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A novel of the Stephen Ward Affair

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Philip Larkin

Most of our people have never had it so good.

Harold Macmillan

London, 1950-64


We married in haste. And regretted it fast. Then we divorced in a horrible hurry. At least we did everything quickly. And the worst bits – the living together, confined space, claustrophobia, shared bed, joint bathroom, breakfast conversation, and so on – only lasted for forty, odd days.
But I won’t say a bad word about Patricia - least of all narrow, prudish, moralistic, materialist, opportunistic, humourless, shrewish, tight, snobby. That’s the kind of easy, cheap, mean-minded condemnation that won’t ever part my lips, however often it crosses my mind.
It wasn’t her fault. Nor was it mine. It was just one of those monstrous misunderstandings. Things got taken for granted. Important questions never got asked. We’d both made assumptions about the other that were really wide of the mark.
All my adult life I’d missed out. Always delaying too long. Too slow to commit to a woman. Too cowardly to confess I loved her. By the time I finally made up my mind, then made my move, the lady had packed her bags and moved on.
I’d left Mary waiting in Torquay when I went off to study in Kirksville, Missouri. But within a year she sent the Dear John. She’d fallen for an alliterative charmer of a stockbroker called Bernard Bartlett who lived up her road, four doors away.
I should have married Eunice when I had the chance. Great girl. Sweet spirit. Fantastic looker. Chief model for Dior. Quite devoted to me. Always saying we should tie the knot. But I hesitated. Turned my back. Then Pitt Oakes nabs her. Carries her off to the Bahamas.
I thought I’d learned my lesson. But perhaps, with Patricia, for once, I made a false start, moved too fast and jumped the gun.
We looked so alike. Everyone said. Same aquiline nose, same wide lax mouth, same wry smile, same knowing, quizzical hazel eyes, same wavy brown hair.
People mistook us for twins. Narcissism or something. I was marrying a female edition of myself. And that surely contributed. When you share a face, you assume a set of common feelings.
We took ourselves to France for our honeymoon. The marriage was all going swimmingly, right up to the first evening. Then we hit the hotel mattress in Cannes that was our first marriage bed.
You’ll probably find it hard to believe. But we hadn’t had sex during our whirlwind romance. Not with each other.
We’d done our share of grappling and grasping, with damp, flushed kissing. Her breasts were fair game and freely accessible. But south of her belly was the dotted line. Downstairs, it turned out was taboo. Inelastic borders. Boundaries. Trespass. Out of season. No License. And such.
Whenever I’d showed a polite and proper, boyfriendly below-the-belt curiosity, or pressed through an outer layer onto her starchy, crisp underwear, Patricia would giggle over-loud, brush my hand away, and say, ‘Patience, Stephen. We’ll be married soon enough.’
And it pleased me to be doing things properly, conventionally, decently, respectfully, for once. I’d become a jaded veteran of the Erotic Front Line. Now it felt I was rediscovering a virgin excitement, starting afresh, marrying a sweet, girl who was reserving her body as a wedding gift.
Perhaps I had a jaundiced taste. I’d tried most erotic possibilities. Everything really, except abstinence and innocence. Now, it was like being credulous, fresh, young and hopeful all over again.
Alone at last, in our hotel room, Patricia had locked herself in the marbled bathroom, immersed in some protracted, private, cosmetic labours. There was the clinking of bottles, flushing and spraying, gurgling and gargling. It lasted for over twenty-five minutes. At intervals, various floral and fruity scents – talcum powder, eau de cologne, citrus soap – issued under the crack in the bathroom door. It signalled a failure of nerve. It spoke delaying tactics.
I lay on the bed in my pants, and gazed at the frescoed ceiling. Cupid was firing his arrows. Satyrs were cavorting with buxom nymphs. Jolly good romp. Lucky fellows.
When the bathroom door finally swung open and Patricia pit-patted up to the bed. She smelled pepperminted, powdery, and newly made. She reminded me of a Geisha. She wore a white-faced frown, in a cream silk nightie with lacy edgings and a hem that reached to her shins. She lay herself on the bed besides me, same six inches away. Her legs were stiff and straight with her knees locked tight together. In all, she seemed as trussed up, stuffed, pale, goose-bumped, unappetizing and unready, as a raw Christmas turkey.
I rolled her way. I nuzzled her stiff neck. My fingers touched on her rigid shoulders. I whispered that I adored her. I said she was the most stupefyingly
beautiful woman in the history of the world. I asked what I should do. How should I love her? And revere her beauty? I pledged my hands, my mouth, my tongue, my everything. To her absolute everywhere. I said I would do everything and anything. I said nothing would shock me, surprise or disappoint me. Her candid wish was my command.
‘Do it then.’ She said. ‘Only try not to hurt me.’
That said, she grimaced, clenched her hands into tight fists, splayed her legs and closed her eyes, as if preparing for a gynaecological examination. She lay there passive, prone, stiff and silent.
I understood. It was time to commence the surgical procedures that constitute marriage, with a hope to minimizing the intrusion, discomfort, embarrassment and duration. She’d probably have welcomed a general anaesthetic. Short of that, I guessed, I’d need to try limit any sensations I inadvertently aroused..
Still, I can’t say it was unpleasant. Not entirely. Not for me.
I took my time. I found some slow, twisty, scenic routes. Tufted nooks and crannies. Damp recesses. Shady slopes.
I threw a lot of craft, patience and tenderness at the problem, but I never sensed I was getting much back. It got to feel rather solitary. I had the loneliness of the long distance runner.
I didn’t get any eye-contact, or returns of touch, but Patricia let out occasional quiet grunts, puffs of breath, gasps and slow exhalations. They could have been expressions of mild discomfort, surprise or even mild, muted pleasure.
‘What are you doing, Stephen?’ she finally asked. ‘Down there? Exactly?’
I was somewhat dismayed she needed to ask. I thought these things were common knowledge. The technical answer would be cunnilingus, but that sounded a rather cold and clinical designation. It was more than a meeting of lips. I was attempting something personal and less generic. And I felt I was trying to mouth some tenderness and warmth.
‘Don’t you like it?’ I asked.
‘It’s fine in its way…’ she considered, ‘But very personal. And rather ticklish.’
‘Right.’ I withdrew. I rose from my protracted surveying down-below. I’d been to all the obvious sites of natural interest, and done all the obvious things. Now, after an hour or so of intensive pot-holing, I came up for air.
‘How was it for you, Stephen?’ she asked.
‘Like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,’ I said. I’d got an irritating pubic hair snagged between my teeth, and vibrating against my lip as I spoke. ‘How was it for you, darling?’
‘It was fine, Stephen.’ She reassured. She sat up and swung her feet to the floor. ‘Absolutely fine.’ She wrapped the nightie back around herself and padded back to the bathroom, and swung the door shut. ‘Not half as bad as I feared.’
Game over, I sensed.
’ Shall we dress for dinner?’ she called out, over the gurgle of tap-water.
That, at least, was a relief. The way it sounded, she didn’t seem to bear any permanent grudge.
That evening, as Patricia munched her relentless path through the menu, plundering the flesh of the oceans, downing a giant platter of fruit de mer, gulping down moist, mucus globs of oyster, sucking up the salty juices, drawing the pink curves of langoustines out from their shells, sliding her tongue into the shady slit of a lobster claw, nibbling the shrimp tails off from their blushing heads, I could see that she had a vigorous, almost violent, sensuality, albeit not it bed, with me.
‘Do you know…’ she sucked the tips of her salty fingers, ‘this is the most pleasure I’ve had in years…’
Later, over armagnac and coffee, we traded confidences. We talked of our parents, childhood pets, illnesses, school days, romances. She asks me how many lovers I’d had before.
‘Before what?’ I ask.
‘Before me, silly.’
This was decision-time and perhaps I made a mistake because I opted for complete candour. I’d never been married before. This was my first encounter with this be-kind-to-your-wife-or-be-tell-all-dilemma. But it occurred to me, as a working hypothesis, that Honesty might well be the answer. It could be crucial in marriage. If you don’t have trust, there’s nothing. So, I told her the truth. As best I could.
I said I’d probably slept with about a thousand women. Maybe more. We’re in the realm of approximation. It’s hard to calculate a precise number. I’d never stopped to count. Once you’re into the hundreds, you don’t remember the individual names.
Well, you can come across a lot of Jane’s and Anne’s within a hectic social schedule. There are a fair few Susan’s, Mary’s and Helen’s. Put in
enough over-time and you even start doubling up on the Irma’s, Imogen’s, Phoebie’s, Naomi’s and Natasha’s.
Of course, everyone’s absolutely, fabulously themselves, perfectly unique and wonderfully special. But, whatever their infinite variety, spiritually, facially, temperamentally, they still tend to clump, blend, merge and blurr in the bottleneck of memory.
The mind is a leaky vessel, and bored by repetition. You end up remembering people not by their totality but by small personal quirks and distinctions. The inverted coral nipple. The golden hair scented with hay. The lapis lazuli eyes. The freckled thigh. The belly scar. That demented-donkey laugh. The birth mark in a disarming place. The salty, samphire smell of low tide. The stammer. The honeyed taste. The webbed feet. The wonky eye.
The number was a conservative estimate, based on the assumption of having no more than one new lover every week over a period of twenty years. I’d assumed the busy and the more languid periods would somehow even out the score.
‘A thousand?’ Patricia frowned, blinked and gulped, ‘Sounds an awfully huge number.’ Then she smiles to herself with relief. ‘Oh,’ she sways tipsy, slurred, ‘That’s one of your jokes, isn’t it, Stephen?’
I pressed her hand gently. I said, ‘No, darling. I can’t say it is, to be honest.’
I came clean. I explained how I’d always liked women. Really. Rather a lot as it happened. Unreservedly. Avidly. Often. In most regards. Top to tail. Inside out. All over. Sight, smell, touch, taste.
I liked talking to them. I liked watching them. I liked sliding inside them. I liked watching them from a distance. I liked seeing them put their clothes on.
I liked seeing them take them off. I liked sleeping with them. I liked lying awake, trading confidences. I liked drawing them. I liked their conversation. I liked their silent company. I liked reading the washing instructions on the labels on their underwear, the advice on cosmetic bottles, the little instructional leaflets in their boxes of tampons. I liked looking through their drawers, and under their beds, and riffling through their minds. When it came to women, I had an insatiable curiosity. I couldn’t get enough.
Intimacy was the true quest. Sex was just one of the gateways.
As a student in America, I’d spent some vacation time in the bordellos and brothels of Las Vegas and San Francisco, plus I paid a lot of visits to the Eversleigh Club in Chicago.
I had a young man’s energy and appetite. I relished the variety. I was a very hungry, greedy boy. I explained how the Yanks had a more sensible, relaxed attitude to sex, and saw it more as recreation than sin, and took a pride in offering good service and a wide product range.
And then I’d worked for a while in Paris and got friendly with the girls at the Sphinx Club who were a really pleasant, chummy, open-minded crowd.
And then coming back from India at the end of the war with the Medical Corp, there were three hundred and seventy three young women nurses on the troop transport ship, and only fifty nine young men. We were young. We had time on our hands. We were demob-happy. And the ladies were bored, under-appreciated and needy.
And then, of course, I’d spent a long while as a fairly eligible bachelor around town, enjoying the company of attractive young women.
‘Anyway, darling…’ I reassured, ‘It doesn’t take anything away from us.’
‘It doesn’t?’
‘It was only sex, darling. Only sex.’
‘Meaning what?’
‘Well, anyone who marries for sex is a fool.’
‘Really, Stephen?’ She said. ‘Is that so? I didn’t know…’ Her brow furrowed. She passed her palm over her mouth. She gazed hard at the pointy toes of her patent leather stilettos. I sensed I’d distressed her, somewhere along the line.
‘I mean you can get sex anywhere, anytime…’ I explained. ‘From more or less anyone. What you can’t get on order is love, affection, trust, loyalty from someone you truly care for…’
‘Are you going to be unfaithful, then, Stephen?’
Well. To be honest, I guessed I was. Leopards. Spots. Habits. Die hard. And suchlike. It’s the way things are. That’s how the world works. It goes without saying, so I hadn’t.
I hadn’t really thought it through. I hadn’t expected Patricia to get out the moral step-ladders and clamber onto this high horse. All that piety about adultery had always struck me as nonsense. I wouldn’t apply such an ugly, condemnatory word. Of course, you mostly eat at home. But sometimes you want to dine out. Maybe French or Italian. Caribbean. Or something Asian.
Most often you take a bus. But sometimes you hail a taxi. It’s a matter of taste and convenience. You don’t need ethical insights from the Dali Lama or moral warnings from the Bishop of Durham.
‘Let’s be realistic, darling,’ I say, ‘People get attracted. People get tipsy. People stray. It’s the way of the world. It goes without saying. It needn’t
be a hanging offence, as long as they’re honest, as long as they stay in love, as long as they don’t betray each other in the ways that really matter…’
Patricia’s face has a new, cold, forensic expression. She’s blinking rapidly, and there’s a rosy glow to her neck and shoulders, that conveys her confusion, bless her, and comes across as altogether charming.
‘I mean if you met someone who really attracted you…’
‘Yes, Stephen?
‘I’m sure I’d find a way to forgive you…’
‘Oh, would you?’ she said.
‘Of, course… And if you wanted another woman…’
‘Yes, Stephen?’
‘I wouldn’t mind the slightest bit. Not the slightest.’
‘And, of course, if you wanted to share… I’d be happy to join in with the two of you. More than willing, actually, darling.’
This was another mistake. Biggy. I realise that now. I’d really got ahead of myself. I should have got her used to two-in-a-bed before trying to slip in a third.
‘Are you proposing…’ she frowns, ‘What I think you’re proposing?’
‘Whatever you fancy, darling…’ I splay my open, willing hands, ‘Is fine by me.’
‘Well, if you were to sleep with someone else… A woman, say…’ she frowns.
‘Yes, darling?’
‘I’d hack your bollocks off. With rusty scissors. Then I’d divorce you.’
‘Oh,’ I winced..‘Really?’
That was the milestone moment in our one-day marriage. From then on, it was downhill all the way. And the floodgates opened. The more we talked, the worse things got.
Patricia asked when I thought we’d start a family.
‘Family?’ I say.
It turned out she meant children.
‘Children?’ I asked. Crikey.
This came as a bolt from the blue. Children hadn’t occurred to me. They just weren’t on my horizon.
I know plenty of married women are firmly in favour of children, but they’d never struck me as an aspiration, a likely, sensible or rational option.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against children per se. They keep the species going. Good thing, by and large. It goes without saying.
Some of my best friends have kids. You find the little rascals underfoot, sucking on a rusk, or wetting the carpet, scenting the air with their juices, when you visit their house for Sunday lunch, or call round early evening. They can be tremendous fun, in small doses. Just mind where you step, and wash your hands after. But it had always struck that that there were two classes of people, the breeders and the sterile. And I’d always placed myself amongst the latter.
Patricia was a young, successful, international model. It never occurred to me she’d want to hang up her career on the maternity peg, get up the duff, enjoy morning sickness, bloat like an over-ripe fruit, cover herself in stretch marks, get ripped open from arse to fanny, and generally vex that perfect figure.
The trouble with a honeymoon is that you’re sardined into each other’s company. Apart from some brief bathroom interludes, and the embrace of sleep, you don’t get the chance of a healthy break, to give you a sense of proportion, forgive and forget, and get things back on the rails. So the more time we spent together, the worse things got.
My view of a new relationship – especially a marriage, which can be a protracted affair, after all - is that you take things as they come. You see what develops. You keep an open mind.
But not with Patricia. It turned out she had a five-year plan. More inflexible than Comrade Stalin’s. On top of that, she had a three page shopping list with all sorts of exotic, expensive and unlikely items -
Life insurance (for when I die unexpectedly)
A Silver Cross perambulator (to push around our first-born)
A large oak dining table (dinner parties)
A long sofa from Heal’s furniture store
A Cocker Spaniel puppy (black and white, called a Blue Roan)
An investment portfolio of stocks and shares
A weekend cottage in the country (Oxfordshire, perhaps)
We were clearly desiring at crossed purposes, and aspiring far West of my means.
Take property, for example. Although we’d never discussed it, she’s leapt to the conclusion we’d own our own home. In fact, she thought we did already.
Well, I never tried to mislead her. I assumed she knew. I thought we’d married for richer for poorer. I seem to remember that vow, nestling there, alongside the fidelity and illness clauses.
If she told me, ‘Stephen, I need a full inventory. What do you own in life precisely?’ I’d have told her honestly.
‘Not a stitch, darling, apart from the clothes I stand up in. Did you honestly believe I could afford to buy a property in Byranston Mews? It’s West One, for God’s sake. It’s a mews. It’s out of my price-bracket. Surely you realized it must be rented.
The consulting room is on loan from a friend.
I bought the car on a credit agreement and the payments are over-due.
I charge the rich eight guineas an hour. I treat the middle class for less. I comfort the needy for free.
Money flows in. Money flows out. Money finds its own level. No point playing King Canute.
Fair enough she wants a good time, in France, on the honeymoon. But there are currency regulations about how much you can take abroad. She picked all the expensive places, so we ran out of dosh after only three days.
It turns out she hasn’t brought any money of her own. So we have to go home pronto. It turns out it was all my fault.
I meet Percy Murray, at his Cabaret club the day after we get back. I thought the sight of some pretty girls, taking their kit off, prancing around semi-naked, might really buck me up.
‘How’s married life, Dr Ward?’ he asked.
‘Fine for the first six hours.’ I said, ‘But after that, it nose-dived.’
‘So, the honeymoon?’
‘The honeymoon could have gone better.’ I said.
‘Oh dear.’
‘I don’t think marriage is for me,’ I said, ‘I don’t think I’m made for one woman. I think I belong to them all.’