They would almost certainly launch into a little lecture about how bad times are. Hypocrisy is the canker in the soul of these people; they had made a small, superior, isolated clique. For all their differences among themselves, they reached some kind of consensus, some common philosophy of life. They had no problems of conscience, no feelings of guilt; they teach the relativity of all ethical ideas. They were talking about personal matters with unusual candour. They'll talk about anything, no matter who's there. I was bored stiff by this arid stuff.

The bedroom was done out in pale blue. Only a few of the bulbs were working. Howard could feel the rheumatism in his joints...the joints of the fingers. He was cursed with deformed arches. ‘Your back may seize up. Get comfortable so that you can relax and rest your muscles.’

He made a little grimace. Complex facial muscles whose sole job it is to make expressions. ‘I'm too old to care what I look like. I'm half crippled with arthritis.’

‘See the doctor for a blood test and check-up.’

He wears a copper bracelet to ward off rheumatism. Iron would do the job better. But then you can't bend iron so easily.

However much you try to change the subject, the conversation invariably returns to politics. Howard only smiled tolerantly. ‘You paint a rather black picture of the situation.—Are you still with me?’

‘Sorry, I'm not quite with you. Lets get on with the job in hand.’ I was tired, aching and miserable. I told myself it was only a game, a little revenge.

Howard looked steadily at me for some moments. ‘It could cost quite a lot,’ he said. ‘Even under the most favourable circumstances this is not easy.’

‘Screw the cost,’ I said.

‘Don't scoff, Jane. You are being a bit complacent. Don't dive headlong into a task which you know you can't complete. You've got to be positively Machiavellian. I know you had some Communist friends.’

‘I'm not clear from what you said whether you support the idea or not.’

‘Everything you dread doing you must do straight away. In the past the voice of dissension has been quickly snuffed out. Planning is the key. To challenge him directly would invite disaster. You will need a great deal of diplomacy to put this young man politely in his place.’

‘I mean it's all very well that you say that you dislike it, but what are you going to do about it?’

‘Good question. I am not quite sure. It should be done by someone, but not, heaven forbid, by that Franklin fellow! To put it baldly, I can't stand the man. He's a right pain, that man. This sort of work calls for special talents. I could find someone else—I am acquainted with the names of at least eight such people. If you can afford it, use specialists. Move slowly, or you will startle your quarry into instant retreat. That's the best advice I can possibly give. Do I make myself clear?’

I thanked him and accepted. ‘One thing I want to ask you: have you found my book yet?’

He produced the book, without further ceremony, from under his bed. He went over to the desk, and took an old crumpled press cutting out of a pigeon-hole. The passages which had been marked exactly corresponded to those cited by the reviewer. I poured him a glass of wine.

‘Don't fill the glass all the way.’

There was a long pause. ‘Actually, I didn't come here just to help you with the party. I need something to buck my spirits up today.’

It was the first surprised look I managed to extort from that old knowing face. ‘What on earth are you bumbling about? I like you a lot, but I have no intention of going to bed with you.’ There was a rustling of papers. He hunched his shoulders and bent lower over his work. His life was too well regulated to be affected by affairs of the heart. It was acutely embarrassing. ‘Well, leave it with me and I'll see what I can do. It's no good worrying any more tonight. You can shake down at my place tonight.’

‘As it happens, I've got my things with me here. I'm going to brush my teeth.’

I felt his eyes upon my back as I left the room. A toothbrush would come in handy. Toothbrushes huddled together in a tumbler like men in a waiting room; the bristles on this toothbrush are beginning to splay out already. Tooth decay could be much reduced if greater care were taken of the teeth in childhood.

I spent the night on the sitting-room sofa, a big divan covered with cushions. He drew the curtains.

‘Could you turn that radio down—I'm trying to get to sleep.’ I wondered how he'd react to such a blunt question. He switched the radio off.

I woke up. But not in a state of shock or anything, just having had a very vivid dream. He lay out on the stretcher while the doctor explained what he was going to do: ‘The application of a cold wet cloth will stop the swelling.’ Howard lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘This is not Dr Malcolm, he is an impostor.’ An angel of the Lord, a pair of feathery appendages, a mysterious winged presence, felt rather than seen. He grabbed my arm. ‘I had an operation on my spine. Why don't you leave this awful hole and come to live with me? You can't live on bread and cheese.’

The angels were commanded to bow down. The creature had a long nose bristling with whiskers, a beast with claws that scratched. I could not bring myself to touch him.

Are dreams a portent of things to come? I'm feeling a bit seedy this morning. He got out of bed stiffly. ‘I now face the knotty question of what to have for breakfast.’ He tucked the back of his shirt down into his trousers, a shirt carelessly open at the neck.

‘Suppose someone gets killed.’

‘It's a calculated risk, but I think it's worth it.’ He tucked in appreciatively to his bacon and eggs. ‘I shall feel myself free to call off.’ He prefers good plain food: nothing fancy. ‘We are just going to bung the car into the garage and let them deal with it. Be a darling and get my cigarettes from the bedroom.’

I could not define or articulate the dissatisfaction I felt. ‘You have too much carbohydrate in your diet. You need a complete change of diet.’

It was Sunday and the garage was closed. ‘I'll find out tomorrow about the car and let you know what happened.’

Go to Part 4 of Secret Ballet

Last update: 16 October 2008 | Impressum—Imprint