May We Borrow Your Husband & Other Comedies of the Sexual Life, p.1Graham Greene
About the Author
Also by Graham Greene
May We Borrow Your Husband?
Chagrin in Three Parts
The Over-night Bag
Cheap in August
A Shocking Accident
The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen
Awful When You Think of It
The Root of All Evil
Two Gentle People
MAY WE BORROW YOUR HUSBAND?
Graham Greene was born in 1904. On coming down from Balliol College, Oxford, he worked for four years as sub-editor on The Times. He established his reputation with his fourth novel, Stamboul Train. In 1935 he made a journey across Liberia, described in Journey Without Maps, and on his return was appointed film critic of the Spectator. In 1926 he had been received into the Roman Catholic Church and visited Mexico in 1938 to report on the religious persecution there. As a result he wrote The Lawless Roads and, later, his famous novel The Power and the Glory. Brighton Rock was published in 1938 and in 1940 he became literary editor of the Spectator. The next year he undertook work for the Foreign Office and was stationed in Sierra Leone from 1941 to 1943. This later produced the novel, The Heart of the Matter, set in West Africa.
As well as his many novels, Graham Greene wrote several collections of short stories, four travel books, six plays, three books of autobiography – A Sort of Life, Ways of Escape and A World of My Own (published posthumously) – two of biography and four books for children. He also contributed hundreds of essays, and film and book reviews, some of which appear in the collections Reflections and Mornings in the Dark. Many of his novels and short stories have been filmed and The Third Man was written as a film treatment. Graham Greene was a member of the Order of Merit and a Companion of Honour.
Graham Greene died in April 1991.
ALSO BY GRAHAM GREENE
The Man Within
It’s a Battlefield
A Gun for Sale
The Confidential Agent
The Ministry of Fear
The Third Man
The End of the Affair
The Quiet American
A Burnt-Out Case
Travels with my Aunt
Dr Fischer of Geneva or
The Bomb Party
The Captain and the Enemy
England Made Me
The Power and the Glory
The Heart of the Matter
The Fallen Idol
Loser Takes All
Our Man in Havana
The Honorary Consul
The Human Factor
The Tenth Man
The Last Word and Other Stories
Journey Without Maps
The Lawless Roads
In Search of a Character
Getting to Know the General
Mornings in the Dark
A Sort of Life
Ways of Escape
Fragments of an Autobiography
A World of my Own
Lord Rochester’s Monkey
An Impossible Woman
The Little Train
The Little Horse-Bus
The Little Steamroller
The Little Fire Engine
May We Borrow Your Husband?
MAY WE BORROW YOUR HUSBAND?
* * *
I NEVER heard her called anything else but Poopy, either by her husband or by the two men who became their friends. Perhaps I was a little in love with her (absurd though that may seem at my age) because I found that I resented the name. It was unsuited to someone so young and so open – too open; she belonged to the age of trust just as I belonged to the age of cynicism. ‘Good old Poopy’ – I even heard her called that by the elder of the two interior-decorators (who had known her no longer than I had): a sobriquet which might have been good enough for some vague bedraggled woman of middle age who drank a bit too much but who was useful to drag around as a kind of blind – and those two certainly needed a blind. I once asked the girl her real name, but all she said was, ‘Everyone calls me Poopy’ as though that finished it, and I was afraid of appearing too square if I pursued the question further – too middle-aged perhaps as well, so though I hate the name whenever I write it down, Poopy she has to remain: I have no other.
I had been at Antibes working on a book of mine, a biography of the seventeenth-century poet, the Earl of Rochester, for more than a month before Poopy and her husband arrived. I had come there as soon as the full season was over, to a small ugly hotel by the sea not far from the ramparts, and I was able to watch the season depart with the leaves in the Boulevard Général Leclerc. At first, even before the trees had begun to drop, the foreign cars were on the move homeward. A few weeks earlier, I had counted fourteen nationalities, including Morocco, Turkey, Sweden and Luxembourg, between the sea and the Place de Gaulle, to which I walked every day for the English papers. Now all the foreign number-plates had gone, except for the Belgian and the German and an occasional English one, and, of course, the ubiquitous number-plates of the State of Monaco. The cold weather had come early and Antibes catches only the morning sun – good enough for breakfast on the terrace, but it was safer to lunch indoors or the shadow overtook the coffee. A cold and solitary Algerian was always there, leaning over the ramparts, looking for something, perhaps safety.
It was the time of year I liked best, when Juan les Pins becomes as squalid as a closed fun-fair with Lunar Park boarded up and cards marked Fermeture Annuelle outside the Pam-Pam and Maxim’s, and the Concours International Amateur de Striptease at the Vieux Colombiers is over for another season. Then Antibes comes into its own as a small country town with the Auberge de Provence full of local people and old men sit indoors drinking beer or pastis at the glacier in the Place de Gaulle. The small garden, which forms a roundabout on the ramparts, looks a little sad with the short stout palms bowing their brown fronds; the sun in the morning shines without any glare, and the few white sails move gently on the unbinding sea.
You can always trust the English to stay on longer than others into the autumn. We have a blind faith in the southern sun and we are taken by surprise when the wind blows icily over the Mediterranean. Then a bickering war develops with the hotel-keeper over the heating on the third floor, and the tiles strike cold underfoot. For a man who has reached the age when all he wants is some good wine and some good cheese and a little work, it is the best season of all. I know how I resented the arrival of the interior-decorators just at the moment when I had hoped to be the only foreigner left, and I prayed that they were birds of passage. They arrived before lunch in a scarlet Sprite – a car much too young for them, and they wore elegant sports-clothes more suited to spring at the Cap. The elder man was nearing fifty and the grey hair that waved over his ears was too uniform to be true: the younger had passed thirty and was as black as the other was grey. I knew their names were Stephen and Tony before they even reached the reception desk, for they had clear, penetrating yet superficial
I soon knew a great deal about them. They had rooms side by side in my passage, though I doubt if both rooms were often occupied, for I used to hear voices from one room or the other most evenings when I went to bed. Do I seem too curious about other people’s affairs? But in my own defence I have to say that the events of this sad little comedy were forced by all the participants on my attention. The balcony where I worked every morning on my life of Rochester overhung the terrace where the interior-decorators took their coffee, and even when they occupied a table out of sight those clear elocutionary voices mounted up to me. I didn’t want to hear them; I wanted to work. Rochester’s relations with the actress, Mrs Barry, were my concern at the moment, but it is almost impossible in a foreign land not to listen to one’s own tongue. French I could have accepted as a kind of background noise, but I could not fail to overhear English.
‘My dear, guess who’s written to me now?’
‘No, Mrs Clarenty.’
‘What does the old hag want?’
‘She objects to the mural in her bedroom.’
‘But, Stephen, it’s divine. Alec’s never done anything better. The dead faun . . .’
‘I think she wants something more nubile and less necrophilous.’
‘The old lecher.’
They were certainly hardy, those two. Every morning around eleven they went bathing off the little rocky peninsula opposite the hotel – they had the autumnal Mediterranean, so far as the eye could see, entirely to themselves. As they walked briskly back in their elegant bikinis, or sometimes ran a little way for warmth, I had the impression that they took their baths less for pleasure than for exercise – to preserve the slim legs, the flat stomachs, the narrow hips for more recondite and Etruscan pastimes.
Idle they were not. They drove the Sprite to Cagnes, Vence, St Paul, to any village where an antique store was to be rifled, and they brought back with them objects of olive wood, spurious old lanterns, painted religious figures which in the shop would have seemed to me ugly or banal, but which I suspect already fitted in their imaginations some scheme of decoration the reverse of commonplace. Not that their minds were altogether on their profession. They relaxed.
I encountered them one evening in a little sailors’ bar in the old port of Nice. Curiosity this time had led me in pursuit, for I had seen the scarlet Sprite standing outside the bar. They were entertaining a boy of about eighteen who, from his clothes, I imagine worked as a hand on the boat to Corsica which was at the moment in harbour. They both looked very sharply at me when I entered, as though they were thinking, ‘Have we misjudged him?’ I drank a glass of beer and left, and the younger said ‘Good evening’ as I passed the table. After that we had to greet each other every day in the hotel. It was as though I had been admitted to an intimacy.
Time for a few days was hanging as heavily on my hands as on Lord Rochester’s. He was staying at Mrs Foucard’s baths in Leather Lane, receiving mercury treatment for the pox, and I was awaiting a whole section of my notes which I had inadvertently left in London. I couldn’t release him till they came, and my sole distraction for a few days was those two. As they packed themselves into the Sprite of an afternoon or an evening I liked to guess from their clothes the nature of their excursion. Always elegant, they were yet successful, by the mere exchange of one tricot for another, in indicating their mood: they were just as well dressed in the sailors’ bar, but a shade more simply; when dealing with a Lesbian antique dealer at St Paul, there was a masculine dash about their handkerchiefs. Once they disappeared altogether for the inside of a week in what I took to be their oldest clothes, and when they returned the older man had a contusion on his right cheek. They told me they had been over to Corsica. Had they enjoyed it? I asked.
‘Quite barbaric,’ the young man, Tony, said, but not, I thought, in praise.
He saw me looking at Stephen’s cheek and he added quickly, ‘We had an accident in the mountains.’
It was two days after that, just at sunset, that Poopy arrived with her husband. I was back at work on Rochester, sitting in an overcoat on my balcony, when a taxi drove up – I recognized the driver as someone who plied regularly from Nice airport. What I noticed first, because the passengers were still hidden, was the luggage, which was bright blue and of an astonishing newness. Even the initials – rather absurdly PT – shone like newly-minted coins. There were a large suitcase and a small suitcase and a hat-box, all of the same cerulean hue, and after that a respectable old leather case totally unsuited to air travel, the kind one inherits from a father, with half a label still left from Shepheard’s Hotel or the Valley of the Kings. Then the passenger emerged and I saw Poopy for the first time. Down below, the interior-decorators were watching too, and drinking Dubonnet.
She was a very tall girl, perhaps five feet nine, very slim, very young, with hair the colour of conkers, and her costume was as new as the luggage. She said, ‘Finalmente,’ looking at the undistinguished façade with an air of rapture – or perhaps it was only the shape of her eyes. When I saw the young man I felt certain they were just married; it wouldn’t have surprised me if confetti had fallen out from the seams of their clothes. They were like a photograph in the Tatler; they had camera smiles for each other and an underlying nervousness. I was sure they had come straight from the reception, and that it had been a smart one, after a proper church wedding.
They made a very handsome couple as they hesitated a moment before going up the steps to the reception. The long beam of the Phare de la Garoupe brushed the water behind them, and the floodlighting went suddenly on outside the hotel as if the manager had been waiting for their arrival to turn it up. The two decorators sat there without drinking, and I noticed that the elder one had covered the contusion on his cheek with a very clean white handkerchief. They were not, of course, looking at the girl, but at the boy. He was over six feet tall and as slim as the girl, with a face that might have been cut on a coin, completely handsome and completely dead – but perhaps that was only an effect of his nerves. His clothes, too, I thought, had been bought for the occasion, the sports-jacket with a double slit and the grey trousers cut a little narrowly to show off the long legs. It seemed to me that they were both too young to marry – I doubt if they had accumulated forty-five years between them – and I had a wild impulse to lean over the balcony and warn them away – ‘Not this hotel. Any hotel but this.’ Perhaps I could have told them that the heating was insufficient or the hot water erratic or the food terrible, not that the English care much about food, but of course they would have paid me no attention – they were so obviously ‘booked’, and what an ageing lunatic I should have appeared in their eyes. (‘One of those eccentric English types one finds abroad’ – I could imagine the letter home.) This was the first time I wanted to interfere, and I didn’t know them at all. The second time it was already too late, but I think I shall always regret that I did not give way to that madness . . .
It had been the silence and attentiveness of those two down below which had frightened me, and the patch of white handkerchief hiding the shameful contusion. For the first time I heard the hated name: ‘Shall we see the room, Poopy, or have a drink first?’
They decided to see the room, and the two glasses of Dubonnet clicked again into action.
I think she had more idea of how a honeymoon should be conducted than he had, because they were not seen again that night.
I was late for breakfast on the terrace, but I noticed that Stephen and Tony were lingering longer than usual. Perhaps they had decided at last that it was too cold for a bathe; I had the impression, however, that they were lying in wait. They had nev
‘You staying here long?’ I asked them, conscious of how clumsily I constructed a conversation compared with their easy prattle.
‘We had meant to leave tomorrow,’ Stephen said, ‘but last night we changed our minds.’
‘It was such a beautiful day, wasn’t it? “Oh”, I said to Tony, “surely we can leave poor dreary old London a little longer?” It has an awful staying power – like a railway sandwich.’
‘Are your clients so patient?’
‘My dear, the clients? You never in your life saw such atrocities as we get from Brompton Square and like venues. It’s always the same. People who pay others to decorate for them have ghastly taste themselves.’
‘You do the world a service then. Think what we might suffer without you. In Brompton Square.’
Tony giggled, ‘I don’t know how we’d stand it if we had not our private jokes. For example, in Mrs Clarenty’s case, we’ve installed what we call the Loo of Lucullus.’
‘She was enchanted,’ Stephen said.
‘The most obscene vegetable forms. It reminded me of a harvest festival.’
They suddenly became very silent and attentive, watching somebody over my shoulder. I looked back. It was Poopy, all by herself. She stood there, waiting for the boy to show her which table she could take, like a new girl at school who doesn’t know the rules. She even seemed to be wearing a school uniform: very tight trousers, slit at the ankle – but she hadn’t realized that the summer term was over. She had dressed up like that, I felt certain, so as not to be noticed, in order to hide herself, but there were only two other women on the terrace and they were both wearing sensible tweed skirts. She looked at them nostalgically as the waiter led her past our table to one nearer the sea. Her long legs moved awkwardly in the pants as though they felt exposed.
May We Borrow Your Husband & Other Comedies of the Sexual Life by Graham Greene / Mystery & Detective / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes