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Doris Dubois is twenty-three years younger than I am. She is slimmer than I am, and more clever. She has a degree in economics, and hosts a TV arts programme. She lives in a big house with a swimming pool at the end of a country lane. It used to be mine. She has servants and a metal security gate which slides open when her little Mercedes draws near. I tried to kill her once, but failed.
When Doris Dubois comes into a room all heads turn: she has a sunny disposition and perfect teeth. She smiles a lot and most people find themselves returning the smile. If I did not hate her I expect I would quite like her. She is, after all, the nation's sweetheart. My husband loves her, and can see no fault in her. He buys her jewels.
The swimming pool is covered, warmed, and flanked by marble tiles and can be used summer and winter. Trees and shrubs in containers have been placed all around the pool area. In photographs -- and the press come often to see how Doris Dubois lives -- the pool seems to exist in a mountain grotto. The water has to be cleaned of leaves more often than any pool of mine ever did. But who's counting cost?
Doris Dubois swims in her pool every morning, and twice a week my ex-husband Barley dives in to swim beside her. I have had them watched by detectives. After their swim servants come and offer warmed white towels into which they snuggle with little cries of joy. I have heard these cries on tape, as well as other more important, more profound, less social cries, those noises men and women make when they abandon rationality and throw in their lot with nature. 'Cris de jouissance', the French call them. Défense d'émettre des cris de jouissance, I read once on a bedroom wall in a French hotel when Barley and I were in our heyday, and went on our humble holidays so happily together. In the days when we thought love would last forever, when we were poor, when joy was on the agenda.
Défense d'émettre des cris de jouissance. They had a hope!
Barley has aged better than I have. I smoked and drank and lay in the sun during the years of our happiness, on this Riviera and that, and my skin has dried out dreadfully and the doctor will not let me take what he calls artificial hormones. I get them through the Internet but do not tell either my doctor or my psychoanalyst this. The former would warn me against them and the latter would tell me to find my inner self before attending to the outer. Sometimes I worry about the dosage I take, but not often. I have other things to worry about.
"It's too bad," said Doris to Barley as they lay beside one another in a tumbled pile of white cotton and lace bedclothes, in a vast bed whose elegant top and tail had been designed, even though not made, by the great Giacometti himself, "that that murderess should still be using your name."
"Murderess might be too strong," said Barley amiably, "Murderous, was how the judge described her."
"The difference is only marginal," said Doris. "The fact that I am still alive is due to me and not to her. My foot still hurts. I think you should get your lawyers on to it. It's absurd that after divorce women should be allowed to keep their husband's name. They should revert to the one they had before they married: they should cut their losses and start over. Otherwise the mistakes of one's youth -- like marriage to the wrong person -- can hang around to haunt you forever. I speak for her sake, as well as my own, and indeed yours. While she calls herself Salt she is bound to attract headlines."
"It seems a little hard to take away Gracie's name," said Barley. "I was the only claim to fame she ever had. She was a schoolgirl when I met her: a schoolgirl she remained, at heart. A man such as myself needs a little sophistication in his partner."
"I hate it when you call her Gracie," said Doris. "I want you only ever to refer to her as your ex-wife."
Grace Salt had started life as Dorothy Grace McNab, but Barley had preferred Grace to Dorothy, Dorothy reminding him of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, so Grace she had become.
Doris had not started life as Doris Dubois but as Doris Zoac, right down there at the end of the alphabet where no-one looks except the taxman, and had changed it by deed-poll the better to further her media ambitions. She had never got round to telling Barley this, and the longer she put it off the harder it got to say.
"It seems a little hard to take my ex-wife's name away," said Barley, obediently. He, who exercised power over so many, took particular pleasure in being bossed around by Doris. They both giggled a little, from the sheer naughtiness of it all, of being happy.
Doris Dubois wore her jewellery to bed, for Barley. He loved that. He loved not just the sight of it, white gold and pavé diamonds, cold metal intricately, beautifully worked, lain heavily against the cool, moist flesh of wrist and throat, but he loved the feel of it. Last night as his hand had strayed over her breasts, their nipples peaked in reassuring response, and up to feel the tenderness of her mouth, his fingers had encountered the smooth, hard edge of metal, and his whole body had been startled into instant response. Sometimes Barley was mildly worried by the people who said to him, vulgarly, "Oh well, what does age matter, there's always Viagra when the newness wears off," but eighteen months on there was no sign of it doing so. Doris kept Barley young: and the gifts he gave her were by the very nature of their giving returned-not by way of bribe or payment, but as tokens of simple adoration. Barley was fifty-eight years old, and Doris was thirty-two.
I must face the truth about Doris Dubois. She reflects fame and status on my husband, as he does on her, and he cannot resist it. What chance have I? She is the darling of the media: now they are an item Barley has his picture in Hello! and Harper's and Queen, and a fine handsome couple they make. She with her bosom hanging out of Versace and her throat so white and elegant, ringed with bright jewels: he with his thick grey hair, broad shoulders and strong industrial jaw. When Barley was with me he never rose above The Developers' and Builders' Bulletin, although once he did make the cover. But he is ambitious: it was not enough for him: he can't stay still. It was Hello! or bust.
Barley is one of those well-built men with graven features who rise to positions of great power: his jaw has grown squarer through the years. Even his hair has stayed thick as it greys. He is a master of men, and it shows. If the world is ever to see the cloning of humans, these are the pair that should be chosen to make it a better place. I said as much to my psychotherapist, Dr Jamie Doom, the other day and he congratulated me on my insight.
Twelve months after our parting, six months after our divorce, I have stopped trying to convince myself and others that in losing Barley I have lost nothing of value. I no longer describe him to others, after the vulgar manner of so many deserted spouses, as selfish, bullying, mean, unreasonable, hopelessly neurotic, even insane. He is none of these things. Barley, like Doris, is kind, good and perceptive, clever and handsome, and capable of great love. It's just that he gives it to her, not me.
"The fact is that your ex-wife does not deserve your name," said Doris after breakfast. Once she got an idea into her head it tended to stay there. "She is violent and aggressive and full of hate and spite."
They ate on the terrace, in the early sun. Doris had to be at the studio by ten, and Barley at a meeting of the Confederation of British Industry likewise. Doris's Philippine maid Maria served decaff and fruit, calories carefully weighed and counted by Doris's nutritionist. Barley's chauffeur Ross would have a flask of real coffee and a bacon sandwich ready in the back of the car when he turned up to collect Barley.
"I hear you," said Barley, whose lawyer had told him it would look better in the divorce courts if he could claim to have seen a counsellor. The law these days favoured those who put in an appearance of wanting to save their marriages, and the suggestion of a basic incompatibility with Grace would be more helpful to his case than the simple wanting to go off with Doris Dubois, a younger woman. As ever, Barley had turned time otherwise wasted to good account, and was now adept at the language of understanding and compassion. "Best to let it out. And I feel for your distress. But you did emerge from the incident more or less undamaged."
And indeed, Doris Dubois was the least damaged creature he had ever seen, let alone taken to bed: long lean tanned limbs; centred by the kind of full, well nippled bosom most skinny women achieve only after implants, but for Doris a blessing of birth -- her breasts still retaining the warm consoling texture of human flesh. Her mouth curved sweetly: she had wide blue eyes into which Barley could stare without embarrassment. Doris had developed the media art of paying attention to something else altogether while looking and smiling and nodding; he could hold her eye without actually holding it, as it were, and he found that liberating. Intense love can so often have its own embarrassments. She was widely informed: he liked that. He had spent too much of his life with Gracie, who never read a novel and whose idea of a conversation was "yes, dear", and "what did you say dear?" and "where were you last night?", who lay passively and compliantly on her back during sex. He had forgotten what the life of the mind was like. Most women, he had noticed, whose looks assure them of acceptance and approval from infancy, neglected their intelligence and sensitivities, as did Grace -- but not so Doris: Doris could hold her own at any dinner party in the land. She was perhaps a little humourless, but like a Persian rug of great quality, there must be some flaw in the design, or else God will be offended.
"All that aside," observed Doris Dubois, " -- and not that I want to marry you, marriage being such an old-fashioned institution, and I would always rather be known as Doris Dubois, rather than Doris Salt, I couldn't bear to be so near the end of the alphabet -- nevertheless, if I were to be your legal married wife, and not just your partner, I would not want there to be another Mrs Salt around."
Barley Salt felt his heart contract with joy. He had done the best he could with the cards dealt to him at birth-but there were still dinner tables at which he felt inadequate, at which he felt people laughed at him, for the rude, crude fellow he had been born. If the conversation turned to opera, or literature, or art, he felt at a loss. To be actually married to Doris Dubois, so at ease in all these areas of life, would be triumph indeed. And she, for all her disclaimers, had brought the matter up, not he.
What is this? A letter through the post from Barley's solicitors? He wants to deny me my name? He wants to rob me of my very self? I must no longer be Grace Salt? Extra alimony offered -- £500 a week -- if I revert to my maiden name? (At least he bribes, he doesn't threaten.) I must hurl myself back to my unmarried state and be seventeen again and that long lost creature Grace McNab? I can't remember who she was. How can this be, what have I done, am I so worthless that he can't endure me to have so much as a past that's linked with his? I must wink out of existence altogether? Well, I can understand it. Look at me! Described as murderous by the judge, labelled a would-be murderer: Barley must feel he is entitled to protect himself and her. Of course he wishes to obliterate me. What am I but an hysterical woman who once performed a senseless and gratuitous act of violence -- I quote the Judge -- and deserve no better. A man may seek the authenticity of his feelings, as our one-time marriage counsellor described my husband's love for Doris Dubois, but a woman must not.
'Judge Rubs Salt into Grace's Wounds,' said the headlines. 'Lovesick Drama of Fat-Cat Spouse,' and so on. 'TV Culture Queen Stole My Man, alleges Salt Wife'. A hundred faces crowding in on me with phallic lenses and popping bulbs as they hurried me, distraught and disgraced, blanket over my head, to the police cells. By the time I emerged, greyer and fatter by a year and a quarter, the media had lost interest; only a couple of film crews, some local journalists, and a woman's group wanting a donation were waiting. The authorities kindly let me out the back entrance, so that even my lawyer missed me, and I had to make my own way home. Or what I now was to call home: Tavington Court, a great block of apartments in Victorian red brick behind the British Museum, where sad divorcées hide, and little old ladies grateful for the protection of the resident porter, and widows living their leftover lives in genteel loneliness. It takes up a whole street and those who have grandchildren to visit are lucky. I am not so lucky. My son Carmichael is not likely to oblige.
All my conversations were with lawyers and accountants and all they seemed to want me to think about was the prospect of age and infirmity and death in the future.
I was victorious, but only to live my leftover life alone. And I didn't suppose Carmichael wanted me out in Sydney -- 'to be near my son' -- embarrassing him.
The media have lost interest in me altogether now. They are happy for Barley and Doris's happiness. They were married last week. The wedding was in Hello!, and I hear put the circulation up no end. My plight becomes yesterday's fish and chip wrappings. As Doris would be the first to point out, how that dates me! Fish and chips are not eaten from newsprint now, the EEC would never allow it, but if sold at all, out of recyclable polyethylene cartons. I don't like eating alone in restaurants, sitting there with my book, feeling the pity of others. It is quite astonishing how few people I know. My married life revolved around Barley: the people we knew knew us as a couple. I was just a tag-along. They feel sorry for me now and when the kind people, as I think of them, do ask me round, it is to lunch not dinner and we normally eat in the kitchen. It is better than nothing.
I have lost the art of conversation. Once I was quite good at it, but after years of living with Barley who always waxed so noisy and indignant if ever I said anything more than yes dear, no dear, I learned the prudence of silence, and in the end he took me for a fool. And there certainly wasn't much snappy dialogue in prison and for awhile after I came out I was struck quite dumb, and had to search for words with which to express my thoughts at all.
Doris Dubois is anything but dumb. I do not watch her show: it is too painful for me: but sometimes flicking through the channels I forget and come across her, fronting her highly successful Artsworld Extra. It's on twice a week. Nine o-clock peak time Thursdays. Late night repeat, Mondays. Her perfect figure, the bouncy, short cropped hair, her startling smile, the ease with which she handles ideas, the evident intelligence, the breadth of information, the flying sound bites-the worst you can say about her is that she looks like a Captain of Hockey on speed. And why, unless you have special reason, should you say the worst of her? Even I have trouble doing so.
Doris Dubois now has Barley's name -- though I notice she doesn't even bother to use it -- as well as his love, his time, his attention and his money. I have the couple followed from time to time by a detective, one Harry Bountiful. What a splendid name! I chose him because of it, flicking through the Yellow Pages. Doris and Barley will meet up in Aspreys in Bond Street, then drift over to Gucci's where Barley will perhaps buy a pair of loafers, the better to walk through St. James's Park and feed the ducks. Then perhaps they will call in as Apsley House, address No. 1, London, built for the Duke of Wellington, the one who defeated Napoleon. There they will see the fine equestrian painting of the Duke by Goya. If they look hard they will see the faint shadow of a tricolor hat beginning to show through the surface paint. The portrait was originally of 'King' Joseph Bonaparte of Spain, Napoleon's brother. But the Duke and his victorious troops were at the gates of the Madrid, the usurper had fled, so Goya prudently painted a new head on the body, and sold it to the Duke. An artist has to live. Why waste a perfectly good horse?
Or perhaps Barley and Doris, hand in hand, will drift off to Bulgari in Sloane Street, to stare at some ruby imbedded steel circlet for her slim arm, wondering whether they will or whether they won't, but mostly that they will. Because she deserves it. Because she is her. They will stroll along to South Ken., and the Victoria and Albert Museum to study, say, the Sèvres dinner service (1848) that was once Queen Victoria's own, and Doris will explain its fineness to him, and the curator will even let them handle the settings. They are an important couple, and she has friends in high cultural places.
It is thanks to his new wife that Barley can now judge the quality even of the plates set before him, tell china from pottery, and understand how the two can never merge. He knows now where camp begins and crassness stops. Doris is Barley's living Fine Arts programme. They are in love; perhaps they give more time and attention to each other than either can spare. Her ratings drop just a little: his dividends falter. Because meanwhile, as Harry Bountiful puts it, the real world goes on. But this couple, newly discovered to one another, is blessed. Strokes of good fortune come their way. Last week Doris got five numbers in the lottery and won twelve hundred pounds. Barley's latest office block won an architectural prize. Perhaps Doris was close to one of the judges.
I tried to explain to the Court that it was not that I hated Doris, just that I wanted Barley to realize the intensity of my distress and desperation.
"You really thought," enquired Judge Tobias Longue, "that if you ran down your husband's mistress in a carpark he would be sorry for you? Then you have lived a long time and don't know men very well. Good Lord, woman, he will have every excuse now for leaving you. You played into his hands." Tobias Longue was one of those lawyers who write thrillers, and had only recently been promoted to the bench. He had an eye and ear for drama. He was both on my side, and not. There had been no witnesses. It was Doris's word against mine. At the very worst, I told the Court, Doris had wrenched her ankle as she leapt out of the way of my Jaguar: but see how now she limped into court, pale and grave and prattling forgiveness.
"She's not in her right mind," Doris told Judge Tobias Longue. "I caught a glimpse of her face through the windscreen, her teeth bared, her mad eyes staring, just as the wheel went over my foot, and I felt this terrible pain and passed out. My fear as I fell was that she'd reverse back over me and crush me to death beneath that heavy car. She needs treatment, not punishment. She is unbalanced to the point of paranoia, an obsessive-compulsive. She suffers from pathological jealousy. I first met her husband when he appeared on my cultural review show: we are involved as colleagues in the setting up of a Cable TV company. But that's all there is to it: good heavens, Barley Salt is a quarter of a century older than I am, and regard him as a father."
She spoke eloquently and persuasively, as was her trade. I stumbled through my few words. Of course she was believed.
Later she said to the Press, "Poor Mrs Salt. I'm afraid she belongs to the past, one of those prurient women who assume that if a man and a woman are alone in a room together, something sexual's bound to happen." The Press forgot conveniently, when writing up the wedding, that at the time of the trial Barley and Doris vehemently denied any romantic involvement. Of course there was, starting from the very beginning in the Green Room, after everyone else had gone home, after she'd had him on her show, talking about the necessity of sponsorship of the arts by big business. I had watched that interview as a proud wife should, and seen the way she looked at him, the way his body inclined towards hers. He didn't come home until early morning, and when he got into bed he smelt of TV studios, static electricity, sex and something else sickly and evil I couldn't identify.
The prosecution asked for five years, I got three and served only fifteen months. In the event the judge was less vindictive than anyone else around. At least he acknowledged the provocation. He said in his summing up it was a silly attempt with a car outside a supermarket and that Doris had jumped easily enough out of the way. And it's true, she has perfect knees, being only thirty-three years old. At fifty-five, I already have one that is arthritic, though I didn't let it stand in my way when I put the accelerator down. The pain in the heart is always worse than the one in the body.
It has taken me a year with Dr Jamie Doom the TV psychotherapist -- he does take a few patients privately -- to be able to face the facts of the matter. Doris Dubois is a superior human being to myself in every way and no sane man would not prefer her to me, in bed or out of it, as wife, partner or mistress. I face myself in the mirror, I look at my fading eyes and know that they have seen too much, and that there is no brightening them. What ages us is experience: there can be no forgetfulness.
"But aren't you angry?" asks Dr Jamie Doom. "You must try to find your anger." But I can't.
Perhaps God will reward me for having come to terms, as Dr Doom puts it, with my distress. I am sure no-one else will. This evening I am going to a party given by a pair of the kind ones, Lady Juliet Random and her husband Sir Ronald. It's a charity auction in aid of 'Lost Children Somewhere'. I am invited not just out of kindness but because I might be able to give a hundred pounds or so to Lady Juliet's cause. Nothing compared to the thousands others give -- I am only fifth or sixth division wealth now that I live on alimony -- but no doubt still worth the champagne and canapés which I'll consume. At least I don't have to worry about meeting Doris and Barley at Sir Ronald's: they move in more elevated artistic and political circles now. The parties they go to are attended by Arts Ministers, Leisure Gurus, Museum Moguls, Dotcom-Millionaires, Monarchs of the BBC and so forth. I tell you what, every now and then I could take Barley by surprise and make him laugh. I think Doris can do everything for Barley but that. She is too intent on pleasuring herself and him to have time for much mirth. But I daresay with age even my laughter, which once Barley loved, will turn into a witch's cackle.Excerpted from THE BULGARI CONNECTION by Fay Weldon. Published by Atlantic Monthly Press Copyright © 2000 by Fay Weldon. All rights reserved.
Posted November 3, 2008
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