Stories, p.1Doris Lessing
The Habit of Loving
Through the Tunnel
The Day Stalin Died
The Eye of God in Paradise
The Other Woman
One off the Short List
A Woman on a Roof
How I Finally Lost My Heart
A Man and Two Women
England versus England
Our Friend Judith
Homage for Isaac Babel
Outside the Ministry
Notes for a Case History
To Room Nineteen
An Old Woman and Her Cat
Side Benefits of an Honourable Profession
A Year in Regent’s Park
Report on the Threatened City
An Unposted Love Letter
Lions, Leaves, Roses…
Not a Very Nice Story
The Other Garden
The Temptation of Jack Orkney
The Habit of Loving
In 1947 George wrote again to Myra, saying that now the war was well over she should come home and marry him. She wrote back from Australia, where she had gone with her two children in 1943 because there were relations there, saying she felt they had drifted apart; she was no longer sure she wanted to marry George. He did not allow himself to collapse. He cabled her the air fare and asked her to come over and see him. She came, for two weeks, being unable to leave the children for longer. She said she liked Australia; she liked the climate; she did not like the English climate any longer; she thought England was, very probably, played out; and she had become used to missing London. Also, presumably, to missing George Talbot.
For George this was a very painful fortnight. He believed it was painful for Myra, too. They had met in 1938, had lived together for five years, and had exchanged for four years the letters of lovers separated by fate. Myra was certainly the love of his life. He had believed he was of hers until now. Myra, an attractive woman made beautiful by the suns and beaches of Australia, waved goodbye at the airport, and her eyes were filled with tears.
George’s eyes, as he drove away from the airport, were dry. If one person has loved another truly and wholly, then it is more than love that collapses when one side of the indissoluble partnership turns away with a tearful goodbye. George dismissed the taxi early and walked through St. James’s Park. Then it seemed too small for him, and he went to the Green Park. Then he walked into Hyde Park and through to Kensington Gardens. When the dark came and they closed the great gates of the park he took a taxi home. He lived in a block of flats near the Marble Arch. For five years Myra had lived with him there, and it was here he had expected to live with her again. Now he moved into a new flat near Covent Garden. Soon after that he wrote Myra a very painful letter. It occurred to him that he had often received such letters, but had never written one before. It occurred to him that he had entirely underestimated the amount of suffering he must have caused in his life. But Myra wrote him a sensible letter back, and George Talbot told himself that now he must finally stop thinking about Myra.
Therefore he became rather less of a dilettante in his work than he had been recently, and he agreed to produce a new play written by a friend of his. George Talbot was a man of the theatre. He had not acted in it for many years now; but he wrote articles, he sometimes produced a play, he made speeches on important occasions and was known by everyone. When he went into a restaurant people tried to catch his eye, and he often did not know who they were. During the four years since Myra had left, he had had a number of affairs with young women round and about the theatre, for he had been lonely. He had written quite frankly to Myra about these affairs, but she had never mentioned them in her letters. Now he was very busy for some months and was seldom at home; he earned quite a lot of money, and he had a few more affairs with women who were pleased to be seen in public with him. He thought about Myra a great deal, but he did not write to her again, nor she to him, although they had agreed they would always be great friends.
One evening in the foyer of a theatre he saw an old friend of his he had always admired, and he told the young woman he was with that that man had been the most irresistible man of his generation—no woman had been able to resist him. The young woman stared briefly across the foyer and said, “Not really?”
When George Talbot got home that night he was alone, and he looked at himself with honesty in the mirror. He was sixty, but he did not look it. Whatever had attracted women to him in the past had never been his looks, and he was not much changed: a stoutish man, holding himself erect, grey-haired, carefully brushed, well-dressed. He had not paid much attention to his face since those many years ago when he had been an actor; but now he had an uncharacteristic fit of vanity and remembered that Myra had admired his mouth, while his wife had loved his eyes. He took to taking glances at himself in foyers and restaurants where there were mirrors, and he saw himself as unchanged. He was becoming conscious, though, of a discrepancy between that suave exterior and what he felt. Beneath his ribs his heart had become swollen and soft and painful, a monstrous area of sympathy playing enemy to what he had been. When people made jokes he was often unable to laugh; and his manner of talking, which was light and allusive and dry, must have changed, because more than once old friends asked him if he was depressed, and they no longer smiled appreciatively as he told his stories. He gathered he was not being good company. He understood he might be ill, and he went to the doctor. The doctor said there was nothing wrong with his heart, he had thirty years of life in him yet—luckily, he added respectfully, for the British theatre.
George came to understand that the word “heartache” meant that a person could carry a heart that ached around with him day and night for, in his case, months. Nearly a year now. He would wake in the night, because of the pressure of pain in his chest; in the morning he woke under a weight of grief. There seemed to be no end to it; and this thought jolted him into two actions. First, he wrote to Myra a tender, carefully phrased letter, recalling the years of their love. To this he got, in due course, a tender and careful reply. Then he went to see his wife. With her he was, and had been for many years, good friends. They saw each other often, but not so often now the children were grownup; perhaps once or twice a year, and they never quarrelled.
His wife had married again after they divorced, and now she was a widow. Her second husband had been a member of Parliament, and she worked for the Labour Party, and she was on a Hospital Advisory Committee and on the Board of Directors of a progressive school. She was fifty, but did not look it. On this afternoon she was wearing a slim grey suit and grey shoes, and her grey hair had a wave of white across the front which made her look distinguished. She was animated, and very happy to see George; and she talked about some deadhead on her hospital committee who did not see eye to eye with the progressive minority about some reform or other. They had always had their politics in common, a position somewhere left of center in the Labour Party. She had sympathised with his being a pacifist in the First World War—he had been for a time in prison because of it; he had sympathised with her militant feminism. Both had helped the strikers in 1926. In the Thirties, after they were divorced, she had helped with money when he went on tour with a company acting Shakespeare to people on the dole, or hunger-marching.
Myra had not been at all interested in politics, only in her children. And in George, of course.
George asked his first wife to marry him again, and she was so startled that she let the sugar tongs drop and crack a saucer. She asked w
His wife examined him and said briskly: “You’re lonely, George. Well, we’re none of us getting any younger.”
“You don’t think you’d be less lonely if you had me around?”
She got up from her chair in order that she could attend to something with her back to him, and she said that she intended to marry again quite soon. She was marrying a man considerably younger than herself, a doctor who was in the progressive minority at her hospital. From her voice George understood that she was both proud and ashamed of this marriage, and that was why she was hiding her face from him. He congratulated her and asked her if there wasn’t perhaps a chance for him yet? “After all, dear, we were happy together, weren’t we? I’ve never really understood why that marriage ever broke up. It was you who wanted to break it up.”
“I don’t see any point in raking over that old business,” she said, with finality, and returned to her seat opposite him. He envied her very much, looking young with her pink and scarcely lined face under that brave lock of deliberately whitened hair.
“But dear, I wish you’d tell me. It doesn’t do any harm now, does it? And I always wondered…. I’ve often thought about it and wondered.” He could hear the pathetic note in his voice again, but he did not know how to alter it.
“You wondered,” she said, “when you weren’t occupied with Myra.”
“But I didn’t know Myra when we got divorced.”
“You knew Phillipa and Georgina and Janet and Lord knows who else.”
“But I didn’t care about them.”
She sat with her competent hands in her lap, and on her face was a look he remembered seeing when she told him she would divorce him. It was bitter and full of hurt. “You didn’t care about me either,” she said.
“But we were happy. Well, I was happy …” he trailed off, being pathetic against all his knowledge of women. For, as he sat there, his old rake’s heart was telling him that if only he could find them, there must be the right words, the right tone. But whatever he said came out in this hopeless, old dog’s voice, and he knew that this voice could never defeat the gallant and crusading young doctor. “And I did care about you. Sometimes I think you were the only woman in my life.”
At this she laughed. “Oh, George, don’t get maudlin now, please.”
“Well, dear, there was Myra. But when you threw me over there was bound to be Myra, wasn’t there? There were two women, you and then Myra. And I’ve never never understood why you broke it all up when we seemed to be so happy.”
“You didn’t care for me,” she said again. “If you had, you would never have come home from Phillipa, Georgina, Janet, et al., and said calmly, just as if it didn’t matter to me in the least, that you had been with them in Brighton or wherever it was.”
“But if I had cared about them I would never have told you.”
She was regarding him incredulously, and her face was flushed. With what? Anger? George did not know.
“I remember being so proud,” he said pathetically, “that we had solved this business of marriage and all that sort of thing. We had such a good marriage that it didn’t matter, the little flirtations. And I always thought one should be able to tell the truth. I always told you the truth, didn’t I?”
“Very romantic of you, dear George,” she said dryly; and soon he got up, kissed her fondly on the cheek, and went away.
He walked for a long time through the parks, hands behind his erect back, and he could feel his heart swollen and painful in his side. When the gates shut, he walked through the lighted streets he had lived in for fifty years of his life, and he was remembering Myra and Molly, as if they were one woman, merging into each other, a shape of warm easy intimacy, a shape of happiness walking beside him. He went into a little restaurant he knew well, and there was a girl sitting there who knew him because she had heard him lecture once on the state of the British theatre. He tried hard to see Myra and Molly in her face, but he failed; and he paid for her coffee and his own and went home by himself. But his flat was unbearably empty, and he left it and walked down by the Embankment for a couple of hours to tire himself, and there must have been a colder wind blowing than he knew, for next day he woke with a pain in his chest which he could not mistake for heartache.
He had ‘flu and a bad cough, and he stayed in bed by himself and did not ring up the doctor until the fourth day, when he was getting lightheaded. The doctor said it must be the hospital at once. But he would not go to the hospital. So the doctor said he must have day and night nurses. This he submitted to until the cheerful friendliness of the nurses saddened him beyond bearing, and he asked the doctor to ring up his wife, who would find someone to look after him who would be sympathetic. He was hoping that Molly would come herself to nurse him, but when she arrived he did not like to mention it, for she was busy with preparations for her new marriage. She promised to find him someone who would not wear a uniform and make jokes. They naturally had many friends in common; and she rang up an old flame of his in the theatre who said she knew of a girl who was looking for a secretary’s job to tide her over a patch of not working, but who didn’t really mind what she did for a few weeks.
So Bobby Tippett sent away the nurses and made up a bed for herself in his study. On the first day she sat by George’s bed sewing. She wore a full dark skirt and a demure printed blouse with short frills at the wrist, and George watched her sewing and already felt much better. She was a small, thin, dark girl, probably Jewish, with sad black eyes. She had a way of letting her sewing lie loose in her lap, her hands limp over it; and her eyes fixed themselves, and a bloom of dark introspection came over them. She sat very still at these moments, like a small china figure of a girl sewing. When she was nursing George, or letting in his many visitors, she put on a manner of cool and even languid charm; it was the extreme good manners of heartlessness, and at first George was chilled: but then he saw through the pose; for whatever world Bobby Tippett had been born into he did not think it was the English class to which these manners belonged. She replied with a “yes,” or a “no,” to questions about herself; he gathered that her parents were dead, but there was a married sister she saw sometimes; and for the rest she had lived around and about London, mostly by herself, for ten or more years. When he asked her if she had not been lonely, so much by herself, she drawled, “Why, not at all, I don’t mind being alone.” But he saw her as a small, brave child, a waif against London, and was moved.
He did not want to be the big man of the theatre; he was afraid of evoking the impersonal admiration he was only too accustomed to; but soon he was asking her questions about her career, hoping that this might be the point of her enthusiasm. But she spoke lightly of small parts, odd jobs, scene-painting and understudying, in a jolly good-little-trouper’s voice; and he could not see that he had come any closer to her at all. So at last he did what he had tried to avoid and, sitting up against his pillows like a judge or an impresario, he said: “Do something for me, dear. Let me see you.” She went next door like an obedient child, and came back in tight black trousers, but still in her demure little blouse, and stood on the carpet before him, and went into a little song-and-dance act. It wasn’t bad. He had seen a hundred worse. But he was very moved; he saw her now above all as the little urchin, the gamin, boy-girl and helpless. And utterly touching. “Actually,” she said, “this is half of an act. I always have someone else.”
There was a big mirror that nearly filled the end wall of the large, dark room. George saw himself in it, an elderly man sitting propped up on pillows watching the small doll-like figure standing before him on the carpet. He saw her turn her head towards her reflection in the darkened mirror, study it, and then she began to da
“That’s very good, dear,” he broke in quickly, for he was upset, though he did not know why. “Very good indeed.” He was relieved when she broke off and came away from the mirror, so that the uncanny shadow of her went away.
“Would you like me to speak to someone for you, dear? It might help. You know how things are in the theatre,” he suggested apologetically.
“I don’t maind if I dew,” she said in the stage cockney of her act; and for a moment her face flashed into a mocking, reckless, gaminlike charm. “Perhaps I’d better change back into my skirt?” she suggested. “More natural-like for a nurse, ain’t it?”
But he said he liked her in her tight black trousers, and now she always wore them, and her neat little shirts; and she moved about the flat as a charming feminine boy, chattering to him about the plays she had had small parts in and about the big actors and actresses and producers she had spoken to, who were, of course, George’s friends or, at least, equals. George sat up against his pillows and listened and watched, and his heart ached. He remained in bed longer than there was need, because he did not want her to go. When he transferred himself to a big chair, he said: “You mustn’t think you’re bound to stay here, dear, if there’s somewhere else you’d rather go.” To which she replied, with a wide flash of her black eyes, “But I’m resting, darling, resting. I’ve nothing better to do with myself.” And then: “Oh aren’t I awful, the things wot I sy?”
“But you do like being here? You don’t mind being here with me, dear?” he insisted.
There was the briefest pause. She said: “Yes, oddly enough I do like it.” The “oddly enough” was accompanied by a quick, half-laughing, almost flirtatious glance; and for the first time in many months the pressure of loneliness eased around George’s heart.
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