At night, Mr Phillips lies beside his wife and dreams about other women.
Not all of the dreams are about sex. Not all the women are real. There are dreams in which composite girls, no one he knows, look on while Mr Phillips goes about his dream-business of worrying about things, or looking for things, or feeling obscurely guilty about things. There is a dream he has been having since he was ten years old, in which he saves a whole group of strange women from certain disaster by diverting a runaway train or safely landing an aeroplane or encouraging them to hang on to the roof fittings on a tilting ship until just the right moment. He has even had a couple of dreams which involve him doing something vague but heroic in relation to the Channel Tunnel.
In the aftermath of these feats he is becomingly casual, almost dismissive. To camera crews and the world's press he explains that it is no big deal; but the women in the dream know that that isn't true.
Mr Phillips has anxious dreams about meeting the Queen and being awarded an honour, but not being able to remember what it is for. He has dreams about being told off by Mrs Thatcher. He has dreams about meeting his mother and not being sure whether they are in Australia (where, in real life, she lives, with Mr Phillips's sister), or London (where, in real life, he lives), or somewhere else. He once had a dream about Indira Gandhi. None of these dreams was about sex. He never told his wife about them. What good could come of it?
As for the sex dreams, henever told her about them, either. What good etc., only more so.
Mr Phillips grades them from one to ten. A one out of ten is quite mild. For instance, he often dreams about Christine Wilson, his next door neighbour but two when he was growing up in Wandsworth. At the age of twelve she was half a notch posher than most of the children in the street; she had brown hair worn in plaits and a naughty streak well hidden from grown-ups. Christine would often instigate uproar, though she was never blamed for causing it. Mr Phillips had gone from hardly noticing her to being horribly, drowningly in love with her in the course of a single Saturday. They had spent that day crawling around in the foundations of a new office building that was going up on land that had lain empty since a stray V2 had cleared it thirteen years before. They played hide-and-seek among the concrete mixers, ducking and scrabbling through partially built walls. When an adult shouted at them they ran home. As he lay in bed that night Mr Phillips found that he was very much in love.
In the dream, he and Christine are at school together, which in real life they never were. Mr Phillips sits next to her on a scratched wooden double desk which is covered in archaeological layers of graffiti. They are solving, under test conditions, a series of simple algebraic equations: a + b = x, if a = 2 and x = 5, what is b? He has an erection so strong that he is worried his flies are going to pop open. The end of the lesson is approaching and he is going to have to stand up and everyone is going to see his cock. The unfair thing is that he doesn't feel sexually aroused, he only has the erection because he's got caught up inside his underpants. In fact his penis is trapped outside the entrance to his knickers and is pinned vertically upwards. But no one will believe that. He wouldn't believe it in their shoes. In the dream he starts to blush, feeling the blood rush upwards and his face become lava-hot, electric-fire-hot. Then he wakes up. That is a one out of ten.
By three out of ten, the sex component is more definite. Mr Phillips is kissing his secretary Karen on the cheek while the telephone rings. He knows that he should pick up the receiver but Karen's eyes are closed and she looks so happy that he doesn't want to stop. He has such a good close-up view of the tiny hairs on the side of her neck that when he stops kissing her he says, 'You'll have to start shaving there soon.' She reaches down and puts a hand on his cock. Mr Monroe, the Aberdonian colleague with whom he shares an office and Karen's services, looks on approvingly. Then he wakes up.
A five out of ten sex dream might involve what used to be called 'heavy petting' or some form of explicit display. One of the most common of these dreams involves the television personality Clarissa Colingford. She has hair that is whitish blonde and what would once have been called 'a lovely figure' and eyes that are the same colour as the middle of a Mars bar. Mr Phillips is hiding in her cupboard, terrified and excited, as he watches her masturbate, covered only by a single thin cotton sheet. That is actually one of the most exciting of his dreams, but it only scores five since Mr Phillips's system is to grade the dreams not on how stimulating they are but on the explicitness of their sex content.
At seven out of ten the sex component is such that it becomes hard to meet the eye of the woman in the dream, the next time he meets her in real life. There is, for instance, something embarrassing or delirious about bumping into Janet secretary to his boss Mr Mill, the incompetent head of the accountancy department as she walks down the corridor with two plain digestive biscuits balanced on the saucer of a cup of tea, for all the world as if she had not, the night before, been eagerly responding to Mr Phillips's frightened but keen request to be sodomized with a nine-inch rubber penis.
It can't just be him, Mr Phillips feels. Office life is an erotic conspiracy. Everybody in offices thinks about sex all the time that's exactly what they do. If the air at Wilkins and Co. were like one of those swimming pools which changes colour when someone pees in it, so that the air would be dyed blue whenever anyone looked on their colleagues with lust, or need, or at the very least sexual speculation, then the atmosphere would be as clogged and dense as a London pea-souper. Does he stalk rampant through the dreams of co-workers, a vivid principle of priapism, so that the working day carries the lurid after-tinge of the night before? Perhaps Karen herself has beguiled an idle moment by speculating as to what it would be like with Mr Phillips. After all, she's only human. People fall in love with their secretaries all the time, and vice versa not least because most men are at their most attractive when at work, their attention directed outside themselves, with chores to perform and decisions to make, all unlike the sulking, shifty tyrants of the domestic stage, wanting everything their own way and locked in a battle to the death to get it.
It goes without saying that people use offices for sex all the time, too. It's a rare photocopier that hasn't been used to take a picture of somebody's bum. It's a very unusual desk that has never had people fucking on it. In an important sense, all this is what offices are for. Mr Phillips has even done it on a desk himself once, when he was working at Grimshaw's, his first employer. His girlfriend Sharon Mitchell came to the office late to collect him on the way to a film, a Western with James Stewart in it. This was in the days before security guards and after-hours subcontracted office cleaners. They had done it on Mr Phillips's very own desk, indeed on his very own ink blotter. Sharon was the first girl Mr Phillips did it with who was on the pill; she chucked him for a musician. A sixties memory.
One thing that all the dreams have in common is that Mr Phillips never actually manages to have sex in them. Even in the ten out of ten dreams, Mr Phillips never gets it wet. He looks and sees and feels and kisses, he plots and schemes and gets women to agree to have sex with him, and in some versions they even pursue him to ask for it ('begging for it', 'gagging for it') but he never, in the dreams, actually puts his penis inside another person, not even in the homosexual dreams which come along every now and then, with their own agenda, as if trying to make a point.
This morning, Mr Phillips has just woken from a seven out of ten dream in which he was trying to arrange to have sex with Miss Pettifer, his younger son Thomas's form teacher at St Francis Xavier's. She is in her early fifties and therefore around the same age as Mr Phillips. In real life, he hasn't been conscious of being even vaguely attracted to her but when he wakes after the dream, he realizes that isn't the whole story. The fact that she is, say, twenty pounds overweight, he feels in part of himself as a liberation, as if, in throwing off one set of worries about being sensible and watching your weight, other worries might be thrown off too, so that her half-double chin and wildly blossoming hips, all the more visible because her clothes are a third of a size too small, hold a promise: with me, you can do anything you want.
This isn't the first time he has dreamt about Miss Pettifer. The last time it happened he made an effort to talk to her at the next PTA meeting, as a way of getting the dream out of his system. When they shook hands, in the tobacco-stained staff room which smelt of instant coffee, he had the feeling that there was something in her eyes beyond the usual struggle to remember who this particular parent was. Perhaps she was aware that she had spent at least part of one night trying to clear a space among the desks or find a cupboard where he could fuck her standing up among brooms and brushes and ironing boards. (That is a detail from the dream that had to be wrong why would the school have ironing boards in the cupboard?) But they were constantly interrupted: people came in and out, children playing cricket in the corridors kept bursting in to ask Mr Phillips if he would be their umpire, and once Martin, Mr Phillips's elder son, came knocking on the door of the cubicle in the bathroom just as Miss Pettifer had undone Mr Phillips's fly and extracted his penis.
As Mr Phillips begins to wake up, by instalments, reality gradually coalesces around him in the form of his bedroom, his house, his sheets, which are wedding presents still surviving nicely more than two decades after the event, the photographs of his sons in a silver frame on top of the dressing table, and his wife, behind whom he is curled, underneath whose buttocks his erection, harder than those he now usually comes up with, is squeezed. Over her back and shoulder Mr Phillips can see the bits and pieces on their shared bedside table:
a lamp, an impulse purchase of Mrs Phillips's, slightly too low to cast a valuable reading light;
a glass of water, undrunk, which by morning would always have undergone a change in taste and become oddly flat;
an alarm clock in the shape of an owl, a present from Thomas, with luminous hands, and ears which have to be wound to make the clock go; Mr Phillips can never remember whether the left ear wound the clock and the right the alarm or vice versa;
his reading glasses, black-framed and substantial, like the ones Michael Caine wore as secret agent Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File;
a cloth doily, fringed and trimmed with lace, given them by
a pupil of Mrs Phillips's as a Christmas present, which was initially supposed to have been given away or thrown out but gradually evolved into a stable member of the domestic fittings (since it did, in the final analysis, keep drink-rings off the furniture);
a copy of Mrs Phillips's current reading: The Choir by Joanna Trollope;
a copy of one of Tom's football magazines, which Mr Phillips had picked up by mistake, thinking it was one of his Economists;
a copy of Bobby Moore's autobiography; Mr Phillips tends to read only autobiographies and memoirs, on the grounds that there is something comforting about them, perhaps to do with the fact that the hero never dies at the end;
a two-thirds full box of tissues.
But more important than any of these is the feel of Mrs Phillips. They fit so well together when they are asleep. Lying there, Mr Phillips can be sure that nothing else in the day will be as good as lying curling around his wife, half-asleep in the gap between being half-woken by aeroplanes going in to land at Heathrow and the detonation of the alarm clock. Sleep and dreams and bed are close to an infantile state for Mr Phillips. That's no criticism; that's the way he likes them. If he and Mrs Phillips had been cocooned in the womb together, he thinks they would have got along fine. Though in the womb he would have missed the smell of her, of which again he was never as acutely aware as he is now, her skin smelling of milk and sometimes cinnamon, her hair of leaves or sometimes, not unpleasantly, of London, a smell like distant gun smoke (any stronger than that and she would have washed it), or of the floral aftermath of her previous day's toilette, and of sweat, metallic and musky, perhaps even of the farts which might have been democratically intermingling under the duvet, with an occasional whiff of authentic cunt-smell wafting up as she shifts beside him. Sometimes, after she used spermicide, the interaction of nonoxyl-9 and her body heat would by the next morning have magically produced the aroma of toasted almonds.
It is Mr Phillips's usual practice, when he wakes up, to think about something semi-worrying, like his tax return or Tom's proposal to 'borrow' the house for a party, as a way of getting himself warmed up for the day. One reliable source of worry and irritation is the very thing that has woken him up, the sound of aeroplanes going overhead to land at Heathrow. Already today they are roaring over at ninety-second intervals. This morning, as on most mornings, the planes would have begun passing overhead at a little bit after four a.m. At first they would be irregular, a plane every few minutes or so, but now, by half past six, they have settled down to a steady rhythm. Some mornings Mr Phillips sleeps all the way through, and doesn't wake until his alarm clock gets him up at half past seven. Other mornings the very first plane would sound as if it were landing, not at Heathrow a dozen miles away, but in the front garden, and Mr Phillips would be woken as efficiently and crudely as if someone had come into the room and shaken him. Then he would stay awake, shifting and twitching and listening to the planes, for three hours, only to fall asleep two minutes before it was time to get up. Did the people on board the planes ever give any thought to the thousands of would-be sleepers that they were waking up?
Mr Phillips has a cross between a story and a day-dream which he tells himself about the planes:
Minutes of the Three-Monthly Meeting of the Wellesley Crescent Neighbourhood Watch Association
1) Apologies for absence
2) Reading minutes of last meeting
3) Further business
PRESENT: Mr Tomkins (chair), Mr Davis-Gribben, Mr Phillips, Mr Palmer (secretary), Mr Morris, Miss Griffin, Mr Cartwright, Mr and Mrs Wu
1) Apologies for absence.
Mr Cott called from a payphone at St George's Hospital to say that he could not come because they had not finished with him yet. There were no other apologies for absence.
2) The minutes of the last meeting were read and agreed.
3) Further business.
a) Mr Davis-Gribben reported that there had been two incidents of car crime in the Crescent. Mrs Palmer had her car tax disc stolen, though she says herself it was partly her fault because she did not check that the passenger door was locked because her Renault does not have central locking which is what she was used to on her old Honda. But they did not try to take her radio which she was pleased about.
A left-hand drive camper van with German number plates that had been parked in the Crescent had its offside front window broken.
b) Mr Tomkins reported that the mystery of the unidentified dog that had been seen wandering up and down the Crescent for a fortnight towards the end of June, about which Police Constable Carson had been called, had been solved. The dog, who was called Kevin, belonged to a Mr and Mrs Hildon from Gallipoli Row, near the train station. Mr and Mrs Hildon's son Rory had returned from college for his summer holidays having become a vegetarian and he had insisted that the rest of the household become vegetarians too. This Mr and Mrs Hildon had been willing to do because otherwise Rory would move out for the whole of the holidays and they see little enough of him as it is, but the special vegetarian dog food had been too much for Kevin and he had run away. He had been found because Mrs Palmer saw a notice in the big post office beside the train station where she had gone to pick up an application form for a new car tax registration thingy when the first one was stolen. The Hildons had been very pleased to be reunited with Kevin and Rory had then and there sat down and had a bacon sandwich.
c) The question of graffiti on the sign for Wilmington Park was raised and it was agreed that Mr Tomkins would write a letter to the council on behalf of the Wellesley Crescent Neighbourhood Watch, asking that something be done.
d) Mr Davis-Gribben brought up the issue of the noise from the aircraft passing overhead in the small hours of the morning to land at Heathrow. He said that he had written to the British Airports Authority and to the local MP and to the council and had been fobbed off with standard replies. He said that everyone he knew felt at the end of their tether about the noise and that he hadn't had a night's sleep in months, and although it was not an expression he often used, he agreed with a minicab driver he had spoken to the other day who said that the noise was doing his head in. He asked if anyone had any suggestions for further action.
Mr Cartwright said that his brother who was in the Army had been to stay and had been woken up by the noise every night for a week. His brother had then suggested that they should get hold of a ground to air missile and shoot an aeroplane down. He said that air traffic into Heathrow would drop away dramatically afterwards. Mr Cartwright said that he had been looking into the possibility of acquiring a ground to air missile, purely from the feasibility point of view, and that the most promising source appeared to be the Stinger missiles which the CIA had given to the Mujahedeen guerrillas fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan during the 1980s. He said that the CIA had supplied a thousand missiles, of which about 700 had been used and that they had shot down over 500 Soviet planes and helicopters, which was an impressive strike rate. The CIA had tried to buy back the missiles at a rate of US$1 million each but many of them were still in the hands of the guerrillas.
Mr Phillips reminded other members that the budget for Wellesley Crescent Neighbourhood Watch for the current year was £47, most of which went on photocopying and biscuits.
Mr Cartwright conceded the point but said that the Mujahedeen might be willing to give them a missile once they explained what it was for. He added that the guerrillas could be shown a map of Wilmington Park, just at the end of the road and always deserted at night, and they would see that it was an ideal point from which to launch a Stinger missile at a plane flying only a couple of hundred feet overhead.
Mr Davis-Gribben wondered who would go and get the missile and how it would be brought back.
Mr Cartwright said that he would go and get the missile. His first wife, with whom he was still on good terms, was a Mrs Khan whose family were from Lahore. He could go and visit them before making a side trip to Afghanistan. He said that he had consulted a map and that it was not far. He would smuggle the missile over the border into Turkey where it would be collected by his cousin Roger, a long-distance lorry driver who often did the Ankara route.
Mr Tomkins wondered what would happen if the plane were shot down and it landed somewhere inside the borough of Wandsworth. If there were a disaster in the borough would it not place enormous financial strain on local services and result in much higher council tax bills?
Mr Phillips said that to the best of his knowledge the cost of these sorts of disaster was borne by central government. He wondered if the Wellesley Crescent Neighbourhood Watch ought to send a warning as to the action they intended to take, so that it was correctly interpreted as a protest against the aircraft noise and not claimed for their own handiwork by unscrupulous terrorists? Mr Cartwright agreed but Mr Davis-Gribben and Mr Morris did not. Mrs Wu pointed out that there was no hurry to resolve this point.
One warm July morning Mr Phillips climbs out of bed, leaving Mrs Phillips dozing. He prepares for his commute into the city but this is no ordinary Monday. It is a day on which Mr Phillips will chat with a pornographer, stalk a TV mini-celebrity, have lunch with an aspiring record mogul, and get caught up in a bank robbery. In short, it is, as Mr Phillips comes to realize, the first day of the rest of his life whether he wants it to be or not.
All this is both better and worse than being at work. So why is Mr Phillips, a cautious middle-aged accountant, not behind his desk at Wilkins and Co., calculating the financial consequences of redundancies or recommending the savings to be made from more responsible use of yellow sticky note pads?
In Mr Phillips, John Lanchester has created an unforgettable character and shown him getting to know his city in beautiful detail. Whether he gets to know himself is a more troubling question. This is a novel that is both comic and profound, brilliant and moving, confirming John Lanchester as one of the leading novelists at work today.
Praise for The Debt to Pleasure:
'Coruscatingly, horribly funny.'
'The Debt to Pleasure has no flaws. It is witty, frequently hilarious, and wicked.'
'A fully achieved work of art ... a triumph ... The Debt to Pleasure is a major work, a supreme literary construct that's also deliriously entertaining ... Gorgeously seductive.'
'Dazzling and delicious.'
New York Times Book Review
'Dazzlingly clever and diverting.'
John Lanchester was born in Hamburg in 1962. He was brought up in the Far East and educated in England. He has written about restaurants in the Observer and about the arts in the Daily Telegraph. He is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books. The Debt to Pleasure, his first novel, was translated into twenty languages, won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Betty Trask Prize (for a first novel of 'a romantic or traditional nature'), the Hawthornden Prize (for a work of 'imaginative literature'), and a Julia Child Award (for 'literary food writing').