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HE STOOD THERE AND WAITED. He was good at that. There was no hurry. There was plenty of time. He always had time. He was a punctual and polite person, and that was why he was standing there, buying a gift for his hostess. Politeness was an emotion- could one call it an emotion, he wondered? that was how he regarded it, certainly-an emotion that he both feared and understood.
There was only one woman in front of him in the off-licence, and she was certainly in no hurry either. She had not even got round to asking for anything yet, because she was too busy telling the man behind the counter about her granddaughter. Two weeks old, this child was, and the lady had just finished knitting her a pram-cover in stripes of white and blue: it didn't matter that it was blue and not pink, the daughter had said, she didn't like pink anyway. The man behind the counter was interested in the story: not merely polite, but interested. One can tell the difference. The woman was short and broad and she was wearing bedroom slippers. What raffish districts of London his friends inhabited: NW1, this was, with all its smart contrasts. They depressed him unbearably, the well-arranged gulfs and divisions of life, the frivolity with which his friends took in these contrasts, the pleasure they took in such abrasions. It appalled him, the complacency with which such friends would describe the advantages of living in a mixed area. As though they licenced seedy old ladies and black men to walk their streets, teaching their children of poverty and despair, as their pet hamsters and guinea pigs taught them of sex and death. He thought of these things, sadly.
Though the old lady did not seem sad. On the contrary, she seemed happy enough, this new grandmother: pleased with herself, pleased with her pram-cover, pleased at the prospect of the evening she was just about to set up for herself-for she embarked, now, on the purchase of one bottle of Guinness, two of pale ale, and one of fizzy orange. The man wrapped them up for her carefully in tissue paper, while she thought about other things that she might want. A box of matches, she decided on, and then (curious order of choice) a packet of ten Players: one might have thought that that would be all, but it wasn't, because her eyes then lit upon the plastic display of crisps, and she thought she'd have one of cheese and onion and one of salt and vinegar. Also a bar of chocolate. And while she was at it, a small packet of aspirin. Listening to her, watching her look around this obviously familiar spot for yet more purchases-(nuts? tobacco? small cherries in a jar?)-She felt such violent waves of nostalgia possess him that he nearly spoke. He knew where she came from, this woman: it was a world from which he was forever exiled. But he knew it: he knew its domestic interiors, its pleasures, its horizons. And he knew what she was doing, with her purchases: she was trying to get out of being in that shop the exact experience of being in it, she wanted to exploit it to the full. But imagination failed her: she had to admit defeat. That'll be all, she said, regretfully. In front of them on the counter stood a small gyrating plastic advertisement for a brand of lager: while the man added up her purchases she inspected it, and when he had finished she asked him how it worked. It worked off the light, he said: no battery, no switches, nothing, it just went round and round for ever as long as the shop lights were on. He was proud of it: a new acquisition. She was impressed. She gathered up her bits and pieces and thrust them into her large shabby peeling bag, nodding her approval as she did so. What will they make next, she said. Marvellous, isn't it, said the man. Thanks a lot, Mrs Donovan. Thank you, Mr White. Give my regards to your daughter, Mrs Donovan. She'll be in herself shortly, Mr White, that I'll be sure, said Mrs Donovan, and they both smiled and she shuffled out. Her legs, for so stout a woman, were thin and twiglike, her stockings wrinkled. He felt a pang of loss as she left, and the man turned to him, politely, his expression entirely changed, businesslike, inhuman, obsequious, almost but not quite repudiating the quality of his previous transaction: 'What would you like, sir?' he asked, and Simon, politely, said, 'Could I have a bottle of Vermouth, please, and twenty Gold Leaf?'
There was no point in making any effort: no point in commenting on the weather, or the revolving lager advertisement. He received his purchase in silence, paid in silence, said thank you as one must, and left.Diana and Nick lived just round the corner, but he thought that he might as well take the car right there with him, so he got back into it and drove himself fifty yards and parked. Diana and Nick: Nick and Diana. Perhaps he would enjoy himself after all. Better than eating alone at home, anyway, and that was surely why they had invited him: or was it out of some more positive desire to corrupt? That would be setting their interest in him too high perhaps, but he couldn't conceal from himself the fact that he had noticed that they (and one or two others) were always pretty quick off the mark to ask him round whenever his wife was away. He would have been touched, if he hadn't been slightly shamed by their alacrity: how had he let them in on it, how had they guessed, when had he so carelessly revealed himself? Not at all, maybe, not at all, surely: it was simple goodwill on their part, there was no need to be suspicious, or if they had an intention to corrupt it was so universal, so benevolent, that it implied no particular knowledge of him or of his circumstances. Old friends, they were, and what more natural than that they should invite him round for an evening while his wife was abroad? Julie herself had probably put them up to it: she had probably given Diana a ring and explained that she was off to New York for a fortnight and what about keeping an eye on poor Simon. The rage that possessed him as be thought of this was so acute and so bitter that he wished he hadn't allowed himself to speculate: though it was not rage against her, but a raging defence of her naïveté that so stuck in his throat. How could he protect her, when she was a free and adult woman, quite capable, all too capable, of lifting telephones and ringing up anyone to ask for anything? Ah well, forget it, he said to himself, and lifted his hand to ring the doorbell. He rang it, but there seemed to be remarkably little response: no answering sound within, and only the dullest sensation of indentation, so he decided that the bell was broken and lifted his hand once more to the knocker- an attractive knocker, a new one, a smiling and serene brass woman's face with grapes in her hair, a standard pattern but one that he had always liked. But before he had time to knock, the door opened, and there, silent and noiseless on the polished wooden floor (silent because of small gold cloth slippers) stood Diana, smiling with an equal calm.
'Simon, hello,' she said, and he stepped forward and kissed her on the cheek: a cheek which she offered, always, with no prospect of refusal, and anyway one would not be likely to wish to refuse such a nice brown even surface. A generous attitude, hers.
'I do like your new knocker,' he said, when he had greeted her and handed her his gift: following her up the stairs to their first-floor drawing-room. 'I was going to use it, I thought your bell didn't work.'
'One can't hear the bell from outside,' she said, 'we made it ring upstairs because we could never hear it.' 'How well organised you are,' he said, following her into the room: where their conversation immediately lost itself in faces, drinks, introductions and the soft bright interior of the room itself, which glowed diffusely, elegantly inhabitable, fashionably quaint, modern with a modernity that had no hard edges, no offence, no bravura in it. He had always liked the room, bearing signs, as it did, of so much in both of them, as well as of the hard-earned affluence that kept them together: for who could have guessed, watching the pair of them as they circled attentively with drinks and olives, so blending and agreeably harmonising with their choice in colours, their framed pictures by their own three rather talented small children, that this time a year ago they had parted for ever, with the great and customary acrimony that attends such separations? There had been much speculation both about their parting and their reunion: he himself had always had faith that a genuine affection had brought them back together, an affection supported not too ignobly by a reluctance to abandon so much comfortable bourgeois texture. What would Nick have done, in a horrid little flat away from all these deep piled carpets, or Diana, drifting desolate around a house that did not interest her as a refuge, but only as a meeting place, a place to receive in, a place to display? It was not, he felt, weakness that had brought them back to one another (though he thought this perhaps with bias)- it was more a sense that they augmented rather than diminished each other, they were better, more operative together. He had seen them both, singly, over their months apart, and though neither of them had confided in him (for he knew himself to be too discreet to invite real confidence) he had noticed that there was no sense of relief in either of them, but rather an exasperated self-assertion so unnecessary and so unnatural to both that he was sure it was the responsibility of independence that they had abandoned with a sigh of relief, rather than, in the first place, each other's company. They flourished, in this setting: even Nick, whose impatience at monogamous domestic claims had been real enough, thrived on it. It was not surprising, it was a setting that would encourage most kinds of growth: Simon, sinking into the corner of a deeply-upholstered off-white settee, and resting his feet on a luxuriantly waving, almost grotesquely verdant, silky rug, reflected how much affluence was, quite simply, a question of texture-a point that both he and Nick, with their similar histories of success, and their similar points of origin, were well placed to appreciate. The threadbare carpets of infancy, the coconut matting, the ill-laid linoleum, the utility furniture, the curious upholstery (running his fingers as he reflected, over the dense knobbly undyed tweed of the chair-arm on which his arm, itself softly if soberly clothed, now lay)-they had all spoken of a life too near the bones of subsistence, too little padded, too severely worn. Of gloss there had been a certain amount, for polish had been cheap enough: in Nick's semi-detached it had glowed on trolley and sideboard and peach-coloured mirror, hiding poor quality in ´eclat, and in his own home it had been a veneer, a thin and penetrable barrier against scorn and decay. Cleanliness costs you nothing, his mother used to say: a statement not wholly accurate, as she must have observed herself when adding up her grocery bills. Bleach, disinfectant, furniture polish, shoe polish.
Copyright © 1972 by Margaret Drabble
Foreword copyright © 2004 by Andrea Barrett
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