By Julian Barnes
Hardcover, 240 pages
List Price: $25
From Sleeping with John Updike
"I thought that went very well,"
Jane said, patting her handbag as the train doors closed with a pneumatic thump. Their carriage was nearly empty, its air warm and stale.
Alice knew to treat the remark as a question seeking reassurance. "You were certainly on good form."
"Oh, I had a nice room for a change. It always helps."
"They liked that story of yours about Graham Greene."
"They usually do," Jane replied with a slight air of complacency.
"I've always meant to ask you, is it true?"
"You know, I never worry about that anymore. It fills a slot."
When had they first met? Neither could quite remember. It must have been nearly forty years ago, during that time of interchangeable parties: the same white wine, the same hysterical noise level, the same publishers' speeches. Perhaps it had been at a PEN do, or when they'd been shortlisted for the same literary prize. Or maybe during that long, drunken summer when Alice had been sleeping with Jane's agent, for reasons she could no longer recall or, even at the time, justify.
"In a way, it's a relief we're not famous."
"Is it?" Jane looked puzzled, and a little dismayed, as if she thought they were.
"Well, I imagine we'd have readers coming to see us time and again. They'd expect some new anecdotes. I don't think either of us has told a new story in years."
"Actually, we do have people coming to see us again and again. Just fewer than ... if we were famous. Anyway, I think they like hearing the same stories. When we're onstage we're not literature, we're sitcom. You have to have catchphrases."
"Like your Graham Greene story."
"I think of that as a bit more than a . . . catchphrase, Alice."
"Don't prickle, dear. It doesn't suit." Alice couldn't help noticing the sheen of sweat on her friend's face. All from the effort of getting from taxi to platform, then platform to train. And why did women carrying rather more poundage than was wise think floral prints were the answer? Bravado rarely worked with clothes, in Alice's opinion—at least, after a certain age.
When they had become friends, both were freshly married and freshly published. They had watched over each other's children, sympathised through divorces, recommended each other's books as Christmas reading. Each privately liked the other's work a little less than they said, but then, they also liked everyone else's work a little less than they said, so hypocrisy didn't come into it.
Jane was embarrassed when Alice referred to herself as an artist rather than a writer, and thought her books strove to appear more highbrow than they were; Alice found Jane's work rather formless, and at times bleatingly autobiographical. Each had had a little more success than they had anticipated, but less, looking back, than they thought they deserved. Mike Nichols had taken an option on Alice's Triple Sec, but eventually pulled out; some journey man from telly had come in and made it crassly sexual.
Not that Alice put it like this; she would say, with a faint smile, that the adaptation had "skimped on the book's withholdingness," a phrase some found baffling. Jane, for her part, had been second favourite for the Booker with The Primrose Path, had spent a fortune on a frock, rehearsed her speech with Alice, and then lost out to some fashionable Antipodean.
"Who did you hear it from, just out of interest?"
"The Graham Greene story."
"Oh, that chap . . . you know, that chap who used to publish us both."
"Yes, that's right."
"Jane, how can you possibly forget Jim's name?"
"Well, I just did." The train blasted through some village halt, too fast to catch the signboard. Why did Alice need to be so stern?
She wasn't exactly spotless herself. "By the way, did you ever sleep with him?"
Alice frowned slightly. "You know, to be perfectly honest, I can't remember. Did you?"
"I can't either. But I suppose if you did, then I probably did as well."
"Doesn't that make me sound a bit of a tart?"
"I don't know. I thought it made me sound more of a tart." Jane laughed, to cover the uncertainty.
"Do you think it's good or bad—the fact that we can't remember?"
Jane felt back onstage, facing a question she was unprepared for. So she reacted as she usually did there, and referred the matter back to Alice: the team leader, head girl, moral authority.
"What do you think?"
"Oh, I think it's best to have a Zen approach to that sort of thing."
Sometimes, Alice's poise could make her rather too oblique for ordinary mortals. "Are you saying it's Buddhist to forget who you slept with?"
"It could be."
"I thought Buddhism was about things coming round again in different lives?"
"Well, that would explain why we slept with so many pigs."
They looked at one another companionably. They made a good team. When they were first asked to literary festivals, they soon realised it would be more fun to appear as a double act.
Together they had played Hay and Edinburgh, Charleston and King's Lynn, Dartington and Dublin; even Adelaide and Toronto.
They traveled together, saving their publishers the cost of minders.
Onstage, they finished one another's sentences, covered up each other's gaffes, were satirically punitive with male interviewers who tried to patronise them, and urged signing queues to buy the other one's books. The British Council had sent them abroad a few times until Jane, less than entirely sober, had made some unambassadorial remarks in Munich.
"What's the worst thing anyone's done to you?"
"Are we still talking bed?"
"Jane, what a question."
"Well, we're bound to be asked it sooner or later. The way everything's going."
"I've never been raped, if that's what you're asking. At least,"
Alice went on reflectively, "not what the courts would call rape."
When Alice didn't answer, Jane said, "I'll look at the landscape while you're thinking." She gazed, with vague benignity, at trees, fields, hedgerows, livestock. She had always been a town person, and her interest in the countryside was largely pragmatic, a flock of sheep only signifying roast lamb.
Excerpted from Pulse: Stories by Julian Barnes. Copyright 2011 by Julian Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved.