WE hire camels and a guide, and later in the day we ride out of the village. Our camels dip and lurch along on their flat, cloven pads. Slowly we approach a sign - Timbuctoo; 40 jours. We come abreast of it, and then we plod past it. Our guide leads us across a dry plain. We pass a broken house, and further on the skull of an ass. Otherwise there is nothing. Now we begin to ache. Soon our thighs are chafed. The motion is faintly sickening, and the soft-footed beasts travel forward at such a tedious pace that the arid landscape appears never to shift. By dusk however we find ourselves among some low hills of sandy shale which slope away from a few stunted bushes. The guide orders his camel to kneel. We imitate his order as best we can, and our camels sink, forefeet first, settling on the ground. This descent is worse than the journey. We are thrown forwards and then back in our saddles. Inge gasps. The camels grunt as they become one with the desert.
Stiffly Inge and I dismount. Within minutes several tribesmen have materialised out of nowhere. Men speak quietly as evening cools the day. A tent goes up. Water comes from a jerry-can our guide carries with him. The sun sinks, leaving a glow in the west. Now the guide pummels flour and water into dough. He places the flattened, circular shape he has made on a low bed of embers. Then he covers the dough and the embers with sand.
A thin smoke rises in the twilight.
Her breath came in gasps. She was thrown forwards and then back. That was what it sounded like. The room was very dark. Meanwhile Harry lay on top of Rachel. Rachel lay on a duvet spread over the kelims on the bedroom floor. Inge and Rodney were going at it on the bed. Taking his weight on his elbows, Harry kept quite still on Rachel’s hips. On each of his thrusts into her, Rodney seemed to knock the breath out of Inge’s body. Steve was there in the bedroom as well, and Ingrid. You could see nobody. They had all serviced each others’ partners. Steve and Ingrid were somewhere on the floor, on a mattress. Harry could feel the rough weave of a kelim under his knee. He was happy to listen to Inge. Her expelled breath was evidence that nobody felt possessive, nobody thought they owned anyone else. He had just come inside Rachel. That had been quite an effort since he had come inside Ingrid less than half-an-hour earlier. It was a shame really. Ingrid’s skin was coarse. She had moved beneath him in a rather sluggish way. He had not met her before that night. She was somebody’s au pair, and she had been asked over merely as a partner for Steve. Rachel was different. She was pretty and slim, white of skin and intelligent. He and Inge had met her in Turkey at the same time as they had met Rodney. She was Rodney’s constant companion, and Harry had always fancied her. Now, when the opportunity arose, it had proved more of an effort than a pleasure. Still, from the way she was gasping, Inge seemed to be enjoying herself.
Harry dwelt on that night, as he dwelt on the night when Inge had slept with Charlie and Jane. This he had only been told about by Inge. Nevertheless he dwelt upon it. He was keen to have Inge with another woman, just as Charlie had done.
To witness the manifestation of your friend’s appetite was a singular proof of love. There was an honesty about it. If their appetite was for someone other than you that was alright. It was your hang-up if you couldn’t take it.
Such liberated notions were Harry’s gospel, and Inge went along with his ideas. She was a fine-looking girl. There were tall men who desired to give her pleasure. Harry was not so tall, but Inge still respected him, and she enjoyed his body. Together they embarked on adventures and tasted many nights of experiment.
After the birth of their daughter Dawn, these nights of experiment were curtailed. Inge had her studies, and when she was not studying she was looking after the baby. She seemed to resent him talking about other girls or wishing to continue their experiments. Harry dwelt on her gasping under Rodney. He dwelt on her lying there between Jane and Charlie. Before Dawn was a year old, he had walked out on Inge. Perhaps it was only a gesture Even so, he began having an affair with a free-and-easy girl whose name was Rosemary. He was living in a friend’s flat in Belsize Park while the friend visited New York. And so it seemed that they had split up. But walking out was probably only a gesture on Harry’s part. Pretty soon his friend would have arrived back from New York. Harry would never have started to pay rent when he could live in the house with Inge. He was not terribly serious about Rosemary either. He was serious about being free to have an affair though. But he did need to see Dawn. Dawn was his daughter after all. One afternoon, after having left Inge, he had condescended to visit the house.
And so we had driven to Kew. We parked Inge’s car and went in through the gates. It was winter. On the grass under a black tree I squatted down on my haunches. Somehow this meant freedom. We could split up for good now. Not just as a gesture. It could mean complete freedom to be myself again, and for as long as I wanted - not just for a few bachelor days in a friend’s absented flat. Even in the cold, I then began to feel hot. How could I think this thought? Shouldn’t we immediately have another? Surely I had to offer that?
Inge had walked on through the bleak gardens. Now, slowly, she returned to where I squatted under the black tree. My hands were pushed into my pockets. I had not seen our daughter dead and blue. Inge had told me of this. She had turned blue. I had not seen her myself. I had not pushed through the double-doors to look. After Inge’s call, I had hurried over to the hospital in a taxi. Inge had met me outside. ‘Don’t go in,’ she had said. ‘It’s too late. You don’t need to see her.’ She had said it only to spare me the sight. But then my nerve had failed. I had simply nodded my head. I had not insisted. Did I want to see her dead and blue? My daughter? Well, I agreed to leave it, to leave her there unseen, behind the double-doors. We had gone home from the hospital in the taxi.
She thinks it makes him surly - which it does. Still, he insists on smoking.
Smoking is one of his pleasures. His other pleasure is sex. He finds both irresistible. On its own, neither one of these hankerings demands much of an outlay. In combination though, they call for a large one.
Each of these cravings affects the other. Often, when he gets stoned, he turns into a remote creature, not at all interested in sex. At other times he is only excited by making love and not very keen on getting high. There have been occasions when he has got stoned and then made love, but then the love-making has seldom proved satisfactory. On certain rare occasions, he has recognised that sex can be a problem. But it has hardly ever occurred to him that dope can be one too.
He was first offered some grass among the dunes near Cap Ferret. At the time he had been reading English at university and was a member of the university’s gymnastics team. The team was coming back from an inter-varsity event in Madrid. They were travelling in a minibus and stopping at campsites each night.
They went around in shorts and track-suits. Harry had gained the highest number of points for his exercises on the mat, but his team had been knocked out of the tournament. It had been a time of frustration. Some very fey young men had hung around the team, often offering to take its members to dinner and then afterwards attempting to seduce them. This had annoyed Harry. It was not just that the young men fancied him - that he could take in his stride. It was their effete manner which had offended him. They had all been frightful queens. Alright, a man might like a man, but why should he act like a woman to prove it - and not even like a woman - like some caricature of one? Yet some of his team-mates went along with this nonsense. Harry felt under pressure. Their antics got his goat. Such behaviour had nothing to do with his sport, and nothing to do with the discipline that was required of it.
Yet at the same time he was often irritated by their coach, who insisted that talent was merely a matter of discipline and sometimes set them useless and involuted exercises justified solely by his wish to teach them obedience. Harry had begun to question this dogma. It seemed to lead only to regimental results. From a very early age, Harry had been an exceptional gymnast, but now, as he went through university, he was looking more towards poetry, which he had always written. Gymnastics was beginning to seem limited.
A young American who had been in Viet-Nam occupied a tent near to that of the team. Like them, he was only passing through; but he and Harry happened to strike up a conversation by the wash-basins. Then the American offered Harry a joint.
Night had just fallen, and the moon was full. The American took him behind a dune and they turned on. The American told Harry to hold the smoke in for as long as he possibly could. He patted Harry on the shoulder and went away.
Harry strolled among the dunes, with the turpentine pines of that region on one side of him and the sea on the other. The large moon was shimmering on the waves. He ran down the side of a dune, and his run seemed to last forever. The ocean leapt, and each wave was distinct. The sand stretched into timelessness. It was flat, but it rippled beneath his feet, and its ripples were like the hardened sides of thousands of small fishes. The sea shimmered, and glittered and glimmered, as if it were all silver. He ran and turned an Arab-spring, then leapt back and upwards into the air. Springing backwards, up and over he went, with a flick-flack under the moonlight. It was indescribable. Everything enlarged. He tried dope again, and sometimes it was good. Once, in summer, he saw every drop of spray sprinkling from a hose, every crumb of pollen on the petals. He walked barefoot over the lawn and could feel the hairs on the grass-blades.
But dope has less effect the more he uses it. And the less effect it has, the more he uses the stuff.
When he gets stoned, he loses his temper, or at least he may Lose his temper if the conditions for smoking are not absolutely right. The right music, the right surroundings, the right company. Once he got stoned and watched a friend’s baby focusing on a cuddly elephant, and separating its image from the settee on which it rested. It was magical to watch the baby’s mind at work. There was nothing juvenile about that pre-verbal intelligence, rather there was something ancient about the baby’s wisdom. Perhaps it had to do with its baldness, the chubby folds of the torso. There was some quality the infant shared with Buddha. Harry was fascinated by this.
Since Dawn has arrived though, conditions never seem right for smoking. He rolls up his grass and puts on a record, and then his daughter starts to cry. After her birth, he never finds himself looking at the moonlight. More often than not he finds himself staring with dope-glazed eyes at a bundle of shit-smeared nappies. Inge is right when she says it makes him surly.
Rosemary has dope. She offers some to Harry at a party. She’s been going out with Dick, and this is Dick’s party. But Rosemary is as free as can be. She has brought some of her own friends along, she has brought dope, and she’ll get Harry stoned.
Harry is talking to Laura, a large lady in a smock of Indian muslin whose hair is piled untidily on her head. Dick’s place is packed, mainly with poets and publishers. Everyone is crowded around the bottles, dips and celery sticks in the kitchen.
‘Where’s Inge?’ Laura asks.
‘Studying, of course. Inge does nothing but study these days. It’s very dull for me.’
‘Dullness is what marriage is about, Harry. I should know. I’ve done it twice.’
‘But why should it be dull? Nothing’s changed. Inge’s got her figure back. I still fancy her. She was sewn up marvellously tight. Why should, it be dull? I don’t see why we have to stop having adventures.’
‘That’s the way it goes, Harry. That’s the way it goes.’
Just then Rosemary comes up with a joint in her hand. She puts the joint in Harry’s mouth, and while he inhales she feels him through his trousers. Laura moves away.
Harry has promised not to get stoned. Inge will be furious. She’s sure to find out. She can tell at a glance when he is. And if he arrives home late she will guess the reason.
Rosemary and her friends are going on somewhere else. She invites Harry to come along with them. This exasperates Dick. But Harry takes no notice. He leaves the party with Rosemary and her friends.
His subsequent night on the tiles marks the beginning of his bust-up with Inge. Perhaps it is only a gesture. But Inge hears all about it from Dick. She takes a dislike to Rosemary, more for Dick’s sake than because of her fooling around with Harry.
Rosemary allows Harry to fondle her. It is she who instigates these proceedings. Harry is high as a kite. He feels he can be free with this girl. They go out onto the pavement, and he puts his hand on her bum. She pushes back nicely against him, and the door slams behind them. They get into a car.
One afternoon, after having left Inge, I condescend to visit the house. Dawn is zipped into her pink romper-suit. Inge says little, but she puts on the kettle for tea while I play with my daughter. I sit on the steps which lead down from the dining-room (which is an extension of the kitchen) into the large reception room we have had made by knocking two smaller rooms into one. Dawn crawls towards me across the cork tiles. I pretend to be a tiger. I growl deep in my throat, and she gurgles with pleasure and crawls rapidly away under the dining-room table, pausing once to look back and grin at me. I crawl under the table after Dawn. Then I crawl away from her and she crawls after me. It’s funny how she does that. I smile. Things are going to work out. But I rise to go.
‘Aren’t you going to stay now?’ Inge asks.
Nevertheless I sigh as I put on my overcoat. I don’t really want to go. This will be my last gesture, a final signal of my claim to freedom. Things are going to work out. Tomorrow night I’ll be back, I think. I shrug at Inge and leave.
He rolled over and put his hand on her thigh. She curled herself more tightly into a ball. Then he tugged her hip.
‘Leave me alone.’
‘Why should I?’
‘Leave me alone. You’re stoned.’
‘But I like doing it when I’m stoned.’
‘I don’t like it. I can’t bear it when you’re stoned.’
He rolled away from her and made himself into a ball as well, at the same time pulling the bedclothes off her. She tugged them back in her own direction, and then he yanked them his way, twice as hard.
It was not always like this. Sometimes they would play a game in bed. Inge would lie on her back in the dark, perfectly still, ostensibly asleep. Ever so lightly, Harry would let his fingers brush her tummy. Then he would move his hand in the dark and touch her ever so lightly under the knee. Next he would pause, with his hand beneath the sheet, hovering over her skin. Then he would touch her hip or brush her thigh. Inge would shake, and then again lie still. Harry would try to do it so that it seemed as if his touches were mere accidents. He would never allow his fingers to brush her twice in the same place. He was always trying to defeat her expectations of where she might be touched next. Sometimes his fingertip would make contact just at the plumpest part of her inner leg. Then he would brush her knee-cap or her waist. The touches were lighter than stroking; a hint at her loins, a hair’s displacement. Inge would shiver and sigh. Then he would lightly prod her crack. The game would make her damp.
But none of this would work when he was stoned. Then it was better to stay dressed and write.
After Dawn was born, Harry got stoned a lot, and they left off playing the touching, brushing and prodding game. Most of the time in Morocco, and after they came back from Morocco, they rolled into separate balls and slept back to back. It was only in the desert that they clung to each other.
By the time Harry got to Manila he was feeling starved for love. Beautiful brown young girls looked after him. They were most of them students at the academy of cinema. They smiled and stroked his neck. But he was never alone with any one of them. They would seem perfectly charming and would dance with him on the roofs of hotels at receptions held for the delegates. Yet they never let him kiss them on the mouth. Harry accused them all of being flirts, but they laughed and shook their heads and said no, they were not flirts at all. They really liked him, but they had only been recruited to make the congress go with a swing. There were some beautiful brown young boys recruited as well as the girls.
That night we slept in the tent under a single blanket. The heat of the day had not prepared us for the chill of the night. Our guide and the tribesmen slept outside, close to the camp-fire. The desert floor was very hard. Inge and I kept all our clothes on. Without wishing for intimacy, we huddled together. I sensed that this was a test - another tough experience to share. It was so cold it was hard to get to sleep. I felt that only a thin layer of sand covered the solid rock beneath us. We lay against the hardness of the world, huddled together under a thin blanket. There had been a reason for coming. There had been a need to get away from clatter, mental clatter as well as the audible sort we had experienced in Marrakech. While jolting over the mountains in the bus, the Sahara had seemed a goal. There had been a reason for coming out here, but now we huddled together in the middle of nowhere. Outside the tent, the tribesmen shifted closer to the dying fire. An occasional cough could be heard.
Within an hour, many of their friends are with them. It is not long after they have driven back from Kew. These are their real friends; the ones they never service. The ones with whom they talk about art and anthropology. They are too seriously involved with these people to make love to them. The people they service are throw-away people; people who give them pleasure. But these have never been their serious friends. Their serious friends are systemic musicians and conceptual artists, poets interested in abstraction and minimalist sculptors. Others are neuro-physicists, neo-Keynesian economists and performance artists. Harry has started a magazine, and practically all of his friends are the co-editors.
A while back, there was a gathering. Harry talked about the idea of the text. Inge brought up the Trobriand Islanders. Harry maintained that language needed to emancipate itself from narrative. Narrative was to writing what figuration was to painting. Inge insisted that it was absurd to suppose that the islanders could see no connection between intercourse and birth. Theories like this told you more about the ethnographers who came up with such findings than they did about the islanders themselves.
‘But I thought the poetic muse was originally associated with the memory,’ said Mfannwy, who was a poet herself. ‘How can you deal with the memory without narrative?’
‘I couldn’t care less about memory. Narrative forces us into the past. But the past has set like cement. I’m into the continuous present. I want to live in a state of flux. I suppose it’s anarchy really. But if I’m an anarchist, then I want the writing to be anarchy as well.’
‘When it comes to anarchy, you can’t beat the police, ’ observed a friend called Robert.
’What do you mean by that?1
‘I’m quoting Bernard Shaw.’
‘Those ethnographers were positively Victorian,’ said Inge. ‘Well, they were Victorians. They had Victorian values of course, and these values got reflected in their findings.’
‘Aren’t we just the same?’ put in Anita. ‘Don’t our findings reflect our values?’
‘Yes,’ said an artist called Yehudah. ‘We discover free love, drug cultures and licensed schizophrenia. We observe dream-time and property sharing among the indigenous groups we study because those are the items we are interested in today in our own society.’
‘Violent anarchy isn’t freedom it’s fascism,’ Harry went on. ‘I’m into the pure anarchy of pleasure. I’ll find release for myself by following up my desires, however selfish that may appear to others. If more people felt free to pursue their pleasures then the world might begin to work.’
‘But men’s vanity,’ said Inge. ‘That’s just as much of a constant as the incest taboo. In one tribe they make a tremendous fuss about the husband when the wife is pregnant - everyone gathering around while he lies agonizing in simulated labour, while his wife goes off quietly into the woods.’
‘I don’t mean work in the sense of physical sweat. But if we all followed pleasure then the world might work as a system. While you’re concerned with your own enjoyment you’re not likely to interfere with the enjoyment of others. We can’t go on suppressing ourselves.’
At this gathering, Inge and Harry sat apart from each other, holding forth at separate ends of the room. They talked at the same time, each about their own subject. Nevertheless they could hear what each other said.
Harry was still in full flight. ‘That’s how we suppress other people. And that’s what leads to a clogged valve. Eventually the machine breaks down. It can’t run on suppression.’
‘Yes, but a lot of good energy is built up by suppression,’ Yehudah responded. ‘Sublimation of a desire can lead to some marvellous art. Suppression sets up a sort of fermentation process, I guess.’
Harry shook his head.
‘I don’t see it that way. Suppression makes everything tense. It’s like that body-building method they call dynamic tension. You can lock your arms together and pit one muscle against another without letting the energy escape from your own body. That way you can build big muscles. They look good, but there’s no suppleness to them.’
‘That’s what makes the job of the anthropologist so difficult. We see everything from our own standpoint. The Victorians look through Victorian eyes. And the man in that tribe sees birth entirely from a man’s point of view.’
‘They tear easily, those tension muscles. You can’t use them on anything outside a gym because they haven’t been developed through use. They’re pumped up with pressure. I think that’s the wrong way to build muscle. If you want strong, lean biceps it’s better to go to the woods with an axe.’
Harry has always written poetry, but he has also been a gymnast. His stomach muscles are still well defined. When in training, he worked hard and disciplined his actions. He could do flick-flacks and turn double somersaults in the air. He represented his university at the sport and took it very seriously indeed.
Then he began talking with friends who read philosophy. Blake and De Sade were often mentioned. He studied Provo literature and was impressed by the free white bicycles of Amsterdam. So he became a questioner. He began to see discipline as a strait-jacket. Eventually he gave up all forms of gymnastics except sexual gymnastics and those of the dance-floor. Now he has discovered anarchy in nature, and he equates the poetic imagination with riotous vegetation. But he does want his anarchy to work. He is forever looking for a system which promotes openness. Suppleness has become a symbolic quality. He thinks that there might be a more flexible way of organising society than that ordained by government.
In a somewhat theatrical context, it is just this sort of workable anarchy that he comes across in the square outside the Marrakech bazaar. Here there is no single point of focus. Everyone is free to perform as they wish wherever they wish. The crowds drift from act to act. In one space, a man is allowing a snake to bite him on the forearm. In another, a troupe of tumblers are climbing up each other to form a human tree. In a far corner sits a pair of camels. Next to them, a mechanic is working beneath a car. It reminds Harry of a fair by Breughel. Inge tugs his arm. A large crowd is gathering over to their right. They edge in among the other spectators, pushing closer and closer, until they can see. At first what is going on in the centre of this crowd does not appear to be very much at all. A brown gypsy woman wearing a red bandanna is squatting near a low fire.
The wing dipped over islands, bays and lagoons; all partially hidden by shreds of cloud. I leaned forward to peer down through the porthole. The plane slid over palm trees onto the runway. It braked hard, and then taxied over the tarmac to roll to a stop in front of the main building. Moveable stairs were driven up against the hull. I was wearing my smartest suit, and I stepped out onto the metal platform at the top of the stairs. From that moment, I began to sweat. The heavy heat of the tropics enveloping me under the dull sky was unlike any heat I had ever known. And then, at the foot of the stairs, I could see that I was expected to negotiate a corridor of smiling brown girls dressed in brightly coloured sarongs. Around their necks hung garlands of cream-coloured, sweet-smelling flowers: I learnt to call them “Frangipani”. As I stepped down onto the tarmac I was embraced from all sides.
Garlands were thrown over my head. My cheeks were touched by soft, laughing lips. Everywhere the scent of Frangipani.
It’s as though she had suffocated. But why? Very little is known about it. A certain percentage of babies just happen to die suddenly each year. Various theories have been put forward. Some babies may have allergies to powdered milk. Or they may react badly to sudden changes in room temperature. No virus has been identified. The cause remains mysterious, though heredity may affect the syndrome. The child turns blue, just as if someone had thrust a pillow over its face. Why do these small beings retire from life so early? Perhaps they die of loneliness or fright. In romantic novels you can die of a broken heart, so perhaps a baby can die of a broken heart. In ghost stories you can die of fright, so perhaps a baby can die of fright. The jagged gash of lightning. The crack of thunder coming immediately upon it. And the whole house gets a shake. Animals can die of grief or terror. Their breath comes in gasps. I remember a tiny pink mouth opening and then shutting, and no air going in or coming out. Then it is over. I sit with the small, furry corpse cradled in my hands.
So now Inge stands near him where he squats by the black tree at Kew. A while before, the taxi brought them home from the hospital, but as they got to the front door Inge said, ‘I can’t go in .’
‘Have you got your car-keys?’ he asked quietly.
‘Yes, in my bag. But that’s in the house.’
He paid the taxi, and it drove away. While Inge waited on the pavement, he let himself in with his key. Her bag was on the table in the dining-room. Without looking at anything else, he walked out of the house and shut the door behind him. He handed Inge her bag.
‘Let’s go for a drive.’
And so they have driven to Kew. It is a few weeks after Christmas, on a chill day. There are no leaves on the trees. He has squatted down, and Inge has walked away. He has been staring at the grass between his feet. And at length, walking slowly, Inge has come back to him. Harry remains in a squat with his hands pushed in his pockets. He can feel Inge standing near him, but he can’t bring himself to look at her.
‘Oh, God, what have I done?’ she says.
Harry stays close to the ground, like a man who has been punched in the stomach.
‘I think she was crying earlier. Anyhow, I just let her cry. I was so tired and fed up, you know.’
‘And then, when I went in to her, it must have been about nine, she was lying like that, all blue. I tried everything. I tried slapping her. I tried giving her the kiss of life. There was only this awful rasp in her lungs, every so often. I think I was just too late. I got Delphina to ring the hospital. And the ambulance came straight away. They tried to do what they could. But they said there was just nothing they could do. And all the time she just lay there, going more and more blue and clenched up, with a terrible little grimace on her face. It must have been so hard on her.’
‘I know, Inge.’ His eyes sting. Inge bites her lip.
There were men with snakes, and acrobats, and many men with drums. One man was allowing his snake to bite his forearm. Inge and Harry had come into the hard sunlight of the main square after wandering up a narrow street where rugs were sold. They had looked in a desultory way at the rugs. Bitten by one’s own snake. Harry repeated the phrase to himself later, after they had checked out of their hotel. They had boarded a bus and were rattling over the mountains towards the Sahara. Bitten by one’s own snake. Maybe he could get a poem out of that. But then there was too much meaning in the phrase. Inge stared out of the window through a film of dust as they came slowly down from the pass. Harry glanced at her and then turned to face forwards again. It was no good returning to symbols. He was interested in words as words – as realities rather than signifiers. But not that concrete stuff. Had to be some minimal change, enough to constitute thought - which was why permutations - one’s own bitten snake by - but how get beyond permutations? Snake bitten by one’s own. By one’s own bitten snake. But systems got in the way. Too constricting. Writing them out without error required such discipline that discipline appeared their only merit. A mental moo for discipline. Had to be done with that. Wanted something less pre-ordained. And now he caught himself not thinking about Dawn. Only a week since the day they had driven to Kew and already back into his own trip. Nothing as urgent as the quest. As the quest as urgent nothing. Quest for abstract poetry. Do in words what Glass had done in sound. Yes, but too predictable. Rule-bound. For Harry felt a need to release himself from his rules, and in the future free to feel some other need. Yeats’s father had said that a poet was free to change his mind once a fortnight. Freedom from rules was the trip for a change, while rules might be the change of trip tomorrow. But what never changed was the freedom to choose his own trip. People said that about him. Inge said he never saw anything from her point of view. But how could you see something from anyone else’s point of view? You were inside yourself, not inside someone else. Your world was the only world you saw. Bitten by your own snake.
They rolled to a stop. He and Inge stepped down from the bus with their bags. They stood in the centre of a wide, sloping square. It was wide and white, so wide that the white, flat-roofed houses looked small at its edge. There was no one around, other than the few who had also stepped off the bus. These were all local people, and they walked rapidly away with their trussed chickens and their rolled blankets. The driver went to the back of his bus and lay down. The engine of the bus ticked, otherwise there was silence. Above, the sky was large and blue. This was the last village before the desert. You could get no further by car or by truck.
From a very long distance away, a small blur of deeper blue approached. This blur enlarged until it became a billowing robe; the attire of a handsome, dark young man.
‘Salaam Aleikoom, voulez-vous l’hôtel?’
‘Nous voulons voyager dans le désert sur des chameaux.’
‘Ça je peux arranger pour vous. Quand est-ce que vous voulez partir?’
‘Est-ce que c’est possible de partir aujourd’hui?’
‘Je peux arranger ça pour demain. Il faut que vous louer les chameaux et un guide. Mais maintenant je vais vous montre l’hôtel.’
They booked into the hotel and were shown to a bare room with a low bed and a small wash-basin. Grains of sand lay sprinkled on the tiled floor. They went out, intending to spend the rest of the day exploring the village. It turned out that there was very little to explore - only the wide square and the beginnings of a single street. Beyond that there was a plain covered with small white stones, then a series of low hills. There was one cafe, where they sat until dark, each reading a book. Then they ate kebabs with bread. After that they returned to their hotel and went straight to bed, where they slept, back against back.
But the next day they rode into the desert, over the plain covered with the small white stones. Before nightfall their camels knelt. A fire was lit, and a tent was pitched. During the ride, Inge had tried to keep abreast of Harry, in order that they might exchange observations about their experience. She managed this a few times, but her camel seemed to prefer to follow in Harry’s wake, and its strange gait felt so irregular that really all she could do was hang on. Harry tried to rein back. But the camels were obviously accustomed to walking in single file.
Their first night in the desert was a shock. Harry had insisted that they bring jumpers, despite the heat of the day. Yet the night was even colder than he had anticipated. Once the sun went down, all the heat drained from the ground. There was nothing there to retain the heat. They were not in the least prepared for the intensity of the cold. And so they had shivered while they slept. The dawn came, and the sun rose, but the heat returned more slowly than the light. They stamped their feet and swung their arms. Both felt terribly stiff. But there was no turning back. Before the sun had risen far into the sky they had mounted their camels and set out again across the waste.
I had woken before the dawn. It was still bitterly cold. Inge remained clenched up, stunned into sleep by exhaustion at last, under the threadbare blanket. A pallid light began to penetrate the canvas. I crawled out of the tent. Darkness stretched endlessly away from me in all directions, with only a faint suggestion of light diminishing that darkness in the sky. Nothing yet distinguished the desert. I shivered and shivered again. Very, very dimly, I could make out mounds like graves at my feet where the guide and several tribesmen lay asleep around the cold embers of their fire. I walked swiftly away from the camp and nearly fell over the camels. These larger objects slept where they knelt in their hobbles.
A crimson line appeared in the east. Gradually a skyline became evident. Beyond, the camels I could make out the silhouette of a single stunted bush. Light began to return to the world. Beyond the bush there was nothing. A brown haze of nothingness and nothing else. I returned to the camp. Our guide was standing on his feet. He grunted a word of greeting. Soon the fire was restarted. Water was boiled. Inge came crawling out of the tent. She stretched awkwardly. Then she swung her arms. Her face looked drained and pinched. Small cups of black tea were put into our hands. The sun appeared. A few palm trees could now be seen, stones and more bushes. The sand and the rock took on colours.
‘It’s so still,’ said Inge.
The guide beckoned. While we stood by him watching he knelt down and cleared away the sand. Out of the desert he lifted the loaf he had buried. Swiftly he brushed off the sand. Then he broke the bread and handed a piece to me and a piece to Inge. Under its crust, the white flesh of the loaf was warm. It was the best bread we had ever tasted.
Dick gets into a huff of course, but Rosemary is quite prepared to try another sample. Later she lies beside Harry, gently frigging his limp penis after he has come inside her.
‘They’ve told me I can’t have one,’ she explains. ‘I’ve had two miscarriages, and then I got this infection last year - it’s alright now, but they say that it’s affected my ovaries. But I don’t reckon I’m infertile. I reckon it depends on the sperm. If I find the right sperm I’ll conceive again. I know I will. So I’ve had just about everybody I’ve met recently.’
Harry begins to go hard again. He strokes Rosemary’s flanks.
‘Have you ever done it with more than one person?’
‘I don’t mind how I do it, or who’s there, so long as I end up with sperm inside me.’
Rosemary’s skin feels dry. Her body is hot to the touch.
‘What makes you so keen on having it with two people?’
‘Well, I guess it turns me on. The trouble about being married is you feel totally approved of. All the relatives at the wedding, you know, sipping champagne and approving of two of you. When you were living together it was different. That was an illicit thing to do. But you see, I really like that. Feeling that they don’t approve. Being a naughty boy.’
Rosemary gets astride his hips. She lowers herself onto his penis. Then she begins grinding her bottom against the tops of his thighs.
‘It’s not just that it’s naughty though,’ he goes on, looking directly into her eyes. ‘Being with more than one person gets one away from that couples-in-love sort of crap. You know, like every ad on the box is about.’
Harry feels that he’s putting it across in her own terms - after all, she’s not an intellectual, indeed she seems less interested in his discourse than in rubbing his nipples into points. Nevertheless, he perseveres.
‘Love reminds me of Andrex. Images of people terribly in love say Hotpoint to me or Zanussi. Being terribly in love is just a commodity-enhancing media conspiracy. I find it an absolute turn-off. People who really get on prefer observing each other’s desires. It’s about being rude with friends.’
Rosemary bends forwards and brushes his face with her dry lips. She nips his neck, and her breasts dangle against his chest. He lifts his hips towards her.
‘How would you like to be rude with me?’ she whispers.
‘I’d like to have you with Inge. I’d like to have her kiss your lips while I put my fingers in both of you.’
‘That would be lovely. Go on.’
Harry goes on, in more and more detail, until he comes inside her again. Rosemary slumps over him and soon falls asleep. The candle at the bedside is still burning. Without waking her up, he slides from beneath her. The room is a mess of cheap materials and empty wine-bottles caked with the drippings from previous candles. He sits on the side of the bed and rolls himself a single-paper joint of her grass. This he lights from the candle and inhales.
The best times with Inge have been far better than this. Rosemary is hot and dry. Only his spit makes her at all slippery - spit, and his previous sperm. Her nipples appear to harden, but he guesses that they are always hard. Slowly he exhales. The bases of the bottles gleam in shaken candle flame. He picks up a twinkling piece of costume jewellery. There are several Tantric posters on the walls. Cheap Tantric posters. Inge would sniff at these.
Inge is uptight now, but she has not always been so uptight. They have shared Steve, and that was lovely. And when they have been alone, Inge has sometimes been playful. Harry has even got her to dress up in his string vest, as well as to wear stockings and suspenders. Among artists and writers, these enticements seem all the more scandalous because of their trite vulgarity, yet for Harry’s sake Inge has been prepared to go along with these cliches of desire, while he’s been prepared to do as she wishes, if he can guess what she wants. Inge prefers him to guess her needs - she doesn’t like to spell them out - and sometimes he succeeds. Sometimes he can make her more wet than any woman he has ever gone with.
It was like that the summer before last. They had gone on a holiday to Norway. Inge told him about midsummer night disease. This is when the men queue up at the doctor’s the next morning with their pricks stuck in their zips. Inge and Harry laughed a lot that summer. She was keen to flirt with the potter and his wife. Then it was Harry who had held back. Inge felt so ripe. She was not on the pill, and she looked so beautiful, and she seemed so confident in her own country. Love-making was uppermost in their minds. They had made themselves a secret nest in the heather above the fiord.
The night after my visit to our house we meet at a party. Actually to say that we meet is a bit of an exaggeration. Dawn is there in her blue romper-suit, clinging to Inge’s shoulder. I’ve come to the party with Rosemary. Inge ignores me. At this point in time, I’m completely obsessed by Rosemary. Rosemary seems on fire. She is naked beneath her woollen dress. When I feel her I can tell that she’s wearing nothing underneath. I first met her at Dick’s party. At the time, she was screwing Dick. But then she was screwing everybody, even her landlord. The night before she met Dick, she had invited the cab-driver to come upstairs with her after she’d paid her fare. Rosemary really does want a sample of everybody’s sperm. She feels sure that some sperm will work for her where other sperm has not. The right sperm will get her what she wants. I’m turned-on by her availability. I’m violently attracted to her because she doesn’t care what people think. I guess she’s the epitome of freedom. I’ve stolen her off Dick in so far as it is possible to steal anyone so readily available. Dick is in a huff of course, but Rosemary is quite prepared to try another sample.
‘We call it the ghetto,’ his friend replied. Their chauffeur-driven car cruised on past the white wall of thirty-foot-high boards behind which little could be seen.
Harry turned to the palm-fringed, glittering sea. It was unbelievable to be here, thousands of miles away suddenly. Thousands of miles from Inge.
‘You’re not going to go, are you?’ she had asked, when he had shown her the telegram he had found waiting for him on their return from Morocco.
He had moved away from her and stared out through the window at the grey street.
‘Well, Inge, I’ll never get another chance.’
‘Basically, I ought to. It’s very good for my career, you know. I don’t think I should get a reputation for turning down this sort of thing.’
‘Harry, how can you? Oh, please don’t. I can’t bear to be alone here. Not for a while.’
He had sat down on the sofa with his hands deep in his pockets.
‘Very well, then. I won’t, I suppose. I’ll have to put them off.’
She had sat down next to him and had taken his arm.
‘I’m so pleased, Harry. I don’t want you to go.’
Then there had been a silence.
The chauffeur-driven car glided smoothly on, and Miranda Cruz was babbling something in his ear. Large hotels slid past them. Palms waved in the breeze. Harry remembered how odd it had felt back in their house. The cot had gone, and the baby-cage had been stored away. Dawn’s romper-suits and little shirts had all been packed into bags and shoved out of sight. They could be given to someone else with a baby.
There was no evidence that Dawn had ever been there. Nevertheless their house was haunted by her small ghost. When he looked at the dining-room table he recalled crawling beneath it, pretending to be a tiger. She had just learnt to climb the stairs. And now she was a small ghost wailing quietly for exorcism. Inge would not go into the little bedroom which had been Dawn’s bedroom, although it would have made her an excellent study. The feeling of absence kept recreating her presence. It had been like this after her funeral. They had not wanted to stay there then. It was little better now.
After the funeral, his mother had suggested that they get away. The funeral itself had been a trial. Harry had found it difficult to express any sadness. Mostly he felt bewildered, and from her external actions it seemed that Inge felt much the same. They were both trying to cope. His mother however was quite given over to grief. She was a breeder of dogs and horses, and she related to foals and pups more easily than she did to human beings. With humans she behaved stiltedly and was often at a loss for words. Children were a different matter. The smaller the human, the more of an animal it seemed to her. Her love of Dawn had been absolute, and her pride at being a grandmother had been considerable. She had aged visibly since Dawn had died. She had slowed down. She would sit on their sofa for a long time without saying anything, and then suddenly remind them of some small action of her grand-daughter’s. This great sadness obstructed the sadness Harry sought to express.
‘You must have another child,’ she kept saying. ‘You must have another child, you know. It’s the only thing to do.’
But the house remained Dawn’s territory. The stairs up to the first floor were the stairs she had learnt to negotiate, and the dining-room was where she had fled on all fours, turning only to grin at the tiger who was after her. Inge and Harry both felt bewildered. They needed to get away.
So after the funeral his mother paid for them to fly off to Morocco.
I sat down at the table and began to roll a joint. I was using some very good grass, so there was no call for tobacco. Crumbling lumps of warmed-up hashish onto tobacco is the usual British way of making a joint. I’ve always preferred the American way: a joint of grass, and nothing but grass, rolled in a single paper.
Not long before, I had taken up the offer of a residency on an American campus. Inge was already pregnant. But leaving her to grow larger as she did up our house with her ex-husband, I took wing for the Mid-West. On arrival I was given a cheque-book and an apartment. This enabled me to concentrate on my writing and to smoke some wonderful grass. During my time there, I serviced a succession of girls who were majoring in poetry as well as the very pretty wife of a local dentist. Inge joined me in New York for Christmas and then flew back to enlarge still more in London. Her ex-husband was a painter, and he painted our house in imaginative colours. I flew back to the Mid-West. I completed a systemic text on the joys of making love and then flew to London. Our house was finished. It looked smart and exotic - a wonderful showcase for our kelims. Dawn was born a few months after my return.
Now we were spending a few wintry days at my mother’s. I sat in our bedroom, lit up and inhaled while gazing rather languidly out of the window at the yard. The sky was dull to the point of whiteness, and the leafless trees on the heath beyond the yard were buffeted by gusts of violent wind. I had only recently taken up with Rosemary. I remembered the Mid-West with some regret and was at the time in the grip of an exasperated reaction to all things domestic. Baby matters disgusted me. I wanted to make love in a liberated way again. It was what I stood, for. I inhaled again. Inge came hurrying out of the house, pushing Dawn in her pram. She propelled the vehicle towards the front gate and then down the lane, and was soon out of sight, gone beyond the thicket of brambles and elders which had grown up around the compost heap. From Inge’s hasty movements, I guessed that she was furious. She obviously knew that I was smoking. She always knew, even when there was no evidence that I had smoked. Since having Dawn, Inge had gone off smoking. She hated me to smoke. She thought it made me surly - which it did.
They are both proud of their kelims, which they have collected together on trips to Kayzeri, Damascus and Tabriz. Purchasing kelims has taught them how to haggle.
‘Two hundred? Far, far too much. I wouldn’t give you fifty!’
Such remarks are usually expressed in body-language and signs. There is much lifting of chins, shoulder-shrugging and dismissive movements of the hands. It is very important to stride firmly away from the shop with one’s nose in the air, and then to be seen sipping tea with another merchant in the bazaar.’
Inge is very good at all this. She is tall, and she possesses a brand of Scandinavian arrogance which proves devastating among the small brown men of these Middle-Eastern markets. Knowing just how to haggle is indicative of their experience of the Orient.
Their house back in London is full of kelims; a few of them spoilt by garish modern dyes. These are the first they purchased. Others have been slashed with knives, which shows that they have been used to cover the bodies of the dead - these are always good bargains.
Their best kelims are not laid on the floor. They are hung on the walls and treated with more respect than the paintings they have wheedled out of their artist friends. The woven lozenges of these kelims are much admired by visitors. Then there are other kelims draped over chairs and over the sofa.
Harry’s mother is very much a country person, Inge sometimes resents her visits. She arrives with muddy shoes which she always neglects to wipe on the doormat. Well may Inge wonder what she thinks the doormat is for. When she sits down on the sofa, she transfers her dog hairs to the kelims. Harry maintains that his mother owns far too many dogs. She has always had two of her own, and of course she inherited two from his grandmother when she died. Neither of the two lines – his grandmother’s Dandie-Dinmonts, his mother’s Afghan hounds – have subsequently been allowed to die out. As one bitch grows old, another bitch will have pups, and Harry’s mother will keep one of the pups from a litter whenever a bitch grows senile. There are always far too many dogs around.
Harry is very critical of his mother, but at the same time he hotly resents Inge’s criticisms of her muddy boots and her dog hairs. To attack her is to attack him in some way. Harry will retaliate by attacking Inge’s parents. Inge’s mother keeps their family home so clean that if she has spilt a splodge of mayonnaise on her gleaming Norwegian floorboards she can simply bend, scoop it up with a finger and pop the splodge in her mouth. This is a blatant tidiness which demonstrates how Inge’s mother has nothing better to do than fuss around the house.
When Inge goes home to her parents she often finds the atmosphere quite stultifying. However, when she is in London, she sometimes feels that she respects their values. It is as if she can only love them at a distance. Her irritation at Harry’s taunts usually increases with the length of her absences from Norway.
Harry grew up on a farm. He has lived within the clumsy, untidy friendliness of animals. During his adolescence he reacted to his upbringing and embraced the slicker values of the town. Dog-shit on carpets annoys him, but otherwise his urban ways are something of a veneer. From an early age he has seen how animals are born. He has witnessed them being mated and has watched them as they died. He is used, to wading through mud in fields. His childhood has been dirty and quirky. There are things he has known about which the other children in his class have not known about. But it has taken him a very long time to learn how to do up his laces, and no one at his mother’s farm has ever told him to pull up his socks.
When Harry was eight year’s old, one of his mother’s bitches went through a phantom pregnancy.
A small woman meets me at the end of the corridor of laughing faces. She places her own overpowering garland of Frangipani around my neck and then kisses me on both cheeks.
‘Welcome to the Philippines,’ she cries.
Miranda Cruz and I became acquainted in the Mid-West. We were writers-in-residence at the same college. Miranda is a skinny, dark little woman. She reminds me of a monkey. Her legs are like sticks, and when she gets excited she waves her spider-monkey fingers at her listeners. She presides over part of the university in Manila, and it is through her good offices that I have been invited to the Afro-Asian Writers’ Congress which is being hosted by Imelda Marcos. I am neither African nor Asian. My role is to be that of an observer-delegate. Now Miranda takes my arm. Next, I am waved through customs, still in my sweet-scented garlands. Miranda chatters incessantly. We get into a car.
I had woken before the dawn. I had crawled out of the tent, shivering with cold. It was still very dark. I had walked past the vague mounds near the remains of the camp-fire, past the camels and away from the camp. Now I paused at a small, stunted bush which could barely be made out against the darkness of the desert and the mere glimmer of pallid light underscored by a crimson line to the east. I could walk on now, and get lost. It was supposed to be easy to get lost in the desert. I could walk on in this preliminary gloom, and in a few hours I would presumably be lost. Why had I come here with Inge? To find myself or to lose myself? Or had I come here to find her again? Had she come to find me?
Christ, it was cold. There was nothing romantic about the desert night. If this was supposed to be some sort of second honeymoon, then Inge and I had made a mistake. There was no way one could feel tempted to loosen one’s clothes. The cold rose up from the ground and penetrated the bones.
I would have liked to have walked further from the camp, but I could not risk getting lost. Also, I needed tea, or something to revive me. In the desert, survival mattered more than sensuality. It over-rode my poetic whim, my need to walk on and get lost.
For the remainder of our trip into the desert there were two dominating sensations: the sensation of soreness during the day, as our legs were chafed and our muscles abused by the strange gait of our camels, and the sensation of cold at night, a coldness which robbed us of sleep.
Back in the village on the fringes of the desert, a wedding was being prepared. In the home of the bride’s family, the women were busy cooking. Relatives had begun to arrive. The bride was sitting beneath the tattooist’s needle, and a deal had been struck with a celebrated family of musicians who resided in tents at a well nearby. A day later, when Inge and I returned on our slow-moving camels, the wedding ceremony was in full swing. Our guide turned round in the saddle and grinned. Lines of ululating women advanced, and retreated in the white village square.