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It is the saddest night, for I am leaving and not coming back. Tomorrow morning, when the woman I have lived with for six years has gone to work on her bicycle, and our children have been taken to the park with their ball, I will pack some things into a suitcase, slip out of my house hoping that no one will see me, and take the tube to Victor's place. There, for an unspecified period, I will sleep on the floor in the tiny room he has kindly offered me, next to the kitchen. Each morning I will heave the thin single mattress back to the airing cupboard. I will stuff the musty duvet into a box. I will replace the cushions on the sofa.
I will not be returning to this life. I cannot. Perhaps I should leave a note to convey this information. "Dear Susan, I am not coming back..." Perhaps it would be better to ring tomorrow afternoon. Or I could visit at the weekend. The details I haven't decided. Almost certainly I will not tell her my intentions this evening or tonight. I will put if off. Why? Because words are actions and they make things happen. Once they are out you cannot put them back. Something irrevocable will have been done, and I am fearful and uncertain. As a matter of fact, I am trembling, and have been all afternoon, all day.
This, then, could be our last evening as an innocent, complete, ideal family; my last night with a woman I have known for ten years, a woman I know almost everything about, and want no more of. Soon we will be like strangers. No, we can never be that. Hurting someone is an act of reluctant intimacy. We will be dangerous acquaintances with a history. That first time she put her hand on my arm I wish I had turned away. Why didn't I? The waste; the waste of time and feeling. She has said something similar about me. But do we mean it? I am in at least three minds about all questions.
I perch on the edge of the bath and watch my sons, aged five and three, one at each end. Their toys, plastic animals and bottles float on the surface, and they chatter to themselves and one another, neither fighting nor whingeing, for a change. They are ebullient and fierce, and people say what happy and affectionate children they are. This morning, before I set out for the day, knowing I had to settle a few things in my mind, the elder boy, insisting on another kiss before I closed the door, said, "Daddy, I love everyone."
Tomorrow I will do something that will damage and scar them.
The younger boy has been wearing chinos, a grey shirt, blue braces and a policeman's helmet. As I toss the clothes in the washing basket, I am disturbed by a sound outside. I hold my breath.
She is pushing her bicycle into the hall. She is removing the shopping bags from the basket.
Over the months, and particularly the last few days, wherever I am working, talking, waiting for the bus I have contemplated this rupture from all angles. Several times I have missed my tube stop, or have found myself in a familiar place that I haven't recognized. I don't always know where I am, which can be a pleasurably demanding experience. But these days I tend to feel I am squinting at things upside down.
I have been trying to convince myself that leaving someone isn't the worst thing you can do to them. Sombre it may be, but it doesn't have to be a tragedy. If you never left anything or anyone there would be no room for the new. Naturally, to move on is an infidelity to others, to the past, to old notions of oneself. Perhaps every day should contain at least one essential infidelity or necessary betrayal. It would be an optimistic, hopeful act, guaranteeing belief in the future a declaration that things can be not only different but better.
Therefore I am exchanging Susan, my children, my house, and the garden full of dope plants and cherry blossom I can see through the bathroom window, for a spot at Victor's where there will be draughts and dust on the floor.
Eight years ago Victor left his wife. Since then even excepting the Chinese prostitute who played the piano naked and brought all her belongings to their assignations he has had only unsatisfactory loves. If the phone rings he does a kind of panicky dance, wondering what opprobrium may be on the way, and from which direction. Victor, you see, can give women hope, if not satisfaction.
We find pubs and restaurants more congenial. I must say that when Victor isn't sitting in the dark, his eyes sunken and pupils dilated with incomprehension and anger, he can be easy-going, even amusing. He doesn't mind whether I am silent or voluble. He is used to the way I dash from subject to subject, following the natural momentum of my mind. If I ask him why his wife still hates him, he will tell me. Like my children I appreciate a good story, particularly if I've heard it before. I want all the details and atmosphere. But he speaks slowly, as some Englishmen do. Often I have no idea whether he is merely waiting for another word to occur or will, perhaps, never speak again. I can only welcome such intervals as the opportunity for reverie. But will I want monologues and pauses, draughts and pubs, every day?
Susan is in the room now.
She says, "Why don't you ever shut the bathroom door?"
"Why don't you?"
I can't think of a reason.
She is busily kissing the children. I love her enthusiasm for them. When we really talk, it is about them, something they have said or done, as if they are a passion no one else can share or understand.
Susan doesn't touch me but presents her cheek a few inches from my lips, so that to kiss her I must lean forward, thus humiliating both of us. She smells of perfume and the street.
She goes to change and returns in jeans and sweatshirt, with a glass of wine for each of us.
"Hallo. How are you?"
She looks at me hard, in order to have me notice her. I feel my body contract and shrink.
"Okay," I reply.
I nod and smile. Does she see anything different in my face today? Have I given myself away yet? I must look beaten. Usually, before seeing her I prepare two or three likely subjects, as if our conversations are examinations. You see, she accuses me of being silent with her. If only she knew how I stammer within. Today, I have been too feverish to rehearse. This afternoon was particularly difficult. And silence, like darkness, can be kind; it, too, is a language. Couples have good reason for not speaking.
She talks of how her work colleagues have let her down.
"They are not good enough," she says.
"Is that right?"
It has been difficult for her since the publishing house was taken over. But she is a woman of strong feelings anyway, of either dislike or enthusiasm. Generally they are of dislike. Others, including me, infuriate and frustrate her. It is disturbing, the way I am compelled to share her feelings, though I don't know the people. As she talks I see why I leave the bathroom door open. I can't be in a room with her for too long without feeling that there is something I must do to stop her being so angry. But I never know what I should do, and soon I feel as if she is shoving me against the wall and battering me.
The boys' bath water drains away slowly, as their toys impede the plughole. They won't move until the water is gone, and then they sit there making moustaches and hats with the remaining bubbles. Eventually I lift the younger one out. Susan takes the other.
We wrap them in thick hooded towels. With damp hair and beads of water on their necks, and being so tired and all, the boys look like diminutive boxers after a match. They argue about what pyjamas they want to wear. The younger one will only wear a Batman T-shirt. They seem to have become self-conscious at an early age. They must have got it from us.
Susan gives the younger boy a bottle, which he holds up to his mouth two-handedly, like a trumpeter. I watch her caressing his hair, kissing his dimpled fingers and rubbing his stomach. He giggles and squirms. What a quality of innocence people have when they don't expect to be harmed. Who could violate it without damaging himself? At school I must have been eight or nine there sat next to me a smelly boy from a poor family. One day, when we all stood, his leg slipped down behind the bench. Deliberately I jerked it up, trapping his leg. The look on his face of inexplicable and unexpected pain has stayed with me. You can choose whether to do others good or harm.
We take the children downstairs, where they lie on cushions, nonchalantly sucking their dummies, watching The Wizard of Oz with their eyes half open. They look like a couple of swells smoking cigars in a field on a hot day. They demand ginger biscuits, as if I am a butler. I fetch them from the kitchen without Susan noticing me. The boys extend their greedy fingers but don't look away from the TV. As the film runs they not only murmur the dialogue but echo the sound effects too. After a while, I pick up the crumbs and, having considered what to do with them, fling them in a corner.
Susan works in the kitchen, listening to the radio and looking out at the garden. She enjoys that. Her own family life, like mine, has mostly been unpleasant. Now she goes to a lot of trouble to shop well and make good meals. Even if we're having a takeaway, she won't let us eat in a slew of newspapers, children's books and correspondence. She puts out napkins, lights candles and opens the wine, insisting we have a proper family meal, including nervy silences and severe arguments.
She likes auctions, where she buys unusual pictures, prints and furniture, often with worn velvet attached to some part of them. We have a lot of lamps, cushions and curtains, some of which hang across the middle of the room, as if a play is about to start, and from which I try to stop the boys swinging. There are deep armchairs, televisions, telephones, pianos, music systems and the latest magazines and newest books in every room. Most people don't have comfort, plenty and ease like this.
At home I don't feel at home. In the morning I will let go of it. Definitely. Bye-bye.
I sit on the floor near the boys, releasing the buckle of my belt when I locate it finally in the loose folds of my belly. For a change I neither pick up the newspaper nor follow the film, but examine my sons, their feet, ears, eyes. This evening, when I am both here and not here almost a ghost, already I will not drink, get stoned, or argue. I have to be aware of everything. I want to develop a mental picture I can carry around and refer to when I am at Victor's place. It will be the first of the few things I must, tonight, choose to take with me.
Suddenly I feel as if I might vomit, and I slap my hand over my mouth. The feeling passes. But now I could howl! I feel as if I am in a plunging aeroplane. I will see the children as often as I can, but I will miss things here. The disorder of family life: the children's voices as they sing their scatological version of "The Teddy Bears' Picnic"; watching them watch television through their new binoculars; the three of us dancing to the Rolling Stones, the older one balanced perilously on the coffee table, the other plunging through the sofa; seeing them on their bikes, as they speed away from me, yelling; them walking down the street in the sunshine, umbrellas up, crooning "Singin' in the Rain." Once, when the older boy was a baby, he threw up in one of my shoes, and I didn't notice until I was in the taxi on my way to the airport.
If I come home and the children aren't here, even if there's plenty to do, I can wander from room to room waiting for their faces to come through the door, and for the world to be re-animated by their chaotic energy.
What could be more important? Lost in the middle of my life and no way home, what kind of experience do I imagine I am forfeiting this for? I have had a surplus of emotional experience with men, women, colleagues, parents, acquaintances. I have read, thought and talked for years. Tonight, how will any of it guide me? Perhaps I should be impressed by the fact that I haven't attached myself to things, that I am loose and free enough to walk away in the morning. But what am I free for? Surely the ultimate freedom is to choose, to dispense with freedom for the obligations that tie one to life to get involved.
This confusion isn't going to leave me alone. But by the morning my mind had better be made up about certain things. I must not descend into self-pity, at least not for longer than necessary. I have found that it is not my moods that frustrate me but the depth and indeterminacy of their duration. If I feel a bit low, I fear a year-long depression. If my once-girlfriend Nina became distant or sharp, I was convinced she was permanently detaching herself from me.
Tonight my predominant emotion is fear of the future. At least, one might say, it is better to fear things than be bored by them, and life without love is a long boredom. I may be afraid but I am not cynical. I am trying to be resolute. Tonight, don't worry, I will set the record crooked.
I should, too, consider what it is I love about life and other people. Otherwise I will turn the future into a wasteland, eliminating possibility before anything can develop. It is easy to kill oneself off without dying. Unfortunately, to get to the future one has to live through the present.
While considering these things, I have thought of several people who seem to have been depressed for most of their lives, and have accepted a condition of relative unhappiness as if it is their due. How much time have my numerous depressions wasted over all? Three years, at least. Longer than all my sexual pleasure put together, I should imagine.
I encourage myself to think of the pleasures of being a single man in London, of what there might be to look forward to. My sons look up as I giggle to myself. The other night Victor goes to a bar, meets a woman with a stud through her tongue and is invited to her loft in the East End. She likes to be tied up; she has the equipment. The stud roams his scrotum, like, as he says, a slug with a ball bearing in its head. They joke about misplacing the keys. His bottom smarts.
He calls at an unrespectable hour the next day and insists we meet for breakfast so I can hear about it. I inform him that the nanny, as nannies do, has lost the will to live and that it is difficult to get a baby-sitter first thing in the morning. But at last I arrive at the café, happy to be out and to have someone bring me breakfast, rather than running about, as I normally do, with slices of toast with jam which inevitably end up face-down on the floor.
Victor doesn't omit a moment.
"And what were you doing?" he enquires politely, at last.
I sigh. Wearing an old tracksuit and drinking beer in bed, coughing, smoking and listening to a late Beethoven quartet on my headphones.
He and the woman never meet again. Most nights Victor watches TV alone, a plate of saveloy and chips on his lap, a pickled onion or two on the side.
Another friend: a plump, middle-aged alcoholic who is an accountant. I envied his enthusiasm as he talked of the life that marriage, for the moment, was keeping him from. He had worked too hard to enjoy sufficiently his teenage freedom the first time. He leaves his wife, buys underwear, aftershave, cufflinks, a bracelet and hair-dye. He presents himself to me.
My eyes and mouth widen.
At last I say, "You've never looked better."
"As always, you're very encouraging," he says. "Thank you, thank you."
We shake hands and off he sets for singles clubs and bars for divorcees. He meets a woman, but she will only have him in her marital bed, to provoke her husband. He meets another. You remind me of someone, she says; an undertaker, as it turns out. My furious friend replies that it isn't her body he has come for. He soon learns that at his age he cares far more than formerly whom he spends his time with. What he wanted then he doesn't want now. He notices also that people become eccentric as they get older, and that there is a lot of them to take in.
"Shall I go back to my wife?" he asks.
"Try it," I say, the expert speaking.
But she regards him suspiciously, wondering why his hair has turned aubergine and whether he has had his name engraved on a bracelet to make him identifiable after an accident. She has realized that life is possible without him.
The boys have fallen asleep. I carry them upstairs, one by one. They lie side by side under vivid duvets. I am about to kiss them when I notice their eyes are open. I dread a second wind. I am a liberal parent, afraid of my occasional rages. I always regret any superfluous restraint. I wouldn't want them to fear me; I wouldn't want them to fear anyone. I don't want to break or discourage anything in them. Occasionally, though, I do want them to believe I am in charge. Soon they are leaping from bed to bed. When they make for the door, since I am too tired to grab them, I am forced to put on my "cross" voice. Their reluctance to go to sleep I don't understand. For months the highlight of my day has been the anticipation of unconsciousness. At least they regret the passing of each day, as do I, in a different way. Tonight we want the same thing, my boys and I: more life.
"If you lie still I will read to you," I say.
They regard me suspiciously, but I find a book, and make a place between them. They stretch out across me, occasionally kicking one another.
It is a cruel story, as most children's stories are, and it involves a woodcutter, as most children's stories do. But inevitably it concerns a conventional family from which the father has not fled. The boys know the story so well they can tell when I skip a bit or attempt to make something up. When they stop asking questions I put the book down, creep out of the room and switch off the light. Then I return to find their faces in the covers, and kiss them. Outside I listen for their breathing. If only I could stand here all night. Then I hear them whispering to one another and giggling.
Old wives; old story.
From the beginning, starting with the girls at school, and the teachers in particular, I have looked at women in shops, on the street, in the bus, at parties, and wondered what it would be like to be with them, and what pleasures we might kindle. At school I would toss my pencil under the teacher's desk in order to crawl underneath and examine her legs. The desultory nature of the education system enabled me to develop an enthusiastic interest in girls' skirts in the material and texture, and in whether they were billowy, loose or tight, and in which places. Skirts, like theatre curtains later, quickened my curiosity. I wanted to know what was under them. There was waiting, but there was possibility. The skirt was a transitional object; both a thing in itself and a means of getting somewhere else. This became my paradigm of important knowledge. The world is a skirt I want to lift up.
Later, I imagined that with each woman I could start afresh. There was no past. I could be a different person, if not a new one, for a time. Also I used women to protect me from other people. Wherever I might be, if I were huddled up with a whispering woman who wanted me, I could keep the world outside my skin. I could stop wanting other women. At the same time I liked to keep my options open; desiring other women kept me from the exposure and susceptibility of loving just the one. There are perils in deep knowledge.
Unsurprisingly, Susan is the one woman, apart from Mother, with whom I can do practically nothing. But now, when I am certain that I am able to speak to women without being afraid of wanting them, I am not sure that I can touch someone as I used to frivolously. After a certain age sex can never be casual. I couldn't ask for so little. To lay your hand on another's body, or to put your mouth against another's what a commitment that is! To choose someone is to uncover a whole life. And it is to invite them to uncover you!
Maybe that is what happened with Nina. One day a girl walks past and you want her. I've examined the moment a score of times. She and I would go over it repeatedly, in joy and in puzzlement. I can remember how tall and slim she was; and then there was the jolt, the violent jolt, when we met, and met. Something about her changed everything. But I had wanted people before, and I knew nothing about her. She was from another world. After a certain age you don't want things to be so haphazard. You want to believe that you know what it is you are doing. Perhaps that explains what I did.
My young gay friend Ian liked to stand with me outside tube stations where I would watch the flocks of girls in the summer, after I had finished work for the day, around lunch time. There were certain locations that guaranteed more interest than others. "A picture of impotence," he called it. With him, looks would be exchanged and off he would go, while I waited, having coffee somewhere. Sometimes he fucked five people in a day, shoving his arm up to the elbow into men whose faces he never saw. Every night of the week there were orgies he might attend.
"I've never understood all the fuss you straights make about infidelity," he'd say. "It's only fucking."
"Fucking means something," I'd reply. But what? I'd add, "Surely, for there to be beauty there must be mystery too."
"When there are other people there is always mystery," was his answer.
Susan has already laid the table. I open the wine and pour it. The man in the off-licence said it is an easy wine to drink. These days I find anything easy to drink.
Susan brings the food in and sets it down. I glance over the newspaper. As she eats, she turns on the TV, puts on her glasses and leans forward to watch a soap opera.
"Oh my God," she says, as something happens.
The noise presses into my head. You'd think, if she wanted domestic drama, she could look across the table.
But I am looking away, at a tree in the garden, at a print on the wall, longing for something beautiful or made with care. I have begun to hate television as well as the other media. I was young when the rock-'n'-roll world the apotheosis of the defiantly shallow represented the new. It was rebellious and stood against the conventional and dead. Television, too, remained a novelty throughout my youth all those flickering worlds admitted to one room, Father making me hold the aerial up at the window on tiptoe. Every few months something new and shiny arrived: a car, a fridge, a washing machine, a telephone. And for a time each new thing amazed us. We touched and stared at it for at least a fortnight. We were like everybody else, and ahead of some people. We thought I don't know why that things would be enough.
Now I resent being bombarded by vulgarity, emptiness and repetition. I have friends in television. They talk constantly of their jobs and salaries, of the politics in which they're enmeshed, and of the public, whom they never meet. But if you turn on the TV and sit down hoping to see something sustaining, you're going to be disappointed outraged, in fact, by bullying, aggression and the forcible democratization of the intellect. I am turning off; rebelling against rebellion.
A nerve in my eye is throbbing. My hands seem to be shaking. I feel hollow and my nerves raw, as if I have been pierced by something fatal. My body knows what is going on. If I am frightened now I will feel worse tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. All this, in the name of some kind of liberation. But terrible feelings go away after a time that is one of the terrible things about them.
At university I met a woman as sad as me, if not sadder. For six years, before I met Susan, we lived together. To me now, that seems a long time. But then I imagined there would be time for everything. We slept in the same bed every night, and cooked and ate together. Our friends took it for granted that we were one, though at times we had other lovers. About once a month we would have sex. It was the late seventies, and relationships were nonchalant and easy, as if it had been agreed that the confinement of regularity made people mentally sick. I think I believed that if you didn't have children monogamy was unnecessary.
I want to say the smell of mimosa reminds me of her. I want to say she will always be with me in some way. But it has gone, and she is an unmourned true love.
But Nina has not gone from my mind. I am unable to let her go, yet.
I force myself to eat. I will need strength in the next few days. But no tomato has ever tasted so intransigent. Suddenly Susan touches my face with her fingertips.
"You," she says.
Maybe she can sense the velocity and turmoil of my thoughts.
"Just you, Jay. It's all right. Only that."
I stare at her. The kindness of the gesture shocks me. I wonder if she does somehow, somewhere, love me. And if one is fortunate enough to be loved one should, surely, appreciate it. I have been anticipating an argument. That would certainly get me out of the house tonight. But I know I must do this sane and sober, and not run out of the door with my hair on fire, or while hallucinating, or while wanting to murder someone.
Tonight I want to be only as mad as I choose; not more mad than that, please.
Intimacy copyright © 1998 by Hanif Kureishi
Midnight All Day copyright © 1999 by Hanif Kureishi