This is the final chapter! To read the whole novel you need to look at the January and February 2018 archive, see below to the right. SEE ALSO SPECIAL NOTE AT THE END OF THIS POST)
Wilfred’s Slide Show And The Art of Lying
Wilfred Lawless assumed a very focused expression, as he went from being dolefully humorous to unmistakably earnest. Without preamble he went into compelling didactic mode and as his sober discourse progressed, I realised that far from being the bluff and callow playboy of his youth, he was now something radically other. Perhaps because he was fifty years dead, and in an immense, in fact infinitely large purgatorial, or do I mean eschatological waiting room, he was for the moment, at any rate, a man of overriding ethical concerns.
“Joe Soap,” he began. “As an erstwhile student of Hinduism and having read the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads in the original, you will know better than most that certain sophisticated oriental religions have a habit of effortlessly conflating everything with everything else. In the pure philosophical sense, that is, meaning the subtle conflation of all phenomena with all other phenomena, whether material or spiritual. That is a fact is it not…”
As in a dream I recalled the beautiful Upanishadic Sanskrit I hadn’t studied for over forty years. “Tat tvam asi. That art thou. You are that. You are it.”
Uncle Wilfred chuckled. “Monism. Vedanta. The empirical world we see about us is Maya or Illusion, and it is the playful trickery of the transcendent, creative and omnipotent Brahman, whose counterpart in the individual human is the Atman. By appropriate spiritual discipline, one cleanses the inner Atman of all cloaking material meaning mundane and polluting thoughts and deeds. By this means, the pure and unsullied Atman becomes at one with the cosmic Brahman, and the illusion of Maya folds up like a brolly, only to be tossed away as if it is some sort of a ghost.” And then immediately he raised his fat hand to his spectral mouth as if he had sworn some appalling blasphemy. “Damn! Oops and bugger it. I mean…feck, what I mean is…”
I could see his very painful dilemma and I smiled as comfortingly as I could. “You are not at all a polluting illusion, great-Uncle Wilfred! You are my long dead and buried favourite relative, who has come to speak to me of crucially significant things. The two most important things in the world in fact: Eros and Agape, both of which mean Love. Crucially you came to me here in Greece, which is of course the original prophetic heartland of that distinction between Physical Love and Spiritual Love. Don’t worry, Uncle Wilfred, you are not going to be rolled up and chucked away like a smelly old umbrella, but instead your generous and infinitely humane spirit will pass smoothly from this massive supernatural waiting room as you describe it, to the…”
He snorted and shrugged his crumpled shoulders. “All that is in the balance, and Your Man Up There will decide the precise hour of that Special Excursion Day, and I’m sure you understand that His notion of a Day is not the same as ours. But that aside, we have as lodestone that majestic genius known as TS Eliot, quoting the Upanishads and saying to us: Give, Be Restrained, Be Compassionate. He was very good at the middle one, damyata, right enough, but was he fearlessly charitable as in datta, and was he a man of great compassion as in dayadhvam? What I’m getting at Joe, is it easy to profess things but harder to carry them out, and hypocrisy isn’t in it, man, for you also have to confront all sorts of human lies and laziness and cynicism and cowardice and addictions to booze or drugs or gambling, to help you along the way to perdition, if that is what you are really after at the end of the day, no pun intended. The relevance of all this now, Joe, as you will soon be busy on Love But Dirt Comes, is that the sacred Hindu formula ‘Thou Art That’ really does hit the nail on the head, because it expresses in humane and pitying, not in crass and cynical terms, how precisely things will go for you, and for those unknown and sometimes lonely and unfulfilled women, who you’ll soon encounter…”
Then things, meaning the prophetic exchange between us, began to speed up in earnest, and in fact turned into a species of light show, or rather an old-fashioned if riveting audio-visual presentation. For incredibly, and with a click of his podgy and nicotined fingers, Wilfred Lawless summoned up a hallucination of a succession of photographic slides, projected onto the bedroom wall opposite, which proved to be the portraits of women I would encounter over the next three years with Lovebirds. com. Some of them he had already described (Glaswegian Miranda, Ilse Schiller the Shaman, New Age Tamsin Winckelmann, ALWAYSENCHANTING and the other capitalised Lovebirds profile names) so that he briskly clicked their striking mugshots out of the way, so quickly in fact, that I irritably protested, though to no avail.
“Here,” he explained, after about half a dozen discarded slides, “is a handsome sight, is it not. This is a lady called Stella Fort and she has a very lovely face, wouldn’t you agree? Limpid blue eyes, fetching pale skin, a gentle and affectionate smile. She lives in Brussels where she teaches English and she hails from Cardiff, and has a touching Welsh accent that will haunt you over the phone. More poignant than that she tells you she survived a serious illness, for only a few months earlier she could easily have died from a terrible aneurysm. Now apropos this lovely Stella meaning star, the pair of you make one crucial mistake that hurts both of you ultimately, and very sadly. To cut to the quick, you, Mr Kalamos equals Mr Calamity, you who should have known better, like a fool you will omit to Spank her, Joe Soap…”
I was so flustered by the breakneck slide carousel, I was for the moment passing brainless.
“Dammit, you have a fine new hotpot Joe with a built-in camera so you could have Spanked Stella Fort easy enough and on a regular basis, but you feckin well didn’t! “
“You mean Skype her? You are saying that Stella Fort and I will omit to Skype and thus fall into a deep infatuation, without actually clocking eyes on each other? Well, I can only hypothesise at this point, Uncle Wilf, but our heady hour-long phone calls and the eloquent emails and the exquisite and perhaps not unsaucy, even lubricious, even orgasmic texts, we will feverishly exchange, all that will no doubt appear to us to be more than enough.”
With a deft histrionic flourish, Wilfred snapped his chubby fingers and magically extended the photographic head and shoulders of Stella Fort to her full and exceedingly substantial figure. A prolonged and incredulous scrutiny on my part, refused to change what had been a hell of a premonitory shock when glimpsed in the preceding microsecond. For Stella the Brussels TEFL expert was unbelievably enormous, which is to say she was vastly obese, and the pretty and tender visage up above her neck, was surely a halcyon indication of what she might have been once, some hallucinatory fifty years ago when she was a matchless Cardiff virgin of sixteen or seventeen…
“Oh fuck,” I cried aghast. “Does that mean that she decides to come out here to Kalamos?”
My uncle cackled pitilessly. “For a whole feckin fortnight, just imagine that! And no, before you ask if you can decide here and now simply to forestall it, so that the meeting never happens, as I said earlier, after we have finished our conversation, all memory of tonight will be wiped from your mind, and will only remain as a kind of vestigial admonitory flicker pullulating faintly from your Suck Bonshus. Needless to add, once she arrives, rampant sexual hunger will have the pair of you in bed immediately in your Kalamos house, where you promptly find yourself between the sheets with what feels like a Minke or Lesser Rorqual whale. Stella Fort of Brussels is in fact a lovely, intelligent, politically active and very interesting Welshwoman, who is fluent in both Walloon French and Flemish, and she is not of course a whale, and yet in your astonishment you perceive her as both a Lesser and a Greater Rorqual. We are back to epistemology again, and Stella is both a phenomenological snake and a phenomenological rope. As a rope she is harmless other than to bind you into a sense of obligation after those tender often saucy endearments and hyperboles you have exchanged by phone and by umpteen He Males. As a snake she is not of course toxic nor lethal, other than in the metaphorical sense, for you pictured her over the weeks as attractively hefty with a nice big voluptuous backside and sultry and copious breasts, something to get your teeth into, Joe Soap, whereas in fact naked between the sheets she goes on and on for ever and in places you could not imagine. You cannot possibly get your greedy teeth into Stella Fort’s unbelievable behind, no more than you could get your teeth into Helvellyn or Snowdon or Buachaille Etive Mor which are all unyielding varieties of inedible geological backsides so to speak.”
Feeling pale and very chastened, I was moved to raise my hand, as if Wilfred were a very strange and elderly schoolmaster, and I was the uncomprehending dunce at the back. I asked woefully: “Will Stella at any time actually acknowledge that she is huge? I mean that is the elephant in the room, isn’t it, her being the elephant in my Kalamos bedroom, in both senses? Over that endless fortnight that she and I have to go through, does she ever say to me, even if only once, do you mind that I am unbelievably enormous and technically obese, Joe?”
Wilfred stared at his right thumb as if wondering what was the point of it, something I have observed myself doing on occasion. Then he resorted to a rhetorical challenge “What do you think, Joe Soap?”
I temporised. “I think she might well make such a necessary declaration. I would if I were her. Otherwise it would be like being discovered to be blind or stone deaf and not acknowledging the fact.”
“Hm. Well in fact she doesn’t say anything about it, kiddo, not a feckin word! At no point will she ever advert to her obesity when she is with you in Kalamos, just as she never did so before she met you. Nor will she acknowledge it after she has gone back to Brussels, and you have penned a long and urgent He Male saying your feelings have inexplicably dwindled. You add that, of course, nothing she has said or done is responsible for that attrition, but emphatically you now wish things to end between you. So, as you can see, not just she, Stella Fort, but you, Joe Soap, will also say nothing whatever about the elephant in the room, indeed that explosive little word ‘fat’ never leaves your lips or her lips at any point. However, it is of some interest and no doubt predictable, that Brussels Stella will wax very angry when you end it so abruptly, and she will promptly forward you your umpteen He Males with all those tender protestations, and will ask reasonably enough what the feck has happened to all those passionate protests and all that ocean of beautiful tenderness? She will accuse you of typically masculine hypocrisy, lying, shallowness, inconstancy, cowardice, the whole unsavoury works. Whereupon you will be sorely tempted to write back and be honest, and say that although you have a wonderfully handsome face Stella Fort, unfortunately you have a mythologically outsize behind incredibly the size of the republic of Liechtenstein, and a belly that could host an open air avant garde concert in a Brussels park, and a colossal quite incredible pair of breasts that could compete with two flailing windmills out of a forgotten novel by Alphonse Daudet…”
I stared in a grotesque daze at the patchwork coverlet on my Kalamos bed. I left it to Uncle Wilfred to draw the necessary conclusions.
“Tat tvam asi. That art thou. You and Stella are the same person, Joe, and I mean that as accurate and precise spiritual metaphor, rather than what is called New Age baloney nowadays. You will not be able to tell Stella Fort to her face or in a He Male that she is a walking Lesser Rorqual, any more than she can admit it herself. She has the inalienable proof of your tender communications that precede your meeting here in Kalamos, and there ineradicably you loved her as she was, not as she ought to be. Supposing instead, she had hypothetically had a livid scar or a severe limp or God knows what else that she had not drawn attention to, surely you would have naturally accepted that when you met her here in Greece as part of her, not as something extraneous and objectionable? After all great-nephew, you have your own passing painful physical flaws like all the rest of us, and have known what it is to be agonisingly embarrassed by them…”
I started, and even though I knew that my uncle in his cosmic waiting room possessed historical as well as present and future omniscience, I shuddered.
“As a teenage schoolkid in 1965, meaning about the time I went and snuffed it on the Dingle peninsula, isn’t it true you were worried sick by your constitutional skinniness, and loathed stripping in the showers after playing rugby? Isn’t it a fact that you once at school went to the baroque extent of wearing two pairs of trousers, one on top of the other, to hide the skinniness of your legs…?”
I turned bright red before my dead, hence blushless, great-uncle.
“What scuppered your extraordinary ruse, was that fateful day when the lower and alas longer pair of kecks, suddenly treacherously appeared below the upper pair, should anyone innocently be looking towards your feet area? Oh, the ecstatic merriment that ensued from the boys your own age, and the handsome but aloof teenage schoolgirls you fancied, who happened to be there by the bicycle sheds, and were able to enjoy the farcical spectacle. Tat tvam asi. You are that, Joe Soap. You are Stella Fort. Stella Fort is you. She will say nothing about being a beached whale as she lies there naked before you, just as you said nothing to any living soul about the fact you were secretly wearing two pairs of trousers like a fine little Michelin Man in the making…”
I protested angrily, “But I was a stupid fourteen-year-old kid! Stella as you point out is in her sixties, and twice a grandmother to boot.”
Wilfred guffawed. “You have been colloguing with a dead great-uncle half the feckin night, and you talk to me of time and dates and centuries and chronology! I’m telling you that this waiting room to the next place has no bastard clocks, not one, and that infinity is not so much a feckin long time but is no time at all. It simply does not recognise that arbitrary and risible so-called constant. Hence you aged fourteen in 1965, a callow and naïve West Cumbrian youth, denying your thinness with a pitiful and inevitably hopeless act of deception, are no different from Stella aged sixty-two turning up in Kalamos looking like a Lesser Rorqual and hoping against hope that you won’t notice. Tat tvam asi. She is you, Joe Soap, and you are her Stella Fort, plain and simple, the two of you being let us say infantile and incorrigible fairy tale wishful thinkers. In any case, my comically sulking nephew, let us imaginatively construct a splendid 1965 scenario where you JS manage to winkle a gorgeous fourteen or fifteen-year-old schoolgal up against the wall of a ruined house or inside a remote bit of Cumbrian woodland by dead of night, a boiling summer’s night let’s say. Supposing blonde and winsome, let’s call her aptly-named Myrtle Bottomley, pulls down her knickers in her steaming passion and then starts ferreting inside your, let’s call them Pants B, and then discovers that underneath Pants B is Pants feckin A! Thunderstruck Myrtle stares at you in some amazement, and wonders reasonably enough if you are two teenage lads both called Joe Lawless or just the one. She then justifiably asks herself, do you exist in infinitely diminishing layers like those Chinese dolls all stacked inside of each other? She also interrogates herself as to exactly how many pairs of pants you inhabit, and whether you are in fact six boys all called Joe Soap, or only one, and consequently whether you have six fine and upstanding Mr Pickwicks and wouldn’t that be a fine thing, to grab hold of a six-pronged Roman candle that explodes right enough but not in an incendiary sense… or just the paltry one King Arthur who is stood joyously to attention at the sight of Miss Bottomley’s bare thighs and exquisitely plump and curvaceous little West Cumbrian buttocks.”
He opened his pack of Sweet Afton, which was unmistakably a full one, even though he must have smoked at least half a dozen by now, unless it were the same cigarette he’d smoked half a dozen times. All too evidently, quantities, masses, weights, even Newtonian gravity, must be as infinitely elastic as Time, when it came to inhabiting Infinity. Then as urgent afterthought, Wilfred added: “I have mentioned Hindu monism as the best philosophical explanation when it comes to the business of you and Stella Fort. She the enormous Brussels fatty, and you the emaciated Cumbrian teenager being one and the same person, one and the same paradigm. But as you’ve likely guessed, my waiting room up here isn’t a Hindu waiting room, if only because I wasn’t born or raised a Hindu. And the fact that you and Stella are precisely the same in metaphysical terms, one toweringly obese in 2015, and the other teased in 1965 as a starving Biafran…that needs an ethical, a moral explanation as well as a monistic one. I wonder can you guess what that moral injunction might be?”
I muttered, “Is it, Judge Not That…?”
“Almost but not quite, Joe. You see there is the commonsense and overwhelming reality, that obesity can kill when it comes to heart attacks and diabetes, and you are not loving nor helping anyone by pretending that it cannot. No, the formula as printed on a placard in the waiting room up here, is much more comprehensive. It is Love Your Neighbour As Yourself. That would include, had you been continuing a relationship with brainy, funny but hopelessly enormous Stella Fort, telling her to get herself on a feckin diet before it is too late. And of course, and this is me pointing out the obvious, that five-word command, at least in the context of the cosmic waiting room and where one goes next, is precisely that, it is a command, not a polite suggestion! It’s no good complaining Joe Soap and carrying on being the comfortably selfish little bugger that you are, and saying it is all too much to ask. After all anything that is any good and therefore destined to last, is always going to be too much to ask. Apropos you being in the open prison existence known as the writing game, surely it was outrageously too much, altogether excessive and supererogatory, to ask Tolstoy and Proust and George Eliot to go away and write what they wrote. It was also sheer impudence and appalling effrontery to ask JS Bach to compose his indescribably sublime Mass in B Minor, meaning music not written by a man but by the angels sat on his shoulder. Likewise, it was hell of a feckin cheek to ask Pablo Picasso to accomplish his Blue Period and every other feckin period the bald-headed and wild-eyed satyr had resolved to excel at…”
Then, after apparently discarding some subtle deliberation, he decided to cut to the quick. He now offered me a premonitory glimpse of a woman who would confound any inkling of charity and kindness I might conceivably possess, more than any other past, present or future. She would, he confided, be an example of a remarkably handsome Lovebirds lady of supremely sculpted facial contours, but with an inner and elusive dryness and parchedness of spirit, that were so to speak the unshakable foundations of her personality. Her name was Nora Dalkey, she was fifty-nine years old, and a very gifted potter who owned a successful ceramic gift shop up in genteel South Cumbria. Nora dwelt in in a village that lay in commuting distance to Kendal of Kendal Mint Cake renown, as approved by Sir Edmund Hillary, not to speak of New Age middle class professional adultery fame (true to form he pronounced New Age as New Ache and sometimes Knee Ache) as approved by almost every professional in South Cumbria over the age of twenty-five. Nora Dalkey’s problem, and as Wilfred Lawless explained, it was a very common one among divorced as opposed to bereaved professional women, was that she was years later still reeling from being comprehensively and outrageously cheated by her ex-husband Matthew, also known as Matty Dalkey.
Norma had met Matty at the RCA in London in the early Seventies where he was studying Fine Art and she had been immediately touched by his boyish joviality, his insinuatingly hospitable nature, his recklessly generous spirit. He treated her to delicious Chinese meals (duck and orange, duck and lemon, duck and plum sauce!) when she was broke, and bought her sweet little presents like bottles of Valpolicella and Chocolate Orange and After Eight, and truly idiotic but lovable things like a Beginner’s Conjuror’s Set. With the latter he cheerfully demanded that she immediately learn a few card tricks, and how to do sliding rings and then perform for him on an imaginary stage, once the pair of them had emptied the wine bottle and were both in their underwear. What she was unaware of was that he was so gloriously spendthrift because he had been working through the last of a legacy from an alcoholic uncle, and once that had fizzled out, and that coincided with her getting pregnant and their getting married, he was obliged to be the most accomplished borrower on God’s earth. Two years later they had two children Susan and Daniel Dalkey, and he had exhausted his premature talent as an abstract painter, and become a dogsbody art lecturer in a technical college in Preston, Lancashire, something which bothered him not one iota. Matty’s personality was so fluid and frenetic and unanchored, that he genuinely enjoyed chatting to booming engineering teachers about mortgage bridging loans and Costa del Sol hols as much as he did to Nora about David Hockney or the new glazes and slipware she was experimenting with in the studio behind the gift shop. Glazes was an appropriate word when she thought about it, for Matty’s fine blue eyes were always glazed with a mesmerising if ultimately ludicrous optimism. He even invited these engineering lecturers called Reg and Ted and Kevin and their wives, incredibly every one of them called Pam, to dinner at the weekend, and Nora felt her blood congealing with tedium and subdued horror as the three Pams chattered to her about their favourite choice of housework (cleaning, love it; ironing, loathe it; cooking, oh I can take it or leave it!) and the merits of the new disposable nappies and whether Flora marge really was healthier than the olive oil substitute…
Her husband’s epic swindle that destroyed their marriage and left her feeling a walking wreck for years, was not so much ingenious as a case of structural and collusive incompetence, in the shape of allowing a Peter Pan called Matty to piss away vast amounts of money that weren’t his but miraculously were so, in strictly legal terms. In the middle of June 2007 aged fifty-nine her husband got talking to an extremely receptive young Visual Arts Officer sonorously called Fiona Figgis who worked for the Arts Council, and he effortlessly blagged some wonderful scheme about an inclusive ‘care package’ for struggling but talented British artists. He spoke of strenuous and profitable mentoring of these novices, through expert supervision by successful practitioners, to be paid well of course for their masterclass input, and of grants for exciting new projects, not to speak of a spanking new Visual Arts Centre here in Preston, a handsome and capacious drop-in venue that would host exhibitions, provide overnight accommodation for the budding geniuses, have a subsidised café, restaurant, library, swimming pool, sauna, gym the lot, and why not and why should rising talent, the lifeblood of our national culture, be expected to live in leaking garrets and have nary a sniff of comfort nor decent food nor a relaxing body massage, should they need as we all do to unknot at crucial times?
As Wilfred relayed it to me, Matty had used the word exciting twenty-three times in their feverish deliberations, and Fiona Figgis also used it like some harmonious echo chamber twenty-three times. A month later they started an affair and as luck would have it, they slept together twenty-three times. Prime numbers said Wilfred are powerful things and Matty for all his sins was in his prime at fifty-nine and was both affectionate and surprisingly imaginative in bed, as even Nora would attest when it came to the necessary business of booting him out of her house. Matty managed to get a massive pump- priming cheque from Fiona that went into a bona fide joint account where he and renowned ceramicist Nora Dalkey were the two signatories. He told Fiona Figgis that it would need both signatures for every expenditure large or small, but immediately arranged it with the bank that either would do. A few months later when things were looking rather hairy, even to his ever hypnotised and hypnotising optimism, he arranged with the bank to make himself sole signatory though again Nora knew nothing about his bare-faced machinations until it was too late.
“Where did you get that lovely car?” she asked him one day, amazed at the sight of an immaculate magenta-coloured, two-year-old Peugeot, when she herself drove a 1987 Renault that was never out of the garage.
Without a blush Matty said that given all the meetings he was obliged to attend, it was a concessionary hire car provided as par for the course by the Arts Council, and they hired it so much they leased it for a song. Later Nora would bitterly chastise herself for the fact that she had believed things a five-year-old wouldn’t have swallowed, the unchanging problem being that impudently adolescent Matty with his autopilot mendacity was always so incredibly convincing, and it wasn’t just his trusting wife had been duped. Matty also claimed that he went to Lisbon with Fiona Figgis for a fortnight to arrange meetings with Portuguese painters and discuss the latest ideas about EEC state subsidy, but instead the two treacherous turtle doves went to the balmy and palmy Seychelles, Matty telling wide-eyed and besotted Fiona that it was all paid for by his uncle’s bottomless legacy.
It all came out in the end when the fabled Visual Arts Centre with its restaurant and gym and sauna and en suite accommodation failed to materialise in Preston or anywhere else, and when Matty and Nora were called to account with a succession of chilling letters from Fiona Figgis’s boss at the Arts Council. By that stage Fiona had had some panicky inkling of her preposterous lover’s duplicity, and she took radical steps by moving to America and lecturing on her specialist subject of Ergonomics in a minor Nebraska university, her Dad having been born and raised in Wichita, meaning that Fiona had dual citizenship. By email she told her former line manager that she had known nothing about Matty’s deceitful sole signatory status, nor that he had been using the account as his personal gold mine, and the same manager was stunned to find on consulting a lawyer that because the account wasn’t even a business one but outrageously a current one in Matty’s name alone, there was damn all could be done. Why on earth the lawyer sneered, had no one supervised his farcical accounting and flagrant embezzlement…the answer being that Matty had rapidly emptied it of some 120K before the first annual accounts were due for inspection by Fiona’s replacement.
Nora kicked her criminal husband out of the house, and went so far as to slap him very hard several times across his face as he stood there protesting his honest and disinterested intentions. She then made an appointment with the Arts Council and drove down to London to explain her innocence, though perhaps because of being unable to sack Fiona Figgis, the Visual Arts boss, Violet Anstruther, was less than forgiving, and even disclosed that she knew Nora’s husband had been having an affair with another short-sighted innocent now at a safe distance in Nebraska. Violet said snidely there were a lot of myopic women about, all of them doting on Matty Dalkey as far as she could see, and had it never occurred to Nora to ask why her signature was never required for anything at all, nor why her husband had been junketing with a woman in the bloody Seychelles and driving a luxury Peugeot?
Nora blushed and snarled, “I do not dote on him, I promise you! I abominate him! I hit him as hard as I could with my fists, I was so fucking angry, and I booted him out and am divorcing him, and he now lives in a village near Dunfermline where he might well be embezzling from the Scottish Arts Council. I would ring them if I were you and warn them before it is too late. And while we’re at it, for you her boss to permit Ms Fiona Fuckface to give him a cheque for a whole 150K (he told me that it was 2K) was hardly the sensible policy of a sagacious line manager was it? Assuming Ms Flirting Fuckface and I were both myopic when it came to believing the incredible Walter Mitty known as Matty Dalkey, so are you Mrs Anstruther when it came to a wondrous non-supervision of your employee. Or to put it another way the whole ugly mess is casebook Levi-Strauss, and all it needed was a system of collusive ineptitude, a duped wife, an adulterous Fuckface, and a blandly unseeing supervisor like yourself, to permit people like Matty Dalkey to flourish the way he always has and probably always will, no matter what.”
Thereafter, as Wilfred Lawless explained, Nora would prove to be severely on her guard against all men, for on a visceral and phobic level she believed they all had the innate capacity to deceive and delude, even if not on Matty’s epic scale. She had no man in her life at all for the next three years, and then embarked on a sporadic affair with a celebrated potter called Rosslyn Paul who taught in an art college in beautiful if somehow obscure Lincoln, and who wore a wedding ring but whose marriage had been a moribund charade for the last decade. To that extent, my Uncle Wilfred opined, Nora Dalkey of Lovebirds.com sorely contradicted herself, for while she had her antennae ever trained for deceitful men, she refused to see herself as a deceitful woman, even though Rosslyn said nothing to his wife Sadie and his two grown daughters about his South Cumbrian mistress. She, Nora Dalkey, Wilfred Lawless warned, would come to Kalamos on her conspicuous guard, though with a vestigial and rather shy flirtatiousness at the start. That first day I would take her to beautiful Makropounda Bay along a majestic ancient monopati and because it was early autumn and although the sun was hot, the place would be deserted. En route she would tell me at unforgiving length about Matty’s industrial scale deception, and the way it had crushed her for months, almost driven her to breakdown, the combination of his brazen adultery and that massive embezzlement. The pair of us, Nora and I, would be sat on that exquisite Kalamos beach, consuming our picnic and sipping red wine, and she would dilate at length about the charismatic sincerity Matty was magically able to project, so that damn near the whole world could be fooled. Then Nora would walk into the sea and look at me with inviting eyes to follow on. She would prove to be a good swimmer while I was a novice, and I would stand and smile at her as she went the length of the bay, then stop to stare invitingly at me yet again. We would go as far as holding hands in the water, as I quietly told her how attractive she looked with those unique facial bones, beautifully worked and fashioned as the finest of ceramics.
“Thank you,” Nora said with a moving look of timid and gentle surprise, touchingly like that of a dormouse or other tiny mammal. “Thank you very much.”
Yet soon everything would turn irremediably awful. It would all seem farcical in adult terms, but then someone who has been swindled by an outrageous charlatan like Matty, is likely to regress to a child’s logic should they feel they are being robbed a second time. As my uncle explained, it would stem from an excited email exchange between us, where among a thousand other things I would suggest we might have an exhilarating weekend in Athens as well as the week together in Kalamos. It wasn’t a solemn promise, but an attractive idea and a random suggestion, to which Nora would make nil memorable response, and by the time she arrived on the island, I had forgotten all about it. In fact, having a weekend in the capital would have proved to be complicated, and more or less impossible, as boats were scarce and inconvenient at this time of year. My uncle noted that Nora had already indicated her cautious reserve by sleeping in my spare bedroom, though it looked likely after our tender handholding at Makropounda that we might well end up as doting lovers. But after those first few days, I would swiftly realise that her critique of Matty and his appalling roguery were becoming a one note motif. In fact, for whole hours of walking and excursions to the remotest villages, with her head down, and ignoring the exquisite surroundings, Nora Dalkey would orate about little else. When she did so, her face would have a pinched, resentful, remarkably sullen and forbidding look, and I would realise that far from deserving a just pity, she was luxuriously nursing a grudge. That crude addiction had turned her into a woman of obsessive spite, and worse than that, it had affected her handsome looks. In this parched and punitive incarnation, Nora Dalkey looked decidedly haggard and far from attractive, for it seemed to add at least a decade to her age. She would remind me of everyone I’d ever known who cultivated an undying resentment of their enemies, most of them lacking Nora’s education and rationale, and therefore committed to ranting antagonism as catharsis and raison d’etre. As a result, the brilliant ceramicist Nora Dalkey had virtually nil in the way of mature insight, and couldn’t see that as a woman always on the alert for being duped, her face was becoming a mask of debilitated vengefulness and her handsome looks were slowly vanishing into the ether.
One beautifully sunny Kalamos morning, she turned to me with a prim, judicial air and complained: “You remember you promised me a lovely weekend in Athens? Well it simply hasn’t happened, has it, and obviously it isn’t going to happen now. I need to tell you that I feel seriously disappointed, really badly let down. I might even say roundly cheated, now that you haven’t followed through with your promise.” After a timely melodramatic pause. “If I’m not to mix my words that is.”
It was the schoolma’amish phrasing, the dimness of her cliched formula, that did for me. I stared at her in disbelief, and with nil embarrassment, much less contrition. “I didn’t promise you anything, Nora. It was one among scores of things that we mentioned in our excitement. In fact, once I suggested Athens, there was no response from you either way. But I can see by your face that a great deal of resentment has been growing, and I can assure you it has a reciprocal effect.”
She froze at my smileless words, and her facial bones turned hard and rigid, her dark blue eyes tired and old. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
I didn’t hide my disdain. “You know damn fine. That you have this perpetually stony look on your merciless face. You have the identical thing when you enumerate Matty’s crimes, and it is there if you think that another treacherous male has gravely let you down. All this, even though we have only been together a few days.”
“But listen. You promised me …”
I said rapidly, “You really need to grow up, Nora. I’m not your mummy or daddy wanting to spoil you, and I really didn’t promise you anything. I made a suggestion among dozens of others, and you didn’t even respond at the time. You’ve obviously filed it away though, for future reference, and decided it’s a good bit of ammunition. Because, listen, even if that weekend in Athens wasn’t the issue, you’d soon find something else to resent, as resentment is obviously your motor and is what makes you tick. If you doubt me, just walk over there and look in the mirror and stare at your indignant face.”
She flushed a remarkable colour. “Will I hell as like! You’re just being fucking rude and horribly abusive and you have no bloody right.”
I looked her in the eye. “Try thinking about somebody else for a change, and ask me if I have my own resentments? I promise you I do, as these things always work both ways. After our single tender handholding at Makropounda, you haven’t even touched me, nor shown the slightest sign of any interest. Reflect that you came all the way from Kendal to Kalamos supposedly to date me, and we haven’t even kissed, much less embraced. Instead, you sit there doing angry maths equations all the time, the algebra of vengeance. For your own sake, Nora, you should be careful, as your sulking really is starting to spoil your beautiful features. This addiction to revenge is making you look less than wholesome, and you have only yourself to blame.”
She spat at me, “You have no fucking right to be so personal! No right whatever.”
I said balefully. “Nor have you the right to be my guest for a week and sit glowering like a child in a tantrum. What’s more, at the age of sixty, to have your quantity of personal insight is scarcely a cause for celebration. As we both know, you landed yourself with an obvious gangster of a husband called Matty, and even went and had two kids by him. Don’t tell me that you didn’t sense, and decided not to think too hard about, his worrying criminal potential when you first met him. Because everyone, so you’ve told me, agreed that he was a paradigm Peter Pan from the start. The question is, why would an intelligent woman like you marry a palpably idiotic Walter Mitty, and even give him two daughters, unless you’re in some way as blind yourself? You quoted Levi-Strauss when you confronted Violet at the Arts Council, but surely it applies to you as well. It takes two to tango, and for every manipulative and feckless Matty Dalkey there is a willing Matty victim. You were in your mid-thirties when you married that magnetic charlatan, and then were shocked when he outdid himself by embezzling a royal fortune. Hence your current reasoning that every other man is another potential Matty. The fact is now you’re turned sixty, you’d get a lot further and faster and quicker, if you accept that you married a blatant crook of your own free will and that nobody put a gun to your head…”
Nora Dalkey’s strategy, Wilfred said, would then turn very bizarre, in fact unbelievably childish. In her incendiary anger at my impudence, she would threaten to go and tell people, inform the people of Kalamos that is (who else could she possibly tell?) what kind of a man I really was, meaning what a cheat, and what a liar and what a flagrant fraud…
“Tell who exactly? The people here in the port?”
She scowled, looking even more pinched, even downright ugly. “Yes, I will. I will do my best to shame you…”
I laughed. “Tell local fishermen and labourers that I promised you a spree in Athens, and didn’t follow through? None of them speak a word of English other than fuck and OK and hello and bye bye, and you don’t speak a word of Greek, Nora. What will you do, mime your outrage? Or go to the Kalamos police?”
The lines on her brow became stark corrugations, so that from my angle she looked as plain and insipid as a senile harridan. And now right enough I could not wait for the week to end…
“I shall talk to the ones who have good English. There are two women who work in the cafes who speak it well. I will speak to them and they will understand me. I will shame you and I will seriously embarrass you.”
I had to restrain myself from telling her she was evidencing serious mental health problems, but I did say that Maria and Roula would laugh uproariously at her meaningless complaint. Their own Hellenic notion of cheating, was more on the lines of husbandly adultery with a sister or even a widowed mother, and/or blatant theft of their wives’ wages, pilfered only to be pissed away on ouzos for all in the nearest café.
“We need to face facts, Nora. I don’t like you one iota by this stage, nor do you like me when you are talking of my public shaming…”
She mouthed as if it amounted to a charm or a spell, “But you went and lied to me.”
I examined her bleak and sullen face, and saw no possible way out. I said, “We have just two days left before you have to fly home. I’m going to make a commonsense suggestion that you use the island buses, and go off somewhere nice, to the Hora say, and sightsee. I will stay here in the port and wait for this unhappy week to end. It was all a mistake and that’s that. There is nothing we can do about it because the mess is irreparable.”
She shuddered to see I wasn’t bluffing. “That’s such an awful thing for you to do! Really awful and heartless! Packing me off on my own, and washing your hands of me…”
By now I thought her personal tragedy a lacklustre joke. “You think so? Why would I want to look after someone who threatens to shame me like an outraged nanny? Unfortunately for you, I just don’t feel the crucifying guilt you’d prefer me to feel. All because I made a suggestion many weeks ago, which you now have ruled a binding oath. It doesn’t even occur to you that if we’d had the weekend in Athens, you’d swiftly have found something else to resent me for.”
I thought then that she was about to slap my face as if I were babbling Matty. “I would not! I’m as much fun as the next when not being lied to.”
I stood back a safe yard. “Fun? You don’t say? Well, your face says otherwise, and faces don’t lie. Once in Athens you’d soon be complaining about the location of the hotel, or the coastal hike if we took one, or the junk shops that we looked at, or the restaurants that we chose…”
And so our date would wretchedly end, with Nora Dalkey sat forlorn in the port cafes for all those endless hours, like a sad and sullen and eternally stranded waif…
Wilfred said to me, “In her own way, and for the wrong reasons, your unforgiving Nora is absolutely right. Every failure between a man and a woman of whatever age, when it comes to romance, is down to the business of Lying, Joe Soap. And this ubiquitous prevalence of the Lie is surely enough to make anyone a convinced Zoroastrian, whose influence in Old Testament theology is monumental as you know. The Good Spirit Ahura Mazda has as his principal attribute the Truth, or Asha. His antagonist is the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu who is also intelligible as the Lie or the Druj. The problem is Joe, that the Lie is not always a question of banal veracity versus mendacity as with Matty Dalkey fibbing about the provenance of his gorgeous Peugeot. People are lying in any romantic situation where they find themselves withdrawing from the other, but do not admit as much, and carry on the charade for their own cowardly purposes. They may carry it on for weeks, months, years, decades. They can, as an act of revenge on a previous partner, even marry someone from whom they are permanently elusive. They are then lying by omission rather than commission, but to be sure they are still lying. More forgivably, they are fibbing like artless children when they do not admit to their proper age nor proper dentition nor proper erotic competence, meaning if they are worryingly half-cocked as a man or painfully half warm or half-baked as a woman. They also lie when they babble about perennial Optimism, as for example sulking Nora Dalkey claiming she herself is a Glass Half Full, when in fact she is more like a staggering One O’ Clock Half Struck. These Loveballs men and women tell lies when they say that they don’t judge, and the first time they meet you they suggest you get a smarter haircut, or if you are a woman kindly arrange to have your backside substantially smaller by a week on Tuesday or else…”
As he complacently savoured his Sweet Afton, I looked at him with unstoppable resentment. “It’s all very good of you, Wilfred Lawless, to come here with your eloquent warnings about Lies and Liars, both by Omission and Commission. But then you have the gall to insist that once you’ve gone, and I wake tomorrow morning, I’ll have forgotten all about them! What bloody use is that, if I’m not allowed to take any sensible precautions after your exquisite and timely advice? Frankly, I think I’d have been better off without your amazing clairvoyance, seeing that I can’t take any remedial steps to avert any future disasters…”
Lawless smiled his green and phosphorescent leer, and said that for a proven brainbox I was surpassingly naïve overall. No one on earth, he sneered, can avert their fate, not even if they consult soothsayers and fairground crystal gazers with signed testimonials from TV celebrities and minor royalty. Instead, all these timely warnings he had offered me, would sit there nascent and osmotically effective in my Suck Bonshus, and as I progressed through the next two or three years, they would give me sundry delicate premonitory signs, which would, whether I knew it or not, subtly affect my romantic life and make my eventual, and as far as he was concerned undeserved success, all the more remarkable.
“Where you’ll struggle the hardest, most unfortunately, is with those women who are undeniably lovable and magnetic and delightful as well as funny and erotically exciting and every other fine thing. Because be aware that over the next three years not just one, but then a second, and then a third and fourth example, will cross your far too jammy path. The first three will demonstrate all those heartening superlatives, but they will also reveal that by their sixties, their life histories have evidenced many romantic flops and failures, some extreme and extravagant by any standards. You and they will delightedly fall for each other, and all will be unwaveringly ecstatic, until you discern that no matter how hard you try not to see it, those lovely women: Fanny Barron with the deft wit and the auburn locks, and Rosie Barnes with the golden smile and the mad laugh, and Jane McGillie with the sharp brains and the mesmerising nose, are all cautiously looking round for the Safety Exit, also known as the Fire Exit. Or alternatively for an Infinitely Comprehensive Insurance Policy written in triplicate and stowed away in Fort Knox, as well as London N7, Bristol and Stirling respectively. For as much as they love the extraordinary happiness they have found at times with you in your island idyll, on a profound and always undeclared level it also deeply alarms them, as indeed for that matter does the rampant and hypnotic poetry of Cycladean Kalamos, which, how can I put it, takes no prisoners, other than those who will let their defences down and be willingly captive. What I am talking about is a preposterous paradox, but it happens to be the truth, Joe Soap. At the end of the day, regrettably, all these lovely women feel happier with men who thwart them, if only because that is what they are used to, and what they are used to has made them what they are, and unfortunately always will be. Like long incarcerated prisoners suddenly freed, they really miss their bonds when those bonds are loosened, and at first, they feel uneasy, and then they feel fear, and then they feel a real and horrible panic, albeit they do their best to hide that alarming fact from you…”
I glared at this bearer of bad news. “And what happens then?”
“Those otherwise excellent ladies, funny little Fanny and hilarious Rosie and Jane with the beautiful nose, all take panic and flee, albeit invisibly, for the Fire Exit. These prodigies of women in all but one respect, they hook it for the Safety Exit, although you could never prove as much in a court of law. They all panic and fuck off, Joe, in spirit if not in fact, these frightened, fated and ultimately faithless women. And they do it slyly and slowly, and they would never ever admit as much, not even when the relationship is long over. But picture some five years later and as you are walking through Camden or the centre of Bath or downtown Stirling, you might well chance to bump into all of them with someone immediately recognisable as a relative approximation of a decent man, but at least that relativity they have espoused makes these cautious women unarguably feel good and safe inside their own skin.”
I stared at my hands, and again they irritated me. “That sounds like the victory of The Lie over The Truth?”
“Too feckin right it is, or at least it is for them and their futures. To be running scared and not to admit it is to feckin lie, what else? And what’s more, it is a stark fact that everyone in this world apart from those innocent victims of genocide and famine and man-made disasters, that the bulk of all these pampered ones deserve exactly what they get in life. Especially those privileged and educated ones, the folk who pari passu hearken to Radio Phaw and do Hatha Yoga and boast that they don’t pass judgement but do show empathy and do wonder whether their glass is half feckin full or half shitin empty. In a nutshell and for very good reasons, Joe, most of them on Loveshite Dot Com, whether man or woman, are hapless and eternal victims, and as you will soon learn, most of them don’t even know as much.”
I put my hand up then, as I felt that he might just, this unorthodox and incredibly prolix spectre, be about to slip away from me. I said, “One more thing…”
Wilfred Lawless took note of my beseeching paw, then gave me a look one third affection, one third that love known as agape, one third an incredulous dismay combined with a genial derision.
He responded briskly, “No more things, Joe Soap. Sorry but no more feckin things. That’s the problem, old lad. Too many feckin things and not enough of the feckin other.”
And with that Lawless vanished from my Kalamos bedroom, and I have never seen nor heard from him since.
I would love to hear what readers out there think about this novel, whether they be delighted or outraged by it (so far I have heard from 4 of the former and 1 of the latter). Unless you specifically request otherwise, I will print all such comments on these pages, probably at the start of March.
Given that at least half the world is currently engaged in online dating, you would imagine that virtually everyone has a considered opinion about its fictional depiction. I may be wrong, but I don’t think there is any other novel currently available that treats of this subject, and certainly not the theme of those of mature years engaged in the eternal online quest
Apart from the Readers’ Comments mentioned above, there will be no new post until around Easter, to give time for The Lawless Book Of Love to be read by new readers