A Short Story
BY HANIF KUREISHI
“YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY A SENSITIVE MAN.”
She came to see him for the first time one afternoon to discuss the possibility of taking a master’s degree under his supervision, and this is what she said to him. Turning Esther Wilson down was not really an option, his department head implied. So Ray ford simply turned, in his mind, against her. He would be cool with her. And why not? She was clearly well connected; her husband gave generously to the university, or something in that line. Dinner parties had to be involved—they always were. Privilege had not passed her by; surely she didn’t require being liked by him as well?
Esther was in her middle fifties, but now, when women in their sixties were wearing track suits and taking up windsurfing, she seemed older. She wore the sort ot shoes women pruned roses in, and blouses, cardigans, and tweed skirts, all expensive, well made, and exquisitely undistinguished. Her clothes didn’t seem to agree with her; they misrepresented her. They looked as if, in a shop, she didn’t quite know what to buy, perhaps because she didn’t know who she was. He laughed at this projection; he was like this, he knew.
She was alert, she spoke quietly, she was self-depreciating. Off she went, feeling her way into understanding, leaning forward, fist clenched, and then she withdrew, just in case. “But perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m hopelessly off the mark.”
“Perhaps you are.”
“Yes, I’m sure I am.”
This was her manner, not her character. Still, it irritated him: he wondered if older women developed this trait of caution so as not to seem too irritatingly certain of things. Certainty would be the domain of their husbands.
But in Esther self-doubt and self-questioning were not a weakness; they were a passion, they distinguished her. Ray preferred this to the behavior of middle-aged, middleclass women who returned to university when their children left home and who shouted out self-important questions at his lectures and went to dances as if they were eighteen.
Ray was in his early forties and immature. How could he not be if he couldn’t get his hands and feelings to stick to any woman, even though he’d advertised in Time Out: He’d begun to think women were shallow to set such store by appearances. He’d arranged to meet one woman in a pub he knew to be badly lit. He arrived early, bought a bottle of wine, and set down two glasses, so that she didn’t have to see him walk to the bar. As they drank, they fed each other questions on the mutual interests they’d corresponded about, the theater and Graham Greene. And he wondered if this was the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with—until she excused herself and never returned. The other women had been lacking in the mental area. Young women students turned him into a lecher. As they fled, he pursued, all hands, until he hated them.
But at least with the young women undergraduates he could flirt; he could patronize and show off. He could sit smoking in his airless, modern college room, looking out on the London traffic, his poor feet up on a chair, Blonde on Blonde playing as he lectured on American literature of the 1960s. They had to call him Doctor. But Esther called him Ray from the beginning. To contain her growing interest in him, he needed to be formal. She wanted to be easy.
Esther wasn’t discouraged by Ray’s polite indifference. She began to go to his undergraduate lectures on Lawrence and Joyce and even Orton, writers not on the syllabus when she’d been at Oxford. After the lecture, as he crookedly propelled himself on crutches to the lift (he’d had arthritis as a child, which had slowed his growing as well as hampered his walking), she would accompany him, but diffidently, making gentle jokes, holding her books and papers in her arms, and carrying his lecture notes, too, as he swung and grunted in effort, a real Gregor Samsa. And the young students rushed off past them to the bar, to the common rooms, to take drugs and have sex, which is what he wished he were doing.
Over the years he had heard students calling him Quasimodo, and the Cripple, and he laughed at their innocent cruelty. Esther’s sympathy was far worse. Esther, with inquiring kind eyes that rarely left his swollen face, saw the physical pain that never, for a minute, left him alone. He had reason to suspect that she saw the need and longing, the distorted emotional life, vitiated by shame and rejection and physical isolation. She would know, surely, exactly how much people need to be touched!
Soon she was always in his room, making him tea properly in a pot, buying him a tea strainer and two pretty bone-china cups. She brought florentines from a bakery in South Kensington, and he ate them eagerly, like a schoolboy, two or three in a session. She had come to university to talk, to inquire into every damn thing, to know other people—him!—intensely, intimately again.
“Tell me . . . do you—it may be an impertinent question—”
“No, no, I’m sure it’s not. Please—”
“All right, Ray. . . ” She sipped her tea, put her head to one side. She was small and delicate and determined to know and feel.
“Have your feelings toward your students changed over the years?”
“Is it confusing?”
How could he explain? She always asked the right and yet wrong questions, the most tormenting. In the old days he provided the dope the students smoked; they came to his flat, they watched movies together. Once he’d been in a pornographic film some of them had shot, a sub-Warhol effort called Camden Girls, in which he played a naked dwarf who carried drinks on a silver tray to the young copulating students. But slowly they’d come to bore him. Esther Wilson, virtually an old woman, was informed about theater, film, television, ideas. If he mentioned that a certain newspaper had deteriorated, she would know how this had happened. “Oh, yes, terrible, and the editor, Jonathan—we do know him a bit—is very much aware of the proprietor. Thinks he can resist him. Can you imagine?”
Esther read Ray’s essay on Wilkie Collins, published in an academic journal. One afternoon, on an impulse, as she sat opposite him in his room and showed no sign of wanting to leave, he gave her the first draft of his book on Dickens, which she immediately took to the library. She knew how to read, which was a rare talent, as difficult as carpentry. He waited nervously for two days. On her triumphant return she gave him line-by-line criticism. The early evening thev spent together in a wine bar nearby. He told her about his illness, how very sick he’d been for so long at school, and how hard he’d worked to develop his mind (he was proud of his head, he told her), and how the library was his gymnasium until he’d been adjudged brilliant and awarded the first job he applied for.
After this, when they parted regretfully, with volumes still to say, he didn’t want to be alone, so he drove to South London, where he visited his parents, who still lived in the terraced house he had been brought up in. He and his father discussed horse racing, and Trollope. His mother, wearing a pink housecoat, did his washing. They were cheerful but seemed old. They worried too much, and seeing them living a life of total habit made him long for more life.
He went round the corner in the rain and had fish and chips for supper, not wanting to ask his mother to cook him something. At ten he visited a prostitute, a fleshy, hippy woman who imagined he liked listening to Leonard Cohen when they had sex. She was right in one sense; the music did delay his climax. Unfortunately, her bed, a mattress, was on the floor, and once he got down onto it, he couldn’t get up again. When she returned from the bathroom, expecting to see him ready to leave, he was flailing on his back like an overturned beetle, still in his shirt, for he refused to let her see his body.
He went home and sat in his room, memorizing his daily poem. Loneliness washed over him like a freezing sea. Must he always suffer this disjunction between mind and body, intellect and feeling?
ONE DAY ESTHER INVITED HIM TO A MATINEE OF The Beggar’s Opera, at the National Theatre. He couldn’t think of any reason not to go, but he knew that somehow the invitation would lead to trouble. Esther told him about herself for the first time. Her husband, she said hesitantly, was the Conservative MP Walter Wilson, a junior minister in the Thatcher Government, a handsome, clever man on his way up, known for his glamour and his right-wing views. Thatcher liked him; he would go far. Wilson wasn’t in the suburban wing of the party either, among the sort who read Wilbur Smith novels on holiday. He was cultured, witty. At one time, in the sixties, he’d been a journalist in Washington.
Esther was grander than Ray had thought. Why hadnt she told him all this before? Did she think he’d be repelled by it? Or did she want to be seen, quite rightly, as completely separate from her husband?
Whatever the reason, Ray reminded himself, you shouldn’t personalize politics. Yet on the way home, after she’d told him about her husband, he repeated to himself a phrase often used at Cambridge in the sixties: objective class enemy.”
“Although Walter is a politician,” Esther said, as they walked slowly along the Embankment, “he knows a lot of people in other fields. He loathes talking politics; it bores him stiff.” Then she stopped and said, “We thought you might like to come and have dinner one evening. Would you?” She paused again, as if she understood how complicated this could be for him. “Don’t reply now. Just let me know on Monday. But I would like it very much if you did come.” Ray was flattered by the invitation. He wanted to pursue this; he was excited. But he didn’t want to conceal his views for the sake of a meal and a glimpse at people he’d only read about.
That weekend he felt he should discuss it with two exstudents. They were among his closest friends. One lived in a filthy studio and worked in a bookshop; he was unambitious and contemptuous of the straight world. The other was a drug dealer to the rich who wanted only enough money to build a gargantuan record collection. Ray had taught them both; they still read (Hunter S. Thompson and Coleridge), but they did nothing. “You’re just elitist drifters!” he said, losing his temper. They couldn’t see his dilemma over Esther’s dinner invitation. All those people were “boring, fascist, decadent.” He should, they said, go to the Wilsons’ house and crap in their beds—maybe then they’d see what it is to be hated.
Ray had a bath, which was a considerable effort, and put himself into his beige Yves Saint Laurent suit, the only decent clothes he had. He hoped the evening would be worth the supreme effort.
The Wilsons’ flat was in a quiet street off the King’s Road; they also had a house outside Cambridge. At the door Esther kissed Ray and patted his hand. This was the first time they had touched. He noticed she was wearing scent, and pearl earrings. Her arms were bare, thin and veined, almost transparent. The flat was full of old things: the books were leather bound, and there were rugs and antique tables and candlesticks. It was a gloomy place. He hated ornaments. Naturally he was the first to arrive, being stupid enough to get there on time. Then Esther disappeared for ages and Ray heard the clock ticking as he sat there on the hard chair she had provided. Otherwise all was silent. Noise and other people were what money sealed you off from.
Walter Wilson burst in with one arm outstretched, as if the arm were pulling him along. He was a large, confident, powerful man, who quickly poured drinks and said how pleased he was—and he looked pleased. He said he liked Wilkie Collins, education was better appreciated when you were older, and not to worry if he suddenly left the flat—he might have to go and vote in the House of Commons. Ray saw how much more energy Wilson had than anyone else he knew; this man was like an athlete among weekend exercisers.
Other people arrived, four couples in all, including a journalist called Robert Mansfield whom Ray had once admired so much that he bought a weekly paper just to read his column. Mansfield had turned to the right in the late seventies and repudiated his former opinions. Now he was pompous and had a face the color of boiled ham. Ray began to panic. He kept spilling things in his lap. He didn’t want to speak to this man, whatever happened.
At dinner Esther placed Ray between herself and a fairhaired gay man of about his age, a Ronald Pirbank enthusiast who worked for a literary paper. Pierre Carter was obviously more Esther’s friend than Walter’s. Ray wondered if she unconsciously chose male friends who couldn’t threaten Walter. “Walter’s always trying to introduce me to girls. Carter said. ‟Walter can’t believe that evervone can t be like him. By the way, Esther, I met an estate agent today who made me realize exactly what Proudhon meant when he wrote ‘property is theft.’ In Vietnam it’s the Year of the Cat, or Earwig, or whatever. Here it’s the Year of the Estate Agent, isn’t it?”
Ray enjoyed listening to Pierre. At the university he didn’t run up against much charm, not this effort to entertain, not these wild stories about people he’d heard of— publishers and writers. He could cheerfully have listened for hours, even though things he considered valuable were mocked and he kept being made to feel that nothing mattered, not literature, not ideas, not objectivity, only jokes and the saying of clever things.
Still, the evening would soon be over, time was passing without mishap. Or at least it seemed to be, until Ray noticed a disturbance at the other end of the table. Robert Mansfield—a man who’d excoriated Harold Wilson over Vietnam and ripped into Alec Douglas-Home and then later claimed that the day Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister was the happiest day of his life—was having a vociferous conversation with Walter Wilson, and the discussion was rolling down the table like a storm, blowing the heads of the guests from side to side.
“Now, take the sixties, if you want to take the blasted sixties,” Mansfield was saying. “They were the truly wasted years, weren’t they? What an age of puerile and harmful illusions! What utter idiots and vapid cranks the ordure of ‘liberation’ fertilized. Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan—”
Wilson intervened. “Fanon,” he said firmly. “Marcuse. Malcolm X—”
‟R. D. Laing.”
‟R. D. Laing, exactly. Szasz. Schumacher.” It became a game. They searched out the names of fools and spat them out and laughed. ‟And who reads them now?” Mansfield said. “What have they contributed?”
“Nothing,” Wilson agreed. “Bloody fools.”
“If these people were such fools, why was their influence so deeply felt?” Pierre asked.
“Sartre,” Mansfield added.
“A mind like an African desert,” Wilson said.
Esther nodded at Pierre and then looked at her husband for the first time that evening. Ray noticed that her color was high: she was defiant, hopeful, pleased. Walter must have made her very angry over the years. Then Ray saw that Walter was staring at him.
‟What’s your view?” Wilson asked, challenging. Perhaps it was like this in the House of Commons. People asked you simple questions that required complicated replies and then glared at you as if your life depended on the answer. “You must have been around then, Ray,” Wilson said.
“Yes, I was at Cambridge in ‘68.”
Robert Mansfield was watching him too. “In the eye of the storm, eh?” Mansfield said. “So tell us—tell us what you think now.”
Ray stopped eating. He wasn’t enjoying the food as he thought he would; he couldn’t concentrate on it.
“Things needed shaking up,” he said, “They really did.” The table fell silent. Plainly, this wasn’t enough. Even Esther expected more. Given his education, his position, his being here at the table at all, surely he could come up with more than “things needed shaking up.
“The times were more exciting then, intellectually, than they are now. The thinkers you mentioned—disparaged—they were opening up new areas of inquiry.
“Rubbish,” Mansfield said. “ Thank God we’ve Hung out those cranks and redefined freedom. As it freedom were license and emotion and something called selfexpression.”
“It was a romantic time—”
“Don’t, I said, don’t you dare insult Wordsworth!” Mansfield shouted. “You should know better, Doctor!”
The conversation turned to the topic of freedom. Ray’s opinion was not sought on this subject.
THE NEXT TIME HE SAW ESTHER, SHE SAID, “I HOPE it wasn’t too awful.”
“No, it wasn’t,” he said. It was true. That day, directing the students in an Ionesco play, he’d walked out, bored by them.
The conversation at Esther’s that night had stimulated him. How long was it since he’d examined his beliefs? What was socialism to him? Did he still believe in equality? What was the relation between his ideas and the way he behaved? He spent several evenings writing down only what he honestly thought and felt. He told Esther this, and she seemed pleased. Still, the two of them had never discussed politics, and she changed the subject.
“By the way, Pierre wants to know if you’d review a book for them.”
“Yes, of course,” Ray said immediately. “It’ll be an honor.” This thrilled him more than he could say. He liked being an academic, but more than anything, he’d wanted to be part of the London literary world, w riting reviews and articles and perhaps one day having a column of his own. Maybe now, with Esther’s help, he was on his way. He wrote the review immediately—they were surprised by his speed—and within a few weeks it was published and he was asked to do another. To thank Esther he took her out to dinner.
He started to talk about how much difficulty he had meeting women of his “age, size, and sensibility. This was the hardest thing in his concealed life to talk about, and he’d longed to broach it, but now, just when he got started, Esther interrupted.
“Ray, I shouldn’t be talking about this. I haven’t told anyone, but you’re a friend, I know. Walter has been having an affair with the woman who’s been his assistant tor some years. It is a common occurrence; many MPs, many men of his age, do the same, and normally I wouldn’t bore you with it. But now he tells me he wants to part from the woman. Only she is threatening suicide. He spends hours speaking to heron the phone every night. He really wants to disengage himself, but the conversation always returns to one thing. He goes back to her or she ends her life.”
Ray took Esther home and went in for a whiskey. At eleven o’clock Walter came home, and he sat with Ray. Esther left them to talk. Walter was gentler tonight, and attentive. He talked about the Tory Party and how it worked; he asked Ray questions about structuralism— what it was, exactly—and pondered the replies. With an expensive mechanical pencil he made a note of books Ray recommended. Ray felt himself being seduced by this important, thinking man. Walter now wasn’t just another man who picked women up and threw them down when he’d finished with them: he was tragic, he followed his impulses to the end, he had much to give and a hunger for life. The telephone rang. Esther came into the room to tell Walter it was for him, and Ray went home.
A few days later Esther missed Ray’s lecture but came to see him after, in his room. I went to see Walter s mistress, Kate,” she said. “Well. She was wearing a dressing gown. She’d been drinking. She was in a state. She told me that during the five years of their affair Walter promised on sev - eral occasions to divorce me and marry her. She became pregnant last year, and Walter insisted she have an abortion, saying the time wasn’t right for them to have children. Now she is forty and wonders if the time may have passed.
I think she is a decent woman, kind and sensitive.
“She will eventually recover, don’t you think?” Ray said. “Not that I’d know anything about it. But I’ve read that people do, eventually, pull through.
Esther wasn’t listening. “Walter has led her a dance. She was of use to him when he was writing his book. She supported him when he lost his nerve as a politician—something that happens frequently, I can tell you. She has obviously given him her heart and he has shown her the door.
“Esther, are you going to be all right?”
“Meeting her distressed me. It has made Walter seem callous, hard, distant. When someone tells you they love you, they must, I think, open their heart, and he has often said he loved me. The word love implies an absolute giving, doesn’t it? And when you find they have not given you their heart but concealed a large part of their life from you, you feel pitied.” Esther sobbed. Ray felt useless and irritated. How had he got dragged into all this? What could he be expected to do or say?
Esther got up. But as soon as she was on her feet, her legs went and she fell over, there in his small room with the windows you couldn’t open. She fell onto her knees, her hand snatching down photographs and postcards he’d stuck to the wall. Then she went forward onto her face.
Ray, on one crutch, went to her as she lay there shaking. Loosen the clothing, he thought. He fiddled with the top of Esther’s cardigan. “Nothing human is alien to me,” he repeated. To get away while seeming to be effective, he hurried up the deserted corridor to the water fountain. When he returned, Esther had moved; she was trying to sit up. As she did so, she waved at something across the room. Yes, she was pointing at the wastepaper basket. He handed her the heavy metal bucket as it was, half full of the screwed-up paper he’d been writing his latest review on. She vomited with three involuntary barks, ejecting a rush of thin and surprisingly dark soup that found its way to the bottom of the bucket, where it discovered a hole through which it seeped. He’d have to clean it up. But how? No— he’d leave the bucket outside for the cleaner. Not his job to clean things up. He was employed to think.
“I feel better now.”
He drove Esther home. For three weeks he didn’t hear from her. He didn’t ring and she didn’t appear at tutorials. He imagined that things were sorting themselves out and life would return to normal. All the same, he found himself becoming angry with her. For God’s sake, he didn’t want his mind full of these people’s lives, their genitals, their self-inflicted problems! England was teeming with people suffering because of this government, people in bad housing, the unemployed, children in rotten schools. He started to despise Esther, and resented the weakness of his involvement with her. At the same time, this was something he wanted to discuss with her. It was in the evenings that he missed her the most—not that he had ever seen her often after six. It was that he missed having talked to her during the day, and by evening his mind was crammed with things he felt she should know.
THREE WEEKS LATER, QUITE UNEXPECTEDLY, SHE came to see him again. She hadn’t brought her books with her, nor had she brought cakes; this was a different age. She sat down and looked directly at him. She was in a hurry.
“How are you, Ray?”
“Yes, fine. And you?’
‟I’m so ashamed. I haven’t done a stroke of work.” “You have time, Esther. You always tell me to take time with my work.”
‟Yes, you should. Some terrible things have happened, you know.”
But he thought: they are terrible to you, who have nothing more important than the intricacies of human relationships to think about. He didn’t say this.
“Walter’s friend, Kate—”
“Yes, how is she? Coming round?”
“She died. She committed suicide.”
“She actually did it?” he said stupidly, but she didn’t notice his stupidity.
“We heard nothing from her for a few days, which was unusual, since she rang frantically every night. Walter had given her the name of a psychiatrist he thought she might go to. Then her sister rang to say she’d found Kate dead. She’d been dead for thirty-six hours. The family is very bitter. They blame Walter.”
Ray and Esther walked in Green Park until dark. The effort exhausted him. His whole body ached, but he couldn’t complain. He thought constantly of the woman Kate and of the difficulty and seriousness of loving.
That night Ray was tired, but he dragged himself to supper with some ex-Cambridge friends. He shouldn’t have gone, but how could he have known the day’s events would stir him up so much?
He had three friends to whom, along with their three wives and five children, he was always Uncle Ray. The conversation, relaxed but serious, informed, and elliptical, was about books and television and mutual friends, before it moved inevitably to the Labour Party, its present weakness and how they’d all hated it in the late sixties and had wanted it destroyed to allow a revolutionary party of the working class to emerge. Now they wanted the Labour Party back in power in almost any form. They discussed the universities, the cuts in funding, the lack of belief in objective research and scholarship. More rich American students would be treating the universities like finishing schools. Little, it seemed, could be done as the age slipped into philistinism. People like themselves were not required, Ray realized. “We’re misguided jokes,” someone said. “Highly educated and capable and yet totally irrelevant.” The children slept in the bedrooms; the grownups drank cognac. At the weekend they would take the children swimming and have a picnic. You retreated into private satisfactions, into families. What you believed politically was a matter of words, perhaps of feeling—anger—but never of action.
Ray was drunk when he got home, and he knocked a bookcase over with his crutch. Once again he was alone; no one knew where he was or what he was doing. His existence was not recorded in any other human mind, except perhaps Esther’s. He sat at his typewriter and inserted four pieces of paper into the machine, with ancient carbon paper between the sheets. He wrote the letter three times like this, not wanting to risk photocopying. At four in the morning he finished and went out to post the letters. He had to post them immediately: in a few hours his fury, his courage, would evaporate. A policeman asked him if everything was all right. Ray told him he was an insomniac.
The letters were addressed to the Prime Minister and to the editors of three newspapers. They disclosed the facts about Walter Wilson and the suicide of his mistress. Ray had included a lot of detail, so that they would take him seriously. Here it was, then, a mere letter written by him. How could such a thing damage a government?
But the story did come out. Predictably, the papers were cautious at first. Wilson’s “assistant” had committed suicide. Then, a day later, Kate’s family spoke to the press, confirming the affair and revealing Wilson’s numerous promises and deceptions. The story got onto the front pages. It would run for a while. Damage would be done.
At college Ray discussed the scandal with friends and colleagues. He wanted to tell people what he’d done, that all this embarrassment was due to his initiative, but he had to suppress this wish.
He read the papers and watched all the television news programs. After the first few days of revelations and references to “Wilson’s recent suicide love,” followed by “No comment” from the MP, Wilson and his friends fought back, smearing the dead woman. She was promiscuous (a list of boyfriends appeared), perhaps drugs w-ere involved; mental illness was certainly a factor. Wilson, apparently, was going to get away with it; after all, wasn’t he just a normal full-blooded man?
Then the sister went on television. Kate’s sister was soft-featured, with rosy cheeks; she was nervous and middle-class. Ray knew immediately that the public would believe her before a smooth-chopped politician. Wilson’s ease and confidence before the cameras and press didn’t help him now; it made him seem shallow and uncaring. The sister read her statement, saying how Kate had loved Wilson, trusted him, been faithful to him, and how he had left her, driving her to despair. She produced a letter from Wilson that confirmed these things. This finished him. He resigned. He went away.
Ray woke up one day six months later to find he’d lost interest in the whole thing. He didn’t want to hear another word about it. It had nothing to do with him anymore. It wasn’t even particularly important. He wanted to write a book.
But one afternoon he heard a tap at his door, and Esther Wilson came in. She’d brought a chocolate cake, and she cut him a large piece. He was surprised by how unchanged she seemed, how cheerful she was. They groaned with pleasure over the cake. She asked him how the pain in his leg was, and how the reviewing was going. He concluded that she had no idea of his involvement in the scandal.
“Walter blames me for ruining his life,” she said, “for visiting Kate and saying that her persisting with him was pointless. I left her bereft of hope, he says. He is a difficult man to live with, Ray, I can tell you.”
Ray felt she was understating.
“Will you take me to the theater?” she asked.
He wondered how he’d be able to keep his mouth shut about what he’d done, but he pushed the event into a corner of his mind. After the theater he went to visit the prostitute again. She was stoned and it was late—no other clients would come tonight and she was in no hurry for him to leave. She kept calling him a friend. “Now we’re friends,” she said, and gave him a thin joint without tobacco. He didn’t feel like explaining that that wasn’t what friendship was. They lay there on a busted mattress in a shabby South London basement with the sound of footsteps just above their heads, and he thought of death and how, while you were still alive, you had to try and love other people in whatever way you could. He thought of Esther. She’d liked him, she’d listened to him, responded to him, loved him. He supposed they would carry on being friends. He knew he wanted that.
He pulled himself up into a sitting position. The woman stirred but continued to lie there, naked, on her back, staring at the ceiling. The bed stank of cigarettes, and she smelled of petunia.