James Lasdun was born in London in 1958 and now lives in the US. He is a poet, fiction writer and screen writer. His first book of short stories, The Silver Age (1985), won a Dylan Thomas Award, and his poetry collection Landscape with Chainsaw (2001) was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Poetry Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and named as one of the Times Literary Supplement’s International Books of the Year. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowhip in Poetry in 1997, won the TLS/Blackwells poetry competition in 1999 and in 2006 won the first National Short Story Competition with his story, ‘An Anxious Man’. His most recent book is the short story collection It’s Beginning to Hurt (2009).
Also published in Southword (print issue 6), this story can be found in Lasdun's new collection, It's Beginning to Hurt.
The house was a square Victorian building with a white stuccoed facade and balustraded balconies at the windows. Twelve granite steps, sheltered by a glass-paned awning, led up to a massive front door with a brass lion’s head glaring from its centre.
On Tuesday afternoons at five o’clock, Martin Sefton would climb the steps to give the Knowles boys their weekly lessons on the classical guitar. An au pair would let him in. Passing through a hallway that smelled of floor polish and fresh flowers, he would carry his guitar up the four flights of stairs to the boys’ rooms at the top of the house. As he climbed, he could see out of the landing windows onto the back garden, and sometimes he would pause to look down at the sizeable lawn surrounded by a mass of blossoms and foliage.
It was in a garden very like this that Martin had been inspired, at the age of twelve, to become a classical guitarist. The occasion had been a summer party in Highgate, where a man in a psychedelic shirt had been playing flamboyant pieces on his honey-coloured instrument out on the grass, surrounded by beautiful, spellbound young women. A distant, somewhat rueful memory of the event would echo through Martin as he gazed down at the Knowles’s garden. Despite having studied diligently at the Royal College, where he had been encouraged by his teachers to hope for great things, his career as a performer had not taken off. By the time he accepted that it wasn’t going to, his energies, as far as any large ambition was concerned, had been fully consumed. Besides, there was nothing else he wanted to do.
After he had given the boys their lessons, he would make his way back downstairs where an envelope would be waiting for him on the bow-legged hall table, with a cheque inside, signed by Mrs Knowles. Like her two sons, Mrs Knowles was dark-haired and pale-skinned with bright blue eyes and the kind of delicately-faceted English features that can arouse feelings of vague inferiority in those, like Martin, who do not possess them. She cultivated an extreme refinement of appearance that had made her seem momentarily older than her years when Martin had met her on his first visit to the house. She had been arranging flowers in the vase on the hall table when he arrived, and had continued doing so as she spoke to him, barely glancing in his direction after an initial, coolly appraising smile of welcome. Since then Martin had seen her only once, standing in a corridor speaking on a cordless phone, a secretive smile at her lips. She was wearing pink nail polish, pearl earrings, and a white silk tee shirt under which her breasts showed like two thorns. Martin had nodded at her, but although she was looking directly at him, she gave no indication of seeing him.
One afternoon, a few months after Martin had started teaching, a large man strode out from a corridor to waylay him on the stairs.
‘Hello there, I’m John Knowles. Good to meet you at last.’ The man shook Martin’s hand warmly, treating him to an undisguised once-over. ‘How are the boys coming along?’
‘Pretty well, I think.’
The man stood very close to him. His voice was powerful; not booming, but imposing enough to make Martin feel that he himself was mumbling. There was the residue of a Midlands accent in his speech. He must have been in his fifties—solidly build, with silvering eyebrows and thickets of dark hair in his nostrils and ears. He began questioning Martin about his life—affably and in some detail, though at the same time showing little apparent interest in the answers themselves. ‘Good, good’, he said briskly after each one, then impatiently shifted the line of inquiry. Where had Martin studied? Were his parents still alive? Which part of London did he live in?
‘And your own career ... giving concerts and … such’ – he gestured at the guitar case in Martin’s hand –‘going alright is it?’
‘Not bad, thank you,’ Martin replied circumspectly. The understanding, or at least the agreed-on pretense, with the people who paid him to teach their offspring, was that they were supporting a struggling artist, not just hiring some hack.
‘Good, good. Hard work, I should imagine, making a name for yourself in that field.’
‘Right. The world’s full of bloody virtuosos! But no wife and children to support, at least. Or perhaps you do have?’ The man’s yellowish grey eyes settled a moment on Martin’s, forceful but also uneasy-looking, as though he half-expected to be told to mind his own business.
‘There you go. Something to be grateful for, eh?’ He gave a blustering laugh, to which Martin responded with a polite smile.
‘Well, stop and have a drink with us one night after you’ve finished with the boys, will you?’
Two weeks later, Martin was accosted by the man again:
‘That drink I mentioned ... how would tonight work for you?’
Martin hesitated. He preferred not to socialise with his employers. The less he was obliged to say about himself in his capacity as a musician, the better. Not that he wasn’t reconciled with the state of things in that side of his life; he just didn’t enjoy feigning enthusiasm for something that was now simply a way of paying the rent. He looked for a harmless way of declining, but under the peculiarly overbearing nature of Mr Knowles’s presence – its odd mixture of assertiveness and unctuousness – his mind had gone blank.
‘That sounds very pleasant’, he heard himself say as the moment for plausible excuses passed. ‘Thank you.’
‘Good, good. We’ll see you later then. Just family. Tristan’ll show you down.’
At six-thirty the older boy escorted Martin down to a large living room on the ground floor, softly-lit, with silk-striped wallpaper and a pair of French windows opening onto the garden. Mrs Knowles was on a sofa next to her younger son. Her dark hair was up in braided coils with a few tendrils falling about her small ears. An intricate mesh of sapphires, the same blue as her eyes, circled the skin above the neckline of an evening dress.
‘It’s nice of you to join us’, she said. ‘Tristan, run and tell daddy our guest is here.’ She smiled distantly at Martin. ‘My husband’ll get you a drink, in just a moment.’ She turned to her younger son, ruffling his hair and fussing with his collar. Martin registered her apparent indifference to himself. At one time such behaviour might have offended him, but now he couldn’t have cared less. He observed her dispassionately. Her particular haughty beauty reminded him of a painting he had seen at an impressionable age, a portrait of an aristocratic lady carrying an enormous muff and striding across fields under a wild, dark sky, her elaborate coiffure dishevelled by the wind; her expression, at once hard and avid, provocatively suggestive of a woman on her way to an assignation. His eye was drawn to the sapphires, which rose from the pale flesh below her neck like some crystalline outcropping of her blue blood. Seeing Martin glance at them, she brought her hand up to her throat—almost defensively, it seemed, though she appeared surprised to find them there.
‘Oh. We’re going on to a dinner at the Nigerian Embassy. John’s building a new dam outside Lagos.’
‘That’s why I’m all dressed up.’
Martin smiled, wondering if this was meant to convey that she wasn’t all dressed up for him, and noting that not even an outright put-down, if that was what this was, had the power to touch him any more. His ability to detach himself from a situation in this way was a source of satisfaction to him, though he did sometimes wonder where, to what state of glacial impermeability, it was leading.
Mr Knowles strode into the room, pink-cheeked from shaving, and decked out in black tie. With him came a large, strange-looking woman of twenty-five or so, in a shapeless brown dress.
‘There you are’, he said. ‘Sorry to keep you. What’ll it be?’
Martin asked for a gin and tonic.
‘By the way, this is my daughter Charmian, the boys’ half-sister.’
Martin nodded at the woman. She murmured a greeting and sat on a hard chair at the edge of the room, staring forward with an expression that looked like fear, but was probably just the effect of her eyes being unnaturally prominent and far apart. Mrs Knowles gave her a faint smile, from which she seemed to cringe. She was painfully unattractive.
‘Charmian’s off in Devon most of the time,’ her father said, ‘learning to be a horticulturist or some such thing. But occasionally we’re graced with a visit. Whisky, you said?’
‘Gin and tonic.’
‘Right you are. Tell him about the gardening, love. She works like a slave for this landscape gardening company. Everything from potting the azaleas to digging bloody great ditches with a bulldozer, and all for next to nothing, which seems to me a bit daft considering she could buy the company ten times over with what we’ve given her, but there it is, wants to work her way up the hard way. Not that I’m against that, mind you …’
The girl’s face grew steadily pinker as her father spoke. She twisted a lock of her lank, mousey hair, her eyes bulging and blinking. There was an aura of debilitation about her, as though she had fought hard but been crushingly defeated in the side of life having to do with appearances and social graces. One of her eyes, Martin suddenly noticed, was dead—the light out in its grey iris. He looked away, sipping his drink and wondering how soon he could leave.
Mr Knowles came to an end, and as the girl said nothing, Martin felt it was his turn to make a contribution, if only to show he wasn’t completely lacking in the social graces himself. He turned to Mrs Knowles.
‘Nice garden you’ve got out there, speaking of gardens.’
‘Thank you. We enjoy it.’
‘That’s one thing I miss where I live, a garden.’
‘I know what you mean. They can make such a difference.’
‘I first got the idea of becoming a guitarist in a garden like that.’
He hadn’t known he was going to say that when he embarked on the topic, but the thought that he was now going to impose an intimate personal anecdote on Mrs Knowles filled him with a certain malicious glee. He realised that he had, after all, been stung by her offhand manner.
‘Oh?’ Mrs Knowles adjusted her posture warily on the sofa. Her lips bunched together, little dimples of polite anticipatory amusement forming on either side of them. Assuming a tone of light self-mockery, Martin began to describe the party he had gone to as a boy. At first he felt poised and fluent, so much so that he found himself half-imagining he was a fellow guest at the embassy dinner Mrs Knowles had said she was going on to, some suave diplomat seated next to her and mesmerising her with his stories, and in the briefly cushioning sweetness of this fantasy, he allowed himself to acknowledge that this disdainful woman – younger than himself, he realised – had stirred vague desires in him. For a minute or two he became expansive, flippantly evoking the little vision of combined hedonism and virtuosity he had received in that other garden. But as he did so, he felt an unexpected pang go through him, as though the event still held a charge of its original brilliance and had released it in a sudden vengeful throb. Jarred, he felt his tone falter. Then to his dismay, he lost his way in the anecdote, trailing off on an unintended and rather mawkish note of self-pity. Mrs Knowles looked at him a moment, saying nothing, but leaving him in no doubt that he had humiliated himself.
All the while he had been aware of the half-sister listening to him intently. He glanced at her now. His story appeared to have touched some chord in her: her face was a study in anguished sympathy. On second thoughts he wasn’t so sure that the eye was dead—maybe just askew in its socket, or lazy. He felt uncomfortably transparent under her gaze. She seemed on the point of saying something to him. He turned brusquely away.
‘So you like the outdoors, then?’ He heard Mrs Knowles say. ‘Plants and trees and all that?’
‘Well ... I suppose so.’
‘Just like Charmian! She’s always been a great one for the outdoors, haven’t you love? We’re thinking of buying her a house with some land that’s come up for sale near our cottage. Somewhere she can run her landscaping business from when she’s ready …’
‘Yes, stonking great piece of land actually. Almost a hundred acres. In Dorset, near the sea. Do you like the sea?’
‘Well it’s just five minutes away. Gorgeous. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the coast, but for my money it beats anywhere on the bloody Mediterranean …’
So it continued for another half hour. Then Mrs Knowles looked ostentatiously at her watch, and a moment later, to his relief, Martin was in the hallway, saying goodbye.
Mr Knowles gripped his hand. ‘By the way,’ he said, ‘are you doing anything special tomorrow evening?’
‘I’m not sure … I’ll have to …’
‘Just that we have tickets for Covent Garden. Peter Grimes, isn’t it, dearest?’
Mrs Knowles nodded. ‘Rather good seats, I believe.’
‘Unfortunately it turns out we can’t go,’ Mr Knowles continued. ‘Might you be interested?’
Martin loathed opera himself, but there was a woman he had met recently, a dancer working at the health food restaurant where he sometimes ate, who might be impressed by an invitation to Covent Garden. He hesitated.
‘We’d been looking forward to going’ – Mr Knowles pressed on – ‘but I have a client in from Dubai just for one night, and he wants to have dinner at one of these celeb chef places instead, so there it is. What do you say?’
Rebecca, the woman’s name was, slim and tall with pillowy red lips and no rings in her nose or eyebrows. They’d been sizing each other up for a couple of weeks, flirting casually. He’d been thinking it was getting time to make a more definite move.
‘Well,’ he said cautiously, ‘if you’re sure …’
‘Now I know Charmian’s keen on going, aren’t you love? Which is one ticket taken care of. And since neither of the boys can be persuaded, we thought you might like the other one. I imagine you would, as a music lover?’
Martin gaped at Mr Knowles, absorbing this. The full extent and depth of the man’s wheedling, coercive personality seemed to have suddenly disclosed itself, like some strange creature opening unsuspected wings. He realized he had been manoeuvred into a position where he had no choice but to agree to accompany the girl to the opera. As he heard himself do so, he was aware of Mrs Knowles walking serenely out of the hall with an air of having seen all she cared to of something a little unseemly, of the two boys looking at their father and himself with expressions of neutral appraisal, and of their half sister, Charmian, standing with her head bowed under what seemed an incapacitating weight of mortified shame, her large hands gripping the lavish scroll at the end of the bannister as if for support.
‘Grand. That’s settled then,’ Mr Knowles was saying. ‘We’ll see you here around six tomorrow evening, shall we?’
‘Alright,’ Martin said, angrily telling himself that as soon he got home, he would phone back with some excuse.
As he was turning to go, the girl looked up at him. ‘You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.’ Her voice was low and surprisingly melodious.
‘Now what’s that about, girl?’ her father demanded, frowning. ‘The man’s just said he wants to come!’
‘I mean if for some reason you discover you can’t come after all, I won’t mind.’
Martin held her gaze for a moment. Her face was really very strange—large and oval, with a propitiatory quality, like a salver on which certain curious, unrelated objects were being offered up for inspection.
‘I’m sure there won’t be any problem,’ he muttered, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’
He sensed immediately that she knew he was lying. Once again he felt utterly exposed, as though she could see not only through this small deceit, but all the way inside him; past his stoicism, past the disappointments underneath, and on into whatever mysterious flaw had brought them about in the first place. And far from accusatory, she seemed oddly forgiving, her expression suggestive of inexhaustible, pent-up sympathies. He turned abruptly and left.
On the bus home he concocted a story about having to visit a sick aunt in Surrey a day earlier than he’d thought. That would do for an excuse. What the hell did they think? That he was going to pretend to fall for the girl? All this time, he realized with a flare of rage, he had been under discreet scrutiny as he’d made his way up and down through the quiet house, had been appraised and judged suitable (suitably modest in his aspirations, was it, or just suitably hard-up and opportunistic?) as a candidate for what had no doubt been a longstanding attempt on the part of the household to off-load its damaged goods. The image of her sorrowful face came into his mind. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to, he heard her say again in her gentle voice. He turned his head abruptly.
Out through the windows he watched the glazed cornucopias of the Fulham Road reel by, then the river, bronze with red ripples in the July dusk. Another fantasy; half-vengeful, half-erotic, played itself out in his mind: he imagined himself marrying Charmian, living with her in a big house in the country. On weekends, while she potted azaleas or worked a bulldozer somewhere, Mrs Knowles would run across the fields to him in her finery, while he waited for her in some dark barn or stable. He pictured her in a state of reluctant subjection to her own desires, undressing for him, offering him her sharp breasts. Then the image of Charmian’s face loomed back—large, sad, beseeching, full of forgiveness … A wry look turned his lips: she, at least, knew what was what. Too bad she wasn’t prettier. In another world you might find happiness with a girl like that, but not this. Not him. Again he looked out, trying to rid himself of her image. The ochre brick semis and tatty high-rises of his part of London appeared. He liked the area; its anonymity and total lack of pretension. As soon as he got home he would phone the Knowleses with his excuse. Then what? Go to the health-food restaurant perhaps; have his usual tempeh and rice up at the mosaic counter, chatting with Rebecca. Maybe he’d suggest a drink after her shift. She’d look at him a moment, resting her eyes on his, long enough to convey that she understood what he was asking, then purse her pillowy lips and say either yes or no. If yes, they’d have a couple of drinks at the after-hours bar by the tube station, then either that night or the next go back to his place. Before they fall into bed, he’d take out his guitar and play her a couple of his party pieces: the Bach Sarabande; a Minuet by Sor. The affair might last a few weeks, maybe a couple of months. Then all the usual crap would start: other lovers creeping out of the woodwork, insufferable best friends, incompatible habits and needs; problems that nothing short of falling seriously in love could solve, and having given up on the idea of becoming a husband and father in any style he could have tolerated, Martin had disciplined himself not to fall in love some time ago. This was the pattern of his life. He had no desire to change it, and no intention of letting anyone else change it for him.
All the while the half-sister’s strange face continued hovering in his mind’s eye, gazing at him with its look of unasked-for sympathy. Again he heard her voice: you don’t have to come if you don’t want to. He shook his head violently. ‘Too bloody right I don’t,’ he muttered as he got off the bus. The people getting on stared at him but he didn’t notice. He was in the thick of a battle, and it seemed to him he needed every ounce of his strength to defend himself.
©2009 James Lasdun
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