All week, Bill had been looking forward to this moment. He was about to fuck the daughter of the man who had fucked his wife. Lying in her bed, he could hear Celestine humming in the bathroom as she prepared for him.
It had been a long time since he'd been in a room so cold, with no heating. After a while, he ventured his arms over the covers, tore open a condom and lay the rubber on the cardboard box which served as a bedside table. He was about to prepare another, but didn't want to appear over-optimistic. One would achieve his objective. He would clear out then. Already there had been too many delays. The waltz, for instance, though it made him giggle. Nevertheless, he had told his Madelaine, his pregnant wife, that he would be back by midnight. What could Celestine be doing in there? There wasn't even a shower, and the wind cut viciously through the broken window.
His wife had met Celestine's father, Vincent Ertel, the French ex-Maoist intellectual, in Paris. He had certainly impressed her. She had talked about him continually, which was bad enough, and then rarely mentioned him, which, as he understood now, was worse.
Madelaine worked on a late-night TV discussion programme. For two years, she had been eager to profile Vincent's progress from revolutionary to Catholic reactionary. It was, she liked to inform Bill - using a phrase that stayed in his mind - indicative of the age. Several times, she went to see Vincent in Paris. Then, she was invited to his country place near Auxerre. Finally, she brought him to London to record the interview. When it was done, to celebrate, she took him to Le Caprice for champagne, fishcakes and chips.
That night, Bill had put aside the script he was directing and gone to bed early with a ruler, pencil and The Brothers Karamazov. Around the time that Madelaine was becoming particularly enthusiastic about Vincent, Bill had made up his mind not only to study the great books - the most dense and intransigent, the ones from which he'd always flinched - but to underline them, and even to memorise certain passages. The effort to concentrate was a torment, as his mind flew about. Yet most nights - even during the period when Madelaine was preparing for her encounter with Vincent - he kept his light on long after she had put hers out. Determined to swallow the thickest pills of understanding, he would lie there muttering phrases he wanted to retain. One of his favourites was Emerson's, "We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents."
One night, Madelaine opened her eyes and with a quizzical look said, "Can't you be easier on yourself?"
Why? He wouldn't give up. He had read biology at university. Surely he couldn't be such a fool as to find these books beyond him? His need for knowledge, wisdom, nourishment was more than his need for sleep. How could a man have come to the middle of his life with barely a clue about who he was or where he might go? The heavy volumes represented the highest, surely, that man's thought had flown; they had to include guidance.
The close, leisurely contemplation afforded him some satisfaction - usually because the books started him thinking about other things. It was the part of the day he preferred. He slept well, usually. But at four, on the long night of the fishcakes, he awoke and felt for Madelaine across the bed. She wasn't there. Shivering, he walked through the house until dawn, imagining she'd crashed the car. After an hour, he remembered she hadn't taken it. Maybe she and Vincent had gone on to a late-night place. She had never done anything like this before.
He could neither sleep nor go to work. He decided to sit at the kitchen table until she returned, whenever it was. He was drinking brandy, and normally he never drank before eight in the evening. If anyone offered him a drink before this time, he claimed it was like saying goodbye to the whole day. In the mid-1980s, he'd gone to the gym in the early evening. For some days, though, goodbye was surely the most suitable word.
It was late afternoon before his wife returned wearing the clothes she'd gone out in, looking dishevelled and uncertain. She couldn't meet his eye. He asked her what she'd been doing. She said "What d'you think?" and went into the shower.
He had considered several options, including punching her. But he fled the house and made it to a pub. For the first time since he'd been a student, he sat alone with nothing to do. He was expected nowhere. He had no newspaper with him, and he liked papers; he could swallow the most banal and incredible thing provided it was on newsprint. He watched the passing faces and thought how pitiless the world was if you didn't have a safe place in it.
He made himself consider how unrewarding it was to constrain people. Infidelities would occur in most relationships. These days, every man and woman was a cuckold. And why not, when marriage was insufficient to satisfy most human need? Madelaine had needed something and she had taken it. How bold and stylish. How petty to blame someone for pursing any kind of love!
He was humiliated. The feeling increased over the weeks in a strange way. At work or waiting for the tube, or having dinner with Madelaine - who had gained, he could see, a bustling, dismissive intensity of will or concentration - he found himself becoming angry with Vincent. For days on end, he couldn't really think of anything else, as if the man were inhabiting him.
As he walked around Soho, where he worked, Bill entertained himself by thinking of how someone might get even with a type like Vincent, were he so inclined. The possibility was quite remote but this didn't prevent him imagining stories from which he emerged with some satisfaction, if not credit. What incentive, distraction, energy and interest Vincent provided him with. This was almost the only creative work he got to do now.
A few days later, he was presented with Celestine, sitting with a man in a newly opened cafe, drinking cappuccino. Life was giving him a chance. It was awful. He stood in the doorway pretending to look for someone and thought whether he should take it.
Vincent's eldest daughter lived in London. She wanted to be an actress and Bill had auditioned her for a commercial a couple of years ago, and he knew she'd obtained a small part in a film directed by an acquaintance of his. On this basis, he crossed the cafe, introduced himself, made the pleasantest conversation he could, and was invited to sit down. The man turned out to be a gay friend of hers. They all chatted. After some timorous vacillation, Bill asked Celestine in a cool tone whether she'd have a drink with him in a couple of hours.
He didn't go home then but walked about. When he was tired, he sat in a pub with the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. He had decided that if he could read to the end of the whole book he would deserve a great deal of praise. He did a little underlining, which, since school, he had considered a sign of seriousness, but his mind wondered even more than usual, until it was time to meet her.
To his pleasure, Bill saw that men glanced at Celestine when they could; others openly stared. When she fetched a drink, they turned to examine her legs. This would not have happened with Madelaine; only Vincent Ertel had taken an interest in her. Later, as he and Celestine strolled up the street looking for cabs, she agreed that he would come to her place at the end of the week.
It was a triumphant few days of gratification anticipated. He would do more of this. He had obviously been missing out on life's meaner pleasures. As Madelaine walked about the flat, dressing, cooking, reading, searching for her glasses, he could enjoy despising her. He informed his two closest friends that the pleasures of revenge were considerable. He liked saying that the French were used to being occupied. Now his pals were waiting to hear of his coup.
Celestine flung the keys, wrapped in a tea towel, out of the window. It was a hard climb: her flat was at the top of a five-storey, run-down building in West London, an area of itinerants, bedsits and students. Coming into the living room, he saw it had a view across a square. Wind and rain was sweeping into the cracked windows stuffed with newspaper. The walls were yellow, the carpet brown and stained. The gas fire, which had several pairs of jeans suspended in front of it on a clotheshorse, gave off an odour and heated parts of the room while leaving others cold.
She persuaded him to remove his overcoat but not his scarf. Then she took him into the tiny kitchen with bare floorboards where, between an old sink and the boiler, there was hardly room for the two of them.
"I will be having us some dinner." She pointed to two shopping bags. "Do you like troot?"
It was trout. There were potatoes and green beans. After, they would have apple strudel with cream. She had been to the shops and gone to some trouble. It would take ages to prepare. He hadn't anticipated this. He left her there, saying he would fetch drink.
In the rain, he went to the off-licence and was paying for the wine when he noticed through the window that a taxi had stopped at traffic lights. He ran out of the shop to hail the cab, but as he opened the door couldn't go through with it. He collected the wine and carried it back.
He waited in her living room, pacing and drinking. She didn't have a TV. Wintry noises battered the window. Her place reminded him of rooms he'd shared as a student. He was about to say to himself, 'Thank God I'll never have to live like this again', when it occurred to him that if he left Madelaine, he might, for a time, end up in some unfamiliar place, with stained, old, broken fittings. How fastidious he'd become! How had it happened? What other changes had there been, whilst he was looking in the other direction?
He noticed a curled photograph tacked to the wall which looked as though it had been taken at the end of the 1960s. Bill concluded it was the hopeful radical who'd fucked his wife. He had been a handsome man, and with his pipe in his hand, hair below his ears and open-necked shirt, he had an engaging look of self-belief and raffish pleasure. Bill recalled the slogans that decorated Paris, "Everything is Possible", "Take Your Desires for Realities", "It is Forbidden to Forbid". He'd once used them in a TV commercial. What optimism that generation had had! With his life given over to literature, ideas, conversation, writing and political commitment, ol' Vincent must have had quite a time. He couldn't have been working constantly, like Bill and his friends.
The food was good. Bill leaned across the table to kiss Celestine. His lips brushed her cheek. She turned her head and looked out across the dark square to the lights beyond, as if trying to locate something.
He talked about the film industry and what the actors, directors and producers of the movies were really like. Not that he knew them personally, but they were gossiped about by other actors and technicians. She asked questions and laughed easily.
Things should have been moving along. He had to get up at 5.30am to direct a commercial for a bank. He was becoming known for such well-paid but journeyman work. Now that Madelaine was pregnant, he would have to do more of it. It would be a struggle to find time for the screenwriting he wanted to do. It was dawning on him that if he were to do anything worthwhile at his age, he had to be serious in a new way. And yet when he considered his ambitions, which he no longer mentioned to anyone - to travel overland to Indonesia while reading Proust... and other, more "internal" things - he felt a surge of shame, as if it was immature and obscene to harbour such hopes; as if, in some ways, it was already too late.
He shuffled his chair around the table until he and Celestine were sitting side by side. He attempted another kiss.
She stood up and offered him her hands. "Shall we dance?"
He looked at her in surprise. "Dance?"
"It will 'ot you up. Don't you... dance?"
"Why? We always danced like that." He shut his eyes and nodded his head as if attempting to bang in a nail with his forehead.
She kicked off her shoes.
"We danced like this. I'll illustrate you." She looked at him.
"Take it off."
"This stupid thing."
She pulled off his scarf. She shoved the chairs against the wall and put on a Chopin waltz, took his hand and placed her other hand in his back. He looked down at her dancing feet even as he trod on them, but she didn't object. Gently, but firmly, she turned and turned him across the room, until he was dizzy, her hair tickling his face. Whenever he glanced up she was looking into his eyes. Each time they crossed the room, she trotted back, pulling him, never unamused. She seemed determined that he should learn, certain that this would benefit him.
"You require some practice," she said at last. He fell back into his chair blowing and laughing. "But after a week, who knows, we could be having you work as a gigolo!"
It was midnight. Celestine came naked out of the bathroom smoking a cigarette. She got into bed and lay beside him. He thought of a time in New York when the company sent a white limousine to the airport. Drinking whisky and watching TV as the limo passed over the Hudson towards Manhattan, he wanted nothing more than for his friends to see him.
She was on him vigorously and the earth was moving: either that, or the two single beds, on the juncture of which he was lying, were separating. He stuck out his arms to secure them, but with each lurch his head was being forced down into the fissure. He felt as if his ears were going to be torn off. The two of them were about to crash through onto the floor.
He rolled her over onto one bed. Then he sat up and showed her what would have happened. She started to laugh, she couldn't stop.
The gas meter ticked; she was dozing. He had never lain beside a lovelier face. He thought of what Madelaine might have sought that night with Celestine's father. Affection, attention, serious talk, honesty, distraction. Did he give her that now? Could they give it to one another, and with a kid on the way?
Celestine was nudging him and trying to say something in his ear.
"You want what?" he said. Then, "Surely... no... no."
He liked to think he was willing to try anything. A black eye would certainly send a convincing message to her father. She smiled when he raised his hand.
"I deserve to be hurt."
"No one deserves that."
"But you see... I do."
That night, in that freezing room, he praised her beauty and her intelligence; he did everything she asked, for as long as she wanted - he had never kissed anyone for so long - until he forgot where he was, or who they both were, until there was nothing they wanted, and there was only the most satisfactory peace.
He got up and dressed. He was shivering. He wanted to wash, he smelled of her, but he wasn't prepared for a cold bath.
"Why are you leaving?" She leaped up and held him. "Stay, stay, I haven't finished with you yet."
He put on his coat and went into the living room. Without looking back, he hurried out and down the stairs. He pulled the front door, anticipating the fresh damp night air. But the door held. He had forgotten: the door was locked. He stood there.
Upstairs, she was wrapped in the fur coat, looking out of the window.
"The key," he said.
"Old man," she said, laughing. "You are."
She accompanied him barefoot down the stairs. While she unlocked the door, he mumbled, "Will you tell your father I saw you?"
He touched her face. She drew back. "You should put something on that," he said. "I met him once. He knows my wife."
"I rarely see him now," she said.
She was holding out her arms. They danced a few steps across the hall. He was better at it now. He went out into the street. Several cabs passed him but he didn't hail them. He kept walking. There was comfort in the rain. He put his head back and looked up into the sky. He had some impression that happiness was beyond him and everything was coming down, and that nothing could be grasped but only lived
Hanif Kureishi's collected stories, 'Love in a Blue Time', will be published by Faber next yearReuse content