Spent Letters

Writing to Bernice is the only thing I care about. Everything else stinks. I set the table. It looks like a still life. If she could see it she’d be impressed: a fat pad of ruled paper, a bottle of Pelikan black ink, my gold-nibbed pen, a jug of flowers from my mother’s garden as a sort of altarpiece, a pack of fags, a box of Swan Vestas, a glass of wine. I focus the lamp on the page.

I’m anxious about what to say, or how to say what I know I have to say. Writing to Bernice is my creative act, my heart and soul, my whole life.

I pace up and down, drink the wine, phone my mother to see if she’ll lend me some money, eat a banana, a bit of cheese out of a polythene pack. I go to the window and watch people get off a 51 bus. I look in the mirror, pour another glass. I sit down to write to Bernice.

Bernice, I go over and over in my mind the events of that first night we spent together. Adele had gone home because she was jealous of you and I stood with my back to the gas fire telling you how stinking awful the politics of this country are. The special way you looked at me. Your long neck and shiny black hair and all the rest of it too. The whole bag of tricks. And then the quiet way you said, ‘Won’t you come over here and kiss me?’ and I didn’t need asking twice. And then how comfortable I felt when close to you like that. As if there were no questions to be asked. Then going to bed with you and the feel of our bodies so close. Going to be was very special Bernice. The most special thing in the world.

I go to the window. Remembering that night hurts so much. I so want it all to happen again, right now and tomorrow and next month and next year. For ever. The fact that it won’t makes me suspect my life will be tragic. Really tragic. God, sometimes I feel so sorry for myself. You’ve no idea. Sorrow seems to wrap over me like a great cloud. I turn the Rolling Stones up loud. They sing about how you can’t always get or give, I can’t hear which, what you want. Either way it’s sensible advice but it doesn’t console me. Not in the least.

Bernice you know within hours you were in my heart. I can’t just forget you or let you go. I’d be unsurprised were you to ring at the door and say again in your lilting voice, ‘Well here I am.’ I know you’re so much older and there’s your husband, your career, your friends, but surely there must be room in your life for me. It just needs sorting out. What happened between you and me was special. Wasn’t it? I don’t know why these things happen but now it’s out of control. I wait for letters from you I wait for your phone call. I can’t work and I can’t sleep. There’s you and there’s me and there’s ‘it’. This love thing.

I feel worked up. I hate her husband. A little know-it-all technocrat with a scrubby moustache. He likes Debussy and Trollope and can talk about finance in three languages. I’m about as impressed with him as I am with instant mashed potato. I could kill him. Easily. I haven’t met him but I know what he’s like. His weight problem and his houses in Brussels, Provence and London and his collection of early English watercolours. I’ve seen a photo of him. As sexy as an artichoke. Once when Bernice was with me the phone rang very late and I said to her, ‘Are you here?’ and she got a hunted look and said ‘I am not,’ ‘I am not’, twice, emphatically.

Let’s spend the night together, the Rolling Stones are singing now. Let’s spend the night together, Bernice. The woman downstairs beats on the ceiling. She’s a cow the woman downstairs, but I turn my hi fi down. It’s midnight. Bernice is in bed with him. He’s in his pyjamas, lying flat on his back and snoring like a dog. And Bernice? She’s curled on her side, wide-eyed and thinking of me. Please Bernice, phone or write or think of me. Before we fell asleep she’d arrange our limbs in a matter of fact way so that we were folded together, arms and legs entwined so close, with her cradling my head and the warm sweet smell of her body and her breath and before dozing off I’d think to myself this is the only place I ever want to be.

Bernice do you remember that morning when I was ironing my blouse and I said ‘One day I’ll be a famous actor.’ And you were making the coffee and you said, ‘Well when you’re a famous actor I’ll tell the whole world I’ve seen you first thing in the morning, naked and with toothpaste round your mouth.’ And I said ‘I hope when I’m famous you’ll still be seeing me first thing in the morning, naked and with toothpaste round my mouth.’ And you laughed and said, ‘That’s a loving thought. I hope so too.’ Well you should know that when I said that I absolutely meant it and I absolutely mean it now, six months later. I really feel that with you, or for you, I could be something in this world. I could live by all the best that’s in me. And without you the opposite is true.

Now I’m bawling. This isn’t the letter I want to write. I want to write a letter that’s charming and witty and on top. If I got this letter all you’d see of me would be a thin trail of dust as I got the hell out. I’m bawling because of that and because Bernice is a thousand miles away in every sense and because I’m all set up to be a bit-part actor and because the whole world’s a pathetic mess with people killing each other and slandering each other and snatching for money and nothing worth caring about or hoping for anywhere at all.

I scrawl my name and stuff the letter in an envelope without even reading it through. A cool voice inside says, Don’t send this, it’s counter-productive, who wants to get a letter like this? But I know I’ll post the bloody thing. Because if the game’s lost from the very start what does it matter if I’m wrong or right, charming or witty or thick as pigshit, if the game’s lost from the very start?

I get the hell out of my stuffy room with its empty feeling and fag ends. It’s cold in the street. Slushy. Raining. I’m going to Adele. She’ll let me in even though I’ll be waking her up and she knows I don’t love her and she’ll be worried about not getting enough sleep and getting to work early. Into the slit marked All Other Places, into the trashcan, my pathetic letter goes. All the people in the closed-up, curtained houses. Every single one of the buggers manages life better than I. I know so clearly what I want and I can’t have it.

There are no lights on in the house where Adele’s got a room and her curtains are drawn. I collect a handful of little gravel stones from her front yard and throw them at her window. I can’t ring the doorbell like a normal human being. Not without risking a prison sentence. People in this country – they’re all in their bed socks by ten at night. I picture Bernice in a Paris café, sitting alone, her collar turned up, drinking cognac, thinking of me. I picture all these women and blokes giving her strong looks, dreaming up gambits getting nowhere at all. Because Bernice is longing for me. I chuck a whole shower of gravel stones at Adele’s window and she looks out bleary-eyed and a bit scared. She turns on the light and throws down the keys.

‘It’s late,’ she says. She’s back in bed. Her chin tucked in the duvet and her big brown eyes peering out like a bush baby.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘D’you mind?’

‘I’m always pleased to see you, you know that,’ she says, and I don’t feel guilty. I feel glad.

‘Are you in a state?’ she asks. I crouch by the gas fire and shake a bit and inhale hard on my cigarette.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Really jumpy. Really down. I couldn’t face spending the night alone.’ The nice thing about Adele is that I don’t have to pretend to be unselfish. I don’t have to pretend. That’s the nasty thing too.

‘Well hurry into bed,’ she says. ‘Are you working tomorrow?’

‘No,’ I say, and anxiety about all that washes around in my chest.

‘Never mind,’ Adele says. ‘You’ll get there. You’re better than the others.’ Adele never puts me down. She knows I’m sensitive.

I’m glad to be back in her tatty room even though it’s painted navy blue and there’s a poster of Patti Smith at the Roundhouse stuck up with Blue Tack. There are little spraints of cottonwool with mascara on them on the mantelpiece and a half-eaten blackberry and apple pie. She’s left the gas fire on low because the room’s big and damp. There’s the smell of her and dust and sort of hot damp and old bits of food. Her clothes are on the floor – jeans and a thick jersey with a Blondie badge on it and cowboy boots. On the cushion by the fire are copies of City Limits, Whitmarsh’s Simpler French Course and Kinflicks. There’s the sleeve of Janis Joplin’s Pearl and Adele’s fat diary with crosses for her periods and sums about money. It’s a down-to-earth document, Adele’s diary.

I get into bed. She yelps when I touch her, my hands and feet are so cold. ‘Jesus,’ she says, ‘You’re so cold it’s like broken glass.’ She giggles and tries pushing me away. I get interested in teasing her with my cold hands and feet and almost forget how miserable I am. I reach out to turn off the bedside light. ‘Heh,’ says Adele. ‘Leave it. I like to see what I’m with.’ Well I’m not trying to pretend that Adele is Bernice but sometimes when you’re lost the dark can seem right.

‘Here,’ says Adele, ‘Let me warm you up,’ and I don’t object. She’s adept is Adele, straightforward and kind.

‘D’you love me?’ she asks, as she canoodles me close.

‘Yes,’ I say, not thinking too hard about what that might mean, not wanting to offend. ‘In a way.’

‘What about Bernice?’ she asks and the cold touches my heart.

‘I never hear from her,’ I say, in an offhand voice.

‘You’re an odd thing,’ says Adele from under the covers. ‘I probably wouldn’t want you if you were an easier catch.’

So that lets both of us off the hook and we can get on with it all. Pleasing her’s easy because she’s done all the work in her mind. As for pleasing me? Well. It occurs to me as I take on her warmth that this might be the flip side of the coin of romance and I just might be a go-getting shit. But even a go-getting shit needs to make it between the sheets, so then I stopped thinking about anything except me and Adele. For a little while at least.

Bernice you know I fell in love with you. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. I suppose you don’t want to hear this because it sounds like a claim. But it’s a statement of fact, like saying it’s raining outside or I had an omelette for supper. It’s raining outside and I had an omelette for supper. Not to tell you would be a needless deception, a secret impossible for me to keep.

I stop here and read through what I’ve written, hoping it’s poignant. It’s pretty poignant.

Bernice I wonder about coming to visit you. Today I got a cheque for £300 from my mother. There’s nothing to keep me here. I could get a weekend flight – Thursday to Monday. We could book in at a small hotel and not stir out. You could say you’d gone to stay with your sister or mother or the Pope or somebody. Or me. I can’t accept that you’ve walked out of my life and closed the door. It can’t be true that you said all those things and were as you were and that now you’ll go on with your life as if nothing has happened between you and me. I can’t believe that fate can be so indifferent to a human being who wants something as much as I want to be with you.

It was all happening again. Writing to Bernice. It’s like pressing a bruise. But I can’t not write to her. Nothing else is worth anything to me. O, I’ll roll up for any crap audition I get, turn my best profile to any director and fuck with him if that’s what he wants. I’ll say any crap lines put in front of me with all the simulated sincerity I can muster. Radio plays about the integrity of police inspectors and commercials about breakfast cereals that lead to trouble-free lives. I’ll spout anything, knowing it’s dross, knowing that nothing can mean anything unless Bernice is with me.

I put on a Blondie cassette. One way or another I’m gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha. One day, maybe this day…

Bernice today in the tube I sat next to a woman who was wearing your perfume. The recognition was so strong I thought I was going to turn to her there and then between Green Park and Bond Street and hold her, kiss her, have her. Maybe she’d’ve liked it. She was about 102 and only a facelift away from total collapse.

Bernice why don’t you write to me. I know you’re busy and it’s difficult but the disappointment of no letters drains through me every day. Are you being prevented from writing? I know you want to write to me, I can feel that, and if François is stopping you I think it’s a complete infringement of your freedom. It’s not as if I want to take you away from him, but since you’ve gone I’ve not enjoyed anything much. I need reassurance Bernice. I need a letter. I need a visit.

And now the phone rings which is just as well. I’ve got this violent feeling that I’m going mad, or going to kill myself or worse. It’s Frank. ‘What are you up to?’ he asks. ‘Are you working?’ I met Frank at Drama School. He’s ten years older than I am and the longest he’s been out of work is four days. It’s because he looks like a cop and a thug and there are endless parts for cops and thugs. He’s got a wife who thinks he’s the cat’s pyjamas. His two children will grow up to be advertising agents. He’s got a house, a car and the whole caboodle. He calls me when he wants to remind himself how lucky he is. And when his wife’s away. He calls me then. But that’s all right with me. I don’t care. I only care about Bernice. ‘No, I’m not working,’ I say, knowing this will cheer him up. ‘Come over if you like,’ he says. ‘Mary and the kids are away.’

Bernice, through you I found the best there is within myself. Other people are like shadows in the dark. With you ordinary things are special. I have before me an image of when you said goodbye. It did not occur to me that you could or would just walk away and leave the emptiness of silence, the confusion of memory and this sense of waiting, all the time waiting, for the letter that does not arrive the phone call that I do not get. I can’t believe you could be with me the way you were and then just walk away.

I can’t stand this. This makes me so passive, so powerless. I put AC/DC on real loud. I’m on the highway to hell, highway to hell. I’m on the High Way to Hell. High Way to Hell. I roll a joint and breathe it down. I run a bath. I might as well be clean for Frank. Frank wants nothing from me and I want nothing from Frank. The woman downstairs beats on the ceiling with a broom. I turn AC/DC up full volume. All day she waits for me to take off with my hi fi. Don’t need reason, don’t need rhyme, wham wham wham wham going down for a time. Bernice will be in the bookshop where she works. Looking at people with her sleepy, amused eyes. Her wrists are thin, her ears are small, her breath smells sweet. I dial direct to the shop. ‘Bernice Guillebaud, s’il vous plait,’ I say in my rat French. I click the phone dead. That’s a rat thing to do. They’ll tell her. ‘Une femme. Un accent anglais…’ My heart bangs, my throat is taut. I scrub my head, I scrub my body. Ready for Frank. If not Bernice then anything goes. A rat runs down the alley, A chill runs down your spine. I’m the night prowler, Get out of my way ay ay. Bomp bomp bomp with the broom. I look at my face in the bathroom mirror. A thin face with sad eyes. I feel sorry for that face. Really sorry.

Bernice why did you say those thing things about feeling comfortable with me and knowing as soon as you saw me? Everything I do, I now do with you in mind. Without you I have half a life.

And so on and so on and so on and so on.

This letter won’t win you no votes I say as I fold it for its envelope. Into the slit marked All Other Places again.

I’m on the floor with Frank. We’re by a real fire. A faint scar puckers his right arm. He had a tattoo of a snake and eagle removed. He got himself tattooed in Rotterdam when drunk. The best thing that ever happened to his face was when a lover broke his nose. That’s why he’s only been out of work for four days. We drink whisky from glass tumblers. I’m still high from the joint I smoked. I’m glad to be out of my room. The shell where my obsession festers. It’s OK being with Frank. His Fiorucci jeans and red t-shirt. I scan the books and records and paintings. The cultural stuff that money buys. And Frank buying his identity with it all. I’m this kind of guy I’ll have you know. Bernice would hate Frank and his kudos. She’s see straight through.

‘You’ve a great body,’ he says. ‘D’you exercise every day?’ Good old Frank. I half listen for his wife and children. ‘Daddy, daddy, what are you doing?’ Never mind, one day you’ll know. He smells of aftershave, cigars and whisky. Why, I think, am I being fucked by a guy with a broken nose. The fire crackles and Beethoven or whoever gets on my nerves. I prefer the Rolling Stones.

I would never two-time Bernice this way if she’d be straighter with me. If she wouldn’t stonewall me I wouldn’t be in this mess. It’s her fault I’m screwing round town like this. Then I forget her for a little while in the usual kind of way.

‘Are you hungry?’ Frank asks. ‘Mary left a casserole. All I have to do is heat it through.’

‘Sure,’ I say. ‘That sounds good.’

I’m in his built-in everything kitchen. I watch him fadge around with dishes. I watch him lighting candles. I must get out of this place too. He looks anxious as I tell him that I must get out because I feel I’m going to die. He wants no problems. He pushes the money for a cab at me. Big deal, I think, as I drive away.

I know a letter waits for me. I’ve had that conviction often enough, but never as strongly as now. I pick it up nonchalantly. Feeling nothing. Postmark Marseilles, but spidery writing as familiar as her smile. I go slowly upstairs. I pour myself the dregs of the wine and sit on my unmade bed.

My dear Plum

I will be living in Marseilles for some months now but I do not want you to know my address. At first I wanted to write to you but I was too busy. Then I tried writing but couldn’t. Then I didn’t want to any more. I must ask that you do not write to my Paris address as this will be empty now for about six months and anyway your letters have made François rather impatient.

You seem too angry and emotional and I don’t know what for me to make any comments. Your letters are for you rather than for me. What happened early in the year was simply what it was. I thought you were as free about these things as I. I did not expect you would be possessive and truculent like a child. Perhaps you do not know the difference between freedom and selfishness. You know from the beginning that I would be going back to Paris where I have emotional ties that I cannot and would not break or weaken. What would you have me do? Abandon the husband whom I love and respect, my career and all my friends? For what? To live as a gypsy with you? No Plum. That’s not what it was like.

But if you had not pressed me, I would have phoned you whenever I was in London. I was always happy to see you and to have a little flirt. I thought we got on well and I like the way you look. Sometimes I have a little daydream about us, but then I pinch myself and say, Wake up, Bernice. And now I pinch you and say, Wake up Plum. It’s time to get up and be busy.

You will not believe it, but I have written this letter six times and it still sounds too hard and cross. And I don’t feel hard and cross about you. But it is difficult to say to someone what they least want to hear. And it is difficult to say to a young person, you must grow up. But you must. Grow up.

Take care of yourself.

Bernice.

I read it once. I do not feel a thing. I strike a match to light a fag, but first I use the flame on the edge of the page. The words curl to black ash in no time flat. I put the Boomtown Rats on loud. Loud. On a night like this I deserve to be kissed at least twice. Ah. I get on the phone to Adele. Adele never puts me down.