17. "I’ve Been A Bad, Bad Boy"
When I awoke it was with the odd feeling that something had disturbed me. I realised I’d been half-awake already; I’d heard a tiny sound.
I sat up slowly. There was something on the floor, sticking out from beneath the door. A small square of paper.
In a moment I was across the floor. My heart was beating uncontrollably. I snatched up the paper and unfolded it.
Please don’t feel awkward today. It was mostly my fault; we should remain what we are, the best of friends. See you at breakfast.
I remained by the door, holding the note and staring at the words. Something seemed to swell in my throat, and after a moment I was crying.
After a minute or two I was recovered enough to look at the time; just after seven. Far too early for me to be about without Mrs Muller thinking something was up. I crept back beneath the covers and tried to get my thoughts in order.
Something that had occurred to me briefly the previous night now returned. I’d managed to scrape by with my parents, but I’d bought neither Barbara nor Caro a single thing for today. I knew Barbara wouldn’t mind, but I wasn’t so sure about Caro. But what could I do about it now? She didn’t know it, but I had done far worse than overlook her Christmas present.
I couldn’t work out how I felt about the encounter with Barbara. It already seemed distant, and very little remained of the powerful desire that had welled up only a few hours earlier. Was I glad she had resisted the idea? I still wasn’t sure about that, but it would make facing Caro a lot easier, whatever I had felt about it last night.
Eventually I decided that delaying my emergence into the world was only making me nervous. Mrs Muller usually got breakfast about eight, and I had no reason to suppose Christmas would affect her schedule at all. It was about quarter to when I went downstairs.
They were both in the kitchen; Mrs Muller at the cooker, making scrambled eggs, and Barbara at the table sipping coffee. Barbara smiled at me; Mrs Muller turned her head slightly. ‘Good morning, Conrad. Happy Christmas to you. We were about to call you. Sit down; this will be ready in a moment.’
The early part of the day passed in a sort of blur. I felt incapable of doing or saying much. Mrs Muller made most of the conversation; Barbara said little but kept looking at me and smiling, as if going out of her way to reassure me that everything was all right. After a while I relaxed a little, although not before Mrs Muller had commented on my unusual silence. I covered myself by saying I was worried that I hadn’t bought Caro anything, whereupon Mrs Muller produced a large box of chocolates she had intended for after dinner. I protested, but Barbara made the point that since Caro would undoubtedly share them around anyway, it would hardly make any difference. Having made her preparations for the dinner Mrs Muller went into the sitting room to watch the eleven o’clock service while she wrapped the chocolates, and Barbara and I were left alone in the kitchen.
I didn’t know what to say; I wondered if I should apologise. But before I could speak she said: ‘Are you all right?’
‘I’m…fine. What about you?’
She shook her head. ‘There’s nothing for you to worry about. I’m sure we did the right thing last night, and there’s no harm done.’
‘I don’t know about the "we"—’
There was someone at the front door.
‘That will be Caro,’ said Barbara, gathering up our coffee cups. ‘Now see, when you open the door, if you’re not glad nothing happened last night.’
She went over to the sink, then looked at me, still stuck to my chair. ‘Go on, before Mrs Muller gets there.’ Her hand made a shooing motion.
I got up. When I went into the hall Mrs Muller was at the door of the sitting room but she smiled slightly and stepped back, pulling the door to.
‘Happy Christmas!’ Caro all but leapt at me as I opened the front door, throwing her arms around me and planting her lips wetly on mine. I held her tight; Barbara had been right about my immediate reaction. I buried my face against Caro’s shining clean hair and let out a long sigh. ‘You…seem to be in a good mood this morning.’
She beamed at me. ‘Can’t tell you how glad I am to have a good excuse to miss the family Christmas for once. Guy was muttering at me this morning; he’s got to deal with Dad all by himself.’ A slight shadow crossed her face. ‘I said I’d try to get back soon after tea – maybe seven o’clock. Hope that’s all right.’
‘Fine, great. I’m just glad you’re here.’ I caught Barbara at the edge of my vision, standing in the kitchen doorway. I didn’t need to look round to see her smile.
‘Good morning, Caro. Merry Christmas.’
Caro skipped over to her and kissed her on the cheek. I was about to shut the door when I spotted a large bag sitting on the step. I brought it inside; Caro came back to me, took it from my hand, fished inside, then presented a small packet to Barbara. ‘Sorry; I didn’t really know what to get you. This is only second hand…’
Barbara shook her head slightly. ‘You shouldn’t have…’
‘And for you, mein Herr…’ Caro pulled out something that could only be an LP.
‘Can I unwrap it now?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t give it to you otherwise…’
It turned out to be not only the Velvets LP but Magical Mystery Tour. ‘That’s to stop you being tempted to borrow my copy,’ she explained.
‘How did you get this?’ I waved the LP at her. ‘These are hard to come by at the moment.’
‘Fraternal connections, as always. Now – are you going to get out of it again, or do I rate a cup of tea?’
I laughed at her and ushered her into the kitchen. I heard Barbara give a tiny exclamation and she came into the kitchen after us. ‘Thank you, Caro. It’s wonderful.’ I put the kettle on the ring and leaned over the table to look at the book Barbara pushed towards me.
‘The Song Celestial.’
‘It’s the Christopher Isherwood translation of the Gita,’ explained Barbara.
I gave a sort of grimace. ‘That book again.’
Barbara only smiled.
It was a good day. Suddenly I found I didn’t mind seeing Caro and Barbara getting on so well. By late after noon the only thing nagging at me was the question of the group; I was toying with the idea of telling Caro what was in the wind. I was also wondering if Barbara ought to know about Sally and Dennis. This must have made me taciturn again, because Caro went to some lengths to cheer me up. Then, about half an hour before we were due to have tea, she asked if she could have a look at my records and we went upstairs.
As soon as we were in the bedroom she pushed me against the door and fastened her mouth on mine. For a moment I was too surprised to respond; just as I was beginning to warm to the idea she pulled back. ‘You didn’t really think I wanted to look at the records, did you? You’re really not completely with it today, are you – something wrong?’
‘Not really. I suppose it’s just an unusual sort of day.’ I kissed her nose. ‘Shame you have to go later.’
‘You can see me tomorrow – if you’re willing to brave Dad’s fortress.’
‘Well, I promised I’d spend Boxing Day there, but I’m allowed a guest. Guy can pick you up from here tomorrow morning.’
‘Would he do that? I don’t want—’
‘By that time he’ll be desperate to get out for a hour or two, believe me.’
I hesitated. There was one more trivial concern. ‘Um…you know the Mystery Tour film’s on tomorrow tea-time. I want to see it…’
‘As if we’d want to miss that! Listen, there are four televisions in that house – don’t worry.’ She pulled me closer, and narrowed her eyes at me. ‘But if I get the idea that George Harrison’s more important than me, just because he gave you a book…’
I kissed her, but she had reminded me of something. After a while I guided her over to the bed. During a lull in our activities, while she lay back, I indicated the Raquel Welch poster. ‘Did you notice that, the first time you came here?’
‘Hard to avoid it, really.’
‘What did you think?’
‘What was I supposed to think? You mean, did it bother me? Why should it?’
‘No reason, I suppose…’
She came up onto her elbows. ‘I thought you’d have twigged by now; I’m just not the jealous type. And how can I be jealous of a few square feet of paper, anyway?’
‘What…what d’you think it would take to make you jealous?’
‘What, you want to test me? What would be the point?’ She looked at me and saw I was serious. ‘Look…if you cross the line, I’ll tell you, all right?’
‘But if you didn’t know?’
‘Why, what have you done? Gone to bed with Barbara?’
I gave her no answer and she sat up. ‘Really?’
‘Uh…not in the sense you mean. We…we did share a bed one night. I was caught by the weather – I had to stay at hers.’
Caro’s face was impossible to read. She sank back on her elbows. ‘Well…!’ She looked up. ‘Did you want something to happen?’
I could not return her gaze. ‘I…don’t know. I think…I think probably I did.’
‘And did she?’ Caro’s voice was still neutral.
I shrugged. ‘How should I know? Maybe.’ I steeled myself and met her eyes. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I don’t see,’ she said firmly, ‘that what you do with Barbara really has anything to do with me. As long as you’re straight about it – that’s all I ask.’ She saw my face and lifted her eyebrows. ‘I’m afraid I’m a bit progressive – I think it’s quite possible to have strong feelings for two people at the same time, even to sleep with more than one person. People make it too important – it’s just a holdover from our religious past.’
‘But…but you did resent Barbara at first…you can’t tell me—’
‘That was before I knew her properly. The thing that would really bother me would be you wasting yourself on someone who wasn’t worthy of you. Life’s too short to mess about wasting time – and too damn frustrating as it is not to take whatever opportunities you get.’
‘Even if you hurt someone?’
‘Who? You weren’t going to hurt me.’
‘But I thought…I mean, with your comments about Catherine Deneuve and so on…’
‘Dear me – you do take everything so seriously.’
I sat pondering what she had said. ‘I…I don’t think I could cope with you sleeping with someone else.’
She sat up and leaned against me. ‘That, I’m afraid,’ she said slowly, ‘is your problem.’ She squeezed my arm. ‘Just as well for you I’m not interested in anyone else.’
I looked into her eyes. ‘Really?’
‘Really. Does that make you feel better?’
‘Yes.’ I stared at her. ‘Would it really not have bothered you at all if I’d— if Barbara and me—’
‘Why – want to go and see if she’s still up for it?’
The question was lightly asked but I met it with a serious look. ‘I wanted to last night. She was in here. I just felt…I don’t know, like it was inevitable. She stopped me – said she wouldn’t be able to face you today.’
‘Hmm.’ Caro smiled. ‘I’m impressed. I don’t suppose she’s likely to get many chances to have a twenty year old.’
‘Is that all it means to you? For Christ’s sake, I nearly—’
‘I know.’ She gave me a level stare. ‘It really isn’t such a big deal. I don’t know why people make such a fuss. Screw someone, or don’t screw them – whatever. As long as you’re careful.’
‘I doubt we’d have given that much thought.’
‘Now that would have annoyed me. Are you ready to bring up a kid?’
‘Don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.’
‘Me neither. Well, that’s something we definitely have in common. Now, c’mon – with all this talking it’ll probably be tea-time.’
We said an affectionate goodbye at the gate, two hours later. Her father had given her money for a taxi, and I waited until the car had disappeared around the corner before returning to the house. She had phoned her brother just after she called the taxi; he would pick me up about half past ten the next morning.
‘Caroline forgot her chocolates,’ said Mrs Muller, indicating the half-empty box as I entered the sitting room.
Barbara smiled. ‘I think she guessed they were meant for everyone.’
She hadn’t said a word to me. I shook my head slightly as I marvelled at her tolerance. Mrs Muller got up and went out, saying she would make some tea. Barbara looked at me as I sat down heavily on the sofa. ‘I was right, wasn’t I? No regrets about last night now?’
I blew out a breath. ‘No…and yes. I told her all about it.’ I nodded at Barbara’s slightly shocked expression. ‘Yes, it was quite easy. She was being so…so relaxed about it all. She really doesn’t seem to mind what I do, as long as I’m honest about it. It’s almost as if she doesn’t care.’
‘That wasn’t the impression I got.’
‘No…’ I shrugged. ‘I really don’t know. I can’t work her out.’
‘Why try? Do you have to understand everything about her?’
I shrugged again. I had nothing to say. Barbara shifted in her chair. ‘I hope this doesn’t mean I’ll have a get a lock fitted to my door…’
I looked up in mild shock. She laughed. ‘Well, if Caro doesn’t mind…’
‘I wonder,’ I said. ‘I wonder what she’d feel if it actually happened.’
‘She strikes me as someone who really knows her own mind,’ said Barbara. ‘But don’t let that give you ideas. I stand by the choice I made last night.’
I nodded. Then, without quite knowing why, I asked: ‘Has Mrs Muller asked you anything about your…travels at all? Did she wonder what you were doing as an adult twenty years ago in India?’
‘I told her it was difficult to explain. That seemed enough.’
‘She’s a queer old girl,’ I said. ‘I’m beginning to think I didn’t know her at all. Now it seems strange that she could be a friend of Mum’s. Nothing against my Mum, but she’s so down to earth – so ordinary.’
‘I wish Mrs Muller could be my landlady on a permanent basis.’
‘Well, why not? You know she’d be happy to have you here as long as you wanted to stay.’
‘I…I couldn’t. And it isn’t just the imposition – the room really is a bit small for me to live in.’
‘You’ve got a whole house.’
She looked at me. ‘No…I don’t think I can stay. It’s been an absolute godsend, and I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a Christmas more, but there are things I have to get on with now, and I’m not sure I can do them here.’
‘Yes, he’s part of it. And I have decide how serious I really am about the teaching – Advaita. That could cause problems with Ian, if I let it dictate what I do.’
Mrs Muller came intro the room with a tray. ‘Barbara, did you not say you wished to telephone your sister and mother..?’
‘Oh…if you really don’t mind…’
Mrs Muller made a dismissive sound. ‘You insult me. Go, while the tea is brewing.’
Barbara gave me a quick smile and went out. Mrs Muller sat next to me on the sofa and set out the cups. ‘So; everything is sorted out now, ja?’
‘I like Caroline. She is very strong. And of course I like Barbara very much – but she is not for you.’
She shook her head slightly. ‘Say nothing. I am glad. There was a time I was worried about you – about your future. But I think, with friends like these, you will be all right.’
I nodded. I found that I felt strangely empty now that Caro had gone. I was thinking of tomorrow with almost equal portions of enthusiasm and fear, but I knew I would brave any social ordeal to be with her again.
Barbara came back into the room as Mrs Muller was pouring the tea. ‘Thank you,’ she said to Mrs Muller, and sat down. Then she looked at me. ‘Conrad – what’s wrong?’
It had suddenly hit me. Caro had invited me to her father’s house. Did that mean she knew that I knew about her family? Was she planning to tell me tomorrow? Or did it just not matter? Then I wondered if Vee had told her about the conversation we’d had at the party.
Barbara was looking at me with some concern. I put up my hands. ‘It’s all right. I just realised something – but it’s not a problem. At least I don’t think it is.’
And I still hadn’t told her about Rob’s ultimatum to the group. I wondered how Dennis was getting on with talking to the others.
Mrs Muller picked up the Radio Times. ‘So – what shall we watch tonight?’
She was looking at me. I waved a hand at her. ‘Um…you choose. I think I’ll go for a walk.’
‘It is very cold out there.’
‘Good. It’ll clear my head.’ I stood up and was unable to resist looking at Barbara. ‘Do you want some company?’ she asked.
‘Umm…’ I looked at Mrs Muller. She rustled her Radio Times. ‘I will be quite all right. Go.’
‘So,’ said Barbara as we walked arm-in-arm along the wet streets, ‘do you want to tell me what it was that took all the colour from your face a few minutes ago?’
‘I don’t know if it was that important. It’s about Caro’s family – whether or not I know who she is, and all that. If she’s inviting me to meet her father…’
‘All it probably means is that she’s no longer worried about your reaction. I did try to set her mind at rest when we discussed it.’
‘Oh. Yes, I s’pose you’re right. I seem to be good at finding things to worry about at the moment.’
She squeezed my arm. ‘Well, it’s a big thing, meeting your girlfriend’s father. Worry about that.’
‘Thanks a lot. I hadn’t given that much thought.’
We passed a phone box. I looked at her. ‘Have you rung Ian?’
She avoided my eyes. ‘I…wasn’t sure…he’ll be with his parents, I think…’
‘So – haven’t you got their number?’ I stopped walking, forcing her to stop with me.
‘I…I might be able to remember it…’
‘There’s always directory enquiries…’
‘No, I think I can remember it.’ She looked back at the phone box. ‘I don’t know if I should…’
‘I can’t think of any good reasons why not. It’s Christmas Day – is he going to shout at you for wishing him the best of the season?’
‘No, of course…he isn’t like that…’
‘I might not have much change…’
‘I’ve got plenty.’ I turned her around and marched her towards the box. ‘C’mon – you’ll feel better for it.’
In the end she needed little persuasion. I gave her all the coins in my pocket, then stood against the wall a little way away from the box.
There was nothing to look at in the street; I found my eyes drawn to her profile as she waited for an answer. I saw her slight hesitancy as the phone was picked up the other end, saw a vague half-smile cross her face. She nodded, and then was still again. Her eyes sought me out; I nodded encouragement. She patted her hair, almost unconsciously. Then he must have come onto the line; she closed her eyes, almost as if bracing herself. I saw her lips move, then spread in a smile much broader than the previous one. She nodded again, vigorously – I was sure I could read the words "Happy Christmas" on her lips. Her head bowed, her forehead leaning against the coin-box. Her fingers threaded nervously through her hair. She laughed at something, but her throat trembled as she did so. I was sure I could see tears in her eyes.
It was difficult to watch, but almost impossible to look away. I folded my arms against the cold and forced my eyes down onto the pavement. Someone was approaching; I looked up. A small middle-aged man with a tiny dog, some kind of terrier. As the dog sniffed at the wall near my feet, the man glanced at the phone box. ‘Women; take forever, don’t they? Best find another box.’
‘I’m waiting for her.’
He seemed surprised; then turned again to look at Barbara. Then he gave me a strange sort of stare and pulled the dog away. I laughed to myself; I’d forgotten what an unlikely couple we made.
I raised my eyes to the phone box. She was nodding again, seeming more composed now. She went on nodding – it looked odd, although I knew I also did it while talking on the phone. The power of habit.
She was engaged in one of those drawn-out goodbyes, when neither party really wants to be the first to put down the phone. She was leaning close to the coin-box, nodding, the receiver twitching away from and back to her ear. Then she went still, listening. She replaced the receiver with an abrupt motion.
I moved closer, but she simply stood there. It wasn’t until I was close enough to touch the latticed glass that she looked up. Her eyes were red, and her hand came up to rub the moisture away. I pulled open the door. She gave me a tremulous smile. ‘Thank you for making me do that.’
‘So – all made up?’
She stepped out. ‘Yes…yes. I gave him Mrs Muller’s number – he said he’ll ring in a few days. If I’ve moved out by then, you can tell him where I am.’
‘You won’t be going anywhere before the New Year.’
‘No, probably not.’ She took a deep breath, let it out audibly. ‘I do feel better. I think it’s been nagging at me all day, although I wouldn’t admit it to myself. Thank you again.’
‘It was, quite literally, nothing.’ I offered her my arm. ‘You did all the work. I’m glad; I think you two belong together.’
‘Mmn.’ There was slight surprise in her low hum. ‘Does this mean my honour is safe tonight..?’
‘If you don’t do anything deliberately provocative – like breathe too hard…’
We walked for about an hour. From nowhere she began to tell me about another of her adventures; a long journey across a planet called Marinus, looking for keys to a machine that controlled the minds of the people. She told it in a rambling, disconnected fashion, unlike the ordered narrative of her previous stories. It occurred to me again that there was a wonderful fund of material for fiction here; living jungles, acid seas, disembodied brains in jars and a bewildering variety of landscapes and alien characters. She said that the people of Marinus were mostly humanoid – practically indistinguishable from human beings, except for a very slight oddity about their skin colour, something she couldn’t pinpoint. This led us on to speculation about the nature of life in the universe – did it all come from a common source? Had mankind evolved – or were we planted here? The discussion was fairly light-hearted, and in the end we decided that it didn’t matter – mostly because we had no hope of finding an answer.
There was a part of the story that had seemed to cause her to stumble over her words. I asked her about it. She was silent for a few moments.
‘It was Vasor – the man in the mountains, the trapper. After he’d sent Ian to look for the others, Vasor…well, he tried to rape me.’
‘Good God. But you say tried…’
‘Ian came back just in time.’ Her grip on my arm tightened. ‘I don’t think you can know what that feels like, that fear of…of violation. It wasn’t the only time I was threatened like that during those years – there was Nero, and that jailer in France – but it was the only occasion when I was absolutely alone, with no hope of help coming…’
‘I’m sorry I asked. Forget it.’
‘Well, it was a long time ago. Many women have been through a lot worse. It does…it does stick in my mind, though.’
‘Then I’m doubly sorry about last night.’
‘Oh, don’t be stupid. That was quite different. Another few seconds and I’d’ve been ravishing you.’
‘Mmn. You’d better not talk like that. I might hurry you back to the house.’
She gave me a mock stern glare. ‘I think we know where we stand on that now.’ She stretched up and pecked me on the cheek. ‘I don’t know; I can see why people become monks or nuns. It makes things less complicated.’
‘How do we know what goes on behind those walls? You think Sanctuary shows us the whole truth about the way nuns live?’
‘I’ll hang on to my illusions, thank you.’
‘Mm. What does your teaching say about sex?’
‘Well – it’s best avoided altogether, not because it’s wrong – Advaita doesn’t recognise the concept of sin as such – but simply because it’s such a powerful anchor to the gross physical world. It’s…very distracting.’
‘It certainly is that.’
She smiled. ‘And here I was thinking that that part of my life was over. I have you to thank for that; I feel ten years younger these days.’
‘It’s a good thing I don’t.’ We had come right around and were now approaching the house. I stopped and faced her. ‘This has been such a great day. I’ve enjoyed it all – I hope there’ll be other days like it. I almost wish Caro was coming here again, instead of me going over to hers. But it’ll be a kind of adventure, I suppose, tomorrow. I…I just wanted to say, seriously, that I think I’m sorted out now. Seeing you two together, today…and thinking about you and Ian…well, everything’s under control, I think. Even a few hours ago I did have regrets about last night, but…I dunno, maybe it was watching you in that phone box, but I really so hope you and Ian make it.’
‘Good.’ She took my hands in hers, then kissed me softly and chastely on the lips. ‘All right, then; just one thing for tomorrow. Now you’re beyond being seduced by me, don’t let yourself be seduced by all that wealth.’
I gave a short laugh. ‘No chance of that.’
To my surprise she seemed quite serious. ‘Really, I’m warning you. Remember that it doesn’t last – and it’s as powerful a lure as sex, in its own way.’
‘Are you telling me to lay up treasure in heaven?’
Now she did smile. ‘Something like that. Will you remember?’
‘I’ll try to bear it in mind.’