The Ground Hostess

Francis Wyndham

The telephone rang. It had to be Hurricane Harriet.

‘Hi,’ she said.

‘Hi. Listen, I can’t talk now – ’

‘You sound funny. Is something the matter? Look, why don’t I come over right – ’

‘No,’ I said in a panic, and I hung up on her. The telephone rang again at once. This time it was Jeremy – who else? ‘Hi,’ he said.

‘Hi. Sorry but this isn’t an awfully good moment – ’

‘Oh, my dear, how awful. Are you all right? You sound a bit odd. If anything’s the matter I could always whiz straight round – ’

‘Nothing’s the matter. I’ll ring you later. Bye for now.’ And I hung up on Jeremy too. But I still couldn’t concentrate.

Something had to be done.

I always knew she’d die some day and I always dreaded it and now it’s happened. So what? So where does one go from here? Nowhere. Stay put. If they’d only let one. If they’d only ...

No, that isn’t the right beginning. Start again. From scratch. But where’s scratch? Ah, if one only knew that ...

For the first few weeks the letters of condolence flopped through the box in a steady spate. Variously combining conventional expressions of sympathy with licensed emotional indulgence, they gave a total effect of slightly smug hysteria. Some of them read like reasoned reviews – of a life, not a book or a play: all, naturally, ‘raves’. It was almost an agony to open each one, and yet they were vaguely comforting, and comforting in their vagueness: at least they made some comment on my obsession, for although grief may sometimes imagine that it wishes its privacy respected, in fact it senses insult when it is ignored. Replying brought a tiny, masturbatory release; the least welcome were those with a well-meaning postscript: ‘On no account, whatever you do, must you dream of answering this – you must be inundated!’ Then the flood degenerated into a tardy trickle – startled, apologetic or impertinently reproachful: ‘Why did nobody tell me sooner?’ Some of these struck a subtly hectoring note: ‘Please be sure to let me know if there is to be a memorial service!’

So there was one. The arrangements for this were supposed to ‘take my mind off’ by giving me something to do: they gave me something to do, but their essential irrelevance to the obsession only fixed it more securely in the forefront of my mind. When it was over, the trickle continued for a little while (with excuses for not having been able to attend and with congratulations – reviews again – on the success of the occasion) and then suddenly the whole thing stopped altogether. But the obsession, if anything, increased. The service, though religious in form, had been too social in spirit to work the intended trick of exorcism. A blank remained to be filled. Bereavement began.

A memoir. That might be the answer. Several of the letters, taking a cautious peep on the bright side, had suggested that now, with all the time in the world, I might be able at last to get down to some serious writing. A memoir of the mother I had lost. Of course it would be very difficult to do, perhaps even impossible, and nobody must know of my plan: secrecy would be an insurance against failure. But the harder my self-imposed task proved to be, the nearer it might come to filling that blank. Don’t tell a soul. Just do it.

Soon, then, every evening after work at the office, my formerly reluctant steps from the Underground station to the empty flat would be impelled by a sense of purpose. As for the weekends, they would seem a luxurious orgy of stillness, like a cool clearing in the jungle towards which I had been hacking my way all week. The lonely evenings, the uncharted wastes of Saturday and Sunday, were to be filled by literary endeavour. The sadness of my solitude could thus itself be turned to advantage – for the activity of writing is known to be an essentially isolated struggle, and the necessary conditions for its practice are not available to all.

I had forgotten about my friends.

There is a form of loneliness so complete that it transcends any need for human companionship: it is an end in itself, a pure state of possibly fruitful suffering. This is not, however, readily acknowledged by outsiders. My friends were kind; they wanted to help; and help took the fairly regular form of ringing me up to suggest a meeting. I have always felt vulnerable when answering the telephone, as if I were naked; indeed, sometimes I was naked when it rang. Cravenly, I fell in with any sociable plan that was proffered. This made it difficult to get on with the memoir.

What am I saying? It made it impossible to start the memoir. And the recurring dream began – not a nightmare (it was quite pleasant) but none the less disturbing. In the dream she was still alive, still there: everything I remembered about the death had been the result of some sort of silly mistake. The grim cremation, the exalted memorial service, had been elementary errors, quite easy to explain away should anybody ask me about them. The notice in the Deaths column of the Daily Telegraph was potentially embarrassing – but nobody seemed to have seen it anyhow, so perhaps it didn’t matter. In my dream I felt a mixture of slight anxiety that I could have made such a mysterious muddle and deep, calm, fulfilled relief. When I woke, I felt a mixture of mild assuagement that I hadn’t, after all, made such a fool of myself and acute disillusionment followed by renewed sorrow.

I told my doctor that I couldn’t sleep and he prescribed some pills which prevented me from dreaming, but I was still balanced enough to know that the Mogadons were a remedy rather than a cure and that only the finished memoir could reconcile me to my spiritually amputated condition and put an end to the period of mourning. What little time I managed to reserve for myself was wasted in embarking on aimless walks and making pointless lists (of Margaret Millar’s novels, or Danielle Darrieux’s films), although there were still things I couldn’t do (play Lisa Della Casa singing Beim Schlafengehen on the gramophone) and places I couldn’t visit (the house in St Luke’s Road with a brown plaque in memory of W.H. Hudson) because they either reminded me of her and therefore of death or of death and therefore of her. I kept on telling myself: ‘I mustn’t be rushed.’ Somehow or other, the friends had to be warned off, kept at bay. I desired the hitherto unattainable – to be left alone: what Henry James once described as ‘uncontested possession of the long, sweet, stupid day’: that peace to which no living creature has a natural right.

Yes, for a time I was decidedly neurotic on the subject of my friends. I even imagined a kinship with Dorothy Edwards, who wrote two remarkable books in the late 1920s, was taken up by Bloomsbury and then killed herself, giving as her reason (or so I had been told) that she had too many friends and didn’t like them. But soon I realised that most of my acquaintances had no wish to intrude on my precious privacy and were on the contrary only too happy to leave me to my own devices. The merest hint (that I was tentatively engaged on some unexplained ‘work’ and needed time to myself) was sufficient, as it turned out, to silence the telephone. I must admit to having felt a slight, illogical pang of resentment at finding myself so blandly abandoned, and the pang might have developed into a palpable hurt if the silence had been total. But it wasn’t. Two of my friends – perhaps, as these things are reckoned, the two ‘greatest’ – refused to accept the new regime. Hints, in their case, were not enough: they demanded details and assumed that I would share in their inhibiting desire for participation. Harriet was interested in herself and Jeremy was interested in me, both to the point of monomania: I don’t know which was the more exhausting. For her, I was an audience – convulsed with laughter or purged by pity and terror; for him, I was the show itself. Such intense relationships are stimulating when life is going smoothly, but they can take a lot out of you if you aren’t feeling quite up to the mark.

Harriet was involved in a protracted and painful divorce from her third husband, a rich man who had craftily gone to an aggressive young woman solicitor while Harriet was stuck with the stuffy old family firm, so that it looked as if she would emerge from the case with very little of his money. Her latest novel had just been published and was receiving patronisingly dismissive reviews; in it this husband was clearly identifiable as one of the less attractive characters. Meanwhile, she was herself bringing an action for libel against a journalist who had printed something disrespectful about her in a gossip column. One of her daughters was undergoing a cure for heroin addiction and her son had recently been sacked from Stowe just before sitting his A levels. She lived with a mild young man who was beginning mildly to bore her and she was blatantly on the look-out for a more exciting lover. She would come to me for advice with a solemn yet perfunctory insistence, as though consulting the I Ching, and would sometimes volunteer some disconcerting advice of her own. Small, blonde and assertive, she had the unsettling charm of a ferocious nature tempered by a cosy disposition.

Jeremy might be described as a professional fan. All his energies had been channelled into enthusiasms outside himself which he expressed in a manner bordering on the manic. In his moral make-up, the extrovert element had been overdeveloped like some hyper-active gland; his lack of ego was so spectacular that it paradoxically drew attention to itself. Self-deprecation ran riot in Jeremy, turned inside out and emerged as aggression; violent in his humility, he was a reverse-image of that old Warner Brothers cliché, the sensitive gangster. He had read every recent book (often before it came out), seen every current opera, ballet, play or fringe revue; he was as exhaustive as the information columns in Time Out or What’s On and his many friends, puzzled as to how he found time to cover so wide a field, sometimes caught themselves wondering whether he might not employ a team of researchers ... But there was nothing split, let alone multiple, about his personality: having cast himself as an ideal audience, he had the serene integrity of a collective noun. Tall, dark and very thin, he was insistently generous and relentlessly lively; his interest appeared never to wane. Both he and Harriet had a power to stimulate which made them irresistible; but they also shared (after lack of resistance in their interlocutors had assumed a pathological tinge) the power to deplete.

A typical evening: I entered the flat, put on my dressing-gown, poured myself a drink and opened a tin for the cat. These routine actions, briskly performed, were followed by an uncertain pause. What next? Perhaps there was something on the television. After a long wait a juddering green and mauve herring-bone pattern galvanised itself into an advertisement cartoon about a bouncing blob called Tommy the Thermostat ... I averted my gaze, which happened to fall on the writing-table. If at that moment I had caught sight of my bed I would probably have climbed into it instead, but as it was – why not sit at the table and work? It suddenly seemed possible. So I prised open the typewriter, twiddled in a stiff quarto sheet, and started. Not the memoir – not yet – but something less ambitious, a kind of warm-up, just to get back into the habit of thinking in words. This story, let’s say: how did it begin? ‘The telephone rang. It had to be Hurricane Harriet.’ And then the telephone rang ...

‘What’s the matter with them all?’ she demanded. ‘Are they all demented, or what? Would somebody kindly explain to me, please? Because it’s way beyond me. I give up ... The reviewers, I’m talking about, who else? Some of my very best work went into that book and they’re treating it like a Mills and Boon potboiler, it just doesn’t make sense. I don’t expect them to give me the Nobel Prize, for Christ’s sake – I do know my own limitations, only too well, alas! – but isn’t it rather peculiar that not one of them so far has spotted the perfectly obvious point that the whole thing is meant to be an allegory of Good and Evil? I promise I’m not going potty or anything like that, but I do sometimes wonder whether there might not be some sort of conspiracy at work here. Doesn’t it strike you as a leetle bit odd that they all seem to say exactly the same thing? As if they’d been primed: the word has gone out – get Harriet! And don’t you think that it just conceivably might not be a coincidence that every single one of them is a MAN? Listen to this snide bastard in the Listener, and I quote: if the word “compassionate” did not already exist I’m afraid it would have to be invented to describe Bleeding. The authoress, who is clearly in love with her heroine, is so busy saying “yes” to life that she neglects to provide more than the barest minimum of characterisation, narrative structure or plot, unquote. Did you notice that “authoress”? Well, there’s a giveaway, for a start. I mean, this is 1979 we’re living in, right? No wonder this bigoted ignoramus can’t understand that my emphasis on the theme of menstruation is merely a reworking of the Little Red Ridinghood myth in a post-modernist mode! What never ceases to amaze me is the way they all make the same stupid mistake and complain that I haven’t written a totally different novel to the one that I set out to write. Why just one of them can’t quite simply sit down and review the book in front of him, which has been sent to him for that purpose and for which no doubt he is getting handsomely paid ... oh, who cares anyway? To hell with the lot of them. Hasten, Jason, bring the basin – they make me sick!’

And there she left me, planté by the telephone, gazing across at the writing-table a few feet away, but now so incapacitated by the strain of trying to match her mood of indignation that to cross this space had become a physical impossibility. Closing my eyes, I made a concentrated effort to banish Harriet’s words from my mind ... and as this began to succeed I comforted myself with the notion that perhaps her interruption had not after all been entirely negative in its effect. The story was clearly a mistake, not so much a rehearsal for the memoir as an alternative to confronting the challenge it presented. A memoir (surely this hardly needed to be said?) involved a conscious and sustained act of remembering, but my injured sensibilities were still instinctively united in a defensive flight away from grief towards forgetting. Instead of shrinking from memory, I must plunge into its depths: the shock of total recall might be brutal enough to numb the pain that would inevitably follow. It was dread of this pain which had brought about, as an inconvenient side-effect, the mental paralysis from which I was suffering. I started to steer my thoughts, gingerly at first, in the desired direction, and was feeling that some progress may have been made when the telephone rang once more.

‘You mustn’t be cross,’ Jeremy announced, ‘but I’ve done something which I really believe may help to bust your writer’s block! No, listen a moment, don’t say anything now – I warn you I’m going to be very Aries about this and you may not like it but I don’t care! There’s somebody I admire enormously – I’m not going to tell you his name just yet, but you must take my word for it that he’s simply brilliant. Sensitive and subtle and tremendously point-seeing and really one of us – a very rare and remarkable and special person, actually. He’s a publisher, but not a ghastly one at all. I know it sounds poncey and I do loathe the word, but the only way to describe his quality is to say that he’s an artist. Well, I’ve told him about you ... What do you mean, what about you? Naturally I’ve told him that it’s a tremendous secret but that you’re working on something at the moment which I happen to know is going to be extremely remarkable and quite extraordinary and he’d be crazy if he didn’t sign you up at once with an enormous advance. I also suggested that he ought to be rather firm with you about a deadline, because he’s such a civilised creature – so unlike you-know-who, the dreaded – that he might have wanted not to seem too beady and tough and the whole thing might fizzle out which I think would be a tragedy. I won’t say more. Forget about the whole thing if you can’t face it. I’d love to go on talking for hours but, alas, I’ve got to fly ... I’m meeting someone at the NFT – the William Wellman retrospective – it’s terribly late and I’ve got the tickets ... ’

Such interruptions as these continued to be a daily occurrence throughout a period of several weeks, during which I was indeed able to think about the memoir at regular intervals but only as a finished object, while remaining quite incapable of guessing at its possible contents. My reveries were taken up with visualising the dust-jacket, seeking a title with the correct amount of characters in it to balance my name in harmonious typographical proportion, toying with the ideas of an allusive dedication (but to whom?) or an introductory quotation from my favourite poem by John Donne, rehearsing the terms of restrained self-promotion in which to couch the perfect blurb. I was relieved to find that reflections of this nature still achieved a satisfactory standard of consecutive coherence as far as they went, but depressed to discover that they always stopped short of any concrete anecdote, telling phrase or evocative incident which might have formed the basis for an opening paragraph of the actual text. When it reached that point, my mind seemed automatically to shift from one gear to another – or, rather, to stick in some vague and motionless condition in between. However, there was one occasion when it seemed that the vital transition might be made – when, like a curly cloud glimpsed in the far distance of a parched desert landscape, an episode came back to me out of the past that seemed to offer itself as a candidate for re-creation, even already accompanied by a few words that might serve as a start in the delicate task of describing it ... but the words were scattered and the memory shrivelled at the sound of the telephone bell.

Harriet began the conversation with a statement: ‘I’m interrupting your dinner.’ Her tone was intended to suggest contrition but the words nonetheless emerged as an accusation.

‘No, of course you’re not,’ I stuttered in self-defence.

‘That’s all right then,’ she said. ‘It’s just that you sounded as if you had your mouth full ... Well, I’ve written a thriller and I may be quite mad but of course I think it’s really rather brilliant. You’ve just got to read it as soon as possible and tell me exactly what you think. Be as brutal as you like. And I very much want you to tell me if all the Agatha Christie bits of it work or not because I’m not very good at clues and red herrings and things like that – ’

‘I’m terribly sorry but I’ve got to ring off. That was the front-door bell and it may be something important so I’d better answer it,’ I said. This emergency – often fallaciously invoked in the past to provide an excuse for abruptly ending a draining talk on the telephone which threatened to go on until some definite plan for a meeting had been arranged – was for once an actuality. I was prepared for Harriet (seldom fooled) to counter it by a callous ‘Let it ring: I haven’t finished,’ but instead she replied with satisfaction: ‘I know what it is – that’ll be the minicab I sent the manuscript round in. They have been quick! Do hurry down and open the door ... Oh darling I told the man he’d be paid your end, you don’t mind, do you?’

But it wasn’t the mini-cab at the door: it was Jeremy, nearly obliterated by a vast fur coat which had recently been bequeathed to him by an aunt. This tubular sheath of yellowish curls, punctuated by pale patches of baldness, stretched from a collar concealing his ears to the hem of its skirt round his ankles. From a pocket in its folds, somewhere near his heart, he produced some typewritten pages of lined foolscap fastened together by a small gold safety-pin. As if hypnotised, I accepted them from his hand, feeling like the last, doomed player in a game of Old Maid. ‘Won’t slay,’ he whispered. ‘Can’t come in. This is for you. To read, if you can face it. It’s tremendously important to me what you think of it. I won’t say more – only that somebody’s whole future as a creative artist depends on your opinion. One more thing, and then I’ll leave you in peace: if you love it, ring me tonight. And if you hate it – lie. Because that’s something I just wouldn’t be able to take. Bless you. Take care.’ He blew me a middle- and forefinger kiss; then, his body bent in a purposeful stride and occasionally stumbling over the coat, he hurried off down the street just as Hurricane Harriet’s mini-cab drew up at the kerb where he had been standing.

Yes, something had to be done.

And then I had an idea.

It first came to me one pale summer evening about two months after the memorial service. I was wandering down Westbourne Grove, headed for home past the local landmarks with their intense but limited associations: John Nodes, Funerals; austere, exotic Baba Bhelpoori; the convent, mysterious in its quiet seclusion, of the Bon Secours Nursing Sisters; the block of mansion flats where (as Jeremy once told me – it was the kind of thing he knew) Irene Handl lived; Elliott the shoe shop on the corner, with that maddening squiggle under the tiny, crooked, elevated golden ‘o’. As I approached my own front door I heard the sound, both plaintive as a mew and contented as a purr, of a telephone ringing not so very far away and (assuming it to be my own) walked straight on without pausing or turning my head, as if it were necessary to mislead some phantom follower by pretending that the house had nothing to do with me. If I had entered the flat, and my telephone had been ringing, I should have answered it – although (as I often reminded myself) there was no necessity to do so as neither Jeremy nor Harriet could possibly know that I was in. It was in order to forestall this weakness that I had refrained from going indoors, suddenly realising that there was no necessity to do that either.

On the other hand, I had to be somewhere ... I turned into Micky’s Fish Bar, sat at a table and began to read the label on what looked like a bottle of vinegar. ‘Sheik non-brewed condiment’, it said. ‘Unexcelled for its purity and keeping properties. Ingredients: acetic acid and caramel ... ’ I ordered a vanilla ice from the Italian waiter and I thought: ‘What am I doing in this pointless place, as if I had no home of my own to go to? Why am I behaving like someone in flight? How is it that I have come to feel so pathetically at the mercy of these two benevolent and affectionate creatures? Why do I allow them to hound me? I could just tell them to leave me alone. But that would hurt them. Is that what I’m afraid of, then – hurting people? Evidently. Is there no reason I might give for not wanting to see so much of them that would spare their feelings and also have some effect? Well, there is one excuse for neglecting one’s friends (other than work, which seems to have failed in this case) which is always accepted with equanimity and even respect. A love affair! Exactly. Both Jeremy and Harriet would only be happily reconciled to scarcely seeing me at all if they believed that the time I spent out of their company was sacrificed to the demands of some overriding sexual and romantic passion. It’s true that I am not involved at the moment in any such relationship, but that’s no snag, for surely nothing could be simpler than to pretend that I am. If I don’t find a lover, I shall just have to invent one.’

As things turned out, it became necessary to invent two.

After arriving at my decision, I was nervously undecided about what means to choose of putting it into effect; Harriet’s first call, however, could be said to have played straight into my hands. She had herself just embarked on a flirtation with a successful author of science fiction and was anxious to take it a stage further, but was finding it difficult to deceive her resident boyfriend. Would I provide her with an alibi? ‘Of course he won’t check up, but just in case he should, remember – I was with you all tomorrow evening.’ I said I would be delighted to oblige, and muttered something fairly incoherent about being in the same sort of situation myself. She sounded rather surprised. ‘Oh, really? Somehow or other I didn’t think of you as going in for scenes.’ But she did not on that occasion ask any questions: her own adventure was naturally monopolising her attention. Relieved at having so effortlessly broken the ice, I felt confident of coping with Jeremy’s next approach.

This took an unexpected form. ‘I’m making my will,’ he announced, ‘and I can’t tell you what fun it is. Have you made yours recently? You must ... Anyway, I’m putting you down as one of my literary executors and I’m going to leave you a tiny something as well, though I haven’t yet quite made up my mind what it will be. Would you prefer a little cash, or some personal belonging of mine, like a book? Think about it and let me know – there’s no hurry. I know you’ll make a marvellous literary executor. I hope you don’t mind my asking – if you find the idea too much of a bore, just say so – but I think you’ll have quite an interesting time going through all my letters and so on and deciding what ought to be done with them. And by the way, if you do feel like bringing your own will up to date, I would simply love to return the compliment and be your literary executor. There’s always such a muddle when somebody dies, and it might be a relief to know that a friend you can absolutely trust would come flying round at once and destroy anything you didn’t want kept. I think you can rely on me to understand your wishes and respect them.’ In momentary confusion, I was about to ask how he would be able to dash round and inspect my private papers when he was already dead himself, but instead I explained that I was rather preoccupied at that moment with an affair of the heart, and found it hard to concentrate on anything else. This was greeted by a very long pause. At length Jeremy said: ‘Wow! Well, all I can say, my dear, is congratters! I think that’s a simply fantastic piece of news. The moment you feel like telling me more about it I shall be all ears. And needless to say, should you ever want any advice ... But I’ll take the hint and leave you in peace for the time being.’ He hung up, and that was that.

Subsequent, less guarded conversations made one thing clear: Jeremy and Harriet had formed startlingly opposite views about the nature of my sexual partner. As I had never made any kind of pass at either of them, Harriet had convinced herself that I was gay, while Jeremy had vaguely assumed that I must be straight. When they began to inquire a little further about the course of my romance, she automatically used the masculine pronoun and he the feminine. Somehow unable to maintain a total silence on the subject, I found myself gradually divulging small items of information about my imaginary lover, subtly attuned to fit in with the preconceptions of my two listeners. Thus the lover split into twin images, male and female, Apollo and Venus, Yin and Yang, and from a series of hints and denials while talking on the telephone two separate personalities were brought into being: that of Linda and that of Tone.

Tone, of course, was short for Tony, who originally acquired his name as a result of Harriet mis-hearing a remark of mine quite unconnected with the subject. The Electric Cinema was showing a Pasolini season and I must have volunteered something like ‘I’m going to Accatone tonight,’ which she interpreted as ‘I’m going back to Tony tonight,’ assuming that I had quarrelled with my friend but had decided on a reconciliation. Emboldened by this breakthrough, Harriet soon after it risked a leading question: ‘What does Tony do?’ My mind at that moment was almost blank; I happened to be staring at a newspaper headline containing the fashionable acronym ‘Quango’ which (as I wasn’t wearing my reading spectacles) I misread as ‘Qantas’; I answered, before I had properly taken thought: ‘He works as an airline steward.’ He was thus established as an Australian, and the diminutive ‘Tone’ seemed naturally to follow.

Linda’s primary characteristics were more slow in taking shape because Jeremy, though just as inquisitive as Harriet, chose less direct methods of satisfying his curiosity. It was not long, however, before a few tentative facts emerged: she was an actress, though not yet well-known; she had been named after Linda Darnell, her mother’s favourite film-star; she adored cats, but was allergic to their fur. She was involved with various liberal causes, and sometimes asked me to accompany her on protest marches. (Tone, on the other hand, while claiming to be totally non-political, would often express opinions that were uncomfortably close to fascism.) When I first met her Linda had been a passionate admirer of the works of Tolkien but (possibly under my influence) was now beginning to grow out of them.

Such feeble scraps of elementary data were about all that Jeremy and Harriet managed to glean from me, but the knowledge that at any time I might be called upon to produce fuller details of personal description kept my imagination perpetually on the alert, and I gradually amassed substantial dossiers on both Linda and Tone, to be held in readiness at the back of my brain in case of sudden need. My ruse, though succeeding in one sense more completely than I had anticipated, must therefore be said to have failed in its ultimate purpose – to win more time for myself in which to work on the memoir: I had gained the time, but only to fritter it away in maddening, monotonous, obsessive speculation about these two irrelevant inventions. The reserves of energy which, liberated from the exorbitant demands of friendship, should have flowed into the mainstream of literary creation, found themselves disastrously diverted down a sterile and stagnant tributary, from the imprisoning banks of which there was no apparent release.

But it wasn’t until last Tuesday that things began to get downright funny. I’d come home from work and was sitting on the sofa surrounded by comfortable stubby pencils and sturdy yellow pads but hadn’t yet made any notes. Guiltily, I thought I’d have a look at the Guardian crossword, but when I folded the paper at the right page I found it had already been filled in by somebody else. This seemed decidedly spooky: until, after a minute, I remembered that, of course, I had done the whole puzzle myself while having my morning coffee. That shook me, rather. Was I completely losing my memory? Or just not taking things in? Then the telephone rang. I knew it couldn’t be Jeremy, because he believed that I always spent Tuesdays with Linda (he had a catch-phrase: ‘Tuesday night is lover night’) and I had instructed him never to disturb me on that evening. So it could only be Hurricane Harriet. I didn’t lift the receiver immediately, but a dogged quality in the ring told me that she wasn’t going to give up easily (why is it that some people ring on and on as if they knew you were there while others hang up almost at once so that you couldn’t answer even if you wanted to?) and eventually I succumbed.

‘Hi. Listen. I hope I’m not interrupting anything but I’ve just got to tell you something, that’s all. You’ll be simply fascinated. You’ll never guess what it is, never in a million years. Are you ready? Well, here goes – I’ve met Tone!’

Needless to say, I was much more surprised by this announcement than she could have possibly expected, but I tried to betray no greater degree of amazement than the one that might strike her as normal. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked cautiously.

Almost sure – no, I am sure, I’m quite certain it was him. For God’s sake don’t worry. I was terribly discreet and never mentioned your name or anything like that. So he’s absolutely no idea that I know you or have ever heard about him.’

‘Well, I’m glad of that. But when did you meet him? And where?’

‘Last night. I’d been invited to drinks by a girl I used to know years ago and of course had no intention of going but then at about six o’clock I suddenly got fed up with thinking I’d got agoraphobia and decided the thing to do was get out of the house by hook or by crook so I rang up an Austin Princess and took it to Hampstead and told it to wait outside for twenty minutes while I went to this creepy party. Of course the whole thing turned out to be a total failure and the party was a complete nightmare, but never mind, I was introduced to this young man who when he opened his mouth sounded like that Barry Humphries character, you know, the Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James’s, so I knew he was Australian for a start, and when I asked him what he did he said he was a Qantas airline steward, and when I asked his name he said it was Tony Something-or-other, now isn’t that too extraordinary for words? ... Actually, darling, you never told me how wildly attractive he is.’

‘Perhaps I didn’t like to boast,’ I heard myself coyly saying.

‘You sound awfully self-conscious, and I must say I quite see why. I suppose I’m being frightfully embarrassing – I am sorry – but I can’t help it.’

‘I’m not in the least embarrassed. It’s just that I’m not yet quite convinced. There must be hundreds of Qantas airline stewards. Well, maybe not hundreds – but lots, anyhow,’ I finished lamely.

‘But how many of them are called Tony?’ Harriet persisted. ‘I tell you, that was him I spoke to yesterday. I just know it, and that’s all there is to it. But I’ll never breathe another word about it as long as I live if you’d really rather I didn’t.’

‘It might be better – just for the time being – if we didn’t discuss it any more,’ I said. ‘There’s a sort of reason for keeping it all a secret which I can’t quite explain – that’s all part of why it has to be a secret, if you see what I mean.’

‘I don’t see what you mean at all, love. Not in this day and age, I don’t, with everybody leaping out of the closet left, right and centre like so many kangaroos. To tell you the truth, I think it’s a little bit snobbish of you to be ashamed of Tone. I thought he was sweet.’

‘I’m not in the least ashamed of Tone,’ I defended myself at random. ‘In fact, it would be much nearer the point to say that he’s ashamed of me. But that’s all part of this tiresome business which I really mustn’t talk about at this stage.’

‘Is it because he’s married, or something?’

‘I told you, I don’t wish to talk about it,’ I said with exasperated dignity – and then spoilt the effect by asking: ‘Why, did he mention being married?’

‘No, of course not. We hardly spoke two words to each other, if you must know. Oh well, I’m sorry if I’ve been tactless. I just thought you’d be interested, that’s all. It’s no skin off my nose whether you ever utter his name again. It’s nothing on earth to do with me.’

‘I was fascinated by what you said. Thank you for telling me.’

‘OK, darling. See you later.’ Hurricane rang off.

This ludicrous conversation, innocent enough when you analyse it, left me with a feeling of irritation which quite prevented me from doing any work that night, and even made it impossible for me to concentrate on a book or television. On the following evening I still felt vaguely upset by it, and began to wonder whether there was any point in what I was trying to write, or indeed in anyone writing anything at all – a dangerous frame of mind. So I was almost relieved when the telephone rang, and not too depressed to hear Jeremy’s voice on the other end of the line.

‘Is this a bad moment?’ he asked.

‘Not a bit.’

‘I know it’s not lover night, but you’re sure you’re not watching telly or just having a lovely meditation or anything?’

‘No, this is fine.’

‘Well, are you sitting down? Have you got a drink in your hand? You’re going to need it. Because I’ve got great news! Great, great news ... And I’m not going to spoil it by telling you what it is straight away. You’ve got to guess. God, I am enjoying this! Now, guess, who do you think I met today? I’ll give you a clue – no, I won’t. I’ll give you three questions and then you’ve got to guess. Only three. Go on. Fire away.’

‘Man or woman?’

‘Woman.’

‘Where did you meet her?’

‘Lunchtime theatre – the Soho Poly. I was in the audience and so was she.’

‘Linda?’

‘Right! Brilliant! Well? I knew you’d be riveted.’

‘How do you know it was Linda? I mean, my Linda?’

‘I sort of felt it in my bones. The boy I was with introduced us – Linda Something, he said, I can’t remember the last name. And when I asked her what she did she said she was on the stage, mainly fringe things, lunchtime and so on. I thought she was fantastically nice and sympathetic, I really fell madly in love with her in a way and I couldn’t understand more what you see in her ... but I’m being insensitive, aren’t I? I’ll shut up in a minute, I promise. But I just had to tell you because it was all so odd. I can’t get over it, actually, I mean if one put it in a story nobody would believe it, my bumping into her like that when I’m the only person who knows about you and her ... That’s all I wanted to say. I’ll ring off now. Lots of love. You don’t mind, do you? See you very soon. ’Bye,’ he ended in a soft gasp.

Poor Jeremy had meant no harm, but this exchange left me with a sense of outrage. The pompous phrase ‘invasion of privacy’ entered my mind and lingered there, somehow comforting in its overtone of righteous indignation. The whole situation seemed to be getting out of hand! All right, so I had lied – but there was no malice in my falsehood: rather, it had been nearer (or so I hoped) to that exercise of the imagination necessary for art. Now I understood what my punishment was: to be believed. My powers of invention were called into question; I had been taken literally; irresponsible fantasy was reduced to inconvenient fact. I felt angry, as though I had been caught out in something shameful, and sad, as though I had suffered yet another deprivation, and frightened, as though I had lost my way in hitherto familiar terrain. ‘Wait till tomorrow,’ I told myself. ‘You’ll have forgotten about it by then.’

Thursday evening: I still couldn’t work. There are two kinds of writer’s block. With one, you know what you want to say but find it impossible to choose between the alternative ways of expressing your thought: there seem to be too many words at your disposal. With the other, your mind goes hollow and the very word ‘idea’ becomes a meaningless concept, while your vocabulary shrinks to a few stale tokens. I had the second kind of block.

I switched on the television. Before the picture came into focus, I could hear a voice say good-humouredly, ‘You’ve about as much charm as a dyspeptic alligator,’ and the dutiful laugh of a studio audience. Then the screen showed a group of people playing a word game called ‘Blankety Blank’. Terry Wogan continued his pretence of insulting a guest celebrity. ‘Haven’t I spoken to you before about not answering back?’ he was saying when my telephone rang. I stretched out my toe to extinguish the programme while I stretched out my hand to lift the receiver. Would it be Jeremy this time, or was it the turn of Hurricane Harriet? Indifference prevented me from saying ‘hullo’ and during the second or so of silence that ensued I suddenly guessed who it was at the other end of the line. When the caller spoke – ‘Hi. Are you there?’ – the marked accent convinced me that my intuition had been correct. You could say that I recognised the voice, although in fact I was hearing it for the first time. ‘Yes, I’m here,’ I replied.

‘Sorry to call you up out of the blue like this, but I thought maybe it was time for us two to get together.’

‘Yes, I think it is. High time.’

‘Sure you don’t mind?’ said Tone. ‘I mean, is it really all right, my calling?’

‘No, I’m very glad that you did.’

‘Then what about meeting up for a jar one evening? How does that strike you?’

‘I think it’s a very good idea. When do you suggest?’

‘How are you fixed tomorrow, say around six?’

‘That would be perfect. Where shall we meet?’

‘Think you can find your way to Chiswick?’

‘Of course.’

‘There’s a pub down there, just around the corner from the Qantas Regional Headquarters Admin Building, where me and some of the guys do some of our drinking some of the time. They get a nice crowd there. Nothing flash, but a friendly atmosphere. I use it quite a lot because it’s handy for the orifice – I beg your pardon, I will read that again – handy for the office. It’s called The Ground Hostess. Think you can find it?’

‘I’ll manage.’

‘Don’t be late, will you, there’s a good bloke?’

‘I’m never late.’

‘See you tomorrow, then.’

‘Right.’

I think that was all that we said. After I had hung up I immediately opened my engagement book and wrote down ‘6 p.m. The Ground Hostess’ on the page for Friday: this act made the recent telephone conversation seem more real. Then I tried to imagine telling another person about what had just happened. They – he – she – whoever it was that I confided in – would almost certainly suggest that somebody had been playing a practical joke on me. This explanation of the mystery struck me as unlikely. Harriet could never have disguised her voice to sound like the man who had rung me up. It is true that Jeremy just conceivably might have done so – but then he knew nothing at all about the existence of Tone. Not that ‘existence’ was exactly the mot juste ... or was it? I was reminded of a short story by Anatole France, which made a deep impression on me when I read it a long time ago. It’s about a woman who invents a fictitious character called Putois as an excuse for getting out of any boring social engagement, and this figment of her imagination gradually assumes a life of its own. I think the story may have been at the back of my mind when I first embarked on the stratagem of Linda and Tone. Anyway, as far as I can remember it ends with the woman being told that a Monsieur Putois had called to see her while she was out ... I decided that the best thing to do for the time being was to think about nothing: blankety blank. Then the telephone rang again. I picked up the receiver and said at once: ‘Is that you, Linda?’

She sounded slightly taken aback. Like Tone, she began by apologising: was I quite sure that I didn’t mind her ringing up like this, ‘out of the blue’? I agreed with her that it was high time we got to know each other. In my conversation with Tone, the initiative had remained with him throughout; but with Linda, I was able to take it out of her hands from the start. I told her that I would be having a drink at The Ground Hostess at six o’clock on the following day, and invited her to join me there. She didn’t know the pub, but thought she could find it without much difficulty. Yes, she’d love to come, she said. Something hesitant in her voice made me think that she needed reassurance, and with a rather ridiculous approach to old-world courtesy I told her how much I looked forward to making her acquaintance.

‘And I’m dying to make yours.’

‘See you tomorrow, then.’

‘Right.’

After this, I left the telephone receiver off the hook. I swallowed my last two Mogadons and passed a long night of dreamless sleep. Looking back on it now, I’m not quite sure how I spent the early part of the next day. At one stage I must have rung the office with some excuse for staying at home: I was much too excited to go to work. And then I know that I searched everywhere for my copy of Kafka containing his ‘Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way’ because I needed to remind myself of the last page, and that I finally found it on the edge of a shelf about lunchtime. ‘You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.’

Yes, that’s what I wanted to read again. I even typed it out on my Hermes Baby in the hope of ramming its message home. But it wasn’t any good. I still had to get to Chiswick to keep the appointments I had made. Then I needed my A to Z London Street Atlas and that took a bit of finding too – though not so long as the Kafka. I worked out a route, and set off in plenty of time. At the Notting Hill tube, where I usually boarded a train on the Central Line to carry me east to work, I took one instead on the District Line travelling west. This subtle adjustment of a daily routine had about it something aberrant, as in a dream where perverse and disturbing events occur among natural and familiar surroundings.

Incurably punctual, I reached the meeting-place at twenty past five, and had to wait outside for ten fretful minutes. I felt something of the desperate impatience of an alcoholic as I counted the seconds till opening time. Ignoring my surroundings in the street, I stared at the locked, chained and bolted door: the world of my imagination had shrunk to whatever lay beyond it. When at last I heard and saw signs of its being opened, I felt that this predictable event had only been brought about by the intensity of my concentration.

For some reason I waited a further, unnecessary moment or two before entering the pub. The pale youth who had admitted me had now gone behind the bar and was talking in an undertone to his colleague, a middle-aged woman with dyed red hair. Neither of them took any notice of me. The room, which was otherwise empty, struck me as abnormally large. The bar occupied the centre, and the surrounding space had presumably once been divided into partitions – saloon, public, private, snuggery and so on. The removal of these had left behind an impression of desolate immensity. The walls were papered in a timid design, pale brown on cream, faintly reminiscent of the jazz patterns admired in the 1920s, and this fussy motif was repeated on the plastic seats of the banquettes. What little colour the décor contained (paintings of Spanish dancers on the walls; dark green tin ashtrays on the tables; the domesticated rainbow effect, like an old-fashioned chemist’s shop-window, of the bottles behind the bar) seemed to be suddenly sucked away when the barmaid switched on the overhead strip-lighting. At the same moment, the youth tuned in to a radio. Frank Sinatra and his daughter were singing an old number: ‘And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like – I love you.’

I bought a Bloody Mary and took it over to a corner. A limp evening paper had been left behind by one of the morning customers. As it was a Racing Standard, most of it was already out of date, but I glanced at Katina (never at her best on a Friday, when she had to provide a comprehensive forecast for the weekend and Monday) and read the whole of Bridge with Rixi. I had just started Classics on Cassette by Christopher Grier when I was overwhelmed by a feeling of restlessness and began to wander round the room. I still had nearly half an hour in which to explore The Ground Hostess.

There was more to see than I had realised at first. A blank television screen hung from the ceiling, tilted forward at a tipsy angle. The lavatory doors were identified by twin ideograms, one tubular and one triangular, suggestive of trousers and skirt. A wide, shining jukebox: this I was tempted to play, but its music would have conflicted with the barman’s radio and I lacked the courage to risk anything approaching provocation. A form of football for two players featuring a quivering dot of electric light, like Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, and accompanied by a thin, nonstop, whining noise. A more than usually complicated fruit machine, offering an extreme variety of winning permutations and bewildering instructions: ‘Reel may be nudged in chosen direction by selecting nudge up or nudge down when nudge panels flash. Nudges available as lit. During a game numbers on win line light letters of word NUDGE. Players may hold numbers to complete word and achieve Nudge Feature.’ This, however, was out of order. A game called Master Mind, which tests your IQ and rates the result in categories ranging from Average to Genius. It asked me who wrote Paradise Lost – John Milton, John Osborne, Shakespeare or Margaret Mitchell? I pressed the button for Milton, but the machine firmly indicated that my answer was incorrect. I think it must have been out of order too.

Then I visited the Gents, although I had no desire to piss. There were some puzzling graffiti: ‘I thought pubic hair was a friend of Bugs Bunny until I discovered Smirnoff’; ‘My girl’s so dumb she thinks Hertz Van Rental is a Dutch footballer’; ‘Who is Milton Keynes? An economist. No, that’s Maynard Keynes. No, that’s Milton Friedman. Both wrong – he’s a sadistic poet.’ This place seemed to have an obsession with Milton: did he (I found myself bemusedly almost wondering) have any connection with Chiswick? Pulling myself together, I went back to the remains of my drink and the Racing Standard, in which I located the TV Guide on an unfamiliar page with a new photograph of Celia Brayfield. A young couple came into the pub, walking very close to each other. It was only when I noticed that they were holding white sticks that I understood that they were blind. They stood talking together happily for a while (I heard the man say: ‘She’s Steering Wheel – you know, the Motoring Correspondent for Hullabaloo’) and then he deliberately approached the bar and negotiated the purchase of two drinks. He returned to the girl and they sat, just touching, in companionable silence.

The red-haired woman behind the bar was more audible now. ‘Do you the world of good,’ she was saying. ‘Take you out of yourself. You don’t want to sit on your bum for the rest of your life feeling sorry for yourself, now, do you? Oh, if I were you, I wouldn’t think twice. You wouldn’t see me for dust. Leap at the chance, that’s what I’d do. I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been there, haven’t I? Oh, when it comes to that, I wrote the book ... ’

‘That’s all very well,’ said the pale-faced youth. ‘It’s easy to talk like that. But I don’t know, I’m sure ... Dashing around like a fart in a bubble-bath – where does it get you? You only have to come home in the end, when all’s said and done.’

I had become so engrossed in this dialogue that I had forgotten my purpose in coming to the pub. I felt panic. Where was I? Who was I? I looked at my watch, as if the answer to these questions lay there. It was six o’clock. I raised the newspaper to cover the lower part of my face, and over its top I gazed at the entrance to the street. The door opened, and Tone came in.

He was shorter than I had expected: indeed, his figure could almost be described as stocky. His hair was concealed by a furry Russian hat, his eyes by large dark rimless glasses and his mouth by a soft brown moustache of the kind once known as ‘Zapata’. He wore a navy-blue jacket with a double vent and bright brass buttons; a fawn polo-neck pullover of thin wool which wrinkled so tightly over his chest that his nipples were visible in outline beneath it; conventional blue jeans; and lace-up canvas kicker boots of vivid orange and chalky white. Over one arm he carried a neatly folded raincoat, also navy-blue, and under the other he held a smart black briefcase. He looked round the room in a manner both cautious and arrogant, but seemed to find nothing in it to arrest his attention; then he crossed to the bar with a jaunty strut that betrayed to me his lack of social confidence. After carefully placing his briefcase and raincoat on one stool he hoisted himself onto another, leaned his elbows on the counter, cupped his face with his hands and stared fixedly in front of him. When the barmaid moved into his line of vision, he spoke. ‘Lager and lime, please, dear, if it’s not too much trouble.’ After paying for the drink, he resumed this semi-crouching posture, from which it was difficult to tell if his mood was meditative, sulky or shy. Every so often he shot out his wrist and consulted an expensive-looking digital watch. There was something faintly sinister about him, like a character in a book by Frederick Forsyth, and at the same time something so sharply poignant that I ached with pity at the memory of his shallow vulnerability and thrilled at my intimate knowledge of his deserved discomforts.

Anyway, it was quite clear that he hadn’t taken me in. I began to wonder what on earth I was doing, sitting here in this really rather depressing place. I was about to get up and go over and talk to him (though I had not yet rehearsed any opening remark) when the door opened once again. How typical of Linda, I thought, to time her arrival exactly ten minutes after the agreed hour. Women are always self-conscious about entering pubs alone, so she could not have risked being the first to get there; at the same time, she had enough consideration for others not to be annoyingly late.

She wore jeans, plimsolls and a child’s Snoopy T-shirt. She was pale and slight, her fragile figure scarcely able to support the weight of her immense leather shoulder-bag, which was heavily tasselled and embroidered with a design of vaguely peasant origin. Her dark hair was cropped short like Julie Covington’s, giving an effect of careless austerity which only emphasised the beauty of her violet eyes, straight thin nose and short upper lip, helplessly lifted over tiny china teeth. She was clearly nervous, for she hovered on the threshold of the room as if she still might escape back into the street; it looked as if she could not bring herself to shut the door behind her. ‘Make up your mind, darling, if you don’t mind,’ the barmaid called out. ‘That’s one hell of a draught you’re creating by just standing there.’ ‘Sorry,’ said Linda, and she let the door bang to, imprisoning herself in the pub. She gazed searchingly at the sightless couple, as though appealing for some kind of help which of course they were unable to provide, and then carefully examined the rest of the room. I had once more defensively lifted the newspaper but above it my eyes met hers for a moment, and I can only say, in the words of the cliché, that she seemed to ‘look straight through me’. For a while she studied Tone’s back view with no expression on her face, and then deliberately walked to a part of the bar some distance from his seat but where he would be able to see her if he ever raised his eyes from his drink, into which he was now intently staring. She ordered a Tio Pepe, and after it was bought consumed it with delicate sips, evenly spaced, as if performing a ritual. She gave an impression of innocent refinement and seemed lost in some private reverie – ‘miles away’, as they say – but I knew that in fact she was acutely conscious of everything that took place around her and I ached with pity at the memory of her proud little gaucheries and thrilled at my intimate knowledge of her touchingly hard-earned triumphs.

Tone finished his lager and lime with a deep draught, smacked his lips, made an appreciative noise and ordered a large Scotch. While it was being fetched he added: ‘And kindly be so good as to give the young lady opposite another glass of whatever it is she’s having.’ Linda began to protest, but Tone raised his hands and insistently pushed their palms in her direction several times. ‘My pleasure, my pleasure,’ he repeated. Linda soon gave in, and when she was half-way through her second sherry Tony gathered his belongings together and ceremoniously carried them over to a stool next to hers. He offered her a Marlboro, and while she was fumbling in her cavernous shoulder-bag for a box of matches he efficiently clicked a pale blue Cricket lighter to which she submissively dipped her head.

There were now three groups in The Ground Hostess carrying on conversations too low for me to overhear: the blind pair, the two behind the bar, and Linda and Tone. But I didn’t need to know what they were saying – I had heard it all before. ‘Oh, when it comes to that, I wrote the book ... ’ After a few more minutes Tone was handing Linda down off her stool and escorting her to the door. He turned and with uneasy affability said ‘’Night, all’ to the room at large; and then they left the pub together. There’s no doubt that they made a very attractive couple, and as I watched them vanish I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of pride at the thought that if it hadn’t been for me they would probably never have become friends.