Varying Degrees of Hopelessness, page 1
For my mother
Had we never lov’d sae kindly
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met – or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
(Robert Burns – ‘Ae Fond Kiss’)
If of me you sometimes think
Send me back my knot of pink!
If with me you will unite
Send me back my knot of white!
If to me your love is dead
Send me back my knot of red!
If you have another fellow
Send me back my knot of yellow!
Je chante pour moi-même.
(Georges Bizet – Carmen)
The 31-year-old Woman Falls in Love
The 31-year-old Woman Makes a Salad
Our Heroine’s Mother Makes an Entrance
Our Heroine’s Step-Father and His Fateful Influence
Art Historical Romance
Various Objectionable Bits of Our Heroine’s Body
Our Heroine in Jeans
Our Heroine’s Strict Notions of Propriety
The 31-year-old Woman’s Attitude to Relationships
The Letter ‘Q’
Pol on Men
Pol on Women
The Tunnel of Love
Encounters with Cragshaw
The Rescue of Isabella
Our Heroine’s New Life
Pol on Nuts
One Summer Evening
The 32-year-old Woman Walks Home
Our Hero at Last
Our Hero’s Mother
Our Hero’s Mother Again
Our Hero’s Education
Our Hero’s Hamsters
Our Hero’s Sister Sandy
Our Hero’s Adolescence
Our Hero’s Job
The Splendid Young Man’s Proposal
The Splendid Young Man’s Actual Written Proposal
The Splendid Young Man and His Tennis Court
The 32-year-old Woman’s Inviolable Heterosexuality
My Hands on the Wall
Splutters to the Rescue
In Pol’s Drawers
The 33-year-old Woman’s Selflessness
Still Life with Cragshaw
Our Heroine Makes Some Suppositions
Their First Date
The Lotus Position
The 33-year-old Woman’s Unsuccessful Talk
Paris in the Spring: I
Paris in the Spring: II
Paris in the Spring: III
Paris in the Spring: IV
Paris in the Spring: V
‘Foetal Heart Heard’
Paris in the Spring: VI
Exit Robert, Pursued by a Bear
Our Hero Regresses
Our Hero Feels Inspired
Playboy of the Western World
Longing for a Man
Romp in a Hotel
A Decline in Relations
Our Hero’s Job
Contrary to Public Belief
Our Hero’s Sister Sandy
Out and About
A Barren World
The Happy Ending
The 34-year-old Woman in Limbo
Our Heroine’s End
‘Donuts Ex Machina’
Yet Another Ending (In Which Nobody Dies)
The Beginning of the End
A Note on the Author
By the Same Author
It was not the best place in the world to study Art History. It was not the worst. It did not warrant the superlative degree of comparison. Within its high-ceilinged halls, lurking behind the plaster pillars painted to look like marble, slumped against the shelves of its reportedly estimable library, going up and down in the ancient two-person lift, were the usual degrees of wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, light and darkness, hope and despair. It was Dickensian, in short, and just as one tolerates a lot of nonsense in Dickens, a lot of it was tolerated here.
The acme of Art Historical endeavour was to be received into permanent paid slumber in some outermost reach of the warren-like structure in Purport Place (a dull corner of London’s West End, primarily devoted to public baths and private nursing-homes), and therein to skulk unseen by any but the most importunate students professing a lamentable interest in their subject, or lively part-time lecturers unlikely to be invited back next year.
It was an establishment that had long outgrown its usefulness but was far too doddery to care. It was a finishing school in an era when the young no longer wished to be finished off. The Catafalque did not seek to explain its shortcomings. Indeed, Catafalquian explanations so quickly withered outside the sacred confines that it was deemed prudent to air them as little as possible. Oblivious to all else, the Catafalque annually conferred degrees upon individuals who were well able to take their places at any dinner table in the land, and intent on doing so.
Many of this misguided crowd came, it must be said, from unfortunate backgrounds: at an early age they had been forced to don navy-blue blazers with gold buttons, as well as various articles of clothing constructed out of tweed, with a stylelessness which they and their many authenticated forbears considered attractively aristocratic. Others had won their places beside the Catafalque’s stolid shelves through hard work, abject submission to examinations and their results, and the belief that the Catafalque was a distinguished institution dedicated to the advancement of Art History as a respectable academic discipline. Without ado, and often much to their relief, these ingénues were soon informed that Art and History were but side-issues in a study that was more concerned with the geographical location and monetary value of two-dimensional antiques.
The Catafalque’s learned and esteemed professors were much in demand on TV, having proved their willingness – for a fee (their salaries were not luxurious) – to have their hair coiffed and curled, their cheeks powdered to a fashionable shade of bronze, their lips accentuated, their ears wired, and thus arrayed to mouth on about this or that CRUCIAL painting of the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth century, often whilst walking dottily along a public thoroughfare, nimbly preceded by the camera. This noble task, however, did little to shift the prevailing view throughout Britain that scholars, academics and intellectuals are the dregs of the earth, a weedy and wimpish lot prone to plumpness in the posterior.
As some fridges grow cultures, the Catafalque sprouted talents of sorts. There was the perpetually grumpy Librarian who, having journeyed alone to the limits of human irritability, was able to transmit this state of mind to anyone within range. Countless generations of students wandered the stacks for the whole of their three years without ever realizing that books on Sculpture, American Art, Cave-Painting and other subjects which the Librarian viewed with distaste were all kept hidden somewhere in the basement. He would reveal his system to no one.
There was the Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, of whom the Catafalque was resolutely proud. Sir Humphrey Basilisk’s stumbling agedness, misogyny and other Etonian traits thinly disguised a reckless sexual and politi
Despite his many misgivings, Sir Humphrey had authorized in a weak moment the recruitment of one female member of staff (besides the tea-lady in the basement). Angelica Lotus, though saintly and reserved on home-ground, tended to vacation uproariously and rather frequently in Vienna, where she claimed to be doing some sort of research. On her return, she delivered pleasant, unadventurous lectures and was kind to students taking their vivas. Appalled by certain signs of a clandestine zest for life, Lotus’s colleagues took comfort in the fact that she was at least past child-bearing age.
Then there was old Splutters. He, bony, balding and perceptibly past his prime, liked to arrive eagerly early in the morning and station himself near the main entrance, where it was possible for this committed pedagogue to leer appreciatively at each new female fledgling in the Art Historical throng. His pointer, during lectures, lingered helplessly over the naked feminine protuberances in the paintings of the Old Masters. That such works were Masterpieces was one of the few certainties of a remote and intangible universe in which Splutters often felt it necessary to qualify his statements with the phrase, ‘as it were’. In reaction, as it were, to the fundamental perplexity of his being, as well as to the advent of any provocatively clad student, Splutters was occasionally to be found up a tree in the Gardens behind the Institute, holding an umbrella in one hand and his penis in the other.
By dint of such unceasing efforts to reveal his availability to the opposite sex, Splutters attempted to rival the unrivalled, the unparalleled, Splendid Young Man. A favourite at the BBC and most students’ first choice for infatuations, Lionel Syms’s suave charm ensured a moist atmosphere of unrequited longing in whatever dingy seminar room he entered. He was fond of giving seminars, during which he alone spoke, smiling beguilingly the while. Three colour-illustrated books already lay on those unyielding library shelves, attesting the Splendid Young Man’s precociousness, although he had by now reached the stage when his youth was beginning to be a matter of opinion.
Finally, there was Cragshaw. Mad, weird, idle, shunned and depressed, Dr Cragshaw had long since been awarded his own two-room prefab at the back of the Gardens where, incidentally, he would have commanded an excellent view of the Splutters behind, had he ever opened his blinds. Here, in artificial light and darkness, breathing air that mainly he alone had breathed for years, Cragshaw applied himself assiduously to his internationally recognized, if not exactly acclaimed, examination of Chardin’s brushstrokes. By the meticulous perusal of his own close-up photographs of individual brushstrokes, gathered during numerous holidays spent padding myopically around the back-rooms of museums throughout the world, Cragshaw found himself able, more or less, to confirm with some degree of certainty other people’s rough estimates of when a particular Chardin painting was painted by Chardin. Known solely for this, Cragshaw was occasionally consulted. He was not an altogether unfamiliar figure at Chardin conferences, where he could always be relied on to fill in with a mumbled slideshow of individual brushstrokes if no one more sensible could be found. Not that Dr Cragshaw was not revered, by a small number of like-minded scholars, for his excess of good English common sense: this accomplishment almost gleamed, as it were, from off his slumped and penitential form.
A true product of the Catafalque Institute, Purport Place (he had spent his entire adulthood within its reassuring shadow), Cragshaw had a hearty distaste for the more glaring perversities of modern Art Historical discourse. Questions of artistic intention, social and political influences, aesthetic effects or subjective responses could not have been further from his wholesome, unfettered mind. FACTS (historical and material) were all that concerned him. Leave the rest to arty-farty critics, media junkies, unstructured post-structuralists and gatherings of the Workers’ Educational Association in Lewes (he had once given a rather unsuccessful talk there, delineating his raison d’être at some length).
Day in, day out (in between gins), Cragshaw studied his snapshots.
Into this famed and dusty institution came I.
I, Isabel, menstruating, alienated and allergic to nuts.
I, thirty-one years of age and still a virgin.
I, a thirty-one-year-old virgin with a nervous habit of repeating myself.
I, who move fast in the way of all people who have been told they move slowly.
I, a dismal, disenfranchised devotee of the historical romances of Babs Cartwheel.
I, an ageing virgin holding out for Mr Right.
I, who’d had offers but wasn’t going to settle for second-best.
I, who had in fact considered these offers improper suggestions.
I, a shiftless romantic with high hopes for Art History as the career most suited to my acute sensibility and 20-20 vision.
I, Isabel, on a fine autumn day when the sky was creamy blue and something inevitable was bound to happen, entered the Catafalque Institute at an early hour with a few brown leaves.
It was the year one thousand nine hundred and eighty-seven.
The 31-year-old Woman Falls in Love
He was athletic.
He had a masculinity.
His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique.
He held seminars and wore red socks.
To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students.
The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone.
I swooned in admiration of him.
Along with the rest of my seminar group, 90% of whom were female, youthful, and of riper proportions than I.
Competition for the most spiritual attachment was therefore fierce.
He had a very manly physique.
The 31-year-old Woman Makes a Salad
I was a virgin.
I was thirty-one years old.
I had had no suitors for some time.
And it seemed that all of London had other things to do besides speculate on whom I might marry.
This made sense, as I was not perfectly beautiful.
I was not even remotely beautiful.
My eyes were not translucent.
The sunshine streaking through the kitchen window while I made the salad failed to bring my hair to life.
At least so far as you’d notice.
I was neither spirited nor obstinate.
And my fortune was not large.
In fact it was non-existent.
My father had died before I was born.
We had lived in near-poverty ever since.
My father had been a very attractive man, I’m told.
He had a masculinity and was very handsome.
I was determined to marry someone like him.
It had not yet been my destiny to meet my true soulmate.
But, having read a plenitude of romantic fiction, I was ever hopeful.
And somewhat depressed.
I peeled the mushrooms.
Mushrooms should always be peeled.
One never knows where they’ve been.
Which is what people say to disguise the fact that they do know where they’ve been.
They’ve been in manure.
Mushrooms are grown in manure.
Then we eat them.
Feeling somewhat squeamish about such things, I carried out intensive cleaning operations on all the ingredients for my salad.
All vegetables grow in or near dirt, after all.
It does not really bear thinking about.
While I peeled and scrubbed my vegetables I thought dreamily about the Splendid Young Man at the Catafalque.
He had put ‘This is splendid!’ at the bottom of my essay.
I wished he would put ‘This i
He had such a manly physique.
I sliced the lettuce into very thin slivers.
My mother lumbered in like a pack-mule, festooned with carrier-bags.
My step-father had a bladder problem.
I too had often had to hoist home huge plastic bottles of soft drinks for him.
They were essential to his health.
My mother subsided into a chair, perspiring and panting profusely.
She was exhausted.
She was pooped.
She was plump.
She looked terrible up close.
Her heart was not what it had been.
She should never have married a man so much younger than herself.
Such relationships never work.
Our Heroine’s Mother Makes an Entrance
She had survived being a teenager during the war and all those desperate dances when you were expected to marry a GI at the least provocation. She had resisted the most tragic entreaties in the most tragic of circumstances, but later on had had some difficulty in extricating herself from a brief entanglement with Isabel’s father: he raped her beside a disused railway line. But no one would believe that she had taken a stroll along a disused railway line with someone she did not want to make love to. The police at any rate did not find her distress convincing. The whole story obviously made no sense at all.
For some years she lived a ruined life with an unmarried aunt, and supported Isabel by making hats and cooking school dinners. She found comfort in the company of children. The hats embarrassed Isabel, once she was old enough to study them properly, but her mother compared herself to a brain surgeon: fixing up people’s heads. She put her all into those hats. Bits of frill and fluff gave her hope.
She was very fond of Isabel, her worn-looking rape-child, and did not hold the circumstances of her birth against her. She ignored the physical resemblance between the child eating her beans on toast and the brute who had planted his seed in the gravel beside the tracks. And as the years went by, the memory faded and died.
Later, she formed an alliance with a man much younger than herself, a man with small feet that didn’t scare her, a man who earned his living by entering supermarket competitions and the occasional raffle. They presented their marriage to Isabel as a fait accompli, as fate in fact. But Isabel questioned it. She missed the big messy bed she and her mother had always shared, which was now made neatly every morning. The flat was full of soft drinks and nasty furniture. And the hats went all to pot: they were a feather here, a scrap of veil there, a miniaturized fruit tottering on top.
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