(Chapter 3 will appear tomorrow. Chapter 1 was yesterday’s post)
The Affair With Maggie Binding, Two Years Before Uncle Wilfred’s Warning
In late 2013 I left England for a remote Greek island called Kalamos, but some six weeks before my departure became involved with a beautiful woman called Maggie Binding, divorced and with a partner called Alfie who knew nothing whatever of our covert and very passionate liaison. My wife Joanie had died of secondary cancer in 2009, but had she been able to speak to me from the beyond (rather on the lines of Wilfred Lawless and his small hours Cycladean Pillow Talk) she would have pondered seriously, then cautioned me about a potentially hazardous adventure. My daughter Sarah who was born in 1989, had attended the same junior school as Maggie’s two children in Cleator Moor, a singular and very unusual small town of predominantly Irish extraction, the original nineteenth century immigrants from Mayo coming over to toil in the booming haematite mines. This meant that either Joanie or I would pick Sarah up from school and would end up chatting and joking with other amiably dawdling parents. Maggie, back around 1998, though friendly to all and no snob, had regularly homed in on both of us as reassuringly familiar middle class professionals, so that my wife and I swapped notes one day and agreed that she was dull as hell and tended to prattle in a way that seemed adaptive rather than innate, meaning someone in her life, most likely her Dad, who I later discovered was a school headmaster (and they are for sure the worst) had decided back in the early 1960s that he wanted a polite, malleable, ductile and sweetly chatty little girl, and so his docile daughter had duly and instinctively obliged and never known when and how to stop, God love her.
Joanie who was a long-established psychotherapist, and who had rented an eighteenth century stone cottage in lovely Ennerdale near Cleator Moor for her thriving practice, one day said: “Maggie Binding is surely one of the worst casebook examples of an alterated ego. She tries so hard to be saccharine nice, it is bloody exhausting as you shuffle from foot to foot and wait for her to halt. I struggle like hell, even as a therapist, to spot a glimpse of where her authentic personality might lie. She told me one day that when she married Joseph and they’d had their kids he wouldn’t let her take any part-time work at Maryport Tech even though they could have afforded nurseries and childminders ten times over. She had to be a full-time mother even though she’s a very able physics lecturer and was obviously bored shitless at home much of the time. No wife of his, Joseph sternly informed her, was to go out and work, if it meant the children were to be neglected. The pompous little shite. He is ten years younger than us, and so he was three when the Beatles and the Stones took off, yet he behaves like some third-rate caricature of a Victorian patriarch. But far more galling than that, to another professional woman like me, that is, is the fact Maggie Binding shows no anger nor rage at his ludicrous tyranny. On one level she really believes she always has to do what she is told by this fatuous little authoritarian who happens to be her revered husband.”
Joseph Binding, who was short, dapper and inordinately fond of blazers, and who tended to appear either genially quizzical or coyly bumptious, was confident of his diamond-sharp wisdom because by the age of forty he was Principal no less, of another Tech college over in Penrith, and with a massive stipend to boot. I grunted and suggested to Joanie that maybe poor boring Maggie needed a counsellor or a sympathetic therapist like herself to help her with some basic assertiveness against a fossilised male.
My wife snorted, “Like fuck she does. A therapist can’t just import or inject something like simple courage from nowhere. The remedy is much simpler. She just needs to give herself a bloody good kick up the behind. Then boot Milord Joseph Binding in the bollocks and tell him to stay at home himself, if he thinks the children are so dependent on an absolute and exquisite parental sacrifice.”
Shortly after that conversation Maggie Binding disappeared entirely from view, and bizarrely, though possibly because of her remorseless prattle, neither of us thought to ask anyone where she had gone. Joanie was to courageously survive both primary and secondary breast cancer for another ten years, and during that period we saw nothing whatever of Joseph nor Maggie who had lived in a truly baronial mansion at Rheda, on the back road between Bowthorn and Frizington. If I thought about Maggie at all I imagined she had moved away a pleasingly long way, possibly London or Kent or some somnolent Home Counties town like Caterham or Tring, and that Joseph was a tenured principal still full of numbered instructions for his docile wife, and she by now was a senior physics lecturer in another Tech, very likely being bullied by her far younger male colleagues. Then one day four years after Joanie’s death when I hadn’t seen Maggie for almost fifteen years, I bumped into her in Maryport of all places and was amazed when I saw her, as if she like Wilfred two years later, were a colourful revenant or a hocus-pocus magician who had turned up out of the blue in a way altogether eerie and uncanny.
I was in Maryport because there was a week-long Literature Festival, and a high profile one at that, the little town being such a scenic place with its well-established Blues Festival, its handsome renovated marina, its cobbled descent to the docks, and its touching geographic obscurity. There was a picturesque and beamingly effulgent Don Juan of a former American president giving a sold out talk; ditto an aggressively conservative Tory Education Secretary, the one who looks, talks and thinks exactly like Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (as opposed to Signor Carlo Collodi’s); an aged cricket star with very bloated veins suggestive of a drink problem who had just published his amiably scattergun memoirs; a leading TV chat show host called Charlie Cox, the one who is sing song Welsh and cross-dresses and is impish as a cheeky small boy, and had strong testimonials in both The Sun and The Guardian (and the Workington Times and Star) to his ineffable comic genius…seemingly everything under the sun in fact, apart from these pedestrian and dreary buggers called writers, until I reread the programme and saw there were a full four out of twenty events that were authentically literary. Of those, one was a local with a fitfully national profile as a roving journalist and author, and he was called Joe Lawless aka Joe Soap and he turned out to be me.
I stared at her for two incredulous seconds. “Bloody hell! Where on earth did you spring from?” And because I am inordinately obsessed by mental arithmetic and chronology. “I haven’t seen you for over fifteen years.”
She smiled at me with great warmth, and looked outstandingly, overwhelmingly, miraculously handsome. Maggie was tall and had long fair hair, a pale and serene complexion, plus myriad little freckles that were subtly enchanting as they made you think of the visceral joys of adolescence or even childhood. It might seem improbable but I also saw in two seconds flat that her temperament and her personality were radically altered. For the first time ever, I noticed that she had something called poise or even equipoise, and I saw that such a miracle was evidently a function of having been through some kind of ordeal, for she had in those fifteen long years quite possibly suffered like we all can do, but had obviously sobered and recovered and had seemingly successfully renewed herself. I was also prepared to lay an odds-on bet that she had stopped her customary streaming prattle.
She said with a tiny furrowing of her beautiful nose: “No miracle. I sprang from bloody old Workington where I have been for the last twelve years.”
I was stupefied. “God love you. That’s like living in Albania under Enver Hoxha circa 1967, only worse. Workington makes horror towns like Scunthorpe and Doncaster look like Florence or Athens or Avignon. How the hell can you stick it?”
She shrugged and laughed and gave a feasible explanation. It transpired she lived in one of the very few posh and tasteful areas of Victorian villas with handsome gardens full of fruit trees and weathered oak benches. It was opposite the town museum and near to the Green Dragon pub where my old schoolteachers used to booze and play cards of a weekend…and talking of teachers it was near my old co-educational Grammar School invariably referred to by its graduates as The Brothel on the Hill.
I said to Maggie, “I don’t get it. Why would you leave that lovely secluded mansion of yours at Rheda on the way to Frizington? You just vanished from sight at one point, and I thought after a while you must be in London or have created a scandal and gone to North Cyprus perhaps?”
She smiled at the jest with a fair bit of struggle, then flounced her sumptuous hair.
“You don’t know that Joseph left me back in 1998?”
I was truly astonished. They had been childhood sweethearts down in some bland commuter village near Preston, had married when both of them were nineteen years old, and despite his complacence and anachronistic chauvinism, they had seemed happily wedded for eternity. Not to speak of the fact there were two young schoolkids, a boy and a girl in their mid-teens, those fifteen years ago.
“God, I’m so sorry…”
She touched my arm and as if under a lasting spell of tranquil hypnosis, she left it there. As a few fateful seconds passed, I looked her very intently in the eye, and hoped very much she could read my inordinately transparent mind.
“Don’t worry. It’s all prehistory now. He left me for a glamorous young woman called Laura aged twenty-five when he was forty. We are divorced and they are married and now he has her kids and barely sees his own. His contact with Sue and Joseph Junior is minimal.”
As a father, I immediately flinched at the outrage. “What a bastard. I mean sorry, I mean fuck it, Maggie, renouncing your own kids, your own flesh and blood, has to be the…”
Maggie laughed at me storming on, and her small, fine hand kept hold of mine.
“Too fucking right. He is an awful and impossible bastard. He fought for every last penny when it came to the settlement but I made him sell the Rheda mansion and I bought my nice big place in Lorne Villas. He’s out in the sticks by Lamplugh with his gorgeous Laura. She’s a local girl, a hairdresser as well as a flagrant manipulator if ever there was.”
I sniffed my infinite distaste. “Lamplugh Laura? You can’t beat alliteration when it comes to these wheeler dealers, especially the brazen West Cumbrian brand. She sounds a real charmer and a caution. And as for him, he must be steaming crazy to give up a woman like you.”
Maggie attempted a grateful and seemingly imploring smile. She appeared patently hopeful about something, for of course that had been an instinctive, unsubtle avowal of my profound personal interest. We talked for a sad while about the cruelty of Joanie’s death at only fifty-four, which was the same age that Maggie Binding was now. She had heard about it through the grapevine, and had been inordinately shocked, as she hadn’t even known about Joanie’s original breast cancer back in 1998, diagnosed round about the time that Joseph had left her. I shuffled and decided to change the subject, then gave her the momentous news that I was migrating, possibly for good, to the Greek island of Kalamos in six weeks’ time. I had a fair bit of savings, I told her, and I had bits and pieces of lucrative freelance journalism that could be written as well in Kalamos as in Cleator Moor. In any case, had Joanie lived, we had planned to retire to a quiet Greek island, very possibly to run residential courses in our separate fields. In effect, I was doing this exodus and odyssey for both of us, jumping the starting line so to speak, in memory of her and our thirty years together.
She looked at me with admiration, her eyes visibly glistening, and eventually said she envied my determination, and was very moved by that brave commemoration. She hesitated, then frowned and told me that she was currently in a relationship, but it was makeshift and up and down and he was a good bit younger, her little toy boy, a plumber called Alfie Gray, and it was, oh it was far from satisfactory. Then, in the same breath and extraordinarily rapidly, she invited me the next time I was in Workington to meet up for coffee, when we could catch up properly on the last fifteen years. I stared at her with a thumping heart, and with an expert esoteric movement of my mobile nose end, let her know I was definitely keener than hell. And as she stared back and digested that ingenious nostril code, I said quite truthfully I had two old relatives in the town who I regularly visited. There was something about the unembarrassed and innocent excitement of her invitation that was like raw electricity, and even more so when she quickly wrote down her email and mobile number. Yet it was to be half way through our remarkable if brief liaison, a full three weeks, before she told me that while we were conferring by the Litfest bar, Alfie Gray had been only a few yards away chatting to a pal from his day release years at the Tech. The same Tech college that is where Joseph Binding, his partner’s ex-husband, had been the Principal for many years. I knew a great many people all over West Cumbria but had never heard of a plumber called Alfie Gray, and thus had no inkling of what he looked like, and bizarrer still, and given the sheer intensity of what Maggie and I were to experience, even to this day I still have no idea. Neither, until our relationship ended, did I reflect on the queasy fact that she had instantly accepted my invitation to an Indian meal at the Maryport tandoori, the Shah Jahan, when Maryport was the town where Alfie Gray lived, or at any rate the proximate suburb of Dearham, just five minutes up the road. Maggie didn’t deign to tell me where her cuckolded partner lived until a good two weeks after the curry, and even then, the significance did not register. She had it transpired recklessly indulged a tete a tete meal with me, of which toy boy Alfie knew nothing, and yet he could easily have walked through the door for one of his regular carry outs, or failing that one of his Maryport workmates, who might later reasonably mutter to him, hey Alfie boy, what’s your woman doing in the Shah holding hands with a bearded scruffy guy who doesn’t look anything at all like you?
The implication was clear enough, and no it wasn’t that she was playing with fire for some obscure gratuitous excitement. No, much simpler than that, it was because part of her wanted to be caught in a species of flagrante delicto, the delicto being the aromatic vegetable jalfrezi plus exquisite bindi and brinjal side dishes, and the stuffed parathas and the spiced onion raita we shared exactly one week after the festival. When she had twitched her own mesmerising little nose, and proposed we meet for an innocent coffee, at once I’d said to myself, I know that I want a damn sight more than coffee, and I think it extremely probable you’re after more than even the best Colombian, and so that same night I emailed her and suggested the Shah Jahan, and I would pick her up en route from Lorne Villas and drop her off on the way back.
And so indeed it went…
Over the jalfrezi and in an almost empty restaurant, Maggie told me something that took my breath away. She disclosed that Alfie Gray wasn’t just some random post-1998 date encountered as a friend of a friend, or at a Workington Tech night class in Holiday Spanish or similar. Instead one summer evening about a year after Joseph had left her, he had turned up at her Lorne Villas house and introduced himself as someone let us say piquantly congruent and painfully symmetrical in her marital devastation.
“I’m the other wounded party,” he’d informed her as he stood on the step and gave her a playful and expectant grin. He was tall, spare, faintly pugnacious, yet decidedly hesitant, quite good looking and appeared to be about ten years younger than her.
She started, as if the victim of a practical joke. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”
“I am or I mean I was Laura’s husband. I’m Alfie Gray. Your husband Joseph Binding went off with my wife Laura Gray a year ago. It occurred to me one year later that you and I might have plenty to talk about.”
That had been fourteen yours ago and the two of them after the bottle of fifteen per cent wine he had thought to bring with him, had been a shifting and periodically unstable unit ever since. Alfie had been an unexpected godsend when she had felt at her deserted lowest, and as she put it had been a very handy shoulder to cry on. Their lives had been brutally sundered by the same two selfish characters, and so they effortlessly came together and united in their common wounds. However very soon and in hindsight predictably, Alfie had said he would like to move in with her from his much smaller house in Dearham, but Maggie had had enough sense of self-protection to fend off his persistence.
I asked her, “What’s he like? What kind of a man is Alfie?”
She told me he was a steady hard-grafting working-class bloke who worked for a big plumbing firm and that he was simple and uncomplicated and very affectionate, and after a manner infinitely reassuring. What you saw in Alfie was emphatically what you got. On the other hand, he had his glaring limitations and as someone who had made good compared with his two failures of brothers, he was stridently conservative and typically shouted his indignation at the TV when he was enraged at the sight of benefit claimants, single mothers, immigrants, refugees and so forth.
I sighed, “Bloody hell. Sooner you than me. Working class West Cumbrian Tories are the worst in creation.”
She looked wistful and said she had left him once for a whole year and had effectively gone off the rails and slept with six men in as many months, while Alfie had stayed chaste and patient until she returned. In the past decade she had also managed to arrange a six-month paid sabbatical from the college and had done voluntary physics teaching in a Tanzanian school, and had helped raise money to build a new laboratory. That also had been a deliberate manoeuvre to get away from Alfie, and it had worked to such an extent she had applied for and just been refused, a second unpaid sabbatical. When I asked her did Alfie get on with her kids, she said that Joseph (named after his Dad of course, who had insisted on that act of fealty) and Sandy were friendly with him on a day to day exchange of jokes and teasing, but behind his back said their brainy mother was aiming way too low and that shouting at the TV like a buffoon really was the bloody pits. I also asked a lot of questions about her Tanzanian voluntary work, and she looked surprised at such a sincere interest and said no one else had ever grilled her with such curiosity.
I shook my head. “Why on earth is that? I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t they want to know every last detail and every anecdote, and especially in bloody West Cumbria where nothing ever happens that didn’t happen last week and the week before?”
She stared wonderingly at her half-eaten paratha. “I think it’s the abiding legacy I have. The long blond hair and the fact Joseph was always the boss both in public and in private. He was always making jests about my mumsy fair-haired feckless side, as he put it. The dumb blonde tag, the shorthand for me sweet old Maggie Binding, has stuck, and even my kids can treat me sometimes as if I am another kid, or even their kid.”
I frowned and tenderly took her hand, at the thought of that dreary if seemingly inevitable conspiracy.
“You teach physics to degree level, and dumb blondes and also dumb brunettes and dumb bald chauvinist men, don’t do that. Nor do they live on site in a Tanzanian village where if you’re lucky the toilet is an unhygienic hole in the ground.”
To staunch my curiosity, she told me she would send me the press cuttings she had snipped from the Times and Star. It comprised two lots of two full page features, with mugshots of her and the students, as the material had been so exotically newsworthy and such a change from Sellafield, hound trails and the Cumbrian darts and domino leagues. They were buried somewhere at home but she would fish them out. And that in turn proved to be an unsettling index of her bizarrely eroded self-esteem, as she ended up posting to my house, not, as I expected, some photocopies, but the original cuttings and thus her only copies. In her note she said to me without a single exclamation mark, throw them away when you’ve read them, and she wasn’t at all being bluffly theatrical, she really meant it. Later when I emphasised to her that she was a very interesting woman doing very interesting and important work, and those press cuttings should be preserved, not discarded, she looked at me in bafflement and said she had never known anyone talk to her like that before.
I dropped her off at Lorne Villas, but we had already arranged another outing, and this time somewhere reassuringly remote, not just from Alfie Gray, but from everyone else’s curious eyes. We both loved the sea and inspired and out of nowhere I suggested we drive down south to Drigg, depressingly proximate to British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, but one of the loveliest estuaries in the world. There was a bird sanctuary there and a massive spread of glorious white sand. Some of it was signposted as hazardous and had discarded shells, possibly unexploded bombs, and other military objects, for part of it was also a defunct armaments depository, just like the aptly nicknamed Dumps at Broughton Moor near Maryport.
As she finished her wine in the Shah Jahan, I said, “You know where you are in this county, don’t you? You travel down to an exquisite natural paradise, but you have a nuclear power station to the right, and discarded possibly unexploded bombs to the left. You know I once met a very nice old lady born 1895, who remembered this coastline when there was no such thing as Sellafield, no Calder Hall, no armaments dump, and it was a pure and blemishless idyll. Seascale, the controversial little village right next to BNFL was once visited by Victorian Londoners for its salubrious sea air. In fact the moving romantic denouement of George Gissing’s The Odd Women, is set in bloody Seascale would you believe? When I read that thirty odd years ago, I nearly shot out of my chair…”
Maggie squeezed my hand to hear moving romantic denouement, while I stayed blithely oblivious to the fact that Alfie lived only a short walk away, and regularly drove here for a carry out, subsequently confirmed as always being chicken pathia, which he pronounced path-ear. When he’d had a skinful, she added with a grimace, he had been known to have not only pilau rice and peshwari nan but a heaving portion of greasy chips as well.
We took a picnic to Drigg on a fine sunny day, when the beach was all but deserted. A man and his dog were visible as tiny specks, and as we walked tenderly holding hands, above us was the euphoric chorus of drilling skylarks, my favourite birdsong. I told Maggie I had often listened to skylarks and tried to follow the song pattern, and never once, and despite their phenomenal vocal speed did they repeat anything, every riff was a one-off, meaning they outdid even the finest jazz soloists whose improvisations were never infinite. But it was a fair drive from the west, and after half an hour we were both hungry and in Maggie’s case ravenous. As she said that mundane word, for the first time in my sixty-two years and in the context of the jamming skylarks, I wondered if it had anything to do with the bird of dark reputation, the raven. Maggie had made a copious picnic and also brought a handsome blue shawl for us to sit on. It was her inspiration, not mine, to squat not on the sand, but on the turf above and in the high grass specifically. She swiftly led the way until we found a flat and bare patch surrounded by a great quantity of camouflaging ferns. She had put brie and cranberry inside handsome brown rolls, and there were grapes and orange juice and an enormous bag of handmade gourmet crisps. Once we’d wolfed it all down, and decided we wished we’d come by taxi, and could have drunk some wine, she lay flat on her back and smiled up at me with the sweet invitingness of some innocent country girl in a pastoral tale by Hardy or Coppard.
She was wearing a loose turquoise sweater that suited both her colouring and her hair, and below it a pair of faded denims, and that fadedness matched the rarefied aura of her gentle complexion. We hugged and kissed and I playfully stroked her belly button, and she laughed as if being cruelly tickled. Then she took my hand up to her bra and encouraged me to forage there and to hold and gently pinch her nipples. At which she groaned a groan of purest sweetness, the best of possible groans…
But before long I felt some encroaching threat, and murmured in a peevish tone: “If we were twenty we’d be naked by now, and we’d be busy at it, the whole shebang. But I have freakishly sharp ears, and I can hear a sniffing dog as well as accompanying footsteps.”
Maggie shot up with a virtuoso velocity, pulled down her crumpled sweater, patted her seraphic hair, and offered an angelic smile to the man in the parka and wellies, whilst cooing like a dove to his astonished terrier.
That night she stayed over, and she had to text Alfie that she was catching up with an old college friend who had moved to Dumfries. In fact she had no friends in Dumfries nor anywhere nearby, but Alfie wasn’t to know that, and in any case was always easily duped. I brought out some heavily scented massage oil ripe with the odour of aromatic oranges, and the olfactory hint of Levantine or Hindu desire. I rubbed it over her neck and shoulders and massaged patiently until the knots and hardness softened, and she began to keen and murmur. Then I put oil on her back and stroked in broad lateral sweeps and continued on to the curve of her breast at either side. Maggie Binding had a long and very lovely back, like that of a perfectly formed Arab mare, a she-horse of legend, for it went on and on and never stopped, it journeyed on to infinity and beyond, and beyond the beyond there was a place of serenity, the subtlest of all joys and the most chaste contentment. I stopped at the base of her spine and then dropped down to the top of her thighs, leapfrogging her behind. Her thighs were delicately tapered and very white, and I massaged them with the rich orange liquor, and the odour took us both to a harem in somewhere like Ottoman Greece or to a palace full of weeping peacocks in ancient Bengal.
“This is so good. It is so bloody good. I’ve never known such patient attention in all my life. It’s as if you treat it like a job. It just goes on and on and on. What I mean is that you…that you just go on and on and on and on.”
I said to her, “Like your beautiful back. It’s a wonderfully long back that goes up as far as the moon and then round the universe at least twice. It’s incredible. Meanwhile, I’ve finished with your thighs, and have left your bottom to the last.”
She snorted. “My sad backside. I don’t blame you for delaying it.”
I put my head on the pillow opposite and looked her in the eyes with protective tenderness.
“You are joking. It’s like a glistening jewel that calms the eye with its gentle radiance. In fact, it cries out to be revered. Like that. Just like that. Is that good? You have a truly exceptional woman’s bottom, exactly as described by Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
She stared at me, then helplessly shivered. “What would that be? You are nibbling like one of those fish they use for cosmetic purposes. You are happily eating away at the cellulite. So just keep on eating…”
“Cellulite, my arse. You’ve got no cellulite, I promise you. Mellors the gamekeeper said to Connie the wife of Sir Clifford, ‘Tha’s a bottom on thee that’d melt a man in his guts.’ It was the genuine worship and complete surrender of his yearning viscera to her.”
“Really? I got bugger all visceral worship from darling Joseph. In fact he was always making mean jokes about my backside, the bastard. He even joked in front of the kids when they were small as if it was a harmless bit of fun. He poked at it as if I was a cow, and said your old Mummy here has a behind like a wobbling blancmange… and being only six and seven they both roared hysterically. I laughed too like a willing fool, but I was very hurt …”
I grunted. “That bugger is pure Neanderthal, and he’s a disaster. You should have kneed him in the balls and tipped his breakfast bacon over his head.”
As Maggie came to her climax, she sniffed like a mournful little cat and then wept. In fact she always wept at orgasm, as if it were a kind of grief to discover what it was like to be treasured as well as loved.
We began to meet twice a week, so that Alfie Gray was advised of more and more college friends from long ago who had migrated to Newcastle, Durham, Lancaster or anywhere else safely distant, and, because there were to be restaurants and lots of celebratory wine, requiring that she stay overnight. To make it more convincing, she said she was going to Newcastle to see the ballet with Angela or to Manchester with Sadie to the opera, at which Alfie pulled a comical face of philistine West Cumbrian repugnance. Maggie insisted that he suspected nothing to which I made no comment, but felt that even Alfie who shouted at the benefit cheats on the telly could probably feel something being not quite right. Perhaps he silently fantasised she was moving towards another six-month promiscuous exodus or a second year-long sabbatical to Tanzania. At any rate with only two weeks to go before I moved to Kalamos, I now made the bold suggestion we go somewhere really distant and have a long weekend in my fabled alma mater, Oxford. Maggie knew Cambridge well but had never seen its twin, and was very excited, insisting that she do the driving because she loved cruising her fine big saloon down the M6 and M1, and because I, Joe, didn’t like the busy motorway and so would try to take us there by B roads and even C roads, and even across open fields, and would take at least a month. Such acquiescence and her excitement were spontaneous and delightful, but on those nights I was alone I could sometimes hear Joanie the therapist whispering shrewd advice into my ear, an imaginary monologue that is, as opposed to that of immaterial Wilfred the supernatural harbinger.
“Have you considered,” she confided one warm night, as I lay in bed, “that Maggie Binding is one end, one quarter of a very weak and four-pronged and self-sustaining soap opera? She unites with Alfie the other rejected marital victim, so they are two people naively thinking that two hurt souls make one strong one, and that licking their wounds together will make for unity. The truth is every time they look at each other, whether in bed or at the dinner table, or at the supermarket cheese counter, they are subconsciously reminded of their ugly rejection and the tragic end of their lengthy marriages. Thus Maggie Binding whenever she sees Alfie Gray unknowingly reverts to the nightmare of Joseph Binding going off with Laura Gray, and the hurt and the anger and the vertigo and the madness are instantly replayed albeit at reduced intensity. Wasn’t it last night she told you that when Joseph left her, he gave her a literal gagging order, insisting that he wanted nil discussion whatever about his departure, neither in person nor on the phone? He abruptly abandoned Maggie and left her in a frantic torment, but she was strictly forbidden to contact him by text or email or even by a postcard. Ditto for what you see is what you get Alfie Gray, whenever that is his eyes settle on Maggie, a woman on whom he is hooked, though she is obviously not hooked on him…all he can see is his desertion as caused by her bastard of a husband, and it is played over and over again. They thus spend their lives perpetually obsessing about what they suffered and what cannot be remedied nor reversed, because the new partner they have chosen is one quarter of that four-pronged and never-ending melodrama. They cannot give up on it as it is an itch they must scratch, and the more they scratch it the more they obsess. And you, reckless Joe Soap, are walking into all that with your eyes wide open? Don’t you agree that although she is still very beautiful and very sweet natured, she is also at bottom still rather stupid and addicted to low grade cliche? What was that dismal Rotary Club argot she came out with the other night, when she mentioned meeting up with her best friend from her home village? They sat there in the Workington pub and they argued until they put the world to rights? And, fair enough, though she doesn’t perpetually babble any more like she used to, she still has the capacity to fizzle and bubble and effervesce when it comes to supposedly intimate relationships? What is it she says about Alfie? He is a shoulder to cry on and what she finds so reassuring is that he is always there for her? But surely, you might tell her, Joe, the same is true of a faithful dog or even a cat. Meanwhile she has left him once for a whole year and has even fucked off to Africa to get away from Alfie, and would like to fuck off again from the rabid little telly shouter if the college would only let her.”
I tried to focus on Joanie’s measured analysis and her always sage advice, but my eyes just grew heavier and heavier. All I saw was the supernal sweetness of Maggie’s face, the tiny freckles, the hair that was fairer than a dream or a wisp of gold. And then we had our rapturous and hallucinatory weekend in Oxford, where we walked on pure air and the levitation was of a piece with the intense summer sunshine, and the benign and sometimes overwhelming approval that followed us wherever we went. The overweight and asthmatic receptionist in the Abingdon Road hotel gazed at us with stunned admiration and gave us her silent blessing. I didn’t need to be a mind reader to see she thought we were made for each other from the birth of time, and had either been married thirty years or were both widowed and about to re-wed. Everywhere we went we received the reverential benediction of strangers, including from those a third our age. In a dusty pub in downtown Jericho with only half a dozen teenagers lurking in the corner, we were feted as minor royalty. The kids had a beautiful little mongrel pup called Jessie, and Maggie lifted it up and kissed it and commenced a whole one act drama with the animal where she played both parts, and its owners were filled with an astounded pride. They could see that we revered them for having a perfect little pup, and they had forgotten all about or possibly never known the business of reverence. We talked to them for a full half hour about dogs and dogs’ names and their jobs and their favourite bands, and their recommendations for pubs, breakfast cafes and Indian and Chinese restaurants, even though I’d already noticed that my favourites in Walton Street still stood shamelessly and even lustfully where they had had been back in 1973, exactly forty years ago.
Walton Street is a self-effacing village paradise, that has amongst its choicer assets a bookshop stuffed with translations of world literature in fine US imprints, as well as offering the best Colombian coffee, plus a long haired and handsome proprietor who knows more about cosmopolitan literature than some tenured professor. Even he, dry and circumspect as he was, smiled approvingly at the sight of the striking couple. Walton Street also has a tandoori where the fish jalfrezi is of such an order, that we paused to rhapsodise to the waiter who hurried to inform the chef that both of us had nominated it as the best meal of our lives. The Sylhet cook came out to shake our hands and I used my few sentences of Bengali (apani keman achen? tumi kothay thaken?) to extend our euphoria. This was lunchtime rather than dinner so that afterwards we chose to go to the nearby cinema to watch a very recent American release A Late Quartet, about which we knew absolutely nothing.
We held hands in the back row and Maggie sniffed and wept throughout and for very good reason. It is a nigh perfect story of a virtuoso New York string quartet catastrophically riven when its leader, played by Christopher Walken, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Once Walken has the news and starts to do exhausting gym exercises to fend off the worst, his face is of such subdued and humble melancholy, my throat began to tighten, and Maggie buried her face and quietly sobbed. Another quartet member, Philip Seymour Hoffman, then starts an affair with an opera singer he meets jogging in the park, and the morning after they’ve slept together, his wife, also of the quartet, comes across them in a city café. There is no proof that they are lovers, but his wife who he feels has neglected him for years, knows it surer than death itself, and she stalks off leaving Hoffman crushed and direly abandoned. Confronted in his post-coital and polluted absurdity, his face when he first makes feebly lying excuses…is a masterly frieze of anguished and inane embarrassment. Maggie Binding wept at that too and we both knew why, as it made her think of her poisoned marriage and of Joseph and Laura’s seedy alliance and of his completely heartless desertion of her and the kids. Not only had she been abandoned but condemned to total silence, to mute and irremediable suffering, to an outrageous petrifaction enforced by her loving husband of twenty years. Back on the screen, the bleak dynamics of adultery had accelerated at a dizzy rate, as the fourth member, a very morose and middle-aged Israeli, busy instructing Hoffman’s daughter in the cello, conceives an infatuation for someone less than half his age. Hoffman soon finds out and attempts to beat the sugar daddy to a pulp, but very soon the fickle daughter discards her sombre tutor regardless. At each of these harrowing nodes of betrayal, revenge, rage and grief, Maggie wept and shook and squeezed my hand and more than once lifted her face to be kissed and even once sank her tongue into my yearning and yes definitely now loving mouth.
After the exalted weekend we met twice more, and two days before I set off for Greece, she was there at an uproarious goodbye party for about twenty of my oldest friends. I had after sly deliberation chosen the same venue where she and I had first dated, the Maryport Shah Jahan. It was tacitly understood that now it was I, not Maggie, who was defiantly running the risk of Alfie walking in here for his bilious take-away feast of chicken path-ear with rice, nan and chips. She and I had shared a hilariously rude bath in the beautiful Oxford hotel where she had talked about ditching him for good, and continuing a two-countries relationship with Joe Lawless. Maggie had also revealed our affair to her children, both of whom lived in South London. Sandy who was an accountant, was all for our romance, as she thought Alfie was an appalling case of her mother aiming far too low, not least because he was clearly much more of a child than a grown up. Aside from rabid football fans, only stupid kids and pitiful nutcases shouted at the telly with a can of Stella Artois flailing in their hand. Her son Joseph aged thirty was an affluent stockbroker who had obviously assumed the role of paterfamilias, for he liked to give his mother advice in the form of bluff didactic instruction just like the other Joseph Binding. Even though he despised Alfie, he informed Maggie that her behaviour was clearly deceitful, and unfair to her faithful partner of fifteen years. I said nothing to Maggie but assumed that as a speculator he automatically favoured a steady tradesman over a freelance bits and pieces journalist about to migrate to ramshackle Greece. Maggie had already passed on some of his cogent wisdom, such as anyone in Great Britain who wanted work could find it, and to be unemployed longer than three days for whatever reason was more or less a crime. l let her see my disgust and waited to see her kick that brainlessness into the grass, but it didn’t happen. Indeed I saw, but did not wish to see, that she was as docile towards domineering Joseph Junior as she had been towards her bullying little husband…those same two Josephs who twenty years ago had cracked conspiratorial jokes about her beautiful backside being like a drooping blancmange,
It was the last time I saw her before I took the flight to Athens. She was scheduled to come out to Kalamos in October, but on my last day in England was obliged to host a massive barbecue for visiting friends. They were only here for three days and it had been planned long ago, and even if she’d had flu or worse it could not be cancelled.
She put her face against my shoulder. “I don’t want to be with them. I want to be with you. That’s all I ever want now.”
The next evening, just before her barbecue started, she left a message on my phone which I still have to this day.
You’ve changed my life completely. You’ve taken me seriously in a way that no one else has ever done, absolutely no one, not just hopeless, horrible Joseph. You are also very tender and very caring and treat me with such patience and are always giving. You give, give, give, to me, not just all your presents of music and books and wine, but of yourself, of the whole of yourself, every last corner and every last atom of yourself. I’ve simply never known that, and it has felt such a wondrous luxury. I wanted to tell you how grateful I am and how pleased that I met you that sunny day in Maryport and what fantastically lovely times we have had together. Bon voyage and all my tenderest love to you. Maggie
A month later when I was in Kalamos she sent me an email confessing something very different from that last will and testimony…
Alfie, it so happened, had come across a Kalamos picture postcard I’d sent her, with such barely disguised indications of molten passion, that even his unseeing eyes were opened, and worse than that, Maggie had run out of lies to give him. They had then had a truly terrible night of inquisition and interrogation, of sobbing grief and weeping anger, of wretched black despair, and finally of…and finally… and blessedly of (and I her secret lover was so hopeful of what would come next) …
Reconciliation? Of the Beauty and the Beast? Of the Physicist and the Plumber, both of whom deal with forces, torques and resolutions? Of the woman of no opinions and the man of nothing but opinions. I read the email three times but it had only one interpretation and that felt queerly allied to Death and the end of all possible things. I was direly poleaxed, in other words. I was like a ship that had hit an enormous hidden rock, and felt itself to be sinking into oblivion. And even though I was supposedly alive, I was also in another new and inhospitable world…meaning that in common currency I was more or less dead.
Maggie realised, she wrote, that she really loved Alfie Gray, that she loved him heart and soul, and always had done, and whatever she had said to me about the two of them had been a twisted sort of lie. Her feelings for me amounted to more or less nothing and always had been, no matter what she might have said to me in idle moments. The outcome (I guffawed wildly at the cuteness of her jargon) was clear. She wished me well in every possible way, but she also insisted on no more emails, texts, phone calls, no postcards, no letters nor presents nor anything else from Greece. If I ignored what she was asking, and attempted to communicate in writing, she would show anything I had sent to Alfie, and if I phoned her at her home she would simply put the receiver down. She would also block my number on her mobile. Any letters bearing Greek stamps she would throw on the fire unopened.
You may imagine what it is like to be bludgeoned before being poleaxed, or an ocean-going liner confronting a cliff face full on, so I will not labour the immediate nor the delayed reaction that followed. Though that night, thank God, Joanie was there at hand, as confidently expected, and as focused companion in my melancholy bedroom…
“I can see you’re in great pain at the moment. But you also know as well as I do that you’re well out of it, as it was a terrible inferno in the making. The pain will go before too long, and you’ll be able to start again and without the treacherous fissures you found when you went after Maggie Binding . First of all, you were selectively and uncharacteristically deaf, I noticed, when it came to basic self-protection. For a journalist you didn’t even acknowledge the importance of words, and that you and her appalling ex-husband and her bullying stockbroker son, all had the same fucking name! No one ever calls you Joseph, of course, even if you were christened so, but time and again Maggie would talk about her husband Joe and her son as Joe, and you simply didn’t notice. So it is that you have the same toxic handle as two stiff-necked and pathetic chauvinists, Joe Senior and Joe Junior, one of whom abandoned her and one of whom likes to do the opposite and control and patronise her as if she is an overgrown child. You her lover were by contrast gentle, sensitive and caring, and an egalitarian, and you took her seriously as an adult and not an infant. She loved that in you quite rightly, and added that she wasn’t used to it. But sadly for you and her, Maggie Binding is chronically short on insight and when things got hot and even dozy old Alfie was able to find her out in her lies, what did she do? She reverted to type and she panicked and ran for the safety exit. In standard casebook therapeutic terms, she did to you what had been done to her. She like you is gentle and sensitive and fair-minded, so effectively in the mathematics meaning the algebra of therapy, you and her are the same. You are the symbolic mirror of Maggie Binding and Maggie is likewise the symbolic twin of you. Joe her husband, as you know, not only crudely abandoned her, but bound and gagged her and forbade all communication other than through solicitors. For good measure he also abandoned his kids including the future Joe Stockbroker who is fool enough in adulthood to ape his Dad in many ways. So just as Joe Husband fucked off and cruelly stopped all contact with Maggie, so Maggie, now taking the vicarious part of the same insensitive bastard, acts out her abandonment by inflicting the same on you. For you are her, you are Maggie, the gentle and sensitive one who was treated like dirt by her husband, and for cathartic purposes she is simply doing to you what was done to her. Just as Joe Husband commanded complete silence from her fifteen years ago, you who are her mirror image may not email, text nor write to her, nor may you ring her to talk things through, which is what she would have permitted had she been an adult instead of an immature and silly little girl i.e. exactly what those slobs around her have always made of her.”
I knew that she had more to say and I waited with my fingers apparently crossed.
“One more thing, Joe Soap. You should have resorted to shrewd common sense before you embarked on your reckless adventure. Once upon a time, an outstandingly sharp and insightful and no-nonsense person, someone I admired enormously, said to me something that has always stuck in my mind. He said if ever you hear someone who is English recalling a pub conversation where they and their chums were busy ‘putting the world to rights’ you must avoid that someone like the plague. Because, he added, anyone not a decerebrated Rotarian who talks like a decerebrated Rotarian, is even worse than a decerebrated Rotarian, and that is some mean fucking feat…”
I asked her, meaning I spoke aloud to the fresh air in my bedroom: “Who was it said that?”
Joanie sighed protectively, and just then it was as if she was patting my head. “It was you, Joe Soap, said that. It was you and no one else said it.”