When A chances upon B a second time, he realises that something fateful is afoot. After all, there she is, bouncing across Ladbroke Grove in her high heels, tailored suit and red lipstick, looking him straight in the eye and laughing. On a third encounter, he knows that he must make a move, that the 'young boy (must go) in strange places'. He invites her for dinner, gulp, at Julie's.
There A learns that B has not had the middle-class background that he is fleeing - no famous professor for a father, no famous children's author for a mother, no famous novelist for a brother. And she has not become, like A, a kindergarten teacher, dealing with 'tough infants', 'marching to the beat of a different drum'. Instead, B has had to make do with foster homes, bad schooling and a drug-dealing lover. 'B Monkey' was her graffiti signature from the 'days of wild', when she enjoyed the addictive pleasures of drugs, arson, extortion, car theft and armed robbery. Having renounced such heady joys, she now works for a film company where she learns something new every day, like how to spell Karel Reisz's name.
As with A, we get to listen in on B's inner soul - the two take turns - so we learn how 'a bit of rough' with two A-levels thinks. She knows that her problem is the Imp of the Perverse, and remembers her former boyfriend as 'a bit of a sophisticate in his clapped-out Seventies style'. At times, though, her education fails her: 'here was a boy I could oh fuck what is that word something like a fence oh that's it impale myself on.'
The date at Julie's goes well. After three bottles of wine B puts A's hand inside her dress, and though they do not go all the way, they decide to go as far as Paris. But sex in Paris is a problem: A finds it frightening to enter a stranger, to send the boy too far from home. 'How can I get a hard- on without being a hard?' A agonises. B is also upset. 'The Unfuck hung over us like a great dark cloud,' she remembers. And as her A-levels assert themselves, she recalls feeling 'the agenbite of Unfuck sitting heavy on our shoulders'. She proceeds to get food poisoning, spewing unpleasant substances from various orifices, and A tenderly cleans her up. 'We haven't had sex yet,' she muses, 'but already he's wiping my bottom on the third date.'
Things do pick up after this, though with all the Jamesian irony one would expect when a man who cannot bear deception loves a girl pursued by the Imp of the Perverse. The dialogue is particularly powerful. When a low-life partner of B's loses his nerve during a robbery and throws up into his hat, he says to her, 'I'm covered with confusion. I let you down completely. That's never happened to me before, never. I don't know what to say.' Well, old chap, nothing to worry about. Everybody pukes in his hat once in a while.
A and B, in flight from London, decide to marry and go 'up North'. On the way, they visit A's family. A defeats his famous brother at chess in front of the brother's girlfriend. B takes the famous father's penis out of his pants and then breaks his nose when he suggests they inform A of the adventure. All in all, it is A's happiest family gathering for a long time.
At first, up North, everything is idyllic for A and B. They hold hands in pubs and ignore the world: 'We radiate the pale heat of our private sensuality.' A rejoices, though he cannot quite account for his bad dreams and B's midnight absences. But after A fences with a vengeful London criminal whose skull B smashes in, A concludes that 'it was not heroic . . . it was sort of . . . evil, I think, in a way'. B does not look quite so beautiful to him any more and he realises he has much more in common with a junior colleague who is eager to do some team teaching.
Too late, all of B's demons have been exorcised, and, for the first time totally in love, she dreams of having A's baby. Love is so hard in the modern world when you cannot tell the dancer from the dance or escape the agenbite of Unfuck or avoid being fixed by the dark and glittering eye of a Parisian street entertainer. It's those A-levels. They make you think you can close the gap between A and B.Reuse content