The Use of Poetry
by Ian McEwan
It surprised no one to learn that Michael Beard had been an only child, and he would have been the first to concede that he’d never quite got the hang of brotherly feeling. His mother, Angela, was an angular beauty who doted on him, and the medium of her love was food. She bottle-fed him with passion, surplus to demand. Some four decades before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, he came top in the Cold Norton and District Baby Competition, birth-to-six-months class. In those harsh postwar years, ideals of infant beauty resided chiefly in fat, in Churchillian multiple chins, in dreams of an end to rationing and of the reign of plenty to come. Babies were exhibited and judged like prize marrows, and, in 1947, the five-month-old Michael, bloated and jolly, swept all before him. However, it was unusual at a village fête for a middle-class woman, a stockbroker’s wife, to abandon the cake-and-chutney stall and enter her child for such a gaudy event. She must have known that he was bound to win, just as she later claimed always to have known that he would get a scholarship to Oxford. Once he was on solids, and for the rest of her life, she cooked for him with the same commitment with which she had held the bottle, sending herself in the mid-sixties, despite her illness, on a Cordon Bleu cookery course so that she could try new meals during his occasional visits home. Her husband, Henry, was a meat-and-two-veg man, who despised garlic and the smell of olive oil. Early in the marriage, for reasons that remained private, Angela withdrew her love from him. She lived for her son, and her legacy was clear: a fat man who restlessly craved the attentions of beautiful women who could cook.
Henry Beard was a lean sort with a drooping mustache and slicked-back brown hair, whose dark suits and brown tweeds seemed a cut too large, especially around the neck. He provided for his miniature family well and, in the fashion of the time, loved his son sternly and with little physical contact. Though he never embraced Michael, and rarely laid an affectionate hand on his shoulder, he supplied all the right kinds of present—Meccano and chemistry sets, a build-it-yourself wireless, encyclopedias, model airplanes, and books about military history, geology, and the lives of great men. He had had a long war, serving as a junior officer in the infantry in Dunkirk, North Africa, and Sicily, and then, as a lieutenant colonel, in the D Day landings, where he won a medal. He had arrived at the concentration camp of Belsen a week after it was liberated, and was stationed in Berlin for eight months after the war ended. Like many men of his generation, he did not speak about his experiences and he relished the ordinariness of postwar life, its tranquil routines, its tidiness and rising material well-being, and, above all, its lack of danger—everything that would later appear stifling to those born in the first years of the peace.
In 1952, when Michael was five, the forty-year-old Henry Beard gave up his job at a merchant bank in the City and returned to his first love, which was the law. He became a partner in an old firm in nearby Chelmsford and stayed there for the rest of his working life. To celebrate the momentous change and his liberation from the daily commute to Liverpool Street, he bought himself a secondhand Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. This pale-blue machine lasted him thirty-three years, until his death. From the vantage of adulthood, and with some retrospective guilt, his son loved him for this grand gesture. But the life of a small-town solicitor, absorbed by matters of conveyancing and probate, settled on Henry Beard an even greater tranquillity. At weekends, he mostly cared for his roses, or his car, or golf with fellow-Rotarians. He stolidly accepted his loveless marriage as the price he must pay for his gains.
It was about this time that Angela Beard began a series of affairs that stretched over eleven years. Young Michael registered no outward hostilities or silent tensions in the home, but, then, he was neither observant nor sensitive, and was often in his room after school, building, reading, gluing, and later took up pornography and masturbation full time, and then girls. Nor, at the age of seventeen, did he notice that his mother had retreated, exhausted, to the sanctuary of her marriage. He heard of her adventures only when she was dying of breast cancer, in her early fifties. She seemed to want his forgiveness for ruining his childhood. By then he was nearing the end of his second year at Oxford and his head was full of maths and girlfriends, physics and drinking, and at first he could not take in what she was telling him. She lay propped up on pillows in her private room on the nineteenth floor of a tower-block hospital, with views toward the industrialized salt marshes by Canvey Island and the south shore of the Thames. He was grownup enough to know that it would have insulted her to say that he had noticed nothing. Or that she was apologizing to the wrong person. Or that he could not imagine anyone over thirty having sex. He held her hand and squeezed it to signal his warm feelings, and said that there was nothing to forgive.
It was only after he had driven home, and drunk three nightcap Scotches with his father, then gone to his old room and lain on the bed fully dressed and considered what she had told him, that he grasped the extent of her achievement. Seventeen lovers in eleven years. Lieutenant Colonel Beard had had all the excitement and danger he could stand by the age of thirty-three. Angela had to have hers. Her lovers were her desert campaign against Rommel, her D Day, and her Berlin. Without them, she had told Michael from her hospital pillows, she would have hated herself and gone mad. But she hated herself anyway, for what she thought she had done to her only child. He went back to the hospital the next day and, while she sweatily clung to his hand, told her that his childhood had been the happiest and most secure imaginable, that he had never felt neglected or doubted her love or eaten so well, and that he was proud of what he called her appetite for life and hoped to emulate it. It was the first time that he had ever given a speech. These half and quarter truths were the best words he had ever spoken. Six weeks later, she was dead. Naturally, her love life was a closed subject between father and son, but for years afterward Michael could not drive through Chelmsford or the surrounding villages without wondering whether this or that old fellow tottering along the pavement or slumped near a bus stop was one of the seventeen.
By the standards of the day, he was a precocious lad when he arrived at Oxford. He had already made love to two girls, he owned a car, a split-screen Morris Minor, which he kept in a lockup garage off the Cowley Road, and he had an allowance from his father that was far in excess of what other grammar-school boys received. He was clever, sociable, opinionated, unimpressed by and even a little scornful of boys from famous schools. He was one of those types, infuriating and indispensable, who were at the front of every queue, had tickets to key events in London, within days knew strategically important people and all kinds of shortcuts, social as well as topographic. He looked much older than eighteen, and was hardworking, organized, tidy, and actually owned and used a desk diary. People sought him out because he could repair radios and record-players and kept a soldering iron in his room. For these services he never asked for money, of course, but he had the knack of calling in favors.
Within weeks of settling in, he had a girlfriend, a “bad” girl from Oxford High named Susan Doty. Other boys studying maths and physics tended to be closed, mousy types. Outside of lab work and tutorials, Beard kept well clear of them, and he also avoided the arty sort of people—they intimidated him with literary references he did not understand. He preferred instead the engineers, who gave him access to their workshops, and the geographers, zoologists, and anthropologists, especially the ones who had already done field work in strange places. Beard knew many people but had no close friends. He was never exactly popular, but he was well known, talked about, useful to people, and faintly despised.
At the end of his second year, while he was trying to accustom himself to the idea that his mother would soon die, Beard overheard someone in a pub refer to a student at Lady Margaret Hall named Maisie Farmer as a “dirty girl.” The phrase was used approvingly, as though it were a well-established category of some clinical accuracy. Her bucolic name in this connection intrigued him. He thought of a generous strapping lass, manure-streaked, astride a tractor—and then did not think about her again. The term ended, he went home, his mother died, and the summer was lost to grief and boredom and numbing, inarticulate silences at home with his father. They had never discussed feelings before, and had no language for them now. Once, when he saw from the house his father at the bottom of the garden, examining the roses too closely, he was embarrassed, no, horrified, to realize from the tremors of his father’s shoulders that he was weeping. It did not occur to Michael to go out to him. Knowing about his mother’s lovers, and not knowing whether his father knew—he guessed he did not—was another impossible obstacle.
He returned to Oxford in September and took a third-floor room in Park Town, a down-at-heel mid-Victorian crescent arranged around a central garden. His walk to the physics buildings each day took him past the front gates of the “dirty girl” ’s college, by the narrow passageway to University Parks. One morning, on impulse, he wandered in and established at the porter’s lodge that a student by the name of Maisie Farmer indeed existed. He discovered later in the same week that she was in her third year, doing English, but he did not let that put him off. For a day or two he wondered about her, and then work and other matters took over and he forgot all about her again, and it was not until late October that a friend introduced him to her and another girl outside the Museum of Natural History.
She was not as he had imagined, and at first he was disappointed. She was small, almost frail, intensely pretty, with dark eyes and scant eyebrows and a musical voice with a surprising accent, a hint of Cockney, which was unusual in a woman at university in those days. When, in answer to her question, he told her what his subject was, her face went blank and soon she walked on with her friend. He bumped into her alone two days later and asked her to come for a drink and she said no, and said it immediately, before he had quite finished his sentence. It was a measure of Beard’s self-confidence that he was surprised. But what did she see in front of her? A stout fellow with an accountant’s look and an earnest manner, wearing a tie (in 1967!), with short hair, side-parted, and, the damning detail, a pen clipped into the breast pocket of his jacket. And he was studying science, a non-subject for fools. She said goodbye politely enough and went on her way, but Beard walked after her and asked if she was free the next day, or the day after that, or at the weekend. No, no, and no. Then he said brightly, “How about ever?,” and she laughed pleasantly, genuinely amused by his persistence, and seemed on the point of changing her mind. But she said, “There’s always never? Can you make never?,” to which he replied, “I’m not free,” and she laughed again and made a sweet little mock punch to his lapel with a child-size fist and walked off, leaving him with the impression that he still had a chance, that she had a sense of humor, that he might wear her down.
He did. He researched her. Someone told him that she had a special interest in John Milton. It did not take long to discover the century to which this man belonged. A third-year literature student in Beard’s college who owed him a favor (for procuring tickets to a Cream concert) gave him an hour on Milton, what to read, what to think. He read “Comus” and was astounded by its silliness. He read through “Lycidas,” “Samson Agonistes,” and “Il Penseroso”— stilted and rather prissy in parts, he thought. He fared better with “Paradise Lost” and, like many before him, preferred Satan’s party to God’s. He, Beard, that is, memorized passages that appeared to him intelligent and especially sonorous. He read a biography, and four essays that he had been told were pivotal. The reading took him one long week. He came close to being thrown out of an antiquarian bookshop in the Turl when he casually asked for a first edition of “Paradise Lost.” He tracked down a kindly tutor who knew about buying old books and confided to him that he wanted to impress a girl with a certain kind of present, and was directed to a bookshop in Covent Garden where he spent half a term’s money on an eighteenth-century edition of “Areopagitica.” When he speed-read it on the train back to Oxford, one of the pages cracked in two. He repaired it with Sellotape.
Then, naturally enough, he bumped into her again, this time by the gates of her college, where he had been waiting for two and a half hours. He asked if he could at least walk with her across the Parks. She didn’t say no. She was wearing an Army-surplus greatcoat, over a yellow cardigan, and a black pleated skirt and patent-leather shoes with strange silver buckles. She was even more beautiful than he had thought. As they went along he politely inquired about her work, and she explained, as though to a village idiot, that she was writing about Milton, a well-known English poet of the seventeenth century. He asked her to be more precise about her essay. She was. He ventured an informed opinion. Surprised, she spoke at greater length. To elucidate sodme point of hers, he quoted the lines “from morn / To noon he fell,” and she breathily completed them: “from noon to dewy eve.” Making sure to keep his tone tentative, he spoke of Milton’s childhood, and then of the Civil War. There were things she did not know and was interested to learn. She knew little of the poet’s life, and, amazingly, it seemed that it was not part of her studies, to consider the circumstances of his times. Beard steered her back onto familiar ground. They quoted more of their favorite lines. He asked her which Milton scholars she had read. He had read some of them, too, and gently proved it. He had glanced over a bibliography, and his conversation far outran his reading. She disliked “Comus” even more than he did, so he ventured a mild defense and allowed himself to be demolished.
Then he spoke of “Areopagitica” and its relevance to modern politics. At this she stopped on the path and asked significantly what a scientist was doing, knowing so much about Milton, and he thought he had been rumbled. He pretended to be just a little insulted. All knowledge interested him, he said; the demarcations between subjects were mere conveniences or historical accidents or the inertia of tradition. To illustrate his point, he drew on tidbits that he had picked up from his anthropologist and zoologist friends. With a first touch of warmth in her voice, she began to ask him questions about himself, though she did not care to hear about physics. And where was he from? Essex, he said. But so was she! From Chingford! That was his lucky break, and he seized his chance. He asked her to dinner. She said yes.
He was to count that misty, sunny November afternoon, along the Cherwell river by the Rainbow Bridge, as the point at which the first of his marriages began. Three days later he took her to dinner at the Randolph Hotel, by which time he had completed another whole day of Milton. It was already clear that his own special study would be the physics of light, and he was naturally drawn to the poem of that name, and learned its last dozen lines by heart. Over the second bottle of wine, he talked to her of its pathos, a blind man lamenting what he would never see, then celebrating the redeeming power of the imagination. Over the starched tablecloth, wineglass in hand, he recited it to her, ending, “thou Celestial light / Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers / Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence / Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight.” At these lines he saw the tears well in Maisie’s eyes, and reached under his chair to produce his gift, “Areopagitica,” bound in calf leather in 1738. She was stunned. A week later, illicitly in her room, to the sound of “Sgt. Pepper’s” playing on the Dansette record-player he had repaired for her that afternoon with smoking soldering iron, they were lovers at last. The term “dirty girl,” with its suggestion that she was general property, was now obnoxious to him. Still, she was far bolder and wilder, more experimental and generous in lovemaking, than any girl he had known. She also cooked a fine steak-and-kidney pie. He decided he was in love.
Going after Maisie was a relentless, highly organized pursuit, and it gave him great satisfaction, and it was a turning point in his development, for he knew that no third-year arts person, however bright, could have passed himself off, after a week’s study, among the undergraduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard’s colleagues. The traffic was one way. His Milton week made him suspect a monstrous bluff. The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficulty he encountered daily in his course. That very week of the Randolph dinner, he had studied the Ricci scalar and finally understood its use in general relativity. At least, he thought he could grasp these extraordinary equations. The theory was no longer an abstraction; it was sensual. He could feel the way the seamless fabric of space-time might be warped by matter, and how this fabric influenced the movement of objects, how gravity was conjured by its curvature. He could spend half an hour staring at the handful of terms and subscripts of the crux of the field equations and understand why Einstein himself had spoken of its “incomparable beauty,” and why Max Born had said that it was “the greatest feat of human thinking about nature.”
This understanding was the mental equivalent of lifting very heavy weights—not possible at first attempt. He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to grasp some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week. He suspected that there was nothing they talked about at those meetings that anyone with half a brain could fail to understand. He had read four of the best essays on Milton. He knew. And yet they passed themselves off as his superiors, these lie-abeds, and he had let them intimidate him. No longer. From the moment he won Maisie, he was intellectually free.
Many years later, Beard told this story and his conclusions to an English professor in Hong Kong, who said, “But, Michael, you’ve missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end—the poets, I mean—and synthesized your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English literature. But don’t pretend that it’s easy.”
But it seemed so at the time, and he was far happier during his final year, and so was Maisie. She persuaded him to grow his hair, to wear jeans instead of flannels, and to stoprepairing things. It wasn’t cool. And they became cool, even though they were both rather short. He gave up Park Town and found a tiny flat in Jericho, where they set up together. Her friends, all literature and history students, became his. They were wittier than his other friends, and lazier, of course, and had a developed sense of pleasure, as though they felt they were owed. He cultivated new opinions—on the distribution of wealth, Vietnam, the events in Paris, the coming revolution, and LSD, which he declared to be important, though he refused to take it. When he heard himself sounding off, he was not at all convinced, and was amazed that no one took him for a fraud. He tried pot and disliked it intensely for the way it interfered with his memory. Despite the usual parties, with howling music and terrible wine in sodden paper cups, he and Maisie never stopped working. Summer came, and finals, and then, to their stupid surprise, it was all over and everyone dispersed.
They both got firsts. Beard was offered the place he wanted at the University of Sussex, to do a Ph.D. They went to Brighton together and found a fine place to move into in September, an old rectory in an outlying village on the Sussex Downs. The rent was beyond them and so, before returning to Oxford, they agreed to share with a couple studying theology, who had newborn identical twins. The Chingford newspaper ran a story about the local working-class girl who had “soared to the heights,” and it was from these heights, and to hold together their disintegrating milieu, that they decided to get married—not because it was the conventional thing to do but precisely because it was the opposite, it was exotic, it was hilarious and camp and harmlessly old-fashioned, like the tasselled military uniforms the Beatles wore in promotional pictures for their sensational LP. For that reason, the couple did not invite or even inform their parents. They were married in the Oxford registry office, and got drunk on Port Meadow with a handful of friends who came for the day. The new age dawned, the arrogant, shameless, spoiled generation turned its back on the fathers who had fought the war, dismissing them for their short hair and tidy ways and their indifference to rock and roll. Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Henry Beard D.S.O., living alone in the old house at Cold Norton, did not learn of his son’s marriage until after the divorce.
The name of the married theology students was Gibson, Charlie and Amanda, and they were devout and intellectual, against the fashion of the time, and studied at an institute in Lewes. Their god, by way of mysterious love, or an urge to punish, had conferred on them two babies of a giant size and type who would easily have snatched the prize from Beard in ’47, twins who never slept and rarely ceased their identical piercing wails, who set each other off if they ever failed to start up in step, and who jointly propelled a miasma through the elegant house, as penetrative as a curry on the stove, a prawn vindaloo, but rank like sea swamp, as though they were confined for reasons of religion to a diet of guano and mussels.
Young Beard, working in the bedroom on the early calculations that would lead him to his life’s work—his life’s free ride—stuffed wads of blotting paper in his ears and kept the windows open, even in midwinter. When he went downstairs to make himself coffee, he would encounter the couple in the kitchen, in some aspect of their private hell, dark-eyed and irritable from lack of sleep and mutual loathing, as they divvied up their awful tasks, which included prayer and meditation. The generous hallway and living spaces of the Georgian rectory were rendered charmless by the hundred protruding metal and plastic tools and devices of modern child care. Neither adult nor infant Gibsons expressed any pleasure in their own or one another’s existence. Why would they? Beard privately swore to himself that he would never become a father.
And Maisie? She changed her mind about a doctorate on Aphra Behn; she turned down a job in the university library and signed on instead for social-security benefits. In another century she would have been considered a woman of leisure, but in the twentieth she was “active.” She read up on social theory, attended a group run by a collective of Californian women, and started up a “workshop” herself, a new concept at the time, and though, in conventional terms, she no longer soared, her consciousness was raised, and within a short time she confronted the blatant fact of patriarchy and her husband’s role in a network of oppression that extended from the institutions that sustained him as a man, even though he could not acknowledge the fact, to the nuances of his small talk.
It was, as she said at the time, like stepping through a mirror. Everything looked different, and it was no longer possible to be innocently content, not for her, and, therefore, not for him. Certain matters were settled after serious discussion. He was too much of a rationalist to think of many good reasons that he should not help out around the house. He believed that it bored him more than it did her, but he did not say so. And washing a few dishes was the least of it. There were profoundly entrenched attitudes that he needed to examine and change, there were unconscious assumptions of his own “centrality,” his alienation from his own feelings, his failure to listen, to hear, really hear what she was saying, and to understand how the system that worked in his favor in both trivial and important ways always worked against her. One example was this: he could go to the village pub for a pleasant pint on his own, while she could not do so without being stared at by the locals and made to feel like a whore. There was his unexamined belief in the importance of his work, in his objectivity, and in rationality itself. He failed to grasp that knowing himself was a vital undertaking. There were other ways of knowing the world, women’s ways, which he treated dismissively. Though he pretended not to be, he was squeamish about her menstrual blood, which was an insult to the core of her womanhood. Their lovemaking, blindly enacting postures of dominance and submission, was an imitation of rape and was fundamentally corrupt.
Months passed, and many evening sessions, during which Beard mostly listened and, in the pauses, thought about work. During that period, he was thinking a good deal about photons, from a radically different angle. Then, one night, he and Maisie were woken, by the twins as usual, and lay side by side on their backs in the dark while she broke the news that she was leaving him. She had thought this through and did not want an argument. There was a commune forming in the sodden hills of mid-Wales and she intended to join it and did not think she would ever return. She knew, in ways that he could never understand, that this must be her course now. There were issues of her self-realization, her past, and her identity as a woman that she felt bound to follow through. It was her duty. At this point, Beard felt himself overtaken by a powerful and unfamiliar emotion that tightened his throat and forced from his chest a sob that he was powerless to contain. It was a sound that surely all the Gibsons heard through the wall. It could easily have been confused with a shout. What he experienced was a compound of joy and relief, followed by a floating, expansive sensation of lightness, as if he were about to drift free of the sheets and bump against the ceiling. Suddenly, it was all before him, the prospect of freedom, of working whenever he wanted, of inviting home some of the women he had seen on the Falmer campus, lolling on the steps outside the library, of returning to his unexamined self and being guiltlessly shot of Maisie. All this caused a tear of gratitude to roll down his cheek. He also felt fierce impatience for her to be gone. It crossed his mind to offer to drive her to the station now, but there were no trains from Lewes at 3 A.M., and she had not packed. Hearing his sob, she reached for the bedside light and, leaning over to look into his face, saw the dampness around his eyes. Firmly and deliberately she whispered, “I will not be blackmailed, Michael. I will not, repeat not, be emotionally manipulated by you into staying.”
Was ever a marriage dissolved so painlessly? Within a week she had left for the hill farm in Powys. In the course of a year they exchanged a couple of postcards. Then one came from an ashram in India, where she remained for three years and from where she sent one day her cheery acceptance of a divorce, all papers duly signed. He did not see her until his twenty-sixth birthday, at which she appeared with a shaved head and a jewel in her nose. Many years later, he spoke at her funeral. Perhaps it was the ease of their parting in the old rectory that made him so incautious about marrying again, and again. ♦
* * *
You are supposed to write a first person narrative from Маisie Farmer's point of view.You must make Maisie’s story revolve around her relationship with Michael Beard in the 1960s.You must incorporate details from McEwan’s original story and stick to the same “line” of events (you can reshuffle events in any order you like, though.)
* * *
What I remember
The sound that night. And I remember what I thought it was and what I said. As authoritatively as I rejected his tears, I fought against his authority. Men could not be masters and children to their women as it pleased them. Both these concepts I understood, vaguely; vague understanding being, of course, the hottest goad to self-righteousness.
darkness hung tattered in the still air of the room, touched our blanket where weak light from the two windows behind didn't, put out the colours in the fire-swirl pattern. Michael had just uttered that huge hollow sound and there was a moment of confused silence. I had been about to step out of bed, start pacing as I did when I lectured him, and the enervated glow from outside picked out cadaverous hints of greywhite on my naked thigh. The two smaller, similar wails that had summoned us back from our blind sleep had stopped abruptly. These three sounds now seem to me to have egressed into the outer world from the same great hollow place, as though bouncing off raw stone, swelling, unhampered by inner design. A child he was, but never mine, and never master.
I was a little afraid after his reaction; also angry, angry that it threw me across the limits of rehearsed performance (and so much back then was that, so at the end of each one my head buzzed emptily and my fingers tingled) and into the realm of experience. That anger kept my stride. I turned on the light, I saw his tears, but I didn't bother with interpretations. An argument came to me and I hammered his impervious self with it, mostly for my sake. The moment passed, a week more passed. He returned to his disinterested contemplation of his work, his disinterested compliance where my life was concerned. I returned to a homeland I didn't remember.
My father Owain came to London on a Guildhall Drama scholarship with me when I was four, by way of Chingford, where he had stayed for a couple of years, writing and working menial jobs. We lived on
Kings Road, before it went wild in the swinging decade, though my father certainly had the right presentiment of the times to come, as far as his relationships were concerned.
We lived in the corner one-bedroom of a three storey building with a squat artist's studio grafted onto one side. There were leftover bricks next to the entrance, which Yeoman, another Welshman, artist, sculptor, occasional brick-mason, had piled in the shape of a couch. The roof of the studio was also our small apartment's balcony and my first playground. Inspired by some poem of my father's, Yeoman drew a huge face on it. I toddled on it across the shades of its skin. The grey of the cement outside to me wasn't an "outside"; it was yet another shade, though its abruptness made me uneasy and I usually returned to the colours. I covered with both my small hands now one green circle, now the other, and spun upon tawny waves, sat on the wide clear golden-hued space between the circles and the waves.
Occasionally, afternoons mostly, while my father sat leaning on the balcony railing and stared at me on the drawing, Yeoman would call out to him "I'll work a little. You coming?" Sometimes my father turned and that meant he was, and sometimes he didn't. When he did, we took trips around the city, mostly to the
East End. Yeoman said most of the artist's work was watching carefully. My father said most of the dramatist's work was knowing about people. Yeoman shared his artist's observations, mostly of young women, with my father, and my father proceeded to know them.
If Yeoman went out on his own, I would go to the railing and poke my head through the bars and right below I would see his hair and back and trousers, all brick-red and bright in the slanted sunlight. He knew I would do that so he turned his face upwards and waved, said "Go back now, Micy". He watched me wave a few more seconds, my body halfway out (my other hand firmly clutching one bar, my leg wrapped around it) and when he saw me go, he went himself. I returned to my play, while my father still kept his contemplative gaze on where I was on the ground. As night fell, I learned to expect that feeling of frightening lightness as he picked me up with a soft hollow grunt to carry me inside. My colourful paths resolved into a pale map, an evening-pale flat slanted woman's face whose eyes seemed to shift and follow me until my father closed the door.
One morning Yeoman called out from the street:
"A second!" I'd heard my father say that the days he wouldn't go to work. I was peering at a pupil; my nose touched the ground and my eyes were crossed. The pupil had turned into coarse black cement-grains. Yeoman and the world might have as well not existed.
"See what I have!" he shouted. It always worked.
It was a penny-farthing. I must have screamed and leaned too far out between the bars, because Yeoman let the bicycle clang on the road, ran to the sidewalk with lifted hands and said in a high thin voice:
"Down the stairs, Micy! Down the stairs!"
I didn't understand how the big wheel (it stood higher than me) didn't go much faster than the little one, how they stood together. Yeoman laughed and told me he didn't know either, asked me if I wanted to help him repair it. He had gotten this one for free from a gentleman named Passepartout. The saddle spring wasn't right, and something he called the spoon break. I showed up later that day with a whole spoon, but he inspected it and told me it was for another kind of bicycle. We repaired it in three days and at the end he tested the spring by bouncing me on the seat, only that soaring lightness made me laugh and not afraid.
We took it on our walks sometimes: my father pushed it from one side and most often spoke to a woman or two; I and Yeoman walked on the other side, with Yeoman, smiling, sometimes venturing a remark that was usually cut off by a woman's screaming laughter – at something my father had said. Through fast-moving spokes blinked pairs of women's legs. My concept of womanhood for a long time consisted of variously chequered tights and patent-leather, blunt-muzzled dancing shoes with shiny buckles.
Then my father lost his scholarship, then lost his place in Guildhall, we lost our home and the drawing on the balcony and Passepartout's penny-farthing and Yeoman, whom my father never sought out again after we left
We moved to a bedsit in
East End, which an acquaintance of my father's let us have for free. We bought our winter clothes from army surplus sales and second-hand stores. As the time neared for my Eleven Plus, my father developed an obsession with sending me to grammar school. I won a grant place at Bexley and my father made sure I never lost it.
, the high sixties, Michael. Oxford
He struck me as a schoolboy the first time I saw him. His clothes and his hair made him look much younger than he was. He squinted a little, or maybe it was a frown, as he saw me coming. I decided I wouldn't let him speak and I would pass him by. He tried nonetheless, which I thought was a little bit pathetic, so I gave him the benefit of a goodbye, and walked on. He persisted and made me laugh despite myself. I punched him playfully and raised a puff of chalk-dust. It seemed to me so cartoonish that I hurried off, afraid I might start laughing not at his wit, but at him. He did try hard; he didn't deserve it. I liked him. He refreshed me.
By then I had become weary of myself. My understanding of what it means to be a woman had changed. I didn't really care for the Bazaar or
Carnaby street's vanity parades. It made something fussy and neurotic out of that new hungry spirit that encroached upon the fat and comfortable life of the previous decade. I had given in to this for a few years, had slapped on an impressive amount of tarnish on my reputation. It had tired me out. When Jane Mansfield came to Carnaby street and made a ghost-town out of , I spent the whole day reflecting on Donne's Canonisation and distracted myself with the occasional reverie, looking at Veruschka on the wall. She was draped in a cape that hid her naked form like butterfly wings; out of the trackless fiery swirl that patterned them a shining leg emerged in a tentative step, and higher up shone a dreaming face in profile. Oxford
The second time Michael and I met, we talked. It was our first intellectual fencing, after which I had the first tingling, empty-headed experience; it followed much our conversations. I mistook it for exhilaration and agreed to dinner.
thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
To him, the lines meant the preamble to his coup de grace, no doubt.
To me it was this: if I put a box at an exact distance in front of me and, unseeing, I reached to touch it where it was, would I touch a box or a sphere or a nothing or would it bark and bite me? Through closed eyes I didn't know. There was in the sense of touch deprived of sight a sense of form deprived of lines; it made me think of childhood and how in it the nebulas of feeling and imagination expand, without design, endlessly.
Areopagitica, the coup de grace. I couldn't care less about the book.
's life and politics did not interest me. But I leafed through it as he was speaking something about the relevance of something to a thing, and I came across the cracked page. It was glued together. He noticed. Milton
"It's Sellotape," he said. "I can tell by the smell. Some idiot clerks they got in that bookshop. I hope everything else is all right, um, I think I checked carefully, but..."
Carefully I looked at where he was sitting and closed my eyes; I reached out across the table. I touched nothing. I strained further and the tips of my fingers lay on his lapel. They came away with something powdery. I willed it, with all my might, to be red brick-dust. I said:
"Everything is all right."
A week later he repaired my record-player and we slept together on my fire-patterned blanket. Afterwards he thought it fitted the occasion perfectly. I let it expand into love. We had a good one year.
Then I let what I knew (or I think I knew), all those lean and hungry new ideas,define how I felt. We were married, we lived with that horrid couple and their horrid twins, we wore our old winter clothes. I started noticing Michael's carelessness, what sway his abstruse scientific obsessions held over him, how he looked, when I spoke, at where I was but not at me.
On the day I went to gather my possessions, he wasn't there. I almost knew where he was, but didn't think about it. My things fit neatly in a single large suitcase. Only my blanket didn't. I draped it limply over my shoulder and left.
I went to a place I imagined as beautiful, with colours and with little brick houses and little brick furniture and little brick people. Then I came to know the place and it shrank, fell flat in a collection of photographs in my album. After that I went to another place that I imagined differently, and then another. Sometimes I made love on the blanket and all made a point of telling me how fitting it was; I moved on with no pangs and a smile.