Paris

Dot writes: Ken and I had our tenth wedding anniversary last week (how did that happen, where has the time gone etc etc) and to celebrate we went to Paris for the weekend, leaving the boys with my parents who’d heroically come over from Norfolk to mind them. We stayed in a small hotel in Rue de l’Esperance in the 13th Arrondissement. I was worried it was a bad choice, since it was selected on availability and price rather than any knowledge of the area, but it turned out to be well-placed for the métro and we were able to have excellent meals in local restaurants on both nights without walking more than five minutes from where we were staying. Although the restaurants had menus in English, which they provided to us, the rest of the clientele was all French as far as we could tell. This was encouraging. Plus, the highlight of the trip for me: on the second night the waitress initially brought us the French menu, because I had asked for a table for two and whether we could pay by visa in French and she didn’t immediately clock me as English. My French vocabulary has dwindled pitiably since I left school, and I only have a GCSE in it anyway, but I derive tremendous pride from evidently having – for those two brief phrases, at any rate – a good accent.

We hadn’t been to Paris before. We did obvious tourist things: the Eiffel Tower, the Musée du Quai Branly (perhaps this is slightly less obvious, but it’s very near the Eiffel Tower), a walk along the Seine, an exterior view of Notre Dame, and then the following morning the Musée d’Orsay, which houses paintings by the great Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as well as sculpture and Art Nouveau furniture. We also saw the Tour de France whizz past on its way to the finish line in the Champs Elysées. I was bowled over by Paris. It has horrible queues and some very confusing public toilets, but it is astonishingly magnificent and elegant. I was delighted by the unity and grace of the architecture, the broad streets, the river at the centre busy with boats, the trees, and the amazing proliferation of huge palaces and museums.

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Backstory

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Dot writes: this is an utterly self-indulgent post in which I’m going to jot down some notes about the little stories I’ve been putting up here recently. Although they are all very short and simple – the longest is A Reunion at just over 2500 words, and The Man in the Library is only 1660 words – they all involved some puzzling and arranging.

1. The Man in the Library

Writing this story, I was conscious of the patterns I was creating. For example: the books in Sarah’s list are all real books and derive from the things that she has seen or that have gone through her head in the preceding few paragraphs. So, A Glut of Tomatoes and Salad Vegetables refers to the salad sandwiches the man was eating earlier; Freud and the Lonely Planet Guide to New York both relate to Portnoy’s Complaint, which is couched as a man talking to his psychoanalyst and is set in New York; The Male Brain is there because Sarah is having trouble imagining the man’s viewpoint and is seeing him as an alien, if fascinating, creature (I made him argue back against this kind of gender essentialism later by telling her the book’s no good). At the end, Sarah borrows a book on Zaha Hadid: she is the first female architect to be mentioned in the story, and I was thinking that Sarah was now starting to look for female role-models rather than focusing so much on admired men. The nest-like house Sarah designs at the end is supposed to express something about her too, offering both cosiness/shelter and the opportunity to take flight. This was all a bit oblique and I think several readers felt the story just stopped in a rather unsatisfactory way, but in my head it had a good progression from teenage crush to intellectual and creative awakening. There was also the fact that it was obvious no romance was ever going to happen between a schoolgirl and a clearly quite nice young man rather a lot too old for her. He’s an impossible prospect as a boyfriend but does a pretty good job as a librarian.

2. The Passage Tomb

Writing this felt very intense and exposing; I was drawing on old but strong feelings, and also borrowing details from the lives of several real people (in fact all the stories have elements of real people in them; I switch things around, but I don’t seem to be able to make up characters out of nothing). I never quite made up my mind if it was set in England or Ireland. England, I think, but it does trouble me that I am vague about the geography of the seaside town Clare and Hannah visit: where exactly could you find a shale cliff with fossils in it and also a passage tomb? However, of the four stories I’ve completed so far this is the one I’m proudest of.

3. A Reunion

Initially I was vague about the setting of this story too, but as I filled in the details I needed to know what a solicitor’s career trajectory would be, so I got the details from the Irish Law Society website. That meant the story was taking place in Ireland. It ended up set in a lightly warped version of Dublin. The places are based on Dublin places but don’t map onto them exactly: for example, Tom’s flat is in a kind of mix of Stoneybatter and the area around Great St George’s Street. At the end of the writing process I went back through the dialogue to make it sound more Irish, or rather Irish-compatible; I didn’t want to end up with stage-Irish or a pastiche of The Commitments. It was an enjoyable exercise.

I realise that Julia and Tom’s past encounter is a rather sleazy little episode, but I like these characters, Tom especially, and find myself wondering what happens next for them. In particular, I’ve given them the problem that Tom is in the middle of buying a small, shabby apartment, while Julia part-owns a much shinier one in a posher area with her ex. (I think Julia’s ex, who is called Aidan, only left her a couple of months ago. She’s on the rebound.) It’s too early in their relationship to make big decisions about houses and so on, but if they do stay together Tom’s apartment is going to be a liability; it’s too small and it’s going to be hard to sell on. I worry about this stuff.

4. Triptych

Again, this threw up some practical problems and I also have thoughts about what else happens for these characters. At one point I was thinking of sending Adam off to Auckland, but I wasn’t sure there would have been opportunities there for both mathematicians and historians in the late 80s (the date is set by the fact that Becky is exactly my age, though not a portrait of me: she is my entry into this story). Sydney seemed safer, especially as, as Ken has pointed out to me, there are several universities in Sydney. I’m not sure what everyone else’s jobs are. June must have gone to one of the London colleges for her MA and met Adam through a choir or other organisation (since they are in different disciplines), but in order to be hanging around in Cheshire during the summer dissertation period in 1987 she must have finished her studies in 1986 and taken a (temporary?) job. So I think she’s about 23 in 1987; he is a couple of years older and has just finished his PhD. I expect he gets over her and marries someone else relatively soon; meanwhile June becomes a teacher – I made that clear in the story – and I think she also marries, but looks after her father after her mother’s death, and doesn’t have children.

Adam gets the last word in this story, so it’s his view we’re left with, but I’m conscious June’s perspective is never expressed. Caroline clearly has a very particular slant on things that’s not fair to Adam at all, but I left Michelle as a dangling detail that his letter doesn’t clear up. I think June can’t face leaving her family, and doesn’t have the confidence to take on a PhD, but there may have been other things going on that help to explain her behaviour. And I suspect Adam enjoyed kissing Caroline rather a lot, though I’m sure he’s right that she took the initiative and that he was fairly quick to put a stop to it.

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Triptych by Dot

I

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. No I didn’t – it was Nantwich. I realise that’s a lot less exciting, but we have to work with the dreams we’re given. And most of us, I think, have a house that to our sleeping mind is The House, the place some primitive part has chosen to stage all our trivial and less trivial inner dramas. In my case, it’s my grandparents’ house in Nantwich, in Cheshire; a place I never actually lived in but which I used to visit every summer, and where many of my childhood’s best adventures happened. In my memory it’s a very large house, with an even larger garden, and indeed I’m sure it was substantially larger than my parents’ crowded semi, with exciting features such as a balcony you could climb onto and a hatch window from the kitchen into the dining room that I remember crawling through when I was small. The garden had a long lawn with a rose arbour, suitable for afternoon teas, and behind it fruit trees that closed ranks into a tangle of branches. If you burrowed through the branches there was a kind of corridor at the back that linked the ends of several gardens, as the fences didn’t go the whole way to the rear wall. I remember it always being summer there, and always the school holiday, a place where I would play, make friends in the neighbours’ houses, and emerge at intervals to be fed.

This particular dream carried me back to the last summer I was there, the summer I was ten, the year before my grandmother died. I dreamt I was playing piano duets on my grandmother’s grand piano. In my dream, I played the piano wonderfully, better than I’ve ever managed in real life; the music flowed from me without effort. Playing alongside me was a man I hadn’t thought about for years, but he was the reason I could date the dream, because that was the only summer he was there: my aunt June’s fiancé Adam. He was playing at the bass end of the keyboard, I at the treble, and the roses from the garden had grown into the room and were garlanding and applauding us with their colours. The piano seemed to be floating up into the air, so beautiful was our music. Maybe the dream deteriorated afterwards into some standard anxiety scenario – maybe I played so long I missed the train, or maybe I noticed I was naked and now in my adult body, not my ten-year-old one – but what stayed with me when I woke was that vision of pre-lapsarian confidence and ecstatic music, at the piano among the roses in my grandparents’ house.

So, awake, I thought back to that summer and reconstructed what I remembered about Adam. There were, I think, seven of us in the house, sometimes eight: my grandparents, my mother, Pauline, her much younger sister, June, my sister Caroline and me, and Adam, plus my father for part of the time; he only had a short break from work. My mother and grandmother and June loved to have these weeks together, since normally they lived fairly far apart, and I remember them sitting in the garden, drinking tea and talking endlessly. My grandfather sat in his chair and read. Caroline listened to her walkman a lot and wrote letters to her schoolfriends; she’d grown out of spending much time with her baby sister. I went for my usual excursions from the garden and found some of the neighbours I knew from previous visits, but I remember being glad of Adam. He was a mathematician, as I recall, and supposed to be very brilliant, but he seemed happy to talk to me. He coached me through some maths problems that were officially too hard for a ten-year-old and was delighted when I got them right. He tried to teach me to juggle, which was less successful. He also played the piano with me, and that was obviously the source of the dream. I’d only recently begun lessons, but he hunted out some duets hidden in the piano stool and played the hard parts while I added the melody over the top. It was my first taste of making music that sounded genuinely good, and of the excitement of being inside a lovely harmony. In a way it’s bittersweet to look back on, because I didn’t manage to become the stunning pianist that, aged ten, I was sure I would turn into, but on the other hand it was the start of a love of music that has remained one of my greatest pleasures. And so, although that summer was the end of some things – of summers at my grandparents’, for my grandmother died and the house was sold; of June and Adam, for they never did get married – I remember it as a happy time, when I was safe and loved and felt life unfolding before me, when the roses were full of colour and I knew I could do anything.

II

The evening after my dream Caroline skyped me. We talk at irregular intervals but when we talk, we talk intensely; we’re closer as adults than we were as children, now the six-year age-gap seems so much less significant. She wanted to vent about her sons, who are carefully adhering to the official manual of annoying teenage behaviour, but when her feelings were safely discharged she also had some news to pass on about Aunt June: she’d finally decided to leave her teaching job, because the school had become simply too unbearable to work in, and she was thinking of concentrating full-time on her garden and her chickens instead. This prompted me to tell Caroline my dream, wondering how different June’s life might have been if she’d married Adam.

“I don’t think she would have stayed married to Adam,” said Caroline. “I think you remember all this very rosily, Becky. I was that much older, and I can tell you one thing about Adam I doubt you noticed: he was a sexy bastard. With the accent on bastard. You realise he went off to Australia after that and simply didn’t come back? Poor June. If he hadn’t gone, perhaps the wedding would have gone ahead, but I can’t see the marriage would have lasted.

“It was so tense, that summer. Granddad buried himself in his chair and wouldn’t come out, and snapped at us when we talked to him. He didn’t want any man taking his little girl away, I reckon. Plus he was going a bit deaf by that point anyway. Grandma wasn’t her usual self either – she had headaches all the time; I think it was the start of her tumour, though none of us knew that then. And she and mum and June were endlessly chewing things over. Mum’s never said anything to me, but I’m sure they knew Adam wasn’t right for June. I caught bits of conversations – I remember hearing Mum say something about ‘blowing hot and cold’. Grandma talking about babies, how it would be hard if she were on her own. And there was some friend of June’s they were talking about, Michelle or something like that – I think he had a past with her. I mean, I was never quite present at those conversations; they tended to shut up when they saw me. But I got impressions… Of course June and Adam went off together sometimes, but less than you might expect, given they were engaged.

“He hurt her a lot. I can’t recall her ever mentioning him again. But it was easy to see what she saw in him. Well, it was for me – I was sixteen and frankly I fancied pretty much everything male and under thirty with a pulse, and there was a good deal more to him than a pulse. He wasn’t handsome, exactly, but he had really flirty eyes, and those pianist’s hands. You don’t think of maths as a sexy subject, do you, but I’d probably have tried a lot harder at it if my maths teacher had been anything like him… And he was good with you, I must say. I guess you gave him an opportunity to show off, and he liked to be admired.

“You could say he was good with me too. Or maybe bad with me. I had my first kiss with him, you know.” On the fuzzy skype screen I can see her pleased, secret smile. “In the garden shed one day, up against the bicycles. Like I said, he was a bastard.”

III

A month or so later I was near Nantwich and I decided to visit and look at my grandparents’ house. It was for sale; I knocked on the door, explained who I was, and asked if I could have a quick look around.

It was smaller than I remembered, unsurprisingly, but still generous. I was startled to find there were only three bedrooms – where had they put everyone? – but then I worked out that one of the bathrooms had once been a bedroom; when Adam stayed, he probably occupied it in solitary splendour, for my grandparents would never have roomed him with June, and she must have shared with me and Caroline. I was sad to see the hatch from the dining room to the kitchen had been lost, along with the whole wall it had been in, as the casualty of a trendy knock-through.

As I left, the owners put into my hand a small box. “We found this in the attic. We think it belongs to your family.” It contained letters of various dates. One of them, unopened, was addressed to June.

Sydney
20th December 1987

Dear June,

it’s now almost three months since I’ve heard from you. I’ve written and I’ve rung you, but the time never seems to be right for you to answer the phone and I haven’t had anything by post. I’m writing to your parents’ address, in the hope that maybe my letters to London have been going astray somehow. I miss you. I’m hoping you will reply.

In case you didn’t get my previous messages, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you: as we thought might happen, the university has offered me a job. My temporary fellowship is being turned into a permanent contract, and I want to take it. I want us to live here together. This could be a wonderful opportunity for you as well as for me. I’ve been making contacts in the history department (they wonder what sort of interest I have, from the perspective of maths!) and I believe they are doing good work in exactly your area. You have a flair for research and did extremely well in your MA; you should register here for a PhD, and I think you could end up with a job here too – I really do. I want a family too, but first I want you to do what I know you’re cut out to do. I love you and I admire you. I want you to use the talent that you have, and I can look after you and support you while you study.

However, I think probably you did get my letters, and in that case I hardly know what to say. I know it’s difficult for you to contemplate leaving your country and your family; your parents were unhappy enough at the thought of you moving permanently to London. I’m not quite sure how I endured that stay in Nantwich, with you blowing hot and cold on me and only Pauline on my side. I was very glad of Becky and the piano; she seems like a nice little girl. I wonder if you’re angry with me about Caroline, but can’t you see that the very fact I told you about it shows there was nothing else to it? What was I supposed to do when she backed me against the bicycles and flung herself at me? Well, since I’m being completely honest and I don’t think you’re going to answer this anyway, I admit I waited a little longer than I need have done before disentangling myself; she’s very pretty (she’s very like you) and I wasn’t getting much of that sort of thing from you that week. So be angry with me.

June, your house was so beautiful. I remember the roses and how lovely you looked among them. I remember the three of you, your mother, your sister and you, and how similar you seemed, how fond of each other, how closed to me. In London I knew you, but in Cheshire I only desired you. I still do, but it doesn’t seem much use now.

Yours, even so,

Adam.

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A Yorkshire interlude

Dot writes: ‘interlude’ maybe is an odd term to use for a work trip – I’ve just been to Leeds for a conference – but it felt oddly like one. Though the conference was huge and busy, and I was busy at it with a paper to give and three other sessions to chair, I was staying in a student residence away from the campus, tucked away at the end of a dead-end street, with trees outside the window and a strip of woodland behind; there were other people also in the house, but somehow I never saw them, and I felt very secluded. In the corner of my room were steps descending steeply into a strange little room with shelves and a sink in it, which made me think I’d been provided with my own priest’s hole, or maybe a linoleum-lined inner sanctum for my anchorhold. I sat at the desk and thought about my book project, with more focus and energy than I have for ages. At one point a squirrel came and sat on the window and looked in at me.

Cumberland Drive. I was in a house off the little lane at the end of the street

Cumberland Drive. I was in a house off the little lane at the end of the street

Priest's hole

Priest’s hole

View from priest's hole

View from priest’s hole

Fire door in residence. Only very thin locksmiths are allowed out in the event of a fire

Fire door in residence. In the event of a fire, only very thin locksmiths are allowed out

I took this on the evening of the last day of the conference; earlier this scene would have been full of people

I took this on the evening of the last day of the conference; earlier this scene would have been full of people

Trebuchet demonstation at the conference. A compact trebuchet for those seeking to destroy smaller fortifications

Trebuchet demonstation at the conference. A compact trebuchet for those seeking to destroy smaller fortifications

Medievalists contemplating a more aggressive approach to the rankings game. (You may recognise Julie, who was our au pair in 2012/13.)

Medievalists contemplating a more aggressive approach to the rankings game. (You may recognise Julie, who was our au pair in 2012/13.)

I’m afraid I didn’t get a picture of the squirrel.

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A Reunion by Dot

A man and a woman are in a coffee shop. As it happens, they’ve met before, but today they’re not here to see each other. In fact, he is quietly reading at a table by himself when she, looking for a seat, asks if she may join him. “Please do,” he says, looking up and gesturing. This is enough to spark a sense of recognition in her.

“Oh, hello.”

“Hello. Sorry, I’m not sure I remember…?”

“It’s Julia, Julia Kennedy. But I think I may have made a mistake. You look familiar, but perhaps… do you mind telling me your name?”

“Tom Ferris.”

“Oh! So that’s where I know you from. You were in The Aardvarks.”

“I was indeed, though it’s been a while. You must have bought one of our records or come to a gig?”

“Bought one of your records! I bought everything you released. I was a huge fan. I saw you as often as I could. I was heart-broken when you guys split up.”

There’s a pause in which they both wonder how he can answer this, and in which they size each other up a little. She’s very smartly dressed in a black skirt, white blouse, black suit-jacket and two-inch heels, with makeup and hair just so. He’s a lot less smartly dressed in red jeans and t-shirt with a leather jacket. He’s a big, fair, handsome man in his mid-thirties, running slightly to fat, with stubble that hasn’t quite achieved the status of a beard.

“So, do you still listen to much music?”

“Not as much as I’d like. I’ve still got all of your records, of course. But I’m pretty busy with my job so I don’t follow current music much these days. What are you doing now?”

“Oh, bit of this, bit of that…journalism mainly. Well, it’s a nice blast from the past to meet a fan. I don’t encounter too many of those these days. To be honest we never had that many of them anyway.”

“I don’t know. You certainly had a loyal following. And there were some bigger venues as well as the clubs and pubs.”

“So there were. I used to like playing festivals – that’s not really the same thing anyway.”

“I always liked the small gigs. Selfish perhaps, but I liked the intimacy. I saw you play in a couple of clubs – Macmillan’s, for instance.”

This is the point at which he realises something that she recollected rather earlier, viz. that, about ten years before, on a brown leather sofa in a small storeroom-cum-changing room at the back of Macmillan’s, while his bandmates courteously loitered in the bar, the two of them had engaged in sexual congress.

“Yeah, Macmillan’s. Good times at Macmillan’s. I don’t think we played another gig there after…that time.”

“A few years ago I could probably have told you exactly where you played on the rest of that tour, and the festivals after that, and the farewell concerts that autumn, but I don’t remember now. I guess I’ve moved on,” and she smiles.

“We’ve all moved on,” he replies. “Only way to move, isn’t it?”

And that would probably have been it – a chance encounter, a mildly uncomfortable conversation – had not Tom had an appointment with his solicitor that Tuesday.

“I’m very sorry I can’t be there,” says Mr Adams on the phone. “I’ve to go to a funeral down the country. But I’ve passed all the documents to my junior and she will talk you through them. You’ll be safe in her hands.”

It turns out the junior is Julia.

“So, this is the contract for sale. You sign here… here… and here. It’s a bit of a bargain, isn’t it?”

Tom is buying a one-bedroom apartment on the edge of a gentrifying area. The price is what they call competitive, owing to some spectacular 1970s carpets and the lack of a shower. He doesn’t have any spare savings to do it up, but he’s not going to tell Julia that.

“It’s affordable,” he says, “and a good size for one person.”

She explains the next stage of the buying process and watches while he writes a frightening cheque for the deposit and a somewhat less frightening one for her.

“Bye bye money,” says Tom.

Julia tidies everything efficiently into the correct trays and files. Then she has a look at the clock and mentally calculates how much she still has to do that afternoon.

“This is a day to celebrate,” she says. “How about I buy you lunch?”

“I’m not that poor,” he says. “I can afford lunch.”

“You’re not doing too badly if you can afford a flat in this market,” says Julia. “We could go Dutch?”

He has considerable misgivings but says yes. After all, she’s still very attractive.

“So, what have you been doing in the years since I…in the last few years?” Tom has decided that this might be easier if they talk about her.

“It’s kind of obvious,” says Julia. “I’ve been turning into a solicitor. I did the law society entrance examination. I got the Overend Scholarship, you know – that means I came top in the exam. Clever me. I had a training contract. I did more exams, didn’t do quite so well in those but they went fine. I got my first job as a qualified solicitor in the firm where I trained, and then after a couple of years I moved to Adams and Flynn. I bought some hair straighteners. And here I am.”

“Fair play to you,” says Tom. “And are you staying somewhere nice?”

“I bought an apartment in” – she names a fashionable urban area – “with my boyfriend a couple of years ago.” Tom rapidly assimilates the boyfriend. “But he’s left me, so now I’m investigating whether it makes sense to buy him out.” Tom unassimilates the boyfriend. “How about you? I’m surprised you didn’t stay in music.”

“I sort of did. One of my jobs is giving guitar lessons. But of the four of us only Brendan is still in a band. They’ve really taken off recently, in fact – The Equalizers, you’ve heard of them?” Julia assumes what she hopes is an intelligent expression rather than a blank one. “Sean of course left us to form Minor Strivings, but they didn’t last that long and he’s now in insurance.”

“Minor Strivings was a good name for a band. I have to admit, I loved everything about The Aardvarks except the name.”

“Yes, we could have been huge with a better name. Or maybe not.”

“So what did you do when the band split up?”

“Do you want the short version or the long version? OK, here’s the short version of the long version. I was pretty depressed as I’d poured a lot of energy into that band, so I decided I wanted to get right away from the whole thing and I went to the US on a working visa. While I was there I travelled around, did some busking, worked in bars, the whole package; it was fun I suppose, one way of killing a year. I certainly gained an encyclopedic knowledge of Greyhound coach routes. Then I came back, looked up a mate who worked for Pop Immersion and blagged my way into a job reviewing bands. Drunk on power and my lust for revenge, I ruined the careers of many a fine act.” He pauses. “Not really. I got married but she left me – we’ve got that in common. I had no money. I wrote a bleak, sensitive novel. I still had no money. So I started teaching guitar – lots of boys with brilliant air-guitar technique, trying to make actual sounds – and took on more journalism. These days in fact I’m mostly a film critic.”

“Oh, it must have been you who wrote that review of Project Doom that said the designer should get an Oscar and the scriptwriter should get analysed. I noticed ‘Ferris’ in the byline but didn’t make the connection. I enjoyed that film, you know. Watching films is my main hobby these days.”

“I enjoyed it too, but the subtext was seriously twisted. What did you think of it?”

“I always think about these things from the point of view of the girl. She’s so silent in that movie, isn’t she? I imagine her watching your man having nightmares about his mother and festooning himself with guns, and thinking ‘Would you ever get over yourself, yeh great eejit.’ And then she could make him a cup of tea.”

Tom laughs. “I have to review a film this weekend. It’s not an action movie this time, it’s an arthouse one, The Silver Wind. Would you like to come too? The Lifebuoy Cinema, Saturday at 7pm. What do you think?”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

As he leaves the restaurant, he wonders why he’s arranged a date with someone who makes him feel like a failure. He’d be surprised to learn she’s wondering much the same thing.

Outside the cinema on Saturday he feels better when he sees her. In jeans and a short-sleeved top, with her hair unstraightened and slightly tousled from the breeze, she looks much more like the girl he remembers from ten years ago. For her part, wearing flat shoes she notices acutely how much taller and larger than her he is. During the film they share popcorn, but he doesn’t put his arm around her.

“What did you think?” she asks as they emerge.

“I thought it was shite,” he answers frankly.

“Really? But I thought it was rather lovely and moving. The piano score is gorgeous. And that part where the girl drops the letters in the stream and lets them float away, I found that really powerful.”

“Nah, hokey cliché’d crap. Seen it a million times. Face it, the film was shite.”

“Is that what you’re going to say in your eloquent review? The film was shite?”

“No, I’ll get out my thesaurus and say it was ordure.”

There’s a grin on his face, she’s smiling too, and they’re noticeably more relaxed together now they’ve had an argument.

“Fancy a drink? The bars round here are a bit dull but I know a good one about ten minutes that way.”

He leads her across the main road from the cinema, up a couple of small streets, and into an area that’s full of small, late-opening eateries, kebab joints, shops selling witchy clothes. The bar is long and narrow with tables tucked into nooks, and he ushers her to one of these and buys her a glass of wine.

“So, were you a follower of other bands or just of us?”

“There weren’t any others I was as into, but I used to go to gigs all the time. It was a really big part of my life and it just…stopped. Legal training is a lot of pressure, and my old friends had gone to different places and my new friends didn’t share that with me.”

“But you still have the flame of rock’n’roll hidden in your heart?”

“Perhaps. Mostly sausage roll. I try to eat healthily but sometimes I get dark desires.” She looks at him solemnly.

“Oh, do you now. And does Mr Adams know about your dark desires and your wild youth shagging bands?”

“I didn’t shag bands. Just you.”

“What, only me?”

“You were the only guy from a band, I mean.”

“Ah yes, you targeted me for your corrupting wiles.” He’s teasing but she’s a little annoyed.

“That’s pretty rich, when you were the ones cutting your swathe through the tender young music fans of Britain and Ireland.”

“Hardly. We were scarcely Led Zeppelin, you know. We just took the odd opportunity from time to time. Actually I’m not sure Nick ever did – maybe once. He’s a very quiet fella, is Nick.” Nick was the drummer.

“What happened to Nick?”

“He’s in the pink these days, actually. He has his own business dealing in rare musical instruments, and he’s written the definitive book on modular synthesizers.”

“Anyway. My point has to do with pots and kettles, and you’re the pot and you were a lot dirtier than me.”

“I admit I’ve been a bastard in my time. I did once hook up with a girl – a sweet girl, she deserved better – almost entirely because I couldn’t face another night on a floor with Sean, and I knew that the pay-off for a little bit of effort would be getting to sleep in a bed. My back was killing me on that tour, and Sean snores.” His grin is now extremely cheeky. “I lucked out – double bed.”

“Beats a sofa,” she says.

“Certainly does. It wasn’t a very good sofa, was it? Sorry about that.”

“I’ve definitely known better sofas. More prolonged sofas.”

“Jesus, yes. Sofas can be awkward when you’re six foot four.”

“I don’t regret it, though. Even though it wasn’t an especially good one. I like to be able to look back and remember a period in my life when I lived so intensely. Music did that for me – I mean, it wasn’t just the fan part. I like to know I was capable of being so swept away by something, when I’m doing some boring conveyancing at 6.30 in the evening.”

“Does your job really bore you that much?”

She thinks. “No. I suppose it doesn’t. I’m good at it and I like doing it well. I like Mr Adams, I enjoy seeing these little slices of people’s lives and helping sort out their problems. But it doesn’t compare to what you do. To all the things you’ve achieved, all the things you make.” He’s silent, somewhat disconcerted. “I read your book, you know. I found it in a bookshop after we met the last time. I really liked it.”

“It’s extremely nice of you to say that. You probably doubled my sales figures, too.”

“Oh, stop being so self-deprecating. You should be proud of what you do.”

“No, I am. I am proud of it. I suppose I’d like to set the world alight and be famous and everything, and it would be nice to have a tad more cash, but really, I was pleased with that book. I was pleased with our records too, back in the day. I knew we’d managed to make them sound how we wanted. I guess I’m just a bit self-conscious when you’re so smart and successful.”

“OK, I’m preening a little now. Perhaps what each of us needs is a fan. For mutual appreciation.”

“You’re a very pretty and intelligent woman.”

“You were always the cute one in the band.”

“This mutual appreciation thing is going quite well, isn’t it?”

She laughs.

“Have you finished your drink? Would you like to…um, the place where I’m staying at the moment, it’s just round the corner.” She takes his hand.

They cross another road, through a door, up some stairs. She notices the colourful clutter of his flat, the strewn desk, the vinyl collection and the guitar on a stand in the corner. The mattress is, happily, of an excellent quality. An hour later, lying satisfied in each other’s arms, they agree it was much better than the last time.

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Shouting at surveys

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Dot writes: the Irish Times is publishing a series of articles on its recent Sex Survey. This offers a snapshot of sexual attitudes and behaviour among those people who read the Irish Times and are happy to fill in surveys about sex.

Now, I love filling in surveys, so long as they aren’t customer surveys, so I filled in this one. However, my love of surveys is perverse, because I also tend to want to shout at them. It takes an enormous amount of energy and attention to reduce discursive answers to the kind of graphic people want to publish, so surveys like this are normally multiple choice. There are grave problems with multiple choice answers: so often, the right answer just isn’t there. Moreover, you can often see the direction of thought that governed the construction of certain questions, and you can see it’s wrong.

In this particular survey the one I particularly wanted to argue with was a section that asked ‘Are you happy with your body?’ There were two possible answers: yes and no. Now, who can really answer yes or no to that question? Certainly not me. My body serves me well. It has successfully produced and fed babies, and I was very happy with it for doing that. It is not currently sick, and there are bits of it I think attractive. It is a convenient height and only slightly on the fat side. But there are plenty of other things I’m not so happy with, things I’ve always been self-conscious about and other things that are the result of ageing and my erratic hormones. So – yes, no, I don’t know. I answered no to that question, but really it was a coin toss.

This question was followed by one on whether you’ve ever had difficulty achieving orgasm. Here I was irritated by what seemed to be a transparent assumption underneath the organisation of the questions: discontent with your body might lead to difficulty achieving orgasm. And, especially now I’ve seen some of the reporting on this question in the paper, I’m also irritated again by the crudity of the question: do they mean recent difficulty? Difficulty that you actually consider a problem? Any difficulty whatsoever at any time? There are so many shades to this that are being ignored here, and since it’s a rather sensitive issue for people I do consider that a problem.

I realise I’m completely true to type in my reaction here. I’m an English lecturer. We believe in nuances and complication, because that’s the sort of thing literature is good at exploring. Ken, with his philosophical training, is capable of considering reductionism elegant, which is why it is so strange and intellectually stimulating for me to be married to him. I get the intellectual stimulation from having to explain to him why he is wrong…

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The Passage Tomb by Dot

“Hi Hannah, it’s Clare. Can I come over?” I can tell from her voice something is wrong. I think I know what it might be, and I’m right.

“He’s leaving me. There’s someone else.” Her face is white. She hasn’t cried yet. “He told me just now. He’s going to go and stay at his parents’ place for the night, but I didn’t want to be in the house alone. Can I stay in your spare room?”

I tell her yes. I tell her she’s welcome to stay as long as she likes.

“Apparently it’s one of his work colleagues. I haven’t met her, thank god. He says he hopes we can stay friends.” I can’t describe how she says that word. Then she falls into my arms and howls.

I stroke her hair. Between the tears, she’s still talking. “You know the stupid thing? I want to have sex. I want to have lots and lots of sex, and I want to have it with him. He always did it so well.” This is really more than I want to hear. I feel sick to the stomach with pain for her. I feel like a leech growing fat on the terrible energy of her sorrow. I hold her close.

I’ve reached that life stage when the divorces start – I think there are more in the forties than the thirties, but plenty of my friends are now into their forties. I don’t know what yelling and crying they’ve done on other people’s shoulders, but the abandoned women I know, and a few men, seem to be taking it staunchly, though there are some nasty things happening in lawyers’ plush offices, and fissures opening up as social circles divide into his half and her half. I know a fellow mother at the school who came here from France for her husband’s job, and now he’s left her and gone back to France, but he can’t understand why she won’t go back too so he can have his children close by for visiting days; who wouldn’t want to live in France? And another friend who didn’t mention to any of us that her three kids’ father was gone until it had been a fait accompli for months, but who quietly took in a lodger to pay the bills and booked herself a weekly session with a psychiatrist. It’s simpler for Clare and Christopher; they have no children, and she is still only twenty-nine (so is the new squeeze, apparently; he’s a serial cradle-snatcher). She can pick herself up and start again, but right now she’s in my house, and she’s ripped apart.

“I had a dream last night that’s not hard to interpret. I dreamt he was there in the corner and I started kicking and punching him. Kicking his legs, punching his sides and head, just beating him up with every ounce of strength that I had. He was kind of passive, just curling over and shielding his face with his arms, but somehow that made me even more vicious. I didn’t know I had it in me to be so angry about anything. I can’t remember what I think about things any more. Which opinions were mine and which were his? People talk about dividing up the record collection but I have to divide up my head. I’ve been with him since I was twenty-one and I don’t know who I am, if I’m not his.”

She’s hardly eating at all; it’s as though she has to purge the years with him out of her body, until she’s almost as light and pale as air.

My husband hugs me when she’s left the room, conscious of what we have, aware of how I’m the shield Clare has placed between herself and the world for a while. I’ve become hypersensitive and the deliberateness of his gesture annoys me, just as I’m unfairly annoyed by the way he wants to tell me in detail about the interesting political think-piece he read today, or the way he puts the dishes away when they’re not fully dry. I have the children and Clare and I’m not sure how much spare capacity I have for him, especially when he is being so kind. I reflect that I am lucky to have him.

I see Christopher in town, looking at white goods with the new girl. I notice how, without being embarrassing or acting unsuitably for a public place, he’s taking every little opportunity to touch her; when I see his face turned towards her it’s full of happiness. Probably he has done the right thing – for him. Maybe the right thing for Clare too; they’d gone into a cul de sac, I think, marking time and wanting different things that they weren’t pursuing. Christopher is a romantic, ardent, charming; he likes to be in love, he thrives that way. I wonder if he’s really capable of a long, slow, ordinary togetherness, though to do him justice he gave it a good try with Clare; in fact, I’d thought of the two of them she was the more discontented. Then again, in most couples there’s one who has the initiative and, just as he was the one who courted Clare in the first place, so it was his part to call an end. In my marriage, I’ve always been the one who made the moves.

“I could do anything, now. I could travel. I wouldn’t have any money, but it doesn’t matter – I could teach English, or pick fruit, like the gap year students.” She’s stopped crying now, after a few days, but the skin of her face has a raw and fragile look. “I could do voluntary work abroad or go and be a warden on an island nature reserve.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know yet, but I can feel something waiting to take shape. I don’t want to stay in my job.” She gives a tiny sideways shake of the head, as though she’s flicking off something that irritates her. “Listen, could you come away with me for a few days? Would Martin mind having the kids on his own for that long? I need to go somewhere, but I don’t think I’m ready to do it alone.” I wonder if I can stand it; I feel I’ve soaked up enough tears for a whole trousseau of handkerchiefs and need to be wrung out and spread somewhere sunny to dry. “My sister will be back from America at the weekend and she’s going to come down and help me start sorting out the house. I just need a little ritual journey before I’m ready to be a grown-up again and leave you in peace.”

I say I will go with her, and Martin says he understands.

We’re going to a coastal town, a place Clare went with her university friends as a post-finals celebration, just before she met Christopher. We’ve booked rooms in a hostel because we’re doing this on the cheap, but they are separate rooms, not bunks in a dorm. It’s a beautiful part of the country with wild hills all around and it’s a bit of a drive to get there; we put together a collection of CDs for the drive, choosing things we can sing along to. We have the Dixie Chicks, Roxette, Madonna’s Greatest Hits and a compilation called Women in Rock. Clare’s a bit young for them, but she likes power ballads. We feel silly at first but quickly relax our inhibitions to ‘Listen to Your Heart’ and ‘Black Velvet’, though as I listen to a fair amount of current music I wish I’d slipped in at least a couple of things less determinedly orientated towards nostalgia and female bonding. We talk about our childhoods, our student days, the music we liked in our teens, the drama groups we used to be in, first boyfriends. We’ve been friends for a while but most of this we haven’t talked about before. I realise I’m enjoying myself.

Clare takes me for a walk along the beach, a route she’s done before. She shows me how in the cliffs, if you know what to look for, you can see fossils eroding out. The line of the coast has changed even in the years since she was here; landslips in the winter storms have taken out some beach huts she remembers. The worsening weather and rising seas of global warming will eat away ever more quickly at these beautiful, crumbling shales.

“Last time I was here, I remember I was planning to take a year out and then go back to uni to do a master’s in marine ecology. I remember talking about it with my friend Aisling on this very beach. Of course it didn’t work out like that. But I might look into it again. I’d like to do something positive for, you know, the world” – her tone is self-mocking but she’s perfectly sincere.

I say something encouraging in reply, but though she seems to be in a hopeful mood the emotional extremes of the past week suddenly return to me and I feel a plunge of horror: what future for my children, when the glaciers are gone and fresh water scarce, when the land is shrinking and the fish are dead? I think of the day-to-day maintenance of my life, the meal plans and making of tea, the small tolerances and attentions in the service of permanence, of raising new adults and keeping my man, and I wonder why I bother with any of it. But I know it’s no use to think like this and the weight soon lifts; it’s a warm and glowing summer evening. We buy wine and a takeaway on our way back to the hostel.

There’s a terrace outside the hostel where we sit to eat. Clare manages more of the meal than I expected, but the wine quickly defeats her; one glass in, and she gets the giggles over one of my less stellar jokes, declares that she’s very tired actually, and retires to bed. I’m not sleepy at all. I linger with the rest of the bottle, listening to some girls nearby who are quietly picking out songs on a guitar.

“Do you mind some conversation? I’m here on my own and I’m not feeling too contemplative.” It’s a man who’s been sitting a few spaces along from us. He’s maybe forty-five, short grey hair receding at the temples but a strong face and a fit, wiry physique.

“Go ahead. I’d like a break from contemplation myself. You look as though you’re probably on a cycling holiday?”

“Yes, I’ve been touring all the way up the coast. I’m taking a couple of rest days here and then I’m going to carry on going north.”

I ask him about his route and he tells me about the small towns he’s been travelling through, the time he dropped his tyre-mending kit in a stream and the man he shared a dorm with in the last hostel who seems to have inadvertently given him a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He talks amusingly, enjoying my attention, and it occurs to me that I, who’ve been feeling rather old by comparison with Clare, am at least as much younger than him as she is than Christopher.

“Have you seen the chamber tomb yet?”

“No. What chamber tomb?”

“It’s up there on the hill, only ten minutes walk from here. I came across it this morning; the signpost is pretty cleverly hidden. Come on, I’ll show you and the walk’ll help you settle your dinner.”

I rise to follow him and at this point I do wonder what I’m doing, but it’s such a lovely evening, the moon is up and the sunset’s not yet faded; I decide to find out where this leads.

We walk up the hill, brushed by the bending grasses that fringe the path. Not quite at the top, there is the tomb. It’s a pretty good tomb, a passage tomb with a low stone entrance and a tunnel that goes into a mound built out from the hill.

He dares me to go in and I crawl inside. It’s almost immediately pitch dark; I grope my way into a rounded, womb-like space that’s fortunately big enough for me to turn around in, so that I can emerge again head first. He doesn’t try to get in there with me, but as I scramble out he reaches down a hand and helps me to stand up. Then he puts the other hand behind my head and gently kisses me.

I feel a mixture of gratification, astonishment and panic. I think the following, more or less simultaneously:
what about Martin
this is nice
he tastes of coffee
and what about the children
oh, poor Clare, the irony
I have probably had too much to drink for satisfying sex
Martin.

I step backwards. I don’t seem to be able to form words for a moment, but I raise my left hand and spread out the fingers to show him the wedding ring. And I’m fortunate; I’ve picked a nice man to lead on and then reject. He gives a slightly rueful smile, and with a bend that’s almost a bow he offers me his arm. And we walk back down the hill to the hostel and to Clare.

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