THE FOREGONE CONCLUSION   by Sylvia Townsend Warner

She planted a high Spanish comb in her pubic hair and resumed her horn-rimmed spectacles.

„There! That's as much as I shall dress.‟

„You look very improper.‟

„I am improper.‟ Her young voice was quelling.

Love warmed her. It did not warm him. He moved nearer the gas fire and repelled the thought of his overcoat. He would soon be in it and on his way home. But politeness requires that after making love one must make a little conversation.

„I heard a record of that new Icelandic bass, last night.‟

They met for the first time six months before at a concert, simultaneously turning to each other and saying „Well!‟ as if they had simultaneously been dropped from a cloud to find themselves in Row K, Seats 18 and 19. After the first hush the applause exploded. The conductor waved the orchestra to rise. The applause redoubled. Speech was out of the question, and so they continued to look at each other.

Ignoring his Icelandic bass, she said, „You look perfectly proper – all you need is your umbrella. I can't think how you do it in time.‟

„The practice of years, Lucy. You'll dress as quickly when you are my age.‟

It was that glint in her voice which had birdlimed him, though when he suggested she should come on to Pagliacci's Sandwich Bar – for Mahler left one famishing – it was merely a fostering concern to supply anything so young, so vital, so exceedingly thin, with the means to keep it alive. But by the third sandwich the glint in her soft voice, her precise diction – even with her mouth full – her pell-mell opinions had entangled his curiosity, and he invited her to the Berlioz „Te Deum‟ under the same conductor. She came dressed in leather and spangles – height of her fashion, he supposed – and spoke hardly at all. Afterward he saw her home, and stayed.

„When I am your age . . . ‟ she broke off.

The conversation was not going very well. The lovemaking had not gone very well, either. On an impulse of atonement he got up and wrapped her in his overcoat.

„'And custom lie upon thee - ' How long have you had this splendid coat?‟

„A good ten years.‟

„And how many Lucys, how many lucky Lucys – No, I didn't say that' I'd rather be magnanimous. Suppose I fell asleep in it? You'd never have the heart to turn me out into the snow; you'd have to stay the night.‟

He stooped to kiss her. She evaded him, walked stiffly to the piano, sat down, and began to play a Scarlatti sonata.

The coat swamped her; she looked like some grotesque bear. Her hands, her narrow naked feet were as touchingly out of scale as she was out of scale with the gaunt Victorian proportions of her bed-sitting room, where the smell of gas contended with the smell of pineapple and muscadet. Before the pineapple there had been sole cooked with grapes, avgolemono. He had often begged her to entertain him less extravagantly, said he would be as pleased with bacon and egg. She wouldn't listen. In their beginning, he tried to feed her by going to restaurants. Halfway through a meal their impatience hurried them away.

But even the young can't subsist on love and an occasional banquet; her ghost's earnings couldn't amount to much. „What‟s your job?‟ he'd asked at Pagliacci's. „I'm a ghost‟, she replied. For the flash of a moment he believed it. Ghosts, she explained, write other people's books for them, haunting the Reading Room of the British Museum for facts.

The Scarlatti sonata – she was playing more accurately than usual and not so well – twirled its tail and ended.

„Have you done anything about getting the man from the gas company to see to that leak?‟

She shook her head and began another sonata.

The man from the gas company; the warm dressing gown she never put on; the vitamin pills; the visit to the occulist – of course, she was bored by his solicitudes, the more so since she didn't attend and he had to renew them over and over again. In their beginning, love made these insistences lighthearted – a wooing dance where he strutted, she flustered; now they had become so habitual that twice he had forgotten that a particular request had been complied with. No wonder such enquiries fell on her like something to be shrugged off. And custom lie upon thee with a weight as heavy as . . . as what? As earth? As lead? As a methodical civil servant with a wife, two dull daughters, an OBE, and old enough to be her father.

She had left off playing and sat staring at the Louis Philippe wall clock he had given her, and which she had been pleased with and seldom remembered to wind up.

„Four-fifteen‟, she reported.

It was because of the resemblance between the gentle, precise chime of the clock and her voice that he had chosen it; and because it had pleased her, his solicitude extended to it and he reset and wound it each time before leaving.

„I must be going, my sweet.‟

Habit and daily conformity sequester what may be the loveliest thing in the person we love. When they dropped from a cloud into Row K, Seats 18 and 19, Lucy's face was turned towards him. So it remained: to think of Lucy was to think of her face so turned; it had become the familiarised representative of her voice. As she began to rid herself of his coat, ad her small head on its tulip-straight stem emerged, he realised with intensity that it was the nape of her neck that he loved beyond all else. He clasped her and the coat together and felt her tremor through the coat. Dislodged by his embrace, the comb fell on the floor. „Poor object‟, she said and laughed to herself.

„Damn your comb! Lucy, Lucy, you do know I still love you? You do know?‟

„'Still' is not a word to use to a lady.‟

He was within an inch of shaking her.

She picked up the comb and carried it off, leaving him with the overcoat. Opening a drawer, she took out the warm dressing gown, put it on, and tied the cord. He could see why she didn't wear it; its crimson leeched the colour from her mouth, its woollen amplitude vulgarised her. It was another of her sensible mistakes. She had put it on out of good manners, and, once he was away, she would tear it off and trample on it.

„What will you do after I've gone?‟

„I shall wash up. Then I shall write a sad poem. Then I shall go to bed and cry myself to sleep.‟

He asked because he could not bear to go away without her voice in his ears.

„Good luck to the poem. Kiss me.‟

She kissed him inattentively, more occupied in putting something in his pocket.

„It's to read in the Underground.‟

„Is it a poem? Shall I read it now?‟

„Read it in the Underground.‟

He knew it was dastardly, going away with Lucy's poem in his pocket when he should have insisted on reading it there and then. The reading would not have taken long. Lucy's poems were brief – six lines at most – obscure, and residually trite. He never knew what to say about them. The best he could have done was to say they reminded him of nursery rhymes. And they did not; they reminded him of those small, solidified, semi- transparent blobs of resin which ooze from old plum trees and taste of rain. He could not have praised it; she could infallibly see through him, though she could not always see through herself. Better that it should be in his pocket, doing no harm. He would fit it into his morning- after letter, tomorrow.

The train was standing at the platform; he jumped in, just as the doors were about to close. The light, the warmth of the car, the drone of speed overcame him. He yawned and yawned. His eyes watered so that he could hardly read her poem.

She had headed it with the date.

17th January.

We can't keep it up – this poor pretence. You know it as well as I do. You have grown tired of our love. Not of me, perhaps. But there is no instantaneity left between us. You will not even know that tonight is the last night.

Thank you and goodbye, Lucy.

 

I don’t want to stay friends.

He drew a deep breath. Presently he got out at the right station.




Read Mary Jacobs' commentary on The Foregone Conclusion.