James Scavanger had first met the woman who would become his wife on a Thursday afternoon at the Tomb of the Unknown Celebrity, where she did the floors. As she had approached him through the crowds, pushing her wide mop, he had whispered a batrachian whisper she couldn’t fail to hear. Hoarse with abstract rapture he had whispered: ‘I have a serpent of delight!’ It was a rare lyric moment for James, who was a pure scientist. Phyllis had responded by quoting Virginia Woolf, although she did not know it. Not stopping her mop, she had said: ‘Something always has to be done next.’ ‘Meet me,’ croaked James, ‘at the Bureau of Birth, Death and Matrimony. Half-past nine next Saturday morning.’ To sum up he added: ‘We’ll get married.’
‘Our Phyllis has just married someone in Who’s Who,’ boasted her mother to a neighbour. ‘Apparently his family can be traced back almost to the apes.’ ‘Not traced back too quickly, I hope,’ was all the neighbour said on that particular occasion.
Phyllis resigned her position as an ablutionist (Mop Technician Grade Three) in the Department of Cleansing and Pollution because James did not want to go on living in the city. ‘He’s your husband now,’ said her father. ‘You do what he tells you.’ ‘Accept him, admire him, adapt to him,’ said her mother, which is the sort of thing that’s easy to say and hard to do.
James had decided that he and his bride would spend their honeymoon weekend at The Galloping Corbie in Blackfly-on-Broadbean. Just getting there was an adventure. After the public aggress system had announced and apologised for the sixth cancelled train, James had to pay 24 pence apiece for two refreshing cups of tea-powder in the station buffet and Phyllis had to spend four pence an hour later pissing one away in the station loo. James pissed in the Gents for nothing. When a train at last reached their platform it was an unscheduled early arrival from the next day. Hundreds of people got into it, including James and Phyllis, who had to crouch in the vestibule between two carriages with 18 other passengers who hadn’t got seats either; but the sky was still blue and everyone felt pretty good just to be moving – even in a retrograde direction. ‘Eight minutes ago the sunlight just now warming your dear downy forearms was still part of the sun’s corona 93 million miles away,’ said James with tender bemusement. ‘So when the sun snuffs it we’ll still have eight minutes of grace.’ ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam – 93 million miles long,’ Phyllis murmured in a trance of anticipation.
When they finally got to Blackfly-on-Broad-bean it was thoroughly dark. The local taxi had been drained of petrol and locked up for the night, so they walked from the station to The Galloping Corbie carrying Phyllis’s steamer trunk between them, as they were going on to Croaking after the weekend and James hadn’t wanted to travel all the way into the city again just to collect Phyllis’s belongings. In Blackfly-on-Broadbean it was perfect, the weather, but there was a worm at the heart of the day. While they were drinking champagne substitute beside a bankrupt August river the clouds burst over their heads and they spent the rest of their honeymoon being rained to death, which gave Phyllis plenty of opportunity to ask James why Jonah hadn’t been digested when he was swallowed by the whale, and other curious matters of science and antiquity.
Their first home was a furnished bungalow on the outskirts of Croaking, quite convenient to James’s anodised-aluminium university and just downwind of a farting refinery belonging to the Department of Cleansing and Pollution, which is one agency of government whose right hand knows damn well what its left hand is doing. The bungalow squatted behind a fat privet hedge that wobbled like a long lime jelly in the ceaseless gales. The gas cooker, up on Queen Anne legs, was, Phyllis reckoned, Early Rayon Age. The one-and-a-half-piece suite almost certainly dated from the Middle Nylon Period, whereas the lino was undoubtedly Late Crimplene but it had got the hell bashed out of it by spike-heeled housewives of the same period.
‘I’ll make the dinner,’ said James on their first night at home. Dinner was one of James’s crunchy curries. He was not patient to husk, scrape, cleanse, peel, crush, chop, grind and sort: he threw each ingredient into the pot just as it had come out of the brown paper bag and he served it up, husks and pods and skins together, on rice that was mixed with fine gravels. For dessert Phyllis produced a thin chocolate cake that was bent like an old boot sole and turned up at one end. James and Phyllis smiled strained smiles at one another over the dinner table and made emergency appointments with the dentist. Altogether a day destined to go down in their history – the further down the better and the sooner the quicker, Phyllis thought, pressing cotton wool soaked in oil of cloves against her fractured tushes. Nineteen years later, when she was approaching forty (DEAD SLOW and with EXTREME CAUTION), she would pick up a crinkle-cut carrot stick from the kitchen counter and say to her about-to-be-ex husband: ‘This carrot – has been through – Hell.’ Then she would vanish with a melodious Twang – a Speechless Ghost leaving a curious Perfume on the air and the canary dead of fright in the bottom of its cage. It would be a straightforward case of the ship finally leaving the sinking rat.
But that day was far in the future and would probably never come. Phyllis still had many years in which to compile The Compleat Problems of Mrs Effie Dowdy, OM, which was her private name and secret occupation. She would say to her kitchen upon entering it each morning: ‘My name is Mrs Effie Dowdy and it always was and it always will be. I cook, I bake, I wash, I poss, I mangle, I iron, I brush, I stoke, I scrub, I mend, I patch and I peel. The last I do for the convenience of Mr Dowdy, a penetrating man.’ She admitted to knowing nowt of the bonds of mother-love – or as some writer-bloke in the village weekly had innocently got it once: the bondage of mother-love. For what is the half-life of a woman but seventy years times seven and in some cases much more.
Both Cain and Abel had called Eve mother but Cain was her special darling.
Mrs Effie Dowdy despised Eve. Lilith was her kind of woman: Adam’s first and too-much-of-a-handful. Lilith was nobody’s rib. Yet one could admire, even envy, that direct line to life that women like Eve and her ilk seemed to possess, just as though they’d invented life. The respect they had for themselves and each other, their broad general competence and the way they endured the undoing of everything they did just as soon as they had got it done. The half-life of women. Most of them still voted for it.
At first Phyllis saw James as one who had fallen in love as another man might have fallen in battle: that is to say, prone, out of breath and only once. But later it seemed to Phyllis that James was like that droll cosmopolitan rat of Rosenberg’s, tirelessly scuttling back and forth across No Man’s Land. Not that Phyllis and James’s mistresses were at war. They weren’t even in any real sense one another’s enemies; but in James’s imagination they had to occupy opposing trenches so that he could commute between them, grinning. He enjoyed the risks he thought he was taking almost as much as he enjoyed the piquant differences between his women.
The bastard. His policy was obvious: divide and devour.
James understood that relations between the sexes boil down to rule or be ruled. In the Humanities Division D. H. Lawrence was his arch-hero.
Phyllis was told that her choices were three: accept, change or sublimate. Phyllis decided she had a fourth choice. She decided she could tell James that she actually did not like him. This she did. Repeatedly. Every time she told him she actually did not like him James blandly assumed that she was joking. It was a brilliant defence. What naked aboriginal truth could ever penetrate such determination not to be offended in the slightest by any of the unpleasant things Phyllis was saying with all the sincerity in her affronted heart? Phyllis began to shout the unpleasant things, as much as to say no joke is intended, whereupon James saw he could dismiss it all as ‘mere hysteria’ and refer her to Dr Coldfinger’s classic work on yeast frenzy. Phyllis turned to mockery and an ambiguous derision, called James the Leaning Tower of Penis when he came down to breakfast naked and dropped his bath towel to the floor in front of her. She was meant to see that he was saying something to her about self-exposure.
The only cure for true love is getting to know each other better. Happiness and reality are irreconcilable. And yet – this is the trouble – they are a mated pair. ‘Woman,’ said James, reverting to spoken language, ‘lie down and die down.’ For a time Phyllis seemed quite happy to comply.
After a while James even gave up his current mistress. ‘I didn’t have to do that,’ he would remind Phyllis whenever she showed signs of ingratitude. Just because the other woman had gone off to live with some slum-lord who had a house in the country and a villa in the south of France. ‘I’ve come back because I want to,’ James said. He put coffee on to perk, turned the gas up high and went out to water the garden. While he sprinkled the wallflowers the coffee spurted all over the cooker. By evening Phyllis’s tidy kitchen counters were a mass of dried, interlocking tea spills and rings of coffee, slicks of chicken fat, crumbs, pale sticky droppings of marmalade, drifts of salt and sugar. ‘What are you complaining about?’ James was aggrieved. ‘I made tea, didn’t I? I refilled the sugar bowl, didn’t I?’ Phyllis said that her feet were sticking to the floor but she was still determined not to clean up after him any more. She left her shoes fast to the tiles and went off to start a new notebook that would combine armchair travel with autobiography. She called it A Cruise through the Dire Straits. Chapter One, ‘Gone with the Window’, was the tragic story of a disintegrating home in which the father, a despairing house-husband and parttime glazier’s mate, walked out with three patio panels and a pair of French doors only to be defenestrated (in reverse) when he fell into a building through the skylight he’d been hired to repair. He was killed, of course. But at least he would no longer be troubled with dreams in which the shiny oak switchback banister down which he was sliding from the twenty-first floor to the ground changed round about the fifteenth floor into a razor blade. No man could dream such a dream night after night and bear it.
In Chapter Two, called ‘Gone with the Windowlene’, a girl named Angina, jealous of her friend Beryl (‘Beryl’s a lay anthropologist. I’m just a lay’), drinks three-quarters of a bottle of Windowlene and becomes completely transparent for six sparkling years, in the course of which she finishes a PhD. Chapter Three continues the story of Angina after life has begun to sully her into visibility again with a series of men who enjoy fantasies of impossible hospitality in her arms. Ultimately, in the classic English tradition, she starts an affair with the back half of a pantomime horse and then one day a long face on a large head with pricked ears appears at her bedroom window just before the rear half of the horse is due for an assignation and begs Angina to run away with him. This chapter Phyllis called ‘Gone with the Window-Cleaner’.
The notebook concludes with an extended fantasia in which Mrs Effie Dowdy begins to suspect she has been tattooed in her sleep by a biologist who intends to track her electronically for purposes of research.
The story of the past is the story of the future.
A sabbatical year was approaching for James Scavanger, who felt it was time to get out of the country for a bit. He told Phyllis they were going abroad. He said that his colleagues depressed him and so did his students, so many of whom lived like veal calves in foetid cells ranged along vertical tunnels in university halls of residence, up staircases scented with stale farts, behind walls cracked with competing rock beats. When presented with a cultural artifact the inhabitants of this contemptible environment only responded with cheerful shouts: ‘This is a load of rubbish, don’t you think?’
One wet Saturday morning James got up early and went out. He called at the travel agent’s to collect his tickets and itinerary. YOUR PLEASURE IS OUR BUSINESS. The motto would serve just as well in a brothel, he observed to himself. Then he stood stock still for twenty minutes in the midst of the teeming street-market looking with revulsion at the shoppers in crackling blue plastic wrappings like something runny one might buy from the cheese stall. ‘ “Marks of weakness, marks of woe,” ’ James chanted inwardly, looking at one miserable fat face after another as people trudged along with parcels of food. Not one, male or female, would you care to call attractive. It seemed to James that he could hear the rancid dialogue spooling on endlessly behind the Caerphilly brows and lavender skins where the hair was all scraped off, the fresh-squeezed spots burned bright. The only attractive people he saw all morning were the three punks queued up on the customer side of the counter at his building society. Two were females. The boy was quite beautiful in his understated make-up, tan shirt and jeans. Shocked magenta hair was the only mark of his caste that James could identify. But both the women wore expensive gear. Black Dracula jackets and toreador pants with black puttees or black Benjamin Franklin smalls with sheer black hose and black cloth ballerina shoes made in the Republic of China. One displayed a set of Sadeian bondage accessories that James reckoned could have cost a hundred quid. A broad black leather dog-collar, a hip-belt, and a shackle on one ankle – all of them studded with blunt steel bollards. ‘I wouldn’t be young again in this country if they promised me eternal life to go with it,’ James said to himself. It was ludicrous, belonging to a building society that catered for prosperous punks. Either let them stick to that wampum (what else could it be pinned all over their lapels?) or else stop dressing up like sinister jokes. They looked like roadsigns to the Abyss: THIS WAY TO THE CITIES OF THE PLAIN. But Christ, they had the loveliest young skins!
Meanwhile Phyllis had awakened and found herself alone. She remembered that in her bath the night before she had discovered her first grey hair. Can you guess where it was? When she looked down there again in the improved light, that one hair still appeared to be grey. She isolated it, pulled it out (which hurt more than love) and laid it on a pair of her black lace panties. There she could see plainly that it was not grey. It was white. White. ‘I am not having a good time,’ said Phyllis to her kitchen.‘I am not enjoying myself.’
At breakfast there was no sound but the amorous puffing of the rice in her blue-sprigged bowl. The cat had got its head into a half-nelson and fallen asleep across the teapot. For some time a colleague of James’s called Pugh W. Hardwater had been propositioning Phyllis through the post. She found another note from him stuck under the front door. ‘Hard-water will leave a deposit on your coils’ was all it said.
When James got back from town he found Phyllis standing halfway up the staircase gazing at the skylight in the roof. ‘Don’t tell me it’s leaking,’ said James blamingly. But Phyllis merely indicated that a formula for the dissolution of glass in rainwater must sooner or later be discovered. ‘Every drop is a fresh experiment,’ she said. Then she said: ‘One of your colleagues sends me rude notes, James.’
‘Who is it? I’ll kill him.’
Pugh Hardwater’s face had all the outsize features of a typical dangerous Yorkshireman’s but was especially notable for a padded chin that was cleft like gargantuan buttocks. Thick black hair with no bends in it rose from his depressed forehead and from the flat of his incipient neck like the crest of a gorilla. James often said he couldn’t see why Phyllis made herself attractive, wearing the long hair and the short skirts that he himself preferred her in although they were no longer the fashion, and then had the nerve to complain about it when men, including himself, were attracted. So he said in lieu of killing Hardwater: ‘You are deeply dishonest, Phyllis. You beckon to men with one hand and deliver a moral karate chop with the other. You confuse, and you mean to confuse.’
Definitely it was time to get out of the country and Phyllis couldn’t have agreed more. Ready to make her solo departure she stood in her front door with her packed bags beside her and called her farewells down the passage, where James sat on the throne. ‘A scientist once remarked, James, that devotion to a pet hypothesis can waste many precious years. As a scientist yourself I know you’ll understand this.’ She closed the front door after her. Immediately, James opened it. ‘I don’t understand this,’ he said. Holding up his trousers with both hands, he added: ‘Is there someone else?’
‘Yes,’ said Phyllis, getting into a taxi.
James reeled at the impertinence of the woman. Never had his honour been so insulted. The shame of it: his wife was leaving him, and not even for another man. Leaving him – for nothing better than herself. It was perfectly intolerable. Therefore it must be a lie. It must either be a joke or a lie. It was a bit extreme to be a joke – even one of Phyllis’s jokes – so it must be a lie. A woman never left a man except for another man. It was a natural law.
So there was another man. Of course there was.