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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Tom Clark

from “Who is Sylvia?”

Chapters one, three and four

Sylvia cover

Tom Clark's novel Who is Sylvia?, published in the 1970s by Blue Wind in San Francisco, filters and reflects some of the author’s experiences in England in the 1960s.

The book is available from Small Press Distribution at or Amazon

or inquire directly to Blue Wind Press — details at the foot of this page.

Cover art by the author

Chapter one

He wore a black leather jacket large enough for two men his size. He was twenty-five, stood six-one, weighed it seemed to him a tough one-sixty. In he had walked. The tailor, a small, crafty veteran of Notting Hill Gate, had spoken as if the leather jacket were ordained by destiny to fall on our hero’s shoulders. And so it did, for six pounds ten. Landing like a dark mantle with a breadth equal to the entire sky’s, it abruptly fell upon and concealed his tough white chest. That was what it was for. Out he strode, admiring his mean appearance in shop windows on the way to the Underground station. Angular, he cut a fine outline against the no-color urban sky. The black jacket, shapeless, offensive, was perfect. A perfect one-piece wardrobe. Darkly he strode toward the Underground, a song in his heart, no dope in his veins, a book of poems in his pocket. It was 1966, a time in which one walked around carrying one’s complete personal possessions, the fewer the swifter, and Bob Dark felt extremely swift. Like a long black and white arrow pointing into the annals of literature, in which his poems would soon land if only out of sheer impetus.
      Bob had been in England four years, building his destiny with all the skill of a blind but lucky architect. In two years at Cambridge he had read much, but learned little. Europe and Africa had taught him more, but not enough. He had spent many stoned nights in persuasive London. He edited poetry for a literary review of renown, headquartered in Paris. He staggered across continents like a denizen. Aloneness ignited him. Where he could, he dipped his wick with abandon. Experience left him a freer man than ever. His poems took on a deep blue tinge at times, at others a dark brown one. Familiarity with tragedy was beyond his years; frantic sadness took its place, and tantrums. He was too old to go steady, but felt too young to wed. Luckily none of that mattered.
      With a large dark-haired Irish girl who had been raised in Egypt he approached the Albert Hall.
      He had met the dark-haired girl some months before in Nottingham, where he had gone to read his poems. She had hitchhiked back to London with him. Sitting on someone’s lap in a truck for five hours is, if nothing else, a good way to get to know them. He had stayed several weeks in her student’s flat in Bermondsey, an East End district rarely frequented by poetic aliens. The ceiling of her upstairs room was low and painted the blue of a night sky. Pasted to it were hundreds of small silver stars, the kind you get for coming in second in the spelling bee. Mushrooming smoke from her great hashspliffs burgeoned into this Fra Angelico indoor sky. The sheets looked and smelled to him like something left over from blue movies, but on them her Egyptian/Irish body-knowledge was put to good use. She couldn’t have been more than nineteen. They lay and smoked hash and ran their hands over each other’s sweaty birthday suits. The paraffin stove made an orange light that warmed the room, like a locker room in heaven. All night she babbled, telling him her spacy thoughts as he half-listened and played with her private parts and planned new poems.
      She liked poetry and even had a typewriter under her starry ceiling, high up near that twinkly nimbus, and she filled it with crazy poems. They laughed together when she read them out loud. The poems made absolutely no sense. They were wonderful and awful.
      She had one Buddy Holly record that he liked. Downstairs there was a machine they could play it on. They did so. ‘Peggy Sue,’ and smoked a giant spliff, and tumbled out onto Webster Street reeling, to the Underground. There was this big reading at the Albert Hall, a lilac-soft night in April. She wore jeans and a baggy sweater. His black leather jacket made him feel immense and cruel. The night added music by the Kinks from a kid’s transistor radio at the Underground station. ‘See My Friends.’ Across the river they changed to a tall red double-decker bus, then another and another, then walked a while through greenery and stopped on a common impulse to feel the vibrating London night sky. Bob Dark was always shocked by it. His first acid trip had contained a glowing vision of the Marble Arch from Hyde Park, where he had experienced a laughing jag provoked by the cosmic joke no one ever remembers later. It made London his soul’s laughing place forever, but no one knew this, for he was brilliantly alone. They entered the grand many-tiered hall in a lope.
      A dozen or more poets were scheduled to read from their works, Bob Dark among them. There were several folksingers, a couple of actors and actresses, music and jokes and songs. Mike Horovitz and Pete Brown, the English version of Ginsberg and Corso (a watered-down version, Bob thought) came on early, and as usual stayed long. Christopher Logue, small and natty, pointed his finger at the upper balconies and snarled his social-consciousness poems. Adrian Mitchell, the playwright, read something blatantly political. Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet, read something sentimental and tough. Robert Graves, leonine, ascended grandly and delivered hilarious impromptu remarks before declaiming a poem. All this acid and pot, Graves declared, were old hat. He had experimented with mescaline thirty years before, he said scoffingly, and had found it of very little interest. Graves’ white mane surrounded his stony, florid face like a flowing aura.
      Much as the lion of Mallorca’s performance fascinated Bob, his Irish girlfriend was growing restive. Seats near the stage had been assigned to the poets, and she and he were occupying two of these; but during Graves’ preliminary remarks, she whispered to Bob that she intended to duck outside for a smoke. She patted the back pocket of her bell-bottom jeans, where the spliff was stashed. Bob, who was used to her sudden departures from readings — she had, it seemed, a very limited attention span — merely nodded.
      ‘Want to come?’ she invited, beaming.
      Intent on hearing the old poet’s words, Bob shook his head. He was high enough already. ‘You go ahead,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve got to read in a minute.’
      The Irish girl winked and nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. ‘Oh, come on,’ she said, yanking his arm. ‘We can go out in the park and have a nice smoke and then come back in later.’
      ‘You go,’ Bob hissed, pulling his arm away. ‘I told you I’ve got to read.’
      She shrugged, made a hurt face, then planted a smile on Bob that was as broad as Galway Bay. ‘Maybe I’ll see you later,’ she said, and left.
      Bob hardly noticed she was gone. They had gone to a number of readings, art shows, and other cultural events together, and on almost every occasion Bob had spent the later parts of the evening alone or with someone else. Which was perfectly all right with him; and he knew there would be no hard feelings on the Irish girl’s part, either, if he chose to stay and she to go. They would see each other again in a week or two, and everything would be as before. Little did Bob know that this time he would not see the Irish girl again for six months, nor hear from her, nor think of her once.
      Bob was on the edge of a change in his life: that much he did feel as Graves went on to read poems. Bob’s mind began to wander. He prepared his own reading in his mind. He felt something great would happen to him tonight, perhaps a gift of inspiration when he read his poems to this huge audience. There were thousands of people up in those dark, invisible balconies. Few of them had ever seen or heard of him, and of those, few indeed had ever heard him read his poems. There was something good in that, Bob felt. His newness would be his best advantage. He would charge onstage and blast all these old-fashioned poets off the deck with his hard, cool newness. He could hardly wait. He felt cold, alone, impersonal — waiting to explode into bright heat. How could that be? His name was announced, and he stepped up onto the stage.
      Into total silence. Well, of course — no one had heard of him. He cleared his throat. Someone yelled, ‘Come on!’ Bob complied, charging into his best poem. It addressed the subject of human relations in approximately the same half-baked emotional manner that all his poems did, only this time much more concisely, Bob felt. It was called ‘Superballs.’
      He yelled the title out. Someone in the second balcony roared back, ‘What?’ Bob leaned forward to the microphone, called the title out again, louder. The voice roared back, ‘What’s that? We can’t hear you, mate!’ Bob leaned forward again, but this time his announcement of the title was drowned out by a whole chorus of What?s from the upper balconies. Disconcerted, he took a step back and looked around the huge dark hall. He decided to concede this round to the yobs in the balconies.
      Again he stepped forward, and now in his normal reading voice he launched into ‘Superballs.’
      ‘You approach me carrying a book,’ he began. A hundred What?s rained from the balconies.
      ‘You approach me carrying a fucking book!’ Bob shot back. This time his words reverberated around noiseless balconies. Into the grand canyon of silence he had just created, Bob rushed forward, and read his poem.

You approach me carrying a book
The instructions you read carry me back beyond birth
To childhood and a courtyard bouncing a ball
The town is silent there is only one recreation
It’s throwing the ball against the wall and waiting
To see if it returns
One day
The wall reverses
The ball bounces the other way
Across this barrier into the future
Where it begets occupations names
This is known as the human heart a muscle
A woman adopts it it enters her chest
She falls from a train
The woman rebounds 500 miles back to her childhood
The heart falls from her clothing you retrieve it
Turn it over in your hand the trademark
Gives the name of a noted maker of balls
Elastic flexible yes but this is awful
You say
Her body is limp not plastic
Your heart is missing from it
You replace your heart in your breast and go on your way

      When he was finished, he turned around and walked off the stage. There was a polite smattering of applause.
      Bob went back to his seat. The reading continued. An emaciated young humorist named Spike Hawkins read his outrageous ‘Pig Poems.’ The Shelley of Notting Hill Gate, Harry Fainlight, read poems about gnawing on his mattress in New York. Bob applauded warmly.
      Next came music. Some folk-type group, whose name sounded like a geometry problem — The Pentangle? Julie Felix came on and sang, an imitation of Joan Baez. Bob was fed up with British copy-cat versions of America. Vanessa Redgrave came on in a Cuban army suit and sang political protest songs. She even said, ‘Cuba Si, Yanqui No!’, which struck Bob as pretty funny coming out of the mouth of a handsome, high-class English actress.
      Then came another stream of bad London poets. Bob yawned once or twice, and began to wish he’d left with the Irish girl.
      Brian McDeath took the stage. McDeath, a lisping fellow in a three-piece beige suit, hair parted in the middle, resembled an Anglo-Scots Percy Dovetonsils. He ran the poetry section of the BBC Third Programme with an iron hand attached to a limp wrist. Things gruesome and macabre fascinated him. Along with the Observer’s aggressive, pain-loving literary critic, Al Alvarez, McDeath was in the process of founding a ‘movement’ based on sado-masochism and other forms of cruelty.
      McDeath, twit that Bob Dark thought he was, had a few years earlier invited Bob to read his poems on the BBC. Bob had jumped at the chance. Get the quid. He treated the Third Programme listeners to ‘Lakes,’ his epic of high school love and sudden mortality in Lake Geneva, gabbed a little with McDeath, picked up his fifteen quid and left the studio a happy man. Bob had nothing against old Brian McDeath. Brian wasn’t worth it.
      While McDeath minced through his poems, Bob struck up a conversation with McDeath’s girlfriend. This didn’t take much effort. The girl, a tall, straight-haired, oval-face blonde in a white vinyl dress, had been chattering in Bob’s ear for the last half hour. She drank wine from a bottle under her seat. When she reached down for it, Bob couldn’t help noticing the almondy odor of her slickly tanned skin. The dress was short and sleeveless. Her arms and legs were long and smooth and dark. Bob shared her wine. Behind dark lenses her eyes were deep-set, large, round, and they looked at Bob much too hard as she talked into his ear in short bursts: not in whispers but out loud, creating a disturbance. Throats were cleared, and someone behind Bob said ‘Do you mind?’ The girl turned her head and without looking said, ‘Buzz off!’ Then she turned back to Bob with a small conspiratorial grin. ‘Let’s split,’ she said.
      On the stage, McDeath was still reading. Bob considered the situation for about one second, then stood and followed the girl out. She was already in the aisle. Bob wondered how drunk she was. She was not staggering. He followed her out into the lobby. When he caught up with her, she slung an arm around his waist and they walked that way for a while, weaving and bumping into each other. Finally she stopped and with one brown hand removed the dark glasses she had been wearing all evening. She pressed her body up against Bob’s, and kissed him hard enough to knock him down.
      Her name was Sylvia. She lived in a flat off the Fulham Road. They took a taxi. The night was warm, the air sweet. In the back of the taxi Sylvia was making love to Bob before the driver had a chance to start his meter.
      They were deeply entangled by the time the taxi got to Fulham. Sylvia had to disengage herself from Bob in order to give the driver instructions. They turned off the well-lit arterial road into a dark side street. After a few blocks Sylvia rapped at the glass partition, and the driver pulled over.
      Hers was a two-story building identical to all the others in the rows of flats that stretched obscurely in both directions, illuminated imperfectly by the taxi headlights. Most of the overhead street lights on the block weren’t working. (Later, by daylight, Bob would see that the glass lamps had been shattered, apparently by strong-armed local children.)
      Sylvia had the upstairs front flat. Bob let her lead the way up the dark stairs. From somewhere she produced a key that let them into a large square room. Sylvia pulled a string that lit an overhead lamp. Bob saw a large bed, a fireplace with a gas heater where the fire once went, a dresser, a couple of straight chairs and a large table covered with a Union Jack. It was a room in which only the bed made sense as furniture. They moved toward it. Sylvia bent to light a candle on the way, then went back and tugged the string, putting out the overhead. Returning, she bent again and stacked records on a small phonograph, then sat down on the bed next to Bob, who was holding a smoking joint by this time. They consumed it, drank some more wine, and then fell back on the bed to make love for real.
      Georgie Fame kept singing ‘Getaway.’ It was the top record on the stack of five or six, and it kept playing over and over, revolving on the small box next to Sylvia’s white vinyl dress and her black bikini panties and Bob’s jeans and shirt and his black leather jacket, all of which lay in a rough pile on the floor next to the bed where they’d been hastily shed. On the bed Bob and Sylvia lay entwined, wet and dripping. Sylvia’s pointed nose and chin and high pointed breasts and small round belly glistened in the candlelight. The window was open and now and then the thin curtains stirred and the candle guttered. Georgie Fame kept singing ‘Getaway.’ Sylvia was lying on her back with her legs crossed, one knee propped up on the other, talking rapidly, telling Bob her life story. Bob’s mind wandered. He was watching the shadow her long legs made on the wall next to the bed. Her foot moved in time with Georgie Fame.

Sylvia cover

Chapter three

Brian came back bright and early the next morning. Bob was asleep when the banging at the door started. It was a hot, bright morning, and the curtains weren’t even stirring. The sky of London was blue out the window. Large white clouds, one or two of them, moved across the window very slowly. Sylvia leaped out of bed when the banging started. Neither Bob nor she was wearing anything; the night had been warm, in many ways, and they had slept with only a sheet to cover them. The sheet was now balled up at the foot of the bed.
      Bob turned over on his side, rubbed his eyes, and watched Sylvia dress. She picked up her bikini panties as she crossed the room and gingerly stepped into them while still moving. At the dresser she stopped, pulled open a drawer, brought out a knit top and a linen skirt. In the mirror above the dresser, her eyes smiled back at Bob, who was not concealing his pleasure at the sight of her dressing.
      Brian kept banging at the door and asking to be let in. When Sylvia had her clothes on, she pulled open the top drawer of her dresser, took out a pill bottle, removed one black capsule and choked it down with the remains of last night’s wine, and then crossed the room again to let Brian in.
      McDeath took three steps into the room and was already beginning to scold Sylvia for her behavior of the night before, when out of the corner of his eye he noticed the naked man who was lying on Sylvia’s bed. At this point Bob was stretched out on his back, with his arms under his head on the pillow. He smiled pleasantly at Brian, who looked nonplussed, and shifted his glance away immediately.
      ‘What ith the meaning of thith?’ he asked Sylvia angrily, turning his back to Bob.
      ‘Brian, you look ridiculous,’ Sylvia said.
      It was true. Brian was still wearing the three-piece beige suit of the night before. However, it now showed definite signs of having been slept in. Brian’s eyes were red and swollen, and his voice had a quaver. He seemed to be badly hung over, at the very least.
      ‘Thylvia,’ he said, ignoring Bob as best he could, ‘I love you. How can you treat me like thith?’
      ‘Where did you spend the night?’ she said.
      ‘Thlept in my car,’ he said. Brian drove a tiny MG. His long arms and legs must have suffered. There were pieces of something in his mustache. Bob had never seen McDeath like this before. Nor vice versa, although Brian still wasn’t looking.
      ‘Poor Brian,’ Sylvia said.
      ‘Don’t pity me, Thylvia,’ Brian said. ‘Ith you I pity.’
      ‘Oh? Why?’
      ‘You know why.’ McDeath’s voice was knowing.
      Sylvia’s eyes flashed hard. ‘Get out, Brian.’
      ‘Now Thylvia ...’ Brian began.
      ‘Go!’ Sylvia cut him off.
      ‘See you later, Brian,’ Bob called amiably from the bed.
      ‘You I will take care of later,’ Brian said darkly and not very loud.
      ‘Huh?’ said Bob. ‘How’s that, Brian?’
      But McDeath turned, executed the awkward half-pirouette that was required so that he would not have to look in Bob’s direction, and went out the door.
      Early in the afternoon Bob and Sylvia went out to a pub on the Fulham Road for lunch, and then it was time for Bob to go. He had to catch a train back to the provincial university town where he lived. Before he left, Sylvia gave him an envelope containing half a dozen of her ‘black beetles,’ the amphetamines she got in abundant quantities from her psychiatrist.
      Bob tried to read on the train, but his mind was not in the act. He was reading Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico, a passage about snake dancing. The compartment was hot. The sky was clouding now, and it was warmer and more humid than ever. The industrial outskirts of London finally gave way to countryside and the landscape featured hills, grass and cows. Bob had seen it two hundred times before and was not actually looking at what he saw. He was seeing Sylvia’s long full figure as she dressed in front of her mirror. That image, then another: her round, deep-set, wild laughing-serious brown eyes. Bob felt a shudder of total madness pass through him, for no reason; his head fell off. A girl in the seat opposite him was staring his way.
      He raised his book and hid behind it. The girl glanced at the title, then looked away in complete disapproval. Bob felt relieved when she got off at Chelmsford.
      From the railway station in Colchester, a gloomy town known only for its military prison, its soccer team, and (by some few musty scholars) its historical eminence in the period of Roman colonization, Bob caught a bus that allowed him to connect with another bus that took him to the local university where he was a graduate instructor in American Literature. It was a Sunday afternoon, and other than the porter at the door, no one was in the classroom building where Bob had his office.
      Bob shared the office with a French woman who taught in the Languages Department. She was an attractive, haughty brunette who had evidently been hired because her husband was the chairman of Economics. She rarely used her office, and like the song says, never on Sunday. Bob used the office at night and on Sunday, when he was sure she would not be around. He liked to spread out, play his transistor radio (which he kept in a desk drawer), smoke dope, and in general hang loose while he worked. The work he did was not curricular.
      He edited a series of mimeo magazines from his university office. Few persons at the university knew about this, least of all those on the faculty. Certainly not Bob’s boss, the department chairman, nor (more important still) the hawklike departmental secretary, who held the key to the paper stocks, the stencils, the bottles of correcting fluid ... all the things Bob needed to put his magazines together. Margaret her name was: she had a drill sergeant’s personality, and ran a very tight ship. She even got a vote in department affairs, such as the big debate over whether undergraduates should be allowed to enter the faculty common room (she voted no). Bob snuck past her when she was on the phone, rifled her precious cabinets, and stashed the materials in his own office locker until the evening or the weekend, when he worked on his magazines.
      This Sunday evening Bob was typing the last stencils for his current issue. It was slow, hard work, and after a few hours his eyes were tired. He wished he had a cup of coffee, and considered going over to the cafeteria in the student dorm to get one. But that would take half an hour, and he would probably lose his typing rhythm. Then he remembered the pills Sylvia had given him. He took one and washed it down with water from the fountain in the corridor. Then he went back to work.
      While he typed, he listened to the ‘pirate’ radio stations which beamed in non-stop rock-and-roll from ships anchored a few miles off the coast. He fell into the beat of each song, typing along with it. One song, a non-chartbuster which he’d never heard before, made him stop to catch the words. It was by Bob Dylan. Something about a girl who could take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black. Dylan, in his nasal whine, swore she would never stumble, for she had nowhere to fall. She was nobody’s child, he sang. The law couldn’t touch her at all. Bob thought of Sylvia. Then The Who soared into ‘I Can See for Miles,’ and Bob went back to typing.
      He finished the stencils in two hours, and, feeling a towering strength in his heretofore ordinary frame, immediately carried them upstairs to the mimeograph machine. He attached the first stencil to the machine, fed in paper, and hand-cranked one hundred copies. Then the same with page two, and so on into the night.
      Shortly before dawn, Bob cranked out the last copy of the last page. Then, in several trips, he carried the freshly-inked bundles of pages back down to his office. There he spread them out on his desk and the French woman’s, which he had pushed together to form one long counter. There were forty piles of one hundred legal-size sheets. Walking around the desks in rapid circles, constantly licking his fingers so as to get a good purchase on the slick paper, he collated about eighty clean copies of his latest magazine. The defective and badly-inked pages he set aside. Then he typed address labels on the eighty copies, saving only a few for himself and his handful of friends in the university. The addresses were those of poets and writers in several different countries on both sides of the Atlantic.
      By 8:15 in the morning, when Bob had deposited the last of his magazines on the departmental porter’s desk for mailing, he should by all odds have been tired. He was not. He went to the cafeteria, which had just opened, and bought himself a cup of coffee and three candy bars. Then he went back to his office and rolled up a big joint of hash and tobacco.
      He threw his boots up on the desk and smoked. Then he drank his lukewarm black coffee and ate the bittersweet chocolate, which went down like so much nectar and ambrosia: never a better breakfast hath man eaten, Bob felt. When he had finished, he rolled open the window to let in some fresh air. The French woman had a nine o’clock Spanish class, which Bob suddenly remembered was scheduled to meet in the office on Mondays. Hastily, he shoved her desk back into place, stowed his used stencils and surplus pages into his locker, and left.
      Pretty young students filled the corridors. They smiled at him. Some stopped to talk. Bob handed fresh copies of his magazine to one or two he knew well. Then he went to his own class, where he was currently teaching Edgar Allan Poe, and pitched into an enthusiastic reading of ‘The tin-tin-tin-tinnabulation of the bells...’
      That week Bob felt alternately exhilarated and stifled. When he took the pills Sylvia had given him, he felt exhilarated. Almost godlike, he smiled to himself. His poems shone. But they shone with an odd light that made him work them over hour after hour. One day he missed the bus to his class while fiddling over a poem and listening for the 64th time to The Beach Boys singing ‘Fun Fun Fun.’ He hitchhiked, but got to class half an hour late. Not that his class minded — and who else would know? The students were sitting there chatting when he walked in, enjoying themselves. It wasn’t the first time he’d been late.
      Stifled was how Bob felt when the pills wore off. He wished Sylvia had given him more, but was half-glad she hadn’t.
      One day it rained. He walked along the rusty railroad tracks by the beach front. It was a small town by the North Sea, populated largely by retired pensioners. He walked past the summer cottages, which weren’t open for the season yet; it was only April. A mile down the beach he came to a group of large rocks. He sat down on one of them, smoked a cigarette, and worked up the first lines of a new poem in his mind. The lines were long, verbose, and at first descriptive of the scene:

Necklaces of foam and weed purl about the rocks against which
You hear the constant meditative plunk of the waves
While you ignite the flame which kills the crisp white paper of the cigarette...

More and more lines arrived and the poem assumed an introverted and tangential architecture like the drawings of Piranesi. It swerved away from external landscape to a dense series of metaphors about the subject which obsessed Bob, that of ‘affiances,’ relationships — those escapes from loneliness which kept eluding his heroic denials of them.

...And when every step from the brink, under the fluid sky
Of this understanding, seems at once a withdrawal
Into the relative safety of boredom, and a fall, toppling
Head first into the chasm of smoldering jewels below
Which is death, you give up all desire to control
What is anyway inevitable, the process of affiances and days.
The eyes which combine you and another in a charter
Of doubt and blazing abandon burn like coals in neither of your heads,
Adding to a fire which is subdued and general all our days...

He went home and wrote the poem down, half liking it and half wondering what it meant. He figured it had to have something to do with Sylvia. He called it ‘Inferno.’
      On Friday Bob went back to London. He called Sylvia at home. There was no answer. He went to her place. No one was there. He had two pills left in his pocket, out of the half dozen she had given him. He took them both and stomped off to find a place to spend the evening.
      He went to see a dancer he knew. She was not particularly hospitable, so he visited other friends who lived behind a laundromat in Notting Hill Gate. He called Sylvia’s number several times as the evening wore on, but still she did not answer. Eventually his friends wanted to sleep. They told Bob that he could sack out on a bench in the laundromat. With nowhere to go, he accepted. From midnight to six a.m. he lay on the bench with his eyes wide open. At first light he bolted to his feet, ran out the door and headed for the Underground station.
      A bus deposited him on the Fulham Road at ten minutes to seven in the morning. The downstairs door of her flat was locked. He called up from the street — ‘Sylvia!’ Her head appeared out the window, then disappeared, and she came down to let him in.
      Sylvia seemed glad to see him. Brian had been calling her all week, she said, both at home and at work. When she refused to see him, he went to see her mother. Mrs. Pender was out of town. Brian had tried Sylvia’s sister next. There he had another ally. The sister relayed his messages to Sylvia. It seemed McDeath had also been talking to Sylvia’s doctor. Apparently his duties at the BBC left him with a lot of time on his hands.
      ‘You know,’ Sylvia told Bob, ‘you were right about Brian. He really is a creep. He just wants me for his sick little games. But I’m scared of him — of what he might do.’
      ‘Are you really?’ Bob said.
      ‘No,’ she laughed. Then she shook her head, clearing Brian out of her mind. ‘Look,’ she told Bob, ‘I’ve got a week’s laundry to do. Want to come with me?’
      ‘Why not,’ said Bob, who was wired with nervous energy despite his sleepless night.
      Off they went to the laundromat, Bob toting Sylvia’s laundry bag. It struck him as odd that after spending all night in a laundromat, he would spend the morning there too. In a way, he enjoyed the coincidence. It made things seem symmetrical in a way that suggested they perhaps had a meaning — though, Bob knew, that was probably going out on a limb.
      This laundromat, on the Fulham Road, was steamy and full of funny-talking local housewives, hip and otherwise. Bob and Sylvia flirted while her clothes whirled inside the machine. When she shifted them to the dryer, they had time to go out and get coffee and rolls. Then they came back, grabbed the dry load, dumped it at Sylvia’s place, and headed out again.
      Sylvia, like Bob, was stoked-up on black beetles, and primed to run. She wanted to go see her cousin Caroline, who lived in Kensington. They caught a bus, then an Underground train. Cousin Caroline lived in a posh townhouse in a very quiet and select neighborhood.
      Caroline, it turned out, was a pretty auburn-haired play-girl who looked wasted beyond her years — which Bob guessed to number about twenty-five. From her conversation with Sylvia, Bob gathered that Caroline spent her evenings at high-toned discotheques and gambling clubs, her days recuperating. Although it seemed the young men and women of Caroline’s set were wild plungers staking and losing whole family fortunes on dice tables or in card games, her own fortune was not to be staked or lost just now, having been tied up in litigation. Sylvia’s cousin was married to a Standard Oil heir, but just barely. The divorce settlement was in process, which meant that around now Caroline had to be very careful who she was seen with. Her husband had detectives watching her house and following her around in taxis, she told Bob and Sylvia with a giggle. Her husband wanted pictures of her with her boyfriends. The pictures would help her husband keep the divorce settlement safely inside five-figure waters. However, even though she was aware it was costing her money, Caroline couldn’t refrain from having her men, as she readily confessed to her visitors.
      In Caroline’s pretty, empty head there was at least one substantial and enduring piece of wisdom, Bob could see. That was the knowledge that she would never have to starve. It made her eyes glow with the confident assurance of her class. She smiled at Bob, too, as she spoke, making him feel like a regular member of the family. Pretty Caroline had no secrets from him. And she had a marvelous house. Bob pulled out a joint and lit it, took a drag, offered it to his hostess. ‘No thanks,’ Caroline said with a cool smile that did not leave him feeling put down. Caroline did not need dope. She was perfect just as she was.
      Bob and Sylvia smoked while Caroline and Sylvia talked. Not much later Bob and Sylvia left.
      They caught a bus to Chelsea and walked down Kings Road. Sylvia went into a mod boutique and nicked two pairs of huge white plastic sunglasses with blue lenses. Looking absurdly conspicuous in these, but feeling like royalty, she and Bob strolled toward the river. The late afternoon air was smooth and warm. They stopped and had a drink at a pub near the river.
      When they came out it was after six, and Bob was feeling the effects of being awake for forty hours straight. His feet were dragging. He felt like taking a hot bath and lying down. But Sylvia wanted to move. She rummaged in her bag and produced a black beetle. He gulped it down dry. They sat for a while on a park bench and looked at the water and the sunset. Bob rolled a joint and they smoked about half of it before a bobby came strolling toward them. Bob put the joint out and they stood up and walked off ahead of the policeman.
      ‘Where to?’ said Bob.
      ‘Let’s go to Battersea Park,’ said Sylvia.
      They caught a bus. Bob had never been to Battersea. The amusement park had rides and booths and games. Bob tried his luck and won a large stuffed dog for Sylvia. Sylvia, who’d bought a bottle of wine, carried the dog under one arm while she swigged vino with her other. They killed the bottle in half an hour. Then Sylvia’s free hand strayed inside Bob’s pants as they wove along. They rode on a big whirling contraption that had compartments big enough for couples. In the closed compartment, Bob and Sylvia and the dog were pressed tightly together. Bob felt Sylvia’s mouth sharply and hotly pressed against his, and her hand moving searchingly inside his pants in the whirling capsule. Fighting back vertigo, he held on to her ass (or was it the stuffed dog?) and kissed back gamely.
      They staggered toward a bus, but there was no bus. They found a taxi. Back across the river, they dined at length in a small candle-lit Italian restaurant, consuming two more bottles of wine. Bob lost track of the time somewhere around midnight. A taxi took them home. They groped each other wildly in the taxi. The driver made them stop. It was her place: they tumbled out. Up the stairs. Bob’s head was swimming. What continent were they on?
      She lit the candle. Stacked the records. ‘Play with Fire.’ Bob couldn’t remember how his clothes got off. They fell into each other hungrily, Bob reeling and plunging, Sylvia gasping and babbling and then crying. Affiances and days!
      They fucked themselves wide awake. Then they lay on their backs, talking. The windows filled with light.
      Sylvia got out of bed, walked across the room to her dresser, took a pill. Bob swung out of bed. They both dressed slowly, watching each other with pleasure.
      ‘Where to now?’ said Bob.
      ‘Let’s get out of here before fucking Brian starts calling,’ she said.
      Just then the phone rang.
      Sylvia laughed. ‘What did I tell you?’
      ‘Let’s go,’ said Bob.
      They let the phone ring, and went out to get breakfast.
      Neither of them had slept for days. Sylvia moved as if powered by an unseen, unknown fuel. She was beyond pills; she dwarfed them. Bob was in awe, felt himself a mere mortal beside her. He padded along. They found some eggs somewhere.
      ‘Let’s go see Paul,’ Sylvia said, over the eggs they couldn’t eat.
      ‘Who’s Paul?’ Bob sipped coffee.
      ‘Caroline’s old man.’
      ‘Oh, Standard Oil?’
      Sylvia nodded. ‘He’s a bore but he’s sweet. His place is right on the way to Paddington.’
      ‘Paddington Station. We can get a train from there to someplace in the country. I feel like going to the country, don’t you?’
      Bob could only guess so.
      ‘Winchester,’ Sylvia said. ‘We could go to Winchester.’
      ‘Like in the song? Winchester Cathedral?’
      ‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘I’ve never been there, have you?’
      Bob summoned the energy to shake his head no. ‘Let’s go, then,’ she said, smiling impatiently behind her blue lenses.
      A large, soft, stoop-shouldered American of twenty-eight or thirty who looked thirty-five and acted sixty, Paul had an expensive apartment in a fashionable mews.
      He was more guarded in Bob’s presence than his wife had been. Sylvia, who appeared to be a kind of go-between, was friendly with both Paul and Caroline. Paul spoke with obvious hatred of his wife. He asked Sylvia about his wife’s lovers. Sylvia changed the subject. Paul then spoke cynically and with obvious self-pity about his own position as the deserted husband. It seemed that all his fabulous wealth did not interest him much. His main interest was his wife, whom he wished to see suffer for the crime of leaving him. He returned to the subject obsessively, pumping Sylvia for fresh news, and ignoring Bob, who lay back on a delicate-looking sofa that had probably been made in France during the 18th century, and sipped Paul’s fine vodka. It crossed Bob’s mind that he didn’t care much for Sylvia’s friends. But then it crossed his mind that they probably didn’t care much for him, either.
      Paul and Sylvia talked on. Bob grew drowsy. The sun flooded in through the green plants that hung in Paul’s window. Somewhere church bells rang eleven. Bob felt himself dropping off to sleep.
      Then Sylvia was shaking his shoulder.
      ‘Let’s go, love.’
      ‘Ah, go. Huh?’ Bob had been dreaming of... ‘Where?’
      Paul was staring at him as though he were a drug addict. It was the other way around. Paul was the.... No, that was wrong too. Bob struggled to his feet, shook Paul’s soft, weak, pasty white hand. You are not my countryman, Bob thought, staring Paul in the face. Sylvia kissed Paul on the cheek, and then she and Bob left. They walked uphill five miles, really two blocks, to the bus stop. And caught a bus to Paddington Station.
      British Railways got them as far as Reading. From Reading they hitchhiked to Basingstoke. They waited for an hour on the side of the road outside Basingstoke. Bob fell asleep. A short fat man picked them up. Bob fell asleep again in the short fat man’s car. After a while the short fat man stopped and let them out. They walked a while, got another ride, got out, stood a while, got a ride, got out, walked a while more...
      Winchester was nice but, Bob later felt, it was hardly worth all that effort. They read the plaque on the house where Jane Austen had died. They goofed around a little in the Cathedral. Sylvia too was showing signs of tiring, now. She was talking faster and faster, in sporadic bursts that didn’t always make sense. They stopped and tipped a few at the local near the cathedral and consulted the pub-keeper’s handy timetable. It showed they could make a bus connection to the night train through to London. They headed up the hill toward the bus.

Sylvia cover

Chapter four

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.
      ‘Why not?’
      ‘Because he’s vain and mean and twisted. He uses people.’
      ‘Doesn’t everybody?’
      ‘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.’
      ‘Why Jewish?’
      ‘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.’
      ‘It’s awful.’
      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.’
      Paul glowered.
      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.

Sylvia cover

You can read Tom Clark’s biography, a detailed bibliography, a statement on poetics and a list of live links to all his pieces in Jacket magazine here, at Jacket’s Author Notes page.

To order your copy of the complete novel, inquire directly to

Blue Wind Press
PO Box 7175, Berkeley, CA 94707, USA
Voice 510.525.2098 — Fax 510.525.1150
Or by email:

Jacket 21 — February 2003  Contents page
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Who is Sylvia is copyright © 1979 by Tom Clark,
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