On the train I tried to stop the memory, tried to catch it or let it catch
somewhere in my mind or even push it out. Once I'd been able to crowd anything
out of it, away like that. I'd had the power to do it or found that I'd done it
anyway, power or no. Yet every time I see a narrow street in certain light I
remember how I used to drag myself back to that disgusting bed-sitter, Victoria
Street and Grass Market, three quid a week, no light and in the dead of winter,
or as winter approached, stalked you, you had to sit practically on top of the
coal stove, electric fire at your back, to try to keep from freezing to death.
(Billy saw I was reading The Rainbow: "They're all bitches, you know,
Lawrence's women." I didn't think he ever read. I never pictured him looking at
anything but a textbook, so big he was, like an immense brooding Rodin, only
blond, eyebrows almost white, glass eyes as though you could see through his
head to the light, as though it was the light coming through the windowed skull.
He didn't care for my work, said it got decadent that summer in Italy. I said it
got some depth. He said: "Look at those muddy colors, you need to be very pure
in them, nice bright clear shapes, now they're muddy." "No," I said. "I
never learned the proper use of earth colors. I have a much better feeling for
them now that I've seen them." "Seen them?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "you
know I had no sense they existed in a natural state." "They don't," he said,
"they're bloody chemicals, too." "So," I said, "everything's a bloody
chemical if you want to view it that way.") Once I got there the fatigue just
grew up my body, and the next thing I knew I was prostrate with it, couldn't
even summon the strength to put some water on the gas ring for tea, and the dark
and the night fell around me and I could hear the sounds through the wall, cups
and dishes rattling, then the other boarders listening in. I've never been able
to since, they ought to use it for torture; maybe they do. Voices, fragments of
a song you once liked, can't even listen to again in any purity of space: the
news is cut into by some drama, a woman's scream you mustn't you mustn't do
that. . . Strange that I remember it after so many —
After the pictures invariably Billy and I would come back to that stinking
place, and I had to sneak him through, turn on the wireless to cover up our
voices so that I always heard him, us, along with that. And we lay on the bed,
or, that night, right in front of the fire it was getting to be so cold
and he had his arms round me and I was so restless, had a feeling I wanted to
thrash about or hit him, make him do something to me. I could feel it there
along my stomach, heat through his trousers, my skirt. Maybe he was shy, I felt
I'd help him with it, though I didn't quite know just how. He reached up my
legs, looked very embarrassed yet determined in the coal light, started to pull
my knickers down by the elastic tops. "What are you doing?" I said. "Let
me," he said. "No," I said. "I'll do that, I won't have you."
They were very dirty, all my underthings were. I just didn't have the energy to
wash them in that hard water, yellow soap, feel them grate on my skin all day.
I didn't want him to see that, but then I did, couldn't make up my mind. He
grabbed at them with both hands now, had my skirt bunched up round my middle.
"No," I said, "you can't." But he didn't stop and really I didn't want him
to, but I kept shoving at him, tried to hold my bottom to the floor, pushed back
very hard; but he just pulled them down between my knees and I tried to spread
my legs to keep them there, heard a seam rip, grabbed his hands to make him
leave them alone. I thought I looked so bloody funny with my stockingned legs
jouncing around in the air, long heels kicking. Then he looked very serious and
I knew I'd better lie still. He tried to get it in but it hurt. He put his
hand over my mouth, but very gently. "I won't," he said. "Try," I said.
"I want it very badly." Again he tried pushing but I couldn't have him. No
matter how excited it made me it always hurt. "Isn't there some way?" I said.
"Maybe I could get on top of you." "I don't know," he said, befuddled.
(Alfred had said: "I just couldn't bring myself to do it, you being so young, a
virgin, and me with a family and all." We lay in the grass, picnic food
scattered. "I was a fool to persuade you to come," he said. "No," I said
— I'd led him on while he was putting in the new window sash in the
kitchen that day. "Art student, eh? Mighty fine times." "No," I said,
"very dull." "Dull is it?" His hands were so dark, so hard. His voice
gravely. I didn't care if he was married, thirty-four years old. I let myself
go with him and when he said he'd meet me in Lytham Saturday week, come on his
bicycle, I said yes. But "No" he said after we had kissed and I smelled his
tobacco and the bitters on his breath. "I don't even dare to look at you."
My skirt round my thighs. "You're a virgin, aren't you? I can tell by your
actions. Are they lies, all those stories about art students?" "I told you
it's dull," I said, "just a lot of hulky boys from Aberdeen and girls with
blank faces all trying to be art teachers." "Ah," he smiled. "But I'll
show you what you can do for me, if you will." "Yes," I said, "anything."
With pants dropped he knelt over me. It was the first time I'd seen the penis
erect. Very big on certain models in life classes but never like they described
it in the anatomies.) "Let me help you, "I said. He started, eyes
suspicious. I put my hand under his testicles, said: "Come up here now, I'll
make it better for you." "Don't," he said, "don't you touch it. What are
you doing? Who told you how to do that?" "I don't know," I said. "isn't it
what you do?" "Who," he said, "tell me who showed you." He moved away.
"Let me," I said, "I'll do it nicely. Maybe later we can try again with me,
do you suppose we could do it with some petroleum jelly, make it easier?" My
hand lay still under his testicles. I could feel the weight in the palm, and
their separateness, veins and vesicles wrapped round them. I think he wanted me
to, but he held back almost angrily. "Please come here," I said, "let me
now." Finally he did, sheepishly, as though he really didn't want to. He
knelt over my face. (I tried to remember how I did it for Alfred that day. He
said you had to lick along it, underneath it, and suck, too, flick your tongue
that way if you wanted, chew it a bit, whatever, use your imagination, until you
felt it get very hard, him breathing in his excitement and then he'd just squirt
it in your mouth. You could spit it out if you wanted, I didn't know what to do
so I swallowed it. "You're a love," he said, "you know my wife won't swallow
it, calls me a nasty old man. I can see you've a bit more cheek. Is it that
bad?" "No," I said, "just different, very strange taste." He let me wash my
mouth out with stout.) There was so much I nearly chocked. I laughed. But he
looked hurt, angry too. I felt like making a cup of tea for him, having a long
talk. I felt we'd crossed some kind of barrier, tremendously free, relieved.
Next time we'd get into bed. I'd have to change those yellowed sheets. He
wouldn't have tea, said he'd got to study for exams now. He left. I had the
feeling somehow I wasn't going to see him again. "You'll meet me tomorrow,
Billy?" I said, "at the library, if you please." Then the curtain of music
and voices and static, bleeps, cups and dishes, came down around me. And I lay
in the darkness with that indescribable taste in my mouth.