The House of Sleep

by Jonathan Coe

The House of Sleep

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Book Summary

The author of The Winshaw Legacy, winner of France's coveted Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, offers a comic romance involving a group of people suffering from sleep disorders at a cliff-top English spa. Reprint.

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Excerpt: The House Of Sleep

The House of Sleep

The House of Sleep


Vintage Books USA

Copyright © 1999 Jonathan Coe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0375700889


CHAPTER ONE

Awake

It was their final quarrel, that much was clear. But although hehad been anticipating it for days, perhaps even for weeks, nothing could quell the tide of anger and resentment which nowrose up inside him. She had been in the wrong, and had refusedto admit it. Every argument he had attempted to put forward,every attempt to be conciliatory and sensible, had been distorted, twisted around and turned back against him. How dareshe bring up that perfectly innocent evening he had spentin The Half Moon with Jennifer? How dare she call his gift`pathetic', and claim that he was looking `shifty' when he gaveit to her? And how dare she bring up his mother — his mother,of all people — and accuse him of seeing her too often? As ifthat were some sort of comment on his maturity; on his masculinity, even ...

He stared blindly ahead, unconscious of his surroundings orof his fellow pedestrians. `Bitch,' he thought to himself, as herwords came back to him. And then out loud, through clenchedteeth, he shouted, `BITCH!'

After that, he felt slightly better.

Huge, grey and imposing, Ashdown stood on a headland, sometwenty yards from the sheer face of the cliff, where it had stoodfor more than a hundred years. All day, the gulls wheeledaround its spires and tourelles, keening themselves hoarse. Allday and all night, the waves threw themselves dementedlyagainst their rocky barricade, sending an endless roar likeheavy traffic through the glacial rooms and mazy, echoing corridors of the old house. Even the emptiest parts of Ashdown — and most of it was now empty — were never silent. The mosthabitable rooms huddled together on the first and secondfloors, overlooking the sea, and during the day were floodedwith chill sunlight. The kitchen, on the ground floor, was longand L-shaped, with a low ceiling; it had only three tiny windows, and was swathed in permanent shadow. Ashdown'sbleak, element-defying beauty masked the fact that it was, essentially, unfit for human occupation. Its oldest and nearestneighbours could remember, but scarcely believe, that it hadonce been a private residence, home to a family of only eight ornine. But two decades ago it had been acquired by the new university, and it now housed about two dozen students: a shiftingpopulation, as changeful as the ocean which lay at its feet,stretched towards the horizon, sickly green and heaving withendless disquiet.

The group of four strangers sitting at her table may or may nothave asked permission to join her. Sarah couldn't remember.Now, an argument seemed to be developing, but she did nothear what was being said, although she was conscious of theirvoices, rising and falling in angry counterpoint. What she heardand saw inside her head was, at that moment, more real. A single, venomous word. Eyes blazing with casual hatred. A sensethat she had not so much been spoken to, as spat upon. An encounter which had lasted — two seconds? — less? — but whichshe had now been replaying, involuntarily, in her memory formore than half an hour. Those eyes; that word; there would beno getting rid of them, not for a while. Even now, as the voicesaround her grew louder and more animated, she could feel another wave of panic swell inside her. She closed her eyes, suddenly weak with nausea.

Would he have attacked her, she wondered, if the High Streethad not been so busy? Dragged her into a doorway? Torn at herclothes?

She raised her mug of coffee, held it a few inches from hermouth, looked down at it. She stared at its oily surface, whichwas shimmering perceptibly. She clasped the mug tighter. Theliquid steadied. Her hands were no longer shaking. The moment passed.

Another possibility: had it all been a dream?

`Pinter!' was the first word of the argument to catch her attention. She willed herself to look across at the speaker andconcentrate.

The name had been pronounced in a tone of tired incredulity,by a woman who was holding a glass of apple juice in onehand, and a half-smoked cigarette in the other. She had short,jet-black hair, a prominent jaw and lively dark eyes. Sarah recognized her, vaguely, from previous visits to the Cafe Valladon,but did not know her name. She was later to find out that it wasVeronica.

`That's just so typical,' the woman added: then closed hereyes as she puffed on her cigarette. She was smiling, perhapstaking the argument less seriously than the thin, pasty, earnest-looking student sitting opposite her.

`People who don't know anything about theatre,' Veronicacontinued, `always talk about Pinter as if he's one of the greats.'

`OK,' said the student. `I agree that he's overrated. I agreewith that. That's exactly what proves my point.'

`It proves your point?'

`The British postwar theatrical tradition,' said the student, `isso ... etiolated, that —'

`Excuse me?' said an Australian voice next to him. `What wasthat word?'

`Etiolated,' said the student. `So etiolated, that there's onlyone figure who —'

`Etiolated?' said the Australian.

`Don't worry about it,' said Veronica, her smile broadening.`He's just trying to impress us.'

`What does it mean?'

`Look it up in the dictionary,' snapped the student. `My pointis, that there's only one figure in postwar British theatre with aclaim to any kind of stature, and even he is overrated. Massively overrated. Ergo, the theatre is finished.'

`Ergo?' said the Australian.

`It's over. It has nothing to offer. It has no part to play in contemporary culture, in this country, or in any other country.'

`So what — you're saying that I'm wasting my time?' Veronica asked. `That I'm out of tune with the whole ... Zeitgeist?'

`Absolutely. You should change courses at once: to filmstudies.'

`Like you.'

`Like me.'

`Well, that's interesting,' said Veronica. `I mean, just look atthe assumptions you're making. For one thing, you assume thatjust because I'm interested in the theatre, I must be studying it.Wrong: I'm doing economics. And then, this whole conviction ofyours that you're in possession of some kind of absolute truth:I ... well, I find that a very male quality, is all I can say.'

`I am male,' the student pointed out.

`It's also significant that Pinter is your favourite playwright.'

`Why's that significant?'

`Because he writes plays for boys. Clever boys.'

`But art is universal: all real writers are hermaphrodite.'

`Ha!' Veronica laughed with delighted contempt. She stubbedout her cigarette. `OK, do you want to talk about gender?'

`I thought we were talking about culture.'

`You can't have one without the other. Gender's everywhere.'

Now the student laughed. `That's one of the most meaningless remarks I've ever heard. The only reason you want to talkabout gender is because you're scared to talk about value.'

`Pinter only appeals to men,' said Veronica. `And why does heappeal to men? Because his plays are misogynist. They appealto the misogyny deep within the male psyche.'

`I'm not a misogynist.'

`Oh yes you are. All men hate women.'

`You don't believe that.'

`Oh yes I do.'

`I suppose you think that all men are potential rapists?'

`Yes.'

`Well, that's another meaningless statement.'

`Its meaning is very clear. All men have the potential to become rapists.'

`All men have the means to become rapists. That's hardly thesame thing.'

`I'm not talking about whether all men have the necessary ... equipment. I'm saying that there isn't a man alive whodoesn't feel, in some murky little corner of his soul, a deepresentment — and jealousy — of our strengths, and that thisresentment sometimes shades into hatred and could also,therefore, shade into violence.'

A short pause followed this speech. The student tried to saysomething, but faltered. Then he started to say something else,but changed his mind. In the end, the best he could managewas: `Yes, but you've no evidence for that.'

`The evidence is all around us.'

`Yes, but you've no objective proof.'

`Objectivity,' said Veronica, lighting up a new cigarette, `ismale subjectivity.'

The silence to which this magisterial remark gave rise, longerthan the first and somewhat awestruck, was broken by Sarahherself.

`I think she's right,' she said.

Everyone at the table turned to look at her.

`Not about objectivity, I mean — at least, I've never thoughtabout it like that before — but about all men being basicallyhostile, and how you never know when it's going to ...flare up.'

Veronica met her eyes. `Thank you,' she said, before turningback to the student. `You see? Support on all sides.'

He shrugged. `Female solidarity, that's all.'

`No, but it's happened to me, you see.' The faltering urgencyof Sarah's voice caught their attention. `Exactly what you'retalking about.' She lowered her gaze and saw her eyes reflected, darkly, on the black surface of her coffee. `I'm sorry, Idon't know any of your names, or anything. I don't even knowwhy I said that. I think I'd better go.'

She stood up to find herself boxed into a corner, the edge ofthe table pressed into her thighs; squeezing hastily past theAustralian and the earnest student proved a clumsy business.Her face was on fire. She was sure that they were all watchingher as if she were a madwoman. Nobody said anything as shemade her way to the till, but as she counted out her change(Slattery, the Cafe's owner, sitting bookish and indifferent inthe corner) she felt the touch of a hand on her shoulder, andturned to see Veronica smiling at her. The smile was diffident,appealing — very different from the combative smiles she hadbeen turning on her opponents at the table.

`Look,' she said, `I don't know who you are, or what happened to you, but ... any time you want to talk about it.'

`Thank you,' said Sarah.

`What year are you in?'

`Fourth, now.'

`Oh — you're a postgrad, right?'

Sarah nodded.

`And are you living on campus?'

`No. I live up at Ashdown.'

`Oh well. Maybe we'll bump into each other anyway.'

`I expect we will.'

Sarah rushed out of the Cafe before this friendly, frighteningwoman could say anything more to her. After that dark andsmoke-heavy interior the sunlight was suddenly blinding, theair fresh with salt. Shoppers trickled through the streets. Itwould have been the perfect day, normally, for walking homealong the cliffs: a long walk, and most of it uphill, but worth itfor the sweet ache in your limbs when you arrived, the feel ofyour lungs distended with clean, thin air. But today was notnormal, and she didn't like the thought of those many lonelystretches of pathway, the solitary men she might glimpse approaching in the distance, or who might be sitting on one of thebenches, watching her brazenly as she hurried past.

Writing off the cost of a week's suppers, she took a taxi, washome in no time at all, and then lay in bed all afternoon, thenumbness refusing to abate.

ANALYST: What was it about the game you found so disturbing?

ANALYSAND: I don't know whether `game' is exactly the right word.

ANALYST: It was the word you chose yourself, just a moment ago.

ANALYSAND: Yes. I just don't know if it's the right one. I suppose what I meant ... [chat] ...

ANALYST: Never mind that now. Did he ever cause you physical pain?

ANALYSAND: No. No, he never really hurt me.

ANALYST: But you thought that he might hurt you?

ANALYSAND: I suppose it could have been ... at the back of my mind.

ANALYST: And did he know that? Did he know that you thought he might hurt you, one day? Was that in fact the whole point of the game?

ANALYSAND: Yes, I suppose it could have been.

ANALYST: For him? Or for both of you?

Sarah was in bed again by the time Gregory got back fromhis drink. She had been up, briefly, in the early evening, to puton her dressing-gown and pad downstairs to the kitchen, buteven there she had remained nervous, and oddly susceptible toshocks. The kitchen itself was empty, and she could hear thesounds of an American soap — Dallas, or Knots Landing — coming from the TV room down the corridor. Thinking that shewas alone, Sarah opened a can of mushroom soup and pouredthe contents into a saucepan. Then she lit the cooker, whichstood in an area of its own, around the corner, hidden from therest of the L-shaped room. She stirred the soup with a heavywooden spoon, finding this activity unexpectedly restful. Shestirred three times clockwise, then three times anti-clockwise,over and over, watching the patterns form and slowly fade intothe sludgy mass of the soup. Absorbed in her task, she was startled to hear a male voice saying, `So where do they keep the coffee around here?' and she let out a short, high scream as shewheeled around.

The man came round the corner, saw her and took a stepback.

`I'm sorry. I thought you knew I was here.'

She said: `No, I didn't.'

`I didn't mean to scare you.'

He had a kind face: that was the first thing that she noticed.And the second thing she noticed was that he appeared to havebeen crying—quite recently, in fact. He sat down at the kitchentable to drink his coffee, and she sat down opposite him todrink her soup, and as she was pulling up a chair she glancedacross at him and could have sworn that she saw a tear inchingdown his cheek.

`Are you all right?' she asked. They didn't get many first-yearsat Ashdown, but she wondered if he had just arrived at the university, and was already starting to feel homesick.

It turned out that this was not the case. He was in his thirdyear, studying modern languages, and had moved into Ashdown only yesterday. What had distressed him was a phone callfrom his mother, who had rung from home a few hours ago totell him that Muriel, the family cat, had been killed that samemorning — run over by a milk float at the bottom of the frontdrive. He was clearly ashamed to be showing so much emotionabout this, but Sarah liked him for it. To save him further embarrassment, all the same, she changed the subject as quicklyas possible, and told him that he was not the only one to havehad an upsetting day.

`Why, what happened to you?' he asked.

It did not occur to Sarah until later that it was surprising tohave found herself talking so frankly to such a new acquaintance, someone whose name she had not even, at this stage,troubled to find out. None the less, she told him all about herbizarre encounter on the street with a complete stranger whohad glared at her and called her a bitch for no apparent reason.The new resident listened attentively as he sipped his coffee:striking, Sarah thought, just the right balance between concern(for he seemed to understand how traumatic the incident musthave been for her) and a more lighthearted note of reassurance(for he encouraged her, at the same time, to laugh it off as theoutburst of some pitiable eccentric). She told him about theconversation she had overheard at the Cafe Valladon, how ithad turned to the subject of misogyny, and how she had feltcompelled to join in.

`It's a very live subject at the moment,' he agreed. `There's abig anti-feminist backlash going on here.' He told her how theuniversity's new Women's Studies Department had been vandalized recently: someone had broken in and spray-painted thewords `Death to the Sisters' in foot-high letters all over thewalls.

Sarah was enjoying talking to this man very much, but hadstarted to feel tired. Sometimes she was subject to a sort oftiredness which was extreme, by most people's standards, andonce or twice had even found herself falling asleep in the middle of conversations. She didn't want anything like that to happen here: she was too anxious to leave a good impression.

`I think I'd better get back to bed,' she said, getting up andrinsing her soup-mug under the cold tap. `It's nice to have metyou, though. I'm glad you're moving in. I think we're going tobe friends.'

`I hope so.'

`My name's Sarah, by the way.'

`I'm Robert.'

They smiled at each other. Sarah ran a hand through herhair, taking hold of a clump and tugging at it lightly. Robert noticed this gesture, and remembered it.

She went up to her room and slept for an hour or two, untilGregory woke her by coming in and turning on the overheadlight. Blinking, she looked at the alarm clock. It was earlierthan she had thought: only ten-fifteen.

`Home already?' she said.

He had his back towards her, putting something away in adrawer, and grunted: `Looks like it.'

`I thought since this was the last night you were all going tobe together, you'd stay out late. Make an occasion of it.'

It was the beginning of the autumn term, and Gregory hadcome down from his parents' house in Dundee merely to collectsome belongings, to see some old friends, and to spend a few final days with Sarah. They had both finished their undergraduate degree courses in July. Later that week he was due to startat medical school in London, where he would specialize in psychiatry. She was staying on at the university for another year, totrain as a primary school teacher.

`Busy day tomorrow,' he said, sitting at the end of the bed,tugging off a shoe. `Got to make an early start.' His eyes flickedtowards her for the first time. `You look done in.'

Sarah told him the story of the man who had abused her inthe street, to which his initial response was: `But that doesn'tmake sense. Why would anyone do that?'

`I suppose I was a woman,' said Sarah, `and that was enough.'

`Are you sure he was talking to you?'

`There was nobody else around.' Gregory was preoccupiedwith a knotted shoelace, so she prompted: `It was quite upsetting.'

`Well, you don't want to let these things get to you.' Theshoelace untied, he felt for her ankle and squeezed it throughthe bedclothes. `I thought we'd gone beyond this. You're a biggirl now.' He frowned at her. `Did it really happen?'

`I think so.'

`Hmm ... but you're not sure. Perhaps I should write it downanyway.'

Gregory sat at the dressing-table and took an exercise bookout of the top drawer. He scribbled a few words, then sat backand thumbed through the pages. His face, reflected in the mirror, betrayed a pleased smile.

`You know, I was so lucky to meet you,' he said. `Look at allthe material it's given me. I mean, I know that's not the onlyreason, but ... think of the lead it's going to give me over allthe other guys.'

`Isn't it a bit early to be thinking in those terms?' said Sarah.

`Nonsense. If you really want to get to the top, you can neverget started too soon.'

`It's not a race, though, is it?'

`There are winners and losers in the human race, just likeany other,' said Gregory. He had put the exercise book awayand was taking off his shirt. `How many times have I told youthat?'

Rather to her own surprise, Sarah took this question seriously. `My guess would be between about fifteen and twenty.'

`There you are, then,' said Gregory, apparently quite satisfiedwith this statistic. `It applies to everything, as well — even accommodation. I mean, you'd scarcely credit it, but Frank's going up to London in a week's time, and he hasn't even foundhimself somewhere to live yet.' He laughed incredulously. `Howdo you account for that kind of behaviour?'

`Well,' said Sarah, `perhaps he just isn't lucky enough to havea father who's in a position to buy him a flat in Victoria.'

`It's Pimlico. Not Victoria.'

`What's the difference?'

`About twenty thousand pounds, for one thing. We chose thatlocation very carefully. Convenient for the hospital. Excellentneighbourhood.' Appearing to sense an unvoiced contempt on Sarah's part, he added: `For God's sake, I would have thought you'd appreciate it as much as anybody. You're going to be staying there every weekend, aren't you?'

`Am I?'

`Well I assume so.'

`You know I'm going to have to prepare lessons and things. I'm doing lots of teaching practice this term. I might be busy.'

`I can't see that preparing a few lessons is going to take up much of your time.'

`Some people don't have to work hard. I do. I'm a plodder.'

Gregory sat down on the bed beside her. `You know, you have a serious self-esteem problem,' he said. `Has it never occurred to you that it's largely because of your low self-esteem that you never achieve anything?'

Sarah took a moment to digest this, but couldn't find it in herself to get angry. Instead her mind went back to the scene in the kitchen. `I met one of the new people today,' she said. `His name was Robert. He seemed really nice. Have you met him yet?'

`No.' Gregory had undressed to his underpants by now, and he slid a hand absently down the front of Sarah's nightdress, resting it on her breast.

`You haven't spoken to him or anything?'

He sighed. `Sarah, I'm leaving tomorrow. I'm going to live in London. Why would I waste my time getting to know people I'm never going to see again?'

He removed his underpants, climbed on top of her, and then pulled down her nightdress so that her breasts were fully exposed. He took hold of her nipples and began to tweak them simultaneously. Sarah examined his expression as he did this, trying to remember where she had seen something like it before: his brow was furrowed with both impatience and concentration, much as it had been the other evening while she had watched him twiddling the contrast and vertical-hold knobs on the television downstairs, trying to get a good picture for Newsat Ten. That, she recalled, had taken him about two minutes,but less than half that time was up before he took her tinywrists in his hands, pinned her arms to the pillow behind herhead, and entered her swiftly. She was dry and tight, and foundthe sensation uncomfortable.

`Look, Gregory,' she said, `I'm not really in the mood. In fact,I'm not in the mood at all.'

`It's all right, I won't be long.'

`No.' She took a firm hold of his hips and stilled their rockingmotion. `I don't want to do this.'

`But we've had the foreplay and everything.' His eyes werewounded, incredulous.

`Get out,' said Sarah.

`What — of you, the bed, or the room?' His confusionseemed genuine.

`Of me, initially.'

He stared at her for a second or two, then tutted to himselfand withdrew gracelessly, saying: `You can be so inconsideratesometimes.' But he remained on top of her, and she knew whatwas coming next. `Close your eyes a minute.'

She stared back at him, defiant but powerless.

`I spy? With my little eye?'

`Gregory, no. Not now.'

`Go on. I know you like it really.'

`I do not like it really. I've never liked it. How many times doI have to tell you that I've never liked it?'

`It's just a game, Sarah. It's about trust. You do trust me, don'tyou?'

`Let go,' she said. Both her hands were enclosed in one of his,and were still pinned to the pillow. His other hand was nowhovering above her face, the first and second fingers extended,getting closer to her eyes.

`Come on,' he said. `Show that you trust me. Close your eyes.'

The tips of his fingers were now so near that she had nooption: she closed her eyes as a reflex action, and then screwedthem tight. Soon she felt the pressure of his two fingers againsther shielded eyeballs — gentle at first — and she stiffened, afamiliar terror stirring inside her. She had developed a methodof dealing with this sensation, which involved emptying hermind of all ideas relating to the present moment. Time, forSarah, was halted as Gregory crouched over her, and if herthoughts turned towards anything at all, it was towards whatseemed (for now) the distant past: the very beginnings of theirrelationship, when she had so enjoyed his company, before theyhad become locked into this pattern of self-perpetuating quarrels and weird bedroom rituals.

How had they managed to get from there to here?

She had a vivid recollection, still, of the first time she hadmet him, during the interval of a concert, at the Arts Centre bar.She had not intended to go to this concert, but ticket sales hadbeen extremely low, and the box office staff were reduced to theexpedient of handing out free tickets to passers-by shortly before it started, in order to make up the numbers and spare thevisiting performer from embarrassment. The programme consisted of J. S. Bach's The Art of Fugue, a work of which she hadno previous knowledge, performed on the harpsichord in its entirety. The only other person in Sarah's row was a tall, ganglystudent, his dark hair cut into a severe short-back-and-sides,sitting bolt upright in his chair, wearing a tweed jacket, an oldschool tie and a yellow waistcoat with a fob watch, who listened to the music with rigid concentration and once or twicesighed loudly or clicked his tongue in exasperation for no apparent reason. Since he seemed to be taking no notice of Sarah,it was a great surprise when he came to sit at her table duringthe interval, and an even greater surprise when, after a strainedsilence of perhaps two or three minutes, he suddenly addressedher in a clipped Scottish accent with the words: `Preposteroustemp; in the eleventh contrapunctus, didn't you think?'

They were the most peculiar, least comprehensible wordsthat had ever been spoken to her: but they did lead to a conversation, of sorts, and that in turn led to a relationship, of sorts.In all her five terms at the university Sarah had never had aboyfriend, and her social life, such as it was, tended to consistof the occasional rowdy evening out with large groups of friendswho had never (she felt) invited her wholeheartedly into theircircle. To be asked out to dinner by Gregory, to accompany himto the cinema or theatre, was for a while a new and blissful experience. Most often they went to concerts, and if she noticedthat Gregory's tastes in music showed a marked tendency towards pieces that were dry, academic and emotionless, she didnot allow it to bother her. Not, at any rate, until she discoveredthat these same qualities characterized his lovemaking.

Sarah lost her virginity to Gregory, about six weeks after hehad started taking her out. It was a difficult and painful experience, much as she had been expecting; what she had not beenexpecting, however, was that all their subsequent encounterswould be equally lacking in pleasure. Gregory made love withthe same cool, intelligent efficiency he found so admirable inthe most rigorous of Bach's keyboard exercises. Tenderness,flexibility, expressiveness and variations in tempo were notamong the items in his repertoire. The best that Sarah couldexpect — the best she had to look forward to, after severalmonths of these couplings — was the moment of post-coitalfatigue, when Gregory, his performance executed and his energies spent, would sometimes speak to her in a cajoling, intimate way she found untypical and delightful. It was on onesuch occasion that he had asked her an unexpected question.

They were lying in bed together, deep in the middle of a still,airless night, hotly entwined, her head on his shoulder. AndGregory had asked her, seemingly from nowhere, what shethought was the most beautiful part of his body. Sarah hadlooked up at him in surprise, and told him that she wasn't sure,she would have to think about it, and then he, much to her relief (because she couldn't, to be honest, think of any part of hisbody that was especially beautiful), had said, `Shall I tell youwhat is the most beautiful part of your body?' and she had said,`Yes, tell me,' but for a little while he had made her guess, andthey ran, giggling, through the obvious possibilities, but it wasnone of those, and finally she gave up, and then Gregory hadsmiled at her and said, quietly, `Your eyelids.' She hadn't believed him at first, but he had said, `That's because you've neverseen your own eyelids; and never will see them, unless I take aphotograph' (but he never did take a photograph), and so sheasked him, `Well, when have you become so intimately acquainted with my eyelids?' and he answered, `While you wereasleep. I like watching you when you're asleep.' And this wasthe first intimation she had had, the first hint, of his liking forstanding over people in their beds, looking down on them asthey slept, something she had regarded as interesting at first,the sign of an enquiring intelligence, until she began to wonder, in the end, whether there wasn't something sinister aboutit, fetishistic almost, this desire to look down on people as theylay helpless, unconscious, while he, the watching subject, retained full control over his waking mind.

It was harder to get to sleep after that, knowing that at anypoint in the night he might climb out of bed and stand over her,watching her sleeping face by moonlight. (And that was beforeshe had further aroused his interest by telling him about herdreams, her dreams so real that she could sometimes not distinguish them from the events of her waking life.) But she gotused to the idea, as she supposed one gets used to most ideas,and her awareness of Gregory's watchful presence did not unduly disturb her sleeping patterns for several more months (orwas it weeks?) until she awoke screaming, in the early hours ofone December morning, from one of her recurring nightmaresabout frogs. This one concerned a man-sized frog which hadbeen squatting by the side of the campus ring road as she triedto hurry by: it had croaked horribly at her and then fastened onto her eyelids with the twin ends of its forked tongue, one oneach eye. Sarah had struggled to wake from the nightmare butthen began to cry out in even greater panic as she realized that,even though the dream was over, the sensation of pressureagainst her eyelids wasn't going away: there really was someone, or something, fastening on to them. She tried to open hereyes but found that she couldn't. Something was obstructing themovement of her eyelids. Then the obstruction was removedswiftly and she opened her eyes to find Gregory sitting close beside her, his face bent intently towards hers, his hand — withfirst and second fingers outstretched — suspended in the aironly an inch or two from her eyes.

`What the hell were you doing?' she asked, about ten minuteslater, when she was fully awake, her breathing and heart ratehad returned to normal, and she was convinced, finally, thatthere were no giant frogs in the room with them. `What wereyou doing back then?'

`Nothing,' said Gregory. `I was just watching you.'

`You were touching me,' said Sarah.

`I didn't mean to wake you.'

`Well then, you shouldn't have put your bloody fingers inmy eyes.'

After a pause Gregory murmured, `I'm sorry,' very softly — meltingly — andsqueezed her hand. Then he leaned forwardand kissed her. `I didn't mean to wake you,' he repeated. `I hadto touch them. It's incredible ...' in the half-dark of the bedroom she could sense his smile `... there's so much life going onbehind your eyes when you're asleep: I could see it. And Iwanted to touch it: I could feel it, in my fingertips.' He added:`I've done it before, you know.'

`Yes, but ... it frightened me. It felt so real.' Meekly accusing,she said: `You were pressing quite hard.'

He smiled again. `Yes, but you do trust me, don't you? Not tohurt you.'

She felt her hand squeezed, her wrist stroked. `I suppose so.'

`I suppose so?'

The weight of his wounded silence was too much to bear.`Yes, of course I do. But that's not really the point, is it?'

`I think it's very much the point. What did you think I was going to do to you?'

As he said this, he brought his hand close to her face again.Her eyelids closed of their own accord, and he pressed againstthem with his fingertips.

`I spy,' he whispered, `with my little eye. You're not scarednow, are you?'

`No,' said Sarah, doubtfully.

Then he pressed harder.

`And now?'

And that was how it had begun, the thing they came to referto as `the game', and which became more and more closely associated with their lovemaking; until they began to play it (orrather Gregory began to play it, for Sarah was never anythingmore than his passive accomplice) not just post-coitally, buteven during the act itself; so that it was not uncommon for himactually to reach his climax while lying on top of her, poisedabove her face, his first and second fingers pressed ever morefirmly, ever more testingly, against her closed eyelids.

All of which Sarah remembered now, in the few instants shelay beneath Gregory tonight, as he adopted this position forone more time. For the last time, as it turned out: because all atonce, possessed by a spirit of rebellion and a physical strengthwhich surprised them both, she then let out a thin, final shriekof `No!' and heaved Gregory away from her, so that he rolled offthe bed and crashed naked to the floor.

`Jesus Christ, woman!'

Sarah got out of bed and pulled her nightdress back on.

`What the fuck was that for?'

Now she took her dressing-gown from its hook on the back ofthe door and struggled into it, wriggling to find the sleeves.Gregory knelt beside the bed, winded, cradling his foreheadand struggling for breath.

`Are you going to answer me or what?'

Sarah opened the door wordlessly and ran down the corridortowards the bathroom. She locked the door and sat on the toilet and wept. She rocked back and forth for several minutes.Slowly the crying and the rocking came to an end, and then shewashed her face in cold water and looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and her mouth was set in anunfamiliar, resolute line. She began to rehearse the appropriatephrases.

Gregory, I'm sorry but I've had enough.

I think it would be better if we didn't see each other any more.

This just isn't working, is it?

I think we should just try to be friends from now on.

Strangely, once she had composed the speech in her mind,she found herself looking forward to delivering it: or rather anticipating, with a faint, timorous glow, her sense of satisfactionat having upset at least one of Gregory's most firmly rooted assumptions. In five minutes' time, she told herself, it would allbe over: and it seemed suddenly incredible that a relationshipwhich had dragged on, now, for more than a year, bringing inits wake most of what she had learned about happiness butalso — and more and more, in recent months — a good dealof frustration, could be brought to an end in a few moments,with a handful of well-chosen sentences: consigning her to — what? — freedom,presumably, the freedom to pursue other,more successful friendships (the names and faces of Robertand — to her passing, unexamined surprise — Veronica presented themselves for a moment). But that was all speculation:in the short term she could foresee nothing beyond simple emotional obliteration: a vacuum of feeling: blackness. And yeteven this prospect had started to look inviting.

Blackness enfolded her as she eased open the bedroom doorand stepped inside. Blackness and silence: not even the soundof him breathing. She felt for the light switch but thought better of it. Instead she cleared her throat and said, faintly:

`Gregory?'

The bedside light came on immediately and he was sitting up and staring at her, his arms folded, his pyjama jacket buttoned up—as usual—to the neck. Before she could say a word, he had already embarked upon a short, articulate, expressionless monologue.

`I have only one thing to say to you, Sarah, and I am going to say it now, as quickly and as kindly as possible, in order to spare you pain. Your behaviour tonight has confirmed a suspicion which has been growing in my mind for some time: a suspicion that you are — not to put too fine a point on it — far from suitable as a partner with whom I would feel comfortable sharing the rest of my life. Consequently I feel obliged to inform you that our relationship is at an end, as of this precise moment. Since it is now too late for me reasonably to expect you to make alternative arrangements, I will permit you to share a bed with me for this night and this night only. My position on this issue is not open to negotiation and now that I have made it clear, I would only like to remind you that I have a long car journey ahead of me tomorrow, and I expect that you will allow me, on that account if no other, an uninterrupted night's —'

— and here he turned off the light —

`— sleep.'

Continues...



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