Bob got back to his seaside cottage in the wee hours of Monday morning, hit the sack, and slept clear through until Tuesday. The Monday class he missed was no big loss: a discussion of Bryant’s ‘To a Waterfowl.’ Why should a bunch of English kids who had been grooving on Jimi Hendrix and the Kinks over the weekend want to sit down on a Monday morning and hear ‘To a Waterfowl,’ anyway? Better they should stay home and read Wordsworth (or pick their noses, equally), Bob felt.
On Tuesday Sylvia called from London. It was around noon, and Bob could hear the loud voices of men in the background as Sylvia talked. She ate lunch at a pub across the street from the club where she worked, and had called Bob from there a couple of times the previous week.
‘Hello, love,’ she said. ‘Will you be coming in on Friday?’
Bob said he certainly would be.
‘I’m going to have Caroline’s place for the weekend. She’s off to the country. I’m looking after her house.’
‘Not bad,’ said Bob. ‘And I’m invited?’
‘Of course. I miss you, do you know that? Brian’s been ringing me at work — twice this morning. He’s such a pain.’
‘Should I call him up and tell him to lay off? I could call him at the BBC and give him the Chicago treatment.’
‘Don’t do that. He’s already pissed off at you. He thinks you’re bloody ungrateful.’
‘What do I owe him?’
‘Who knows. Look, Caroline won’t be leaving until Saturday. Why don’t you come in on Friday and we can hear some music. Stay at my place and we can go to Caroline’s on Saturday.’
They agreed to meet at Notting Hill Gate tube station on Friday at eight. There was a rock concert at All Saints Hall. Pink Floyd was scheduled to appear.
Bob made his class on Wednesday, and that afternoon he hitchhiked back to his seaside home and worked on poems. The afternoon glided into night. Bob took a pill and went on working. He put on a couple of records. He had an old, tinny-sounding phonograph with a scratching needle. That made no difference. Some records sounded better on it, Bob thought. He put on Pet Sounds. Bob was always affected by this, Brian Wilson’s masterpiece, and now he put his poems aside and listened to the words. Why were they so moving? — it was only simple, unoriginal California teenage American English. Bob listened and thought. It was sophisticated relationship music, he decided, songs of real feeling, about real feeling. Emotion — the songs throbbed with it, but not in a stupid or coarse way. No, as if sung by angels — fat, pink-bodied crew-cut angels. Smoking dope. Taking acid. Sitting with their feet in sand, writing at a white piano...
/ ...been through all kinds of changes. Yes, Bob could feel that. What matters to me is what I could be to just one girl... You still believe in me? And then something about a dream. / once had a dream. So I packed up and split for the city. Where I found out my lonely life wasn’t so pretty. True, true! God only knew. Wouldn’t it have been nice to live together in the kind of world where they belonged?
It was late — one or two in the morning. The record ended. Bob put on Blonde on Blonde. It was windy outside — a storm coming in off the sea, maybe. Bob turned up the volume and went back to work on his poems. Lines from Dylan’s songs kept crawling down his fingers and wriggling into his notebook. He was writing a poem about Sylvia. It was difficult, labored — he couldn’t make her clear in the poem. He thought about her face. The round, hollow, sunken eyes — shadows in there. The ghost of electricity. The wind howled. Howls — Howls in the bowls of her eyes. The bulbs of her eyes. The bones? The ghost of electricity howls in the what of her eyes?
Bob closed his eyes and ran his fingers over them, rubbing to relieve the pressure. The light was bad in the back room where he was working. He shut his notebook, turned off the record and lights and retired to the front of the cottage, where he slept. As he went from room to room in the dark, he heard a gate bang outside. The wind was getting stronger, blowing up a real gale.
The bedroom Bob used was on the side of the house that faced the North Sea, and his window took the brunt of most big storms. Once a strong wind had blown down the pasture fence across the road, and Bob had awakened to the sight of several large cows staring in at him, only a few feet from his bed. The cottage was surrounded by marshy pasture, beyond which, to the east, lay the sea. It was a desolate spot at best. In bad weather, living there made Bob feel like a lighthouse keeper. A terrific, utter loneliness that shrieked almost as loud as the wind. Bob half liked it.
Now, though, he lay in bed not liking it. The wind blasted. That gate banged again — was it his own front gate? Bob’s eyes jumped open. He forced them shut. He did not feel sleepy — no, tense, apprehensive. His mind moved back over incidents of a few weeks before, when he had heard odd noises around the house at night. He had been sitting in his bedroom, in front of the window, with the lights on, listening to the radio and reading. He had heard something outside the window, something near by. It froze him. Then he had heard another noise, and this time had gone to the door, and stepped out into the road. There was a streetlight near the house, but the trees at the edge of the pasture across the road were completely dark. Bob had thought he saw something move into the trees. The next day he had business at the local constabulary (getting his alien’s registration card renewed for another year), and he mentioned this incident to the officers. They told him that a violent psychopath had escaped from the local mental institution. The man was a sexual offender, and was to be considered dangerous. The following weekend Bob had gone to see the Irish girl he knew in the East End. She had friends, and one of them got Bob a gun. A snub-nosed .32. With cartridges, guaranteed to fire. All for only six pounds. Bob had hoped the thing was workable. The fellow who sold it to him was known to be of dubious character. His hobby was nailing cats to walls.
Now, at two a.m. on this windy Thursday at the end of April, the gate banged again, and Bob thought he saw something move outside the window. Maybe it was a branch blowing, maybe not. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead and neck. He did not want to turn on the light. If somebody was out there, light would let them see in. He pulled the covers away, reached down for his pants, and slipped them on. Then he reached under the bed and pulled out the .32, and moved as nimbly as he could (which in his agitation was not very) across the room to the door. It was also the front door of the cottage, so in a few steps he was standing outside in the howling wind, looking around at nothing. The streetlight illuminated only a few feet of the road in each direction. If there was a guy out there, he could be crouching in the trees across the road. ‘Listen, you creep,’ Bob screamed into the wind, ‘if you’re out there, you better not come back.’ He held his gun up so that it glinted in the light. ‘You see this?’ he yelled. ‘You come back and I’ll shoot your fucking ass!’
After standing in the road waving his gun around and yelling for a few minutes, Bob went back inside. He got a hammer, some nails and a blanket, and constructed an impromptu curtain by nailing the blanket over the window of his bedroom. Then he took two aspirin and finally went to sleep just before daylight. The creep who’d been out there, if he’d been out there, didn’t come back.
On Friday morning Bob polished off his work-week at the university, with a well-received talk on Whitman. The students were genuinely interested in Whitman’s poetry, which was candid enough to earn their respect and at the same time move them emotionally — a rare combination of responses that none of Bob’s other prescribed reading matter had evoked. The hour went by quickly. Afterwards Bob returned to his office and furtively typed stencils for a couple of hours, until his office partner showed up. Then he put his stencils away and left the terrain to her for her noon consultations with her seminar students. He went to the library to write poems. None would come. It was still too early to leave for London, so he climbed the hill to the highrise student dormitory there and rode up to the room of a girl he knew. Bob had a joint already rolled. She had three already rolled of her own. Her friends drifted in and through the afternoon they listened to the Stones and the Kinks and the Who, got high, laughed and chatted, fifteen floors above the dull milling boredom of the classrooms that sprawled over the valley.
By five o’clock it was time for him to go, Bob’s feet wanted to move. He smiled goodbye and slipped out the door. On the bus to Colchester he took out his notebook and wrote down the Ray Davies lines that had been playing in his head all afternoon:
I’m on an island
and I’ve got nowhere
to run because
I’m the only one
on this island...
Sylvia was waiting for him outside the Underground station. They stopped at a nearby nosh bar for coffee and something to eat. Sylvia presented Bob with a wrapped package. He ripped it open. It contained a shirt and tie. The shirt was pink-lavender, with deep white sleeves and cuffs. The tie was white polkadots on pink-lavender. Mod city. Bob took off his leather jacket, and his shirt, put on the new shirt and tie, then his jacket, and threw the old shirt into a trash can outside the restaurant. Then he and Sylvia headed for All Saints Hall.
They took a black beetle apiece, and smoked a hash joint while walking through the back streets of Notting Hill. High as they were by the time they got to the hall, this was nothing compared to the state of the Pink Floyd, who seemed to be stoned on acid en masse. In the dingy, dark old church hall their plasmic wall slides, a primitive light show, reminded Bob more of Lascaux than of the Fillmore in San Francisco. Sid Barrett, leader of the Floyd, jammed on his guitar in solitary communion with outer space, riffing maniacally in one corner of the stage with his back turned to the small crowd. Bass player Roger Waters lay prostrate on the stage and stared into the lights with the idiot gaze of a mental retard. The drummer and organist peered up into the darkness as they played, as if God might at any moment appear. The way the building quaked with sound, anything seemed possible.
After a couple of growth-stuntingly loud sets Sylvia and Bob ducked out to save their eardrums and caught a bus to Fulham. Candlelight, wine and Georgie Fame provided relief. Bob and Sylvia made love and then talked deep into the night. Sylvia described her latest troubles with Brian, who kept calling at all hours. Her psychiatrist had told her that he, too, had received phone calls from McDeath. Sylvia’s phone rang twice later that evening, and finally she took it off the hook. Bob pointed out that at least they would not be bothered after tonight, because McDeath had no way of knowing that Sylvia would be staying at her cousin’s house.
‘Don’t be so sure,’ Sylvia said.
In the morning they went to Caroline’s. Having the big house to themselves was a delight. They spent the first several hours in the kitchen, catching up on the meals they’d missed during the week. Caroline had an ample larder. They also helped themselves to her telephone. Bob called several friends, boasting about his suddenly exalted circumstances. One of Bob’s friends was an American who lived with his parents in Buckshire, where his father was stationed as an air force quartermaster. Charley Regan, the friend’s name was. Charley was going to be in London for the day and wanted to come over. Bob said okay.
Regan was a small, round, amiable guy who knew a lot about a lot of things. A year earlier he had introduced himself to Bob as an expert on renaissance painting, the study of which (he said) had brought him to Europe. He claimed to be living on an inheritance. He also soon revealed himself to be an expert on San Francisco poetry — had, in fact, himself been a San Francisco poet until just recently. Regan had emphatic opinions on these and other subjects. He had quite a sense of humor, was well-read, had been around, and could even play a pretty good imitation country blues guitar; he’d been, he said, a junkie in the air force, which had somehow brought him into contact with many expert country blues guitar players, or at least expert collectors of their records. He also knew dozens of Shirley Temple songs by heart. He knew the plots of Richard Brautigan books that hadn’t been published. He was a funny, bossy little guy Bob liked a lot. Sometimes he came on too strong with his opinions, but where was the harm in that?
‘How old are you?’ he had asked Bob when they first met.
‘Just turned twenty-five,’ Bob said.
‘Twenty-five is a very important age,’ Charley said importantly.
‘Oh yeah?’ said Bob. ‘How’s that?’
‘You’ll see,’ Charley had told him.
Charley Regan sent Bob poems and stories and interviews for his magazines. Usually Charley signed them with fake names, or his grandfather’s. Bob tried to convince him to come out into the open with them — publish them under his own name. Charley refused. Sometimes Bob went ahead and published them under Charley’s name anyway. Charley, of course, was delighted.
Sylvia hadn’t met Charley before he showed up at Caroline’s place. He put on quite a show for her benefit — the whole bit, even the Shirley Temple songs. Sylvia obviously thought Charley’s routine was fairly diverting, so Bob put up with it, even though he’d heard it all before.
Charley left after a couple of hours. Then Sylvia made dinner. Caroline’s wine cellar was a revelation. Dinner took hours. Bob and Sylvia were in Caroline’s big bed watching television at ten that night, drinking French wine and enjoying the rich life, when the phone started ringing.
‘Let it go, ‘Bob said.
‘It might be Caroline,’ Sylvia said, picking up the receiver. ‘Hello?’
Her face fell. It had to be Brian. Sylvia held the receiver up for Bob to hear. Brian was saying that he knew Sylvia was there and that he was coming over, whether she liked it or not. ‘Come right ahead,’ Bob said loudly into the mouthpiece. But Brian had already rung off.
Five minutes later they heard tires screech outside. From Caroline’s second-storey bedroom over the street, they could see Brian’s sports car double-parked below. The doorbell rang. Sylvia began to dress. ‘No,’ said Bob, ‘let me go.’
He put his clothes on and went downstairs. McDeath was waiting at the street door. Instead of letting him in, Bob went outside, and stood between Brian and the doorway.
‘What do you say, Brian,’ he said in a tone that he felt was fairly pleasant.
McDeath had on another three-piece summer suit, powder blue this time. He looked the perfect Edwardian dandy, lacking only a monocle. He sniffed a little, moved his feet, wouldn’t look Bob in the eye.
‘You don’t know what you’re doing,’ he said finally. ‘Thylvia ith a very delicate girl. You may be harming her.’ The words came out in three little sentence-sized gasps. McDeath was trembling. Obviously he was very excited. Or possibly scared to death!
‘Look, Brian,’ Bob said patiently, ‘Sylvia’s all right.’
‘Thath what you thay!’ McDeath’s voice rose hysterically, like a choir boy’s.
Bob conceded the point. ‘Well, either way, she doesn’t want to see you. So why don’t you beat it.’
‘You’re giving her drugth, don’t think I’m not aware of it!’ Brian was shrieking like a woman. Bob looked up and saw the light in the upstairs bedroom; no doubt Sylvia was watching from the window. Bob was half drunk and getting angry.
‘Listen pal, the only drugs Sylvia is getting, she is getting from her shrinks.’
‘And I thuppose you aren’t giving her marijuana?’
‘What are you, Scotland Yard?’
McDeath bristled self-importantly. ‘No, but if you don’t thtop theeing her, I am going to call the Home Offith and let them know you are a drug peddler. That won’t look very good on your record, will it?’
‘That’s real cute,’ Bob said. He took a step in McDeath’s direction. McDeath took two fast steps back, and raised an arm in front of his face. He wore a hysterical smile. Bob knew in a flash that Brian expected, and possibly wanted, to be hit. It was all a game — Brian’s game. Bob felt the joke hit him — McDeath, McDeath was a joke! The sense of it hit him in waves. Brian stood there five feet away, quivering, waiting for him. Bob laughed in his face. It was a horse-laugh, totally honest, deeply felt, and meant to be as insulting as possible.
Then he turned around and went back inside the house, shutting Brian out.
‘Don’t worry,’ Sylvia said when Bob, back inside, told her about McDeath’s threats. ‘Brian is too much of a coward to do anything like that. He might do it if he hadn’t told you. But now that he’s talked about it, he can’t do it, because he’d know you’d know it was him.’
‘Funny guy, that Brian,’ Bob said. ‘You know, in a way, I kind of like him.’
‘You wouldn’t say that if you got to know him better,’ Sylvia said.
‘Because he’s vain and mean and twisted. He uses people.’
‘No, everybody doesn’t. I don’t see why you’re being so fair to him. He hates you.’
‘I doubt that.’
‘Well, he’s afraid of you then. He’d like to hurt you. He usually acts nice, but now you’re seeing what he’s really like. I know him, love. He likes to see people suffer; that’s how he gets his kicks. Why else do you think he got the hots for me when I was in the bloody funny farm?’
‘I’ll admit he’s a little on the kinky side,’ Bob said. ‘But apparently he’s in love with you. Why else would he be acting like this?’
‘He just wants to get rid of you so he can have me all to himself. Someone to try out his mutilation fantasies on.’
‘You must have liked it or you wouldn’t have let him do it.’
Sylvia’s eyes flashed bright in their dark hollows. She propped herself up on the bed with one elbow.
‘I didn’t mind the sex. But for Brian the sex was just an anticlimax. It wasn’t the screwing that interested him. I told you — it was what came before. It made him feel like a bloody fascist dictator. It got him off, you know? I was just there for it.’
‘Your feelings didn’t matter?’
‘Oh, he’s sometimes very chivalrous. He wrote me poems, mind you.’
‘No, brutal. I couldn’t read them. He always had to make me into a raped Jewish prostitute — something lovely like that.’
‘Because my father was a Jew. Didn’t I ever tell you that?’
‘Well, Brian knows all about it. It helps him look down on me — makes him enjoy it more.’
Bob laughed. ‘Oh, come on.’
Sylvia shook her head. ‘I’m not kidding.’
‘Is it any good?’
‘The poetry he writes about you.’
Bob had to admit that he himself found little that was good in McDeath’s verse. The guy obviously wouldn’t know what a poem was if it came up and gave him a shoeshine. That didn’t make him a bad person, though.
‘I’m sure his mother loved him,’ Bob said generously.
Sylvia laughed. ‘Well, his wife doesn’t, for God’s sake.’
‘You’ve met her?’
‘No, but Brian says she looks and acts like a Gothic Cathedral.’
‘Some of them are very beautiful,’ Bob said. ‘So they say.’
‘Wipe that smile off your face,’ Sylvia said, making a lunge at Bob across the mussed-up covers.
Brian left them alone for the rest of the weekend. On Sunday, Bob and Sylvia slept in late, enjoying Caroline’s large bed. Bob even had a few thoughts as to how nice that bed would be with the pretty Caroline in it. Not that Sylvia gave him much time for such thoughts.
They rifled Caroline’s collection of dance records. She had a fine stash of Stones 45’s. Sylvia put on ‘Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown’ and scrambled eggs. They smoked a large joint over the breakfast dishes, and then walked out into the bright morning, headed for the tube station. Sylvia wanted to visit Caroline’s husband. She saw nothing disloyal in using Caroline’s house and then going out to see Paul, even though Paul hated Caroline deeply, and daily plotted evil for her. Sylvia was loyal to both her cousin and her cousin’s immensely rich, lonely and unhappy American husband. Sylvia was doglike in her faith, it seemed. She remained devoted to her mother, to her sister, to Paul and Caroline, and until just recently to Brian. As far as Bob could see, none of them were worth it. But who asked him?
Once again Paul had a sad tale to tell. Bob lowered his head quickly into the drink Paul fixed him, and let Paul and Sylvia talk.
Paul had an arch, self-deprecating manner. Every sentence was laced with irony. He used his expensive Harvard-Oxford education like a wall that could be lifted and moved whenever the conversation came too close to his feelings. Yet he refused to let it stray anywhere else. Elephantine in his egoism, he seemed to Bob like a huge baby. And from the way Paul looked at Bob, no love seemed to be lost on either side. Clearly Paul was putting up with having a long-haired dope-smoking poet sprawled on his antique furniture and lapping up his liquor only because of Sylvia.
‘My dear,’ Paul was saying to Sylvia, ‘if I seem upset, bear with me. It’s not just because of the quality of this Scotch, I assure you. You know, Caroline annoys me more and more. She was seen with that boy Dick, what is it — Richard Harrington, or Wilson? I have pictures. Coming out of Sibylla’s, Friday morning; would you like to see them?’ He made as if to rise from his chair.
Sylvia made a face and stood up, heading him off. She held her drink in two hands and looked down at Paul and shook her head.
‘I thought you might want to see her pitiable swain,’ he said. He looked disappointed — had he really wanted to trot out his collection of Polaroids of his wife’s lovers for Bob and Sylvia to inspect? ‘I mean, look, can Caroline be that distracted? That she doesn’t know my people are following her?’ Paul pounded a fist on his knee.
‘She knows, all right,’ Sylvia said, touching Paul on the head. ‘Why don’t you calm down, darling? Find someone else. Caroline isn’t the only woman in London.’
Paul moved his head away from Sylvia’s hand. ‘She knows I’m having her watched?’
Sylvia nodded, sitting down again in the sofa across from Paul. ‘She knows. She doesn’t want to give you the satisfaction of making her give up her men.’
Paul rocked back in his chair. He looked stunned — ran a hand through his hair. ‘But it’s going to cost her money. So help me God it is!’ On the word God he socked the table angrily, making glasses jump off their coasters.
Sylvia smiled at him. ‘She doesn’t care, love. I’m sorry.’
Bob stood up, so did Sylvia. They drained their drinks and left.
It was a sunny, warm day. Birds sang in the trees, such trees as there were. Bob and Sylvia felt a little high, a little drunk, and very happy to get out of Paul’s rancor-laden flat into the fresh air. As they walked along in the direction of the Underground station, Sylvia suggested they make a day-trip of it — hitch somewhere.
‘Such as?’ said Bob.
‘Let’s go to... Windsor!’
Sylvia had three black beetles in her bag. They each took one. Sylvia took the third one apart, pouring the grey-violet powder out into her palm. She licked part of it, then held her palm up. Bob licked up the rest. When his tongue touched it, her palm felt as cool as the underside of a stone. They hitched to Windsor.
It was nearly five when they tripped in the front door of Caroline’s flat. Sylvia didn’t need her key. Caroline was already back. She’d come home early from her country weekend.
‘Had a fight with Richard,’ she told Sylvia brightly, smiling a friendly hello at Bob. ‘I put your things in the maid’s room,’ she told him. Bob’s heart stopped for a second. He’d left his notebook of new poems lying open on Caroline’s bed. Had she read them? He suddenly hoped so!
Up in the maid’s room, which was hardly ever used and contained only a single bed and a ceiling lamp, Bob found his traveling bag and notebook placed in a neat pile just inside the door. Caroline had left the notebook lying open at the page Bob had been working on. It was a poem he’d started a few days earlier, ‘I’m on an Island’:
Do not try to adopt me
I am not a pigmy soothed
Boy or baby hitchhiker saint
What is wrong suddenly
Is that I swallow a cold
Blast of air, I mean fright
Spill coffee on my book
And hear the kinks
In the great universe
The warp in the coffin
Phantom men fly out of
Anywhere in this world
What the pretty Caroline had made of this, or if she’d even read it, was one of the lesser mysteries of Bob’s day. He gathered his things up, kissed Sylvia, thanked Caroline for her hospitality (she smiled back prettily, not hearing him?), and split to catch his train to Colchester.