Last night I was writing a brief story unintended for publication. It concerned my meeting with a stranger one wintry night in Oxford. The stranger, a young woman, sat alone in a public house in Broad Street; it was the eve of Epiphany and snow was falling heavily. We sat at the same table, unspeaking; soon we found ourselves in conversation. She was a remarkable person. Here is the first paragraph of the story:
I met her by chance in a public house in Broad Street, Oxford; she was tall and slim. To be frank with you I mistook her at first glance for a young man; I think it was the narrowness of her hips and shortness of her hair. She wore black moleskin trousers with sharp creases and a well-fitting black jacket, rather long; its lapels were faced with black satin. She was drinking whisky and water. She seemed entirely alone. She was sitting at a table beneath a window. Suddenly she reached into her breast pocket and took out a folded sheet of paper. She wrote a few words with a pencil and then replaced this piece of paper in her inner pocket. Aware that she was observed she looked up, her steady gaze traversing the bar. She was not a woman for glances. She quickly located me. There was a trace of open hostility in her stare. She sat back and rested her arms on those of her chair. She crossed her legs. She watched me for a while. Her gaze was very frank, and, if I am to be truthful, a little disturbing: she had the ability to make her appraisal of me visible while keeping her assessment quietly to herself. Suddenly she indicated the chair beside her with the flat of a long, rather slender hand. There was an unusual disparity in the length of her fingers.
The word "she" appears about seventeen times: the person to whom this "she" refers has clearly made an impression upon the writer. How true that was. I have hardly met a more mysterious person. She invited me for whisky in her flat, a roomy Art Deco apartment in Headington. Her conversation was quite frank:
The first thing she said, as she lit the gas fire, was: Ive enjoyed our evening. Our minds are similar: how I was surprised when we began to talk. We live in the same world. We could become friends. Id like that. Thoughtful people are rare. It will have to be platonic, though. Im generally regarded as something of a man-hater. She paused. Thats not altogether true, it seems. Your company Well, I am surprised. Maybe I dont understand myself. Sit down, please. She indicated an ancient club chair covered with cracked leather. She retained the position of her indicating hand for some time. I sat: I could feel the horsehair upholstery creak against my spine.
The story ends:
And what could
I make of her and the room she occupied, private and secretive?
The world outside was muffled by snow; the traffic, such as there
was, had become quite silent.
Our conversation in the public house that evening had been wide-ranging:
And that started
a conversation which lasted until closing time. She was very
well read; her vocabulary was profound and she used it well.
Her sentences were enunciated with a complex and exact syntax
which I cant imitate. Have you noticed that most
male writers dont know how to treat with the female psyche?
And when they attempt to do so they tend to make a poor shadow?
Think of Beckett. He has no idea how the female might appear.
The exceptions are few: perhaps Shakespeare and Defoe: and perhaps
Hardy in his poetic, broken-hearted way.
I looked at
her, examining her face my telling the poem seemed to
give me permission her lips thin and pale, rather long,
but not unattractive. Her mouth, when she talked, was less mobile
than is the rule; perhaps she had been brought up in an old-fashioned
household where to show ones teeth is seen as impolite.
She was very perceptive of my gaze. The women portrayed
by Walter de la Mare entranced me as a youth, I said. I
must read his stories again.
As I recalled this conversation
I pondered the exactness of her mind. de la Mares story
is entitled Seatons Aunt, and most people do not
realize that the mysterious and controlling woman who plays stifling
games with people (and not only chess) is no blood relation to
the boy Arthur Seaton. But it was clear that my companions
sympathies lay with Miss Duveen. Her story is one of the few
that possess the power to bring tears to my eyes.
The tragedy, though, is inevitable, and can be seen from afar. The boy grows up, mentally and physically, the world taking his innocence as it has to; the womans wits wander further. She is almost certainly mistreated by the cousin who provides for her. When she appears she is obviously hungry and her apparel is dingy and, later, frankly dirty. The description of the poor, lost woman is haunting:
The unexpected turn, though, arrives when the teller of the story, now a man, recounts that he felt relief on hearing that she has been taken to an institution. How truthful he is: most of us, I suspect, would have enunciated an insincere regret, uttering a falsehood which would have revealed our final loss of innocence. He admits his unpleasantness in latterly avoiding the woman and, despite vague misgivings as to the morality of his feelings, he is truthful in detailing his sense of gratitude at her departure. His childhood companion, now that he has lost his innocence, has become no more than an embarrassment.
And when we have finished the
story we look back to the beginning and see that the child's
narrative was never pristine: it was always angled through the
prism of an ashamed man's mind. Now, even the first description
of this harmless woman portrays her as a predator and himself
uploaded 11th October 2009