Chapter 13 appears tomorrow, 13th May. The previous chapters are the posts immediately preceding. You can always contact me about anything, including your critical response to this novel, at email@example.com
There was once a young man of a wealthy family survived on a diet of nothing whatever but sunflower seeds, and despite everyone’s considerable concern, showed every signs of sterling good health. He was around 21 during this curmudgeonly herbivore period, and was a precociously clever student at Oxford University. At the age of 18 he had gone up from the choicest of public schools, Eton, to read Music, but after two terms decided he wanted to study something with some substance to it, a subject that was no nonsense and something you could get your teeth into, though of course few people would want to get their teeth with any relish, into a meagre fistful of sunflower seeds. In the end, Septimus Forbes as he was called, chose Physics, only he knew why, as he hadn’t even Ordinary Level Maths nor Physics, nor had he studied any science at all since he was 14. I never met this man Forbes, I only heard about him by repute, as he was there at Oxford for the same three years that I was, and was something of a legend. I later heard that despite his brain being full of little else but sunflower seeds, he did very well at his physics degree and got a congratulatory first class honours, and even went on to do advanced research. Every once in a while I would remember Forbes and his singular diet, as I walked amongst the hallowed spires, and I would look for someone about my age who evidently lived only on seeds. I imagined they would certainly have some emphatic resemblance to a cage bird, a budgerigar or cockatoo or cockatiel or mynah bird, or even a parrot. This is not as fanciful or farcical as it might sound, believe you me. Quite a lot of young men aged around 21, especially if they have been to places like Eton or Winchester, and are of the highest social rank, have a querulous and remarkably beakish and officious look about them. And to a certain extent, they are of course entrapped within a kind of permanent and unyielding cage, which everyone can see the shadowy outlines of other than themselves.
At the opposite end of the social scale and at roughly the same period in the early 1970s, there was once an unemployed woman called Ada Franks aged 45, who was childless, and lived alone because she was divorced, in a council house on the very roughest and most notorious estate in Workington, West Cumbria, which was called after a defunct colliery, namely Walla Pit. About a decade before this the Sunday Times in their colour supplement had a sensational feature on The Very Dirtiest Town in Britain, and next to, but fearlessly towering over dog-ugly industrial Birkenhead near Liverpool, and at the very summit of the brazen tree, when it came to amazing grubbiness and virtuoso squalor, was featured across six appalling pages, the town of Workington, Cumberland, as it then was called (it was previously called Gabrosetum by the Romans). This woman Mrs Franks would then have been about 34 and still married, and the Sunday Times had copious shots of the horriblest streets in Walla Pit, and there was a fair chance hers was one of them. I heard about her because my lifelong best friend Marty Snow had a father who worked as a plumber for the council, and he had been requested to go along because Ada Franks was having problems with the toilet, indeed had been enduring them for quite some time, it transpired, when he turned up at her house and the stench almost sent him on his back.
Mrs Franks had no embarrassment in explaining to friendly Dave Snow how she had coped with the malfunctioning toilet, which she guessed might have stopped working about three weeks ago. When pressed why she hadn’t rung the council earlier, she said she had no phone and both of the nearby call boxes were vandalised, and also she frankly couldn’t be bothered as long as she had her highly practical makeshift arrangement. That arrangement explained the uniquely terrible odour inside the modest council house. Her urinations she had done into an empty soda water bottle (she stressed it was soda water, as if that was an impressively wholesome and hygienic item, or at least beneficial) and then disposed of somehow or other, most likely down an outside drain in the dark. Her defecations were a tougher problem altogether, but she had found a solution by employing her sitting room or parlour as she grandly called it, somewhere she rarely used in any case. She had done her evacuations in the proper place, in the defunct lavatory that is, having placed a sheet of newspaper underneath herself as she did. She had then wound each fresh turd meticulously in its sheet, and twisted the ends neatly as if she were wrapping a home-made sweet. She next conveyed each precious trophy through into the parlour, and deposited it on the floor there, which was covered with a cheap and ragged carpet. She had been conducting this laborious if intendedly hygienic traffic flow for three weeks, and as Dave took a very brief look into the excremental parlour, he beheld roughly fifty such turdish sweetmeats, and he understood immediately, it was simple common sense, why she had had taken so long to contact the council.
“You’ve run out of parlour floor,” he commented drily. “No wonder you had to ring us. Every inch is taken up with your …parcels.”
“Exactly,” she said, as if he were an extraordinarily perceptive fount of wisdom.
The point of these two eccentric anecdotes, is that they are far from being presented as something random, but instead illustrate a matter we always encounter as a serious problem in trying to outline the accurate and credible sentimental history of any individual in existence, e.g. myself, Angie, Madeleine, Minnie O’Brien, Marty Snow. These two oddities, Forbes the sunflower seed physicist, and Ada Franks the doughty turd handler, seem to express their strangeness in such an uninhibited manner, because they are wondrously isolated from the world at large, meaning they do very peculiar things in terms of diet and sanitary arrangements, as they do not exercise the usual common sense consultation with others to double check whether their behaviour is wise or foolish. There are highly practical considerations also, which certainly hamper their chances of learning to socialise in a manner that might improve the quality of their lives, and even more so, to resume a tender sentimental education in the case of divorcee Mrs Franks. No one is going to accept a dinner invitation from a young man of such strong principles who lives only on a budgerigar’s diet, even if he is the cleverest natural philosophy boffin in Oxford at the time (as a matter of fact I never learnt whether Forbes had a girlfriend or boyfriend or even a goldfish in his college rooms, but I assume if anything he might have had a mynah bird to remember and parrot the arduous physics equations that possibly he could not). Would you also be keen to turn up for a lunch party hosted by Mrs Ada Franks, where the house is not only reeking like a sewage processing plant, but where if you are caught short yourself she will proffer you the centre spread of the West Cumberland Times and Star to niftily void your excreta into? I doubt it, dear reader.
And this is the important point. How do you determine whether the sentimental attitudes of the so called normal, uneccentric types like Marty and Madeleine and Minnie and myself and Angie, are any more stable and reassuring and less downright nuts, than the baroque weirdness of the herbivore physicist and the excrement-decanting Mrs Franks? After all, deluded Madeleine Swan was in intense romantic thrall to two effectively imaginary idealised men, and spent much of her time grieving bitterly over their blindness. Minnie O’Brien, an intelligent pharmacist in her mid-twenties, regularly shared a bed with her middle-aged sexually active Dad, and in all innocence thought that was perfectly fine, entirely pukka, and recall that this was taking place in 1976 not 1876. Dozy Marty solved the problem of his young stepdaughter getting involved with worrying drug dealers by going completely incognito and concealing his London address and telephone number from everyone but his Cumbrian Dad. He gave up on all friends including all best friends at the behest of his Polish wife Basha, who was frantic with anxiety about her daughter’s future safety. Others, in fact a great many, believed that Angie and I were dangerously crazy for getting married after a mere ten weeks of knowing each other, and that the alliance would be over in less than a year. As a matter of fact, the opposite was true, and we effortlessly stayed together for thirty years, and it only came to a tragic halt when Angie died, aged 54. But how, the cynic or maybe just the plain curious might ask, did we know that? How did we know that the marriage would last for ever, after only a few weeks of knowing each other? How did we know that we weren’t as thoroughgoing nuts as the sunflower seed man or the zealous turd courier, who might well have been divorced for very good reasons not unconnected to unscientific notions of personal hygiene?
The truth is even people palpably sane and sound, sound as a pound, to borrow an anachronistic but pleasing rhyme, who customarily have a steady and mature trajectory through life, are also subject to transient whims and mercurial and occasionally dangerous instincts, and especially when it comes to matters of the heart. People fall in love with or alternatively can be thoroughly heartbroken over a smile; sometimes men are tickled beyond all reason by the end of a teasing woman’s nose as it sweetly twitches a sense of comedy or bemusement; or a bedazzled woman can bristle with joy just at the sound of a man’s insinuating voice over the phone, even more than seeing him in the flesh perhaps. All this can lead to hectic if transitory bliss, or dismal and prolonged catastrophe, but rarely ends in lasting felicity. When I was thirty I thought most of this rigmarole of amatory charades ended at forty, which I believed then in 1980 to be middle aged. If it didn’t, it certainly would at fifty, which was my conception of incipient old age, and would be a rank impossibility at sixty, which was my considered baseline of advanced senility, when I of course was smugly only half that. And then as the decades pass, the truth becomes obvious and also heartening, if seen from the right wishfully thinking angle.
At whatever age you are, you are never too old, there is always someone out there who will be delighted to know you, and even to own you. Not just that. You are never too fat, never too thin, never too ugly, never too gauche, never too stupid, never too penniless. Those who think you need to be young, rich, clever, handsome, shapely, personable, confident, neither obese nor emaciated, to command infatuation, and who knows, even passionate love…are living in cloud cuckoo land. There are men as unflinchingly ugly as sin have women worshipping at their sometimes malodorous feet, not to speak of women without a whit of lively conversation or elementary wit or a trace of basic manners, who can have men completely crazy for their supine souls as well as their indifferent bodies.
And consider, if you were for example God above, would you have it otherwise? Do you really want the world to dance to your grudging altogether far too reasonable tune of fair is fair and no more, rather than his majestic choice, which being divine, is beyond our comprehension. Be careful of what you wish for/pray for, is evidently one of the wisest admonitions known to mankind…
To return therefore with illustrative purpose to the first important romance of my life. Madeleine Swan and I had had little contact, after parting so painfully in late 1970, then bumping into each other once or twice during the next couple of years in Oxford. Years later, out of the blue, she rang me in the house where I was living with Minnie O’Brien. The landlord and landlady had moved out, and had had their phone stopped, but in those days there was a quaint arrangement whereby you could still receive incoming calls for months, while not being able to ring out. Most of our friends had no idea we were contactable at all, so we almost forgot we had a telephone, yet somehow Madeleine learnt of the number, and rang on a freezing Saturday night at the end of 1976.
“It’s me,” she breathed tenderly. “It’s Madeleine. It’s someone from your checkered past, Sonny.”
I was surprised, even startled, but pleasantly so. The tenderness in her voice was soothing and flattering, as indeed tenderness is from whatever source, for it is something which warms the callow ego and the flickering soul like nothing else.
“Ah,” I said. “It’s you, Madeleine.”
“Do you mind?” she sighed humorously. “Did I give you a shock? After years of being out of touch?”
“No,” I said. “It’s very nice to hear from you. How are you? What have you been up to all this time? How many times have you been married? How many kids?”
She snorted. “No kids. Married once, but never again. We are separated and waiting for a divorce. Very eagerly in my case.”
It turned out that she had wedded a foreigner, a Portuguese of all things, in 1973, but though they had parted after two years, she had kept his musical surname of Bandeira. She had never liked her maiden name, she said, which she thought sounded melancholy and flat, whereas Madeleine Bandeira had much more style to it. She reminded me that I had met Afonso in Oxford once or twice when the pair of them shared the same house, a social worker who didn’t look Portuguese, but surprisingly English, all curly hair, dreamy eyes, and apparent gentleness.
“Apparent? Yes, I do remember him. Very clearly in fact. Yes, he did seem very gentle.”
She explained that Afonso was given to moods, which somehow were a confusing function of that gentleness….as if it was a mask for something less pleasant. Scratch the surface and he could be plain sulky and childish if he didn’t get his way. Scratch deeper than that and he could get into rages and had even been violent on occasion. He had slammed her fingers in a door once, very painfully, and they were bruised and livid for weeks.
“God Almighty,“ I blurted. “In Oxford?”
She sighed dramatically, in fact half theatrically. “In Portugal. In his family home that I would have called a five-star palace. Three years ago.”
“When it was still Fascist?”
For one more year as it happened. His parents had been wealthy Alentejo landowners with a cork estate near Aljustrel, minor Portuguese aristocrats, as well as uncritical fans of the late Salazar, and snobs par excellence. His handsome regal mother had openly sneered at Madeleine the English wife, who she thought far from personable and much too poor for her boy, and in any case she didn’t think a wife should have a job. She also didn’t like the fact her daughter in law’s father was a Protestant clergyman, as she and all her family aside from Afonso were devout, indeed fanatical Catholics. What’s more she deplored Afonso’s choice of English profession, as social work smelt of socialism and ministering to the idle and improvident. She barely spoke to Madeleine for the month they were there, which exacerbated her son’s puerile and unassertive moodiness. He knew his mother was being appallingly inhospitable towards his young and foreign wife, but he was quite hopeless at standing up to her.
As her voice got more excited, I wondered if Minnie was taking any of this in, and I excused myself to explain it was an old girlfriend from years ago. I pulled a woeful face of exaggerated boredom, to avoid any possible jealousy, but needn’t have worried as Minnie proved sanguine enough. When I turned back to the phone, I asked Madeleine how exactly the marriage had finished. Was it the fingers jammed agonisingly in the door had been the final straw?
Maddy groaned, yet again histrionically. And it struck me with sudden clarity, that whenever she enumerated her many problems, either as now or when the two of us were a couple, she inevitably showed a martyrish relish in her sufferings. It was as if her extreme bad luck and inordinately hard times, and the unkind and stony men in her life, including the two who didn’t even know of her existence… that they gave her something perversely to excel at. Madeleine Bandeira nee Swan, might not shine at many things, but at least she shone in her sombre aura of perpetual misfortune…
“Why the groan?”
“You’re kidding. Where to start? The hand mangled in the door was one thing, but Afonso Bandeira imprisoned me on one occasion…”
She couldn’t see me, but with my back turned towards Minnie, I had cynically raised my eyebrows. I was quietly saying to myself, only you unhappy Madeleine could marry a Portuguese social worker who happens to have inherited numerous not unFascist instincts.
“How did he do that?”
She braced herself for a dramatic narrative. “We had had a row because I wanted to meet my girlfriend Margie in that nice little pub on Broad Street. It was the first time ever I’d proposed doing anything without him. He could have come as well if he’d wanted, but no he didn’t want to. But he hated the idea of me going out without him, and the fact that I wouldn’t give way. When I said I was going, and set about getting changed, Afonso was furious. He screamed and grabbed me, then shoved me into the only room in the house that had a keyhole with a working key! He’d found and tested the key months back, and never even told me about it. I wonder if he had something planned like this, as a contingency should I ever turn rebellious? It was a little box room where we kept odds and ends, and a single bed for guests, and he locked me in there and then vanished off the face of the earth…”
Not quite. This had been early evening and he had stayed out all night with a work colleague, lying to his friend that Madeleine was away. Appallingly she had had no access to food, drink or the toilet, but luckily for her she had a strong bladder and had had an early supper. Bandeira came back about eight in the morning, without any apology or remorse, but fortunately it was a Sunday so neither of them had work.
Thoroughly disgusted, I snapped, “And you don’t seem all that bloody angry! I’d have rung the police if I’d been you. In fact, I’d have done that after he’d slammed my fingers in a door. After all, he’s a fucking Oxford social worker, and they have caseloads full of things like domestic violence and marital imprisonment. He should be a client himself, not a social worker, if he’s so completely out of control.”
Madeleine sidestepped a cumbersome technicality like that, just as expected, and said that there were other things that hastened the end. Nothing to do with aggression, but with personal, in fact bedroom matters.
“Ah,“ I said, and expected to hear no further.
But Madeleine was unabashed at what she had to say.
“The marriage was never consummated. Not once in the whole two years…”
Again I raised my eyebrows, pulled a face, and said to myself, only you Madeleine Swan, the vicar’s daughter, timid and compliant offspring of that tyrannical old West Cumbrian bore, could marry a violent social worker, who imprisons you and is evidently either pathologically undersexed or gay. When I suggested exactly that, she sighed that in fairness to Afonso it was far simpler. The embarrassing truth was she had had an exceptionally tough hymen, and he had been unable to break it in the first or the second or even the third attempt. Thereafter he had given up all humiliating efforts, and it was down to Madeleine to go and get some minor surgery. By that stage he had lost all interest, and so for that matter had she.
I all but whistled at such virtuoso sufferings. All this misery, mess and hopelessness, I reflected, with a quite childlike wonder. Meanwhile, Madeleine Bandeira, with her new and flamboyant surname, wasn’t even twenty-five years old…