Saturday, July 28, 2007

At my time of life

The character Harry Caldecot in Kingsley Amis's comic novel The People That Live on the Hill is the one that, for "demographic reasons," I suppose I have to identify with the most. In this passage he visits a friend:
"Cheers, darling," said Maureen.
      "It's lovely to see you."
      "Listen, why didn't you telephone before you came? I might not have been here. I'm quite often not at this time, or I might have been having Bernie round."
      "Oh, Bernie, of course."
      "You know Bernie," she said impatiently. She smoked with her cigarette pointed at him and her elbow against her chest, like a beauty of a bygone era.
      "No, but I'm sure I can imagine him."
      "He's an actor who happens to play the guitar rather well."
      "Yes, I thought I could imagine him."
      "Anyway, why didn't you telephone, because I might easily have been having him round."
      "Well, you weren't, were you, and I don't know, I suppose I didn't think, and what of it, it's only a step from Shepherd's Hill Road."
      "You weren't by any chance hoping I'd be out or otherwise engaged?"
      Harry moved away from the chair he had taken and went and sat next to her on the Leonard-period sofa [Leonard had been her husband], and she instinctively shifted up to make room for him. "Would that be like me, do you think, as you've known me?"
      "No, you sod. No, of course it wouldn't be like you. That's true enough."
      "There you are, then."
      "Made it more of a bit of excitement, though, perhaps, not knowing?"
      "Well, now you mention it, I suppose there might be a bit of that in it, I really don't know."
      "Yeah." She did a great scowling caricature of a wink. "So the old bad penny's turned up again, eh?"
      "Bad pennies are supposed to be things people don't like to see turning up."
      "I beg your pardon, Professor."
      "No, I just meant I hoped you weren't saying you were sorry I'd come."
      "Do me a favour."
      He leaned forward and picked up in his fingers two deliquescent lumps of ice from the bowl. They seemed to become measurably smaller as soon as they hit the surface of his gin and tonic, but it was the general idea that counted. Settling back again, he snuggled a little closer to Maureen on the sofa. "This is jolly cosy," he said.
      When they were in their second drink she went and lowered the venetian blind over the window that looked out on the front of the house, working the twiddler at the side to turn the slats vertical or someway in that direction...
      ..."If you really want to be an angel there's some more ice in the kitchen. No rush."
      When he brought the ice, everything was as it had been when he arrived except that she was playing an Ella Fitzgerald record on her small distortion-rich machine (c. 1968) and joining in with some of the words...
      ..."Come on, just a small one before you go. Or not?"
      "Or not? Whence the sudden urgency? And what the importance? People say or not these days as if the sands had started running out. Yes, thanks, I'd love one...This is jolly nice," he said parking himself on the sofa and snuggling up to Maureen again. "Getting away from everything. Really nice." In fact it struck him as so nice that at one stage there seemed a fair chance that she would have had to let the blind down again, but he remembered how late it was getting and the moment passed. Not long after that he said he would walk back to Fitzherbert Avenue and pick up a cab on its way down to Buckland Village. She went along to the front door with him.
      "It's been lovely," he said, and kissed her affectionately. "See you soon."
      "Well, that's up to you, isn't it, a bit?"
      "What? How do you mean?"
      "Do you realize how long it's been since the last time?"
      "No? Why, has it been a specially long time?"
      "Not really. Well, I was going to ask you." Her face and voice went into a sort of Dickensian-cockney travesty. "I mean it wouldn't be, now would it, that you've found yourself some other little fancy piece of work in Muswell Hill or likewise, what is more appealing than your poor little Maureen what you have known these many years."
      "What? Good God, no." He was genuinely astonished, if only because she knew so well how lazy he was. "What a, what a ridiculous bloody idea. At my time of life?...." [pp. 76-79]
Ah, that time of life. I'm coming to know it well.

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