A Fling for Mabel Draper
What goes around never comes around. That’s our tragedy. Life is one-way; there’s no return journey. Our single ticket allows us to see ourselves as part of a cycle, which is humbling, yet debars us from taking part in its completion, which is tragic. When we understand this there can be no premature opting-out. We see it through, painlessly if we’re lucky. But the tragedy is complicated by the absurd, in that what we are resigned to leaving behind is what we want more of. At the point of death, we crave more life.
These are not my words, but I was reminded of them when I read one of the many obituaries for the writer Gabriel García Marquez. Towards the end of his life Marquez contracted Alzheimer’s Disease. Just before it completely took over he wrote a novel called Memorias de Mis Putas Tristes (Memories of My Melancholy Whores). The critical reception was tepid. It convinced Marquez that his storytelling powers had deserted him for good.
The words, in fact, are those of Melvyn Charles (M.C.) Williams, a minor literary figure, which is why they might strike some as unoriginal, trite almost, if rather neatly expressed – the commonplace posing elegantly enough as the profound.
But the connection with Marquez’s last book doesn’t end there. Before he himself died, Williams asked me to look after his unpublished papers. The family had long disowned me, so balked at the codicil to his will that allowed me to receive eight boxes of letters, diaries, journals, articles and other assorted manuscripts. I collected them from a large manse-like house outside town in circumstances I can only describe as fraught: a silence being rapidly undermined by a potential explosion. The boxes, stacked on top of one another in the hallway, had obviously been left there to save me entering the house proper and making contact with Williams’s family, though I knew they were all gathered there, at least to judge by the cars parked at all angles in the grounds. I didn’t know the woman who answered the door – a solicitor perhaps – but she had evidently been waiting for me. Without introducing herself, she stated my name interrogatively and pointed to the tower of boxes. I struggled to my car with them unaided, four at a time, and drove off.
With the bequest was a small sum of money and a note to the effect that the family should have no claim on the papers as representing any kind of literary estate. I half expected them to object but I heard nothing. Perhaps they knew as well as I that they were probably worthless. In the car with Williams’s ‘remains’ on the back seat, I pictured his family loosed from their rigid positions of hatred and incapacity in that old dark place, gripping the backs of chairs and glad at last to be rid of their own ‘melancholy whore’. For I knew Melvyn Charles Williams as ‘Mel’ and the house, for a while, had been our home. The ‘melancholy’ had been theirs.
After leafing quickly through the papers the same evening, I recalled what I knew only too well – how everything had begun to change when my car had broken down on the way to the supermarket that time. But our lives had really altered six months before, with the arrival of Gwyneth Beese. I was in an upstairs window when I saw her walking up the drive. She appeared to be struggling somehow in the same way that I’d become unaccountably apprehensive. Mel had inherited the house from his twin brother just after we’d met in London. He was seventy with a modest reputation; I was thirty years younger and on the edges of his circle. The brother, a childless widower and as much a family eccentric as Mel, died shortly after Mel and I started living together. He left the house to us, more out of spite towards his relatives than anything else.
In that same upper window with the light on, unknown to them, I saw Gwyneth and Mel embracing.
Mel and I had been together two years in that echoing pile when, before lunch one day, I left to drive into town. After a short while the car shuddered to a halt. I walked back to the house. In that same upper window with the light on, unknown to them, I saw Gwyneth and Mel embracing. I drew back behind one of the rhododendrons that Mel insisted on allowing to grow wild. Something about the unconventional life we were leading made me immune to any irrational consequence of shock, and I entered the house to explain what had happened to the car. Mel phoned a garage. While he was talking, Gwyneth appeared in the doorway, her fevered colour up, a felt hat pinned comically awry and a cheap overcoat buttoned around a neat buxom figure. Her twice-weekly housekeeping stint ended at two o’ clock. She asked if she could help but Mel, still on the phone, dismissed her with a wave. She hoped everything would be sorted out with the car and she left, closing the front door quietly behind her.
Gwyneth was twenty-five years older than me. She lived in the village and was married with two grown-up sons. Mel would never let me do housework, at least not the time-consuming laborious sort. I suppose I was in thrall to him. He was witty and entertaining and we did reckless, spur-of-the-moment things together. Once, in Paris, we accepted a stranger’s invitation to a party. The word ‘gay’ hadn’t been appropriated then, but we turned up at a gathering at which gaiety seemed to have torn away the differences between men and women. I danced with people I couldn’t place sexually and for a few moments they aroused in me a foreign passion that I sensed could not be sustained, because it beckoned towards danger and maybe oblivion. But it didn’t frighten me. ‘Good!’ Mel said when I told him how I felt. It was his way of deflecting guilt, a reaction he thought wasted on ‘Baptist inhibitions’. He was glad we lived in Non-Conformist country where, he laughingly reflected, everyone conformed but none could summon irony to see the joke. The house was a bastion against piety and that was partly why he lived there and why he wrote salacious tales while we sent forth our own beam of light from our beacon of self-righteousness.
Mel did see the funny side of most things – the contrast, for instance, between the provocative immorality of his stories and what he early on referred to as the ‘Sisyphean comedy’ of our sex life. I had to look that up. He teased me about my curiosity of what a seventy-year-old was capable of in bed, meaning that my low expectations should be compensated for by a shocking inventiveness, though not as shocking as the account of it in one of the stories. Writing fiction was for Mel simply a slight re-arrangement of the truth. We soon lapsed into performances in which I was the dishevelled protagonist, a role that roused me beyond anything we might have accomplished together, though, like a battery surging unpredictably into life before it expires, he had his moments. Sometimes, he asked me to imagine he were a woman, which I did, and it excited me beyond the pleasure of any kind of reward, so far beyond the reasonable expectations of others that I felt selfish. Sex between committed couples, Mel said, was briefly shared then selfishly divided, but there was as much pleasure in the division and certainly a lessened probability of disappointment. And selfishness, he told me, in case I thought it less than a virtue, was the permanent condition of the adventurer, and that the villagers down below, with their Bible-bound selflessness, lived always in the dark, never going anywhere. They learned about him from others. One of his books caused a modest scandal and he was denounced in the newspapers by some self-appointed guardian of good behaviour as ‘wicked’. The description amused him, because it was old-fashioned and resurrected from the times in which such people still lived.
Just before the incident with Gwyneth, I’d begun to notice how old Mel really was. Stupid, I know, but he never acted his age, as the locals would say. When I first met him he seemed ageless. I even suspected that our eccentric frolics were a deception on his part and not intended to make up for something he’d lost or was losing. The sadness of people lies in their ignorance of what it is about them that others can see so clearly. For intimates, like us, it begins at close quarters: the backs of the hands like wave patterns left in the sand; the watery eyes a wooden Madonna’s miraculous secretion; the interior of an aged member doing its Houdini act; those ghostly walks across the landing throughout the night the repetition of some drift or other towards eventual catastrophe. It had become a routine, fixed in its increasingly meaningful parts like a film developing. I confessed I’d seen him and Gwyneth entwined, her skirt pulled up at the back like some stage curtain suspended in mid-hoist. He laughed and offered to invite her to live with us. I couldn’t concentrate on either the aberration or the possibility of that. I don’t think he cared whether or not anyone, including me, had seen him with Gwyneth in his arms. What obsessed me was his failure to acknowledge the picture coming into focus, a deficiency I knew explained the faint praise of the obituaries published a few years later and after I, a better and wiser woman, had left him, so practised in the art of ecstasy that I now have to exert a modicum of self-control entirely against my best inclinations – a sort of professionalism among inveterate amateurs.
But there’d also been times when I saw him as the unwitting messenger, enabling me to imagine things he never saw himself. In charitable moments, I thought this might have amounted to a sacred gift, the kind bestowed by the gods without their beneficiary knowing. He illuminated my life but could not, or would not, see his own fading light or the darkness it would leave behind. I think he got something from the villagers he so often joked about – their concepts of light and dark, good and bad, the opposite of his own but with the same intensity of hue. Maybe he had no idea of the effect he had on me. But even in my forties I was already aware of something in me that had come and gone or was growing smaller, like a fast-disappearing figure waving goodbye.
‘A true artist,’ Mel wrote, ‘pities the moth hovering over the flame, but will not blow out the candle.’ It summarised his warmth and remoteness up there on the hill and occasionally his cruelty. I never mentioned any of this to Gwyneth but instead took a cool interest in how she would deal with it, a sort of cruelty in itself. His light, you see, made the world clearer for me, which is why I want to write all this down in this particular way, even the admission of being insufficiently lettered. (Before I found out about it, the myth of Sisyphus, that parable of the aimlessness and obstinacy of human life, must have been awaiting me.) I’d long suspected that in Gwyneth he saw someone more closely resembling himself, that in finally accepting that the years were passing, he wanted to revive life rather than maintain it, and wanted to do it with someone who would soon come to the same conclusions and ultimately the same terminus as himself with the same level of expectation. Being a woman of a certain age, of course, Gwyneth would already have suffered losses more grievous than men like Mel could imagine. But some of them can imagine it, and enshrine it in better stories than his.
She was fluttering near the flame, oblivious of danger and she finally withdrew to the safety of what she knew.
It was my imagination that would now embroider the unknown regions, such as what happened to Gwyneth in those months when she came and went daily, and when I‘d taken it upon myself to be out for the day on far more occasions than previously. After six months, she gave in her notice and we rarely saw her again. I now like to think that the shudder I felt when watching her approach the house on that first day was not jealousy or a presentiment of trouble but the shock wave of a life that was about to lock on to mine. I also like to think that when united amorously with Mel in the window she was calling me back from whatever insignificant journey I’d set out on and urging me to re-engage. Naturally, she knew nothing of this. She was fluttering near the flame, oblivious of danger and she finally withdrew to the safety of what she knew. My information from the village – from those who talked openly to me rather than whispered about me in corners - was that she remained happily married, but a different woman, a different sort of woman. I was never a creature at risk of being consumed. If it didn’t make me snigger, as it should, I’d say I took hold of the torch and helped Mel hold it aloft, in the end taking it from him and keeping the fire, my fire, going.
But this was one region I had no need to depict, as Mel had done it for me. Among the papers I discovered an unfinished story called Mabel Draper’s Fling, about a woman who applies for a job as housekeeper to an ageing and notorious libertine. (In the matter of Mel’s notoriety and how it transformed me into a light o’love, the reader must take me on trust.) In the diaries, there was a reference to its being fun to write. It soon degenerates into a Svengali-type tale, the sex scenes tiresomely tumbling over each other. But at its heart is the story of a woman re-negotiating terms with life and with no going back. Well, it might have been fun but it wasn’t honest. It’s honesty that makes me deprecate Mel’s achievements if not his example. He bequeathed to me more than these documents in their battered files. He gave me intensity of feeling and because we were different, and possibly because I’m a woman, my portion of the light shines farther and on more than his ever did. Gwyneth could have been my rival but she was really my sister, my companion, forever undergoing men’s relentless baptisms. ‘Try to see life from the other’s viewpoint’ was one of Mel’s hoary maxims, but he rarely observed it himself. Unlike Marquez, he briefly became celebrated, mostly for the wrong reasons, though he had integrity of sorts. Marquez knew when he was finished; Mel had scaled no heights from which to tumble. My legacy from him is that the thought of him still refreshes me when I’m at a loss but no longer frames a life which bars the entry of others, neither the benighted communities at the bottom of the hill nor their felt-hatted representatives walking between the rhododendrons to who-knows-what-kind of new, bareheaded day.
Life might be one-way, as he said, and one can learn to accept its arrow’s path with equanimity – but also without taboo gnawing at its precious moments.
Illustration: Sylvie Jones