Somewhere Towards the End

Diana Athill

All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. My seventieth birthday failed to change this because I managed scarcely to notice it, but my seventy-first did change it. Being ‘over seventy’ is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up.

This year I shall be ninety. I have lived long enough to have witnessed great changes in being old as far as women are concerned—smaller ones for men, but for them less was needed. In my grandmothers’ day a woman over seventy adopted what almost amounted to a uniform. If she was a widow she wore black or grey clothes that disregarded fashion, and even if she still had a husband her garments went a bit drab and shapeless, making it clear that this person no longer attempted to be attractive. My paternal grandmother, who was the older of the two, wore floor-length black garments to her dying day, and a little confection of black velvet and lace on her head, a ‘cap’ such as full-blown Victorian ladies wore. (Judging by the skimpiness of my own hair in old age, which comes from her side of the family, she had good reason for adhering to that particular fashion.) Even one of my aunts, my mother’s eldest sister, never wore anything but black or grey after her husband’s death in the Thirties, and deliberately chose unsmart shapes for her garments. The abrupt shortening of skirts in the Twenties contributed to the preservation of this ‘uniform’, because no one at any age wants to look grotesque, and grotesque is what old legs and bodies would have looked in ‘flapper’ fashions, so in my youth old women were still announcing by their appearance that they had become a different kind of person.

After the Second World War, however, reaction against the austerity it had imposed led to far greater flexibility. For a while Vogue ran a feature called ‘Mrs Exeter’ to persuade elderly women that they could wear stylish clothes, and this demonstration soon became unnecessary, so pleased were women to choose clothes to suit their shapes and complexions rather then to conform to a convention. Nowadays an old woman would obviously be daft if she dressed like a teenager, but I have a freedom of choice undreamt of by my grandmothers. There have been days when I went shopping in my local Morrison’s wearing something a bit eccentric and wondered whether I would see any raised eyebrows, only to conclude that I would probably have to wear a bikini before anyone so much as blinked.

Even more than clothes, cosmetics have made age look, and therefore feel, less old. Until quite recently they could be a danger, because women who had always worn a lot of make-up tended to continue to do so, blind to the unfortunate effect it could have on an inelastic and crepy skin. One of my dearest old friends could never get it into her head that if, when doing herself up for a party, she slapped on a lot of scarlet lipstick, it would soon come off on her teeth and begin to run into the little wrinkles round the edge of her lips, making her look like a vampire bat disturbed in mid-dinner. Luckily today’s cosmetics are much better made and more subtle in effect, so that an ancient face that would look absurd if visibly painted can be gently coaxed into looking quite naturally better than it really is. Having inherited a good skin from my mother, I still receive compliments for it, but nowadays I know that at least half its ‘goodness’ is thanks to Max Factor. Appearance is important to old women, not because we suppose that it will impress other people, but because of what we ourselves see when we look in a mirror. It is unlikely that anyone else will notice that the nose on an old face is red and shiny or the broken veins on its cheeks are visible, but its owner certainly will, and will equally certainly feel a lift in her spirits when this depressing sight is remedied. And even if how one sees oneself is not wholly how one is, it does contribute a great deal towards it. I know for sure that I both feel and behave younger than my grandmothers did when they were old.

In spite of this, however, the most obvious thing about moving into my seventies was the disappearance of what used to be the most important thing in life: I might not look, or even feel, all that old, but I had ceased to be a sexual being, a condition which had gone through several stages and had not always been a happy one, but which had always seemed central to my existence.

It had started when I was four or five in a way which no doubt appeared comic to onlookers but which felt serious enough to me, with the announcement that I was going to marry John Sherbroke. He was a little boy who lived a few houses up from us on the street beside Woolwich Common (my father, an officer in the Royal Artillery, was presumably an instructor at the Military Academy there at the time, and John’s father was also a gunner). I can’t remember John at all, except for his name, and that he was my intended. His successor is clearer in my memory because of his beautiful, sad brown eyes and the glamour bestowed on him by his great age—he was Denis, the gardener’s boy at the Hall Farm where we had gone to live under the wing of my mother’s parents. I doubt whether I ever spoke to Denis, but I did, with great daring, spit on his head out of the lavatory window when he was working the pump by the back door. He was followed by loves with whom I did communicate—indeed I and my brother spent much time with them: Jack and Wilfred, sons of the head cow-man at the farm, remembered even more clearly than Denis because of the amount of time I put into trying to decide which I loved best.

Those two were the first beneficiaries of my romantic phase, in which love took the form of daydreams. The object of my passion would be placed in a situation of great danger—his house on fire, perhaps, or he was being swept away in a flood—and I would rescue him, the dream’s climax being that when he recovered consciousness he would open his eyes to find me leaning over him, my cloud of black hair enveloping him like a cloak (I was a skinny child with a mouse-coloured bob, but I confidently expected to improve with time). Jack and Wilfred lasted until I was nine, when they were ousted by the first love I chose for real reasons: David, who was far kinder, braver and more sensible than the rest of us and was also a familiar friend and companion. He, too, was liable to be rescued, though rather guiltily because of how silly he would have thought it, had he known. He told his mother I was a good sport, which was thrilling at the time, though as I entered my teens it did begin to pall.

Then, at fifteen, I fell in love as an adult. It was with Paul (I called him that in my memoir Instead of a Letter, so he can keep the name here), who came during one of his Oxford vacations to earn a bit of money by coaching my brother for an exam. He dispelled daydreams by being the real thing, but he did not dispel romance. I loved, I assumed love equalled marriage, and I was certain that once I was married to the man I loved I would be faithful to him for the rest of my life. I did have the occasional, fleeting daydream about my beautiful white wedding, but to embroider my romanticism beyond that, once I was old enough to hold Paul’s attention and we became engaged, was not easy, partly because of how everyone went on at me about how poor we would be and how I would have to learn to be a good housewife. Paul, who had gone into the RAF, was still only a pilot-officer whose pay was £400 a year, which seemed to him and me enough to have a good time on, whatever ‘they’ said, but still the warnings were sobering; though less so than something which happened about six months after we announced our engagement.

We went, with his sister, to a party with a group of rather louche friends of Paul’s—I didn’t know where he had picked them up, and was disconcerted by them from the start because they were drinking harder and talking more crudely than anyone I had met hitherto. One of them had brought along an extravagantly sexy-looking girl who made a dead set at Paul the moment she saw him, and to my incredulous dismay he responded. After an extremely uncomfortable hour or two he shovelled the task of seeing me home on to his embarrassed sister, and he ended the evening, I was sure, in bed with that girl.

During the following two weeks I heard nothing from him, and felt too crushed to write or call myself, and when he let me know that he was about to fly down from Grantham to spend the weekend at Oxford with me, as he often did, I was more anxious than relieved. During the Saturday evening we drank too much and he collapsed into almost tearful apology. He had behaved horribly, he was so ashamed of himself he couldn’t bear it, I must, must believe that it had meant absolutely nothing, that girl had turned out to be a ghastly bore (what a slip-up! Suppose she hadn’t been?). Never again would he do anything like that because I was and always would be the only woman he really loved, and so on and so on. It was better than silence had been, but it was not good.

Next morning we took a taxi to ‘our’ pub in Appleton and dismissed it before we got there in order to dispel our headaches by walking the last mile, although it was a bitterly cold and windy winter day. Paul seemed relaxed, scanning the fields on either side of the muddy lane for fieldfares; I was dismally silent, mulling over his apology. It had meant nothing: yes, I accepted that. But his declaration that such a thing would never happen again: no, that I was unable to believe. I don’t remember being as shocked as I ought to have been at his doing it under my nose, thus betraying a really gross indifference to my feelings. I had a humble opinion of my own importance, carefully fostered by a family which considered vanity a serious sin, so in such a situation I tended to blame myself as not being worthy of consideration, and I wasn’t consciously thinking of that although I am now sure that it was gnawing away at me. What I knew I was thinking about was how this flightiness of Paul’s must be handled. I remember thinking that once we were married I would have to learn to be really clever. ‘It will be all right for quite a time,’ I thought. ‘He will go on coming back to me while we are like we are now. But when I get old—when I’m thirty‘—and I saw a flash of my own face, anxious and wrinkled under grey hair—’then it will be dangerous, then he could fall in love with one of them.’ Would I learn to be clever enough? I’d have to. The whole of that day remained dismal, but not for a moment did it occur to me that I might not want to marry him, and soon our relationship was restored to its usual enjoyable state.

So I don’t think there was ever a time in my adult life when I didn’t realize that men were quite likely to be technically unfaithful to women, although it was not until Paul had finally jilted me that I saw that women, too, could be cheered up by sex without love. I ‘recovered’ from Paul in that I fell in love again, twice, and heavily, but both times it felt ‘fatal’, something impossible to avoid, and anyway I longed for it, but which was bound to bring pain. The first time it was with a married man much older than myself, and I never envisaged him leaving his wife for me. No doubt if he had suggested it I would have accepted, but I admired him far too much to expect it: I was his wartime fling, or folly (there’s nothing like a whiff of death in the air to intensify desire, the essence of life—I remember him whispering in amazement, ‘I’d resigned myself to never feeling like this again’), while she was his good and blameless wife who had just become the mother of their first child, so leaving her would prove him cruel and irresponsible which I was sure he was not. I would not have loved him so much if he had been.

My second after-Paul love was available, even eligible, but his very eligibility seemed to make him too good to be true. He liked me a lot. For a time he almost thought he was in love with me, but he never quite was and I sensed almost from the beginning that it was going to end in tears, whereupon I plunged in deeper and deeper. And it did end in tears quite literally, both of us weeping as we walked up and down Wigmore Street on our last evening together. With masochistic abandon I loved him even more for his courage in admitting the situation and sparing me vain hopes (and in fact such courage, which takes a lot of summoning up, is something to be grateful for, because a broken heart mends much faster from a conclusive blow than it does from slow strangulation. Believe me! Mine experienced both.)

That, for me, was the end of romantic love. What followed, until I met Barry Reckord in my forty-fourth year, was a series of sometimes very brief, sometimes sustained affairs, always amiable (two of them very much so), almost always cheering up (two of the tiny ones I could have done without), and none of them going deep enough to hurt. During those years, if a man wanted to marry me, as three of them did, I felt what Groucho Marx felt about a club willing to accept him: disdain. I tried to believe it was something more rational, but it wasn’t. Several of the painless affairs involved other people’s husbands, but I never felt guilty because the last thing I intended or hoped for was damage to anyone’s marriage. If a wife ever found out—and as far as I know that never happened—it would have been from her husband’s carelessness, not mine.

Loyalty is not a favourite virtue of mine, perhaps because André Deutsch used so often to abuse the word, angrily accusing any writer who wanted to leave our list of ‘disloyalty’. There is, of course, no reason why a writer should be loyal to a firm which has supposed that it will be able to make money by publishing his work. Gratitude and affection can certainly develop when a firm makes a good job of it, but no bond of loyalty is established. In cases where such a bond exists—loyalty to family, for example, or to a political party—it can become foolishness if betrayed by its object. If your brother turns out to be a murderer or your party changes its policies, standing by him or it through thick or thin seems to me mindless. Loyalty unearned is simply the husk of a notion developed to benefit the bosses in a feudal system. When spouses are concerned, it seems to me that kindness and consideration should be the key words, not loyalty, and sexual infidelity does not necessarily wipe them out.

Fidelity in the sense of keeping one’s word, I respect, but I think it tiresome that it is tied so tightly in people’s minds to the idea of sex. The belief that a wife owes absolute fidelity to her husband has deep and tangled roots, being based not only on a man’s need to know himself to be the father of his wife’s child, but also on the even deeper, darker feeling that man owns woman, God having made her for his convenience. It’s hard to imagine the extirpation of that: think of its power in Islam! And woman’s anxious clamour for her husband’s fidelity springs from the same primitive root: she feels it to be necessary proof of her value. That I know only too well, having had the stuffing knocked out of me so painfully when Paul chose to marry someone else. But understanding doesn’t mean approving. Why, given our bone-deep, basic need for one another, do men and women have to put so much weight on this particular, unreliable aspect of it?

I think now of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story ‘The Peephole in the Gate’, about a young man who saw his sweetheart home on the eve of their marriage, couldn’t resist taking one last look at her through the peephole—and there she was, being soundly and obviously enjoyably kissed by the porter. End of betrothal—though the narrator does slyly remind the young man that he had it off with a serving maid that same afternoon. The story goes on to suggest how much simpler, and probably better, two people’s lives would have been if that sexual infidelity had never come to light: a theme which Singer, that wise old bird, returns to several times, always with his characteristic trick of leaving the pronouncement of a moral judgement in the hands of the reader. Given his deep attachment to his religious background, I can’t be sure that he would have agreed with the judgement I produce—but after all, he does ask for it. Yes, there are some things, sexual infidelities among them, that do no harm if they remain unknown—or, for that matter, are known and accepted, and which is preferable depends on the individuals and their circumstances. I only have to ask myself which I would choose, if forced to do so, between the extreme belief that a whole family’s honour is stained by an unfaithful wife unless she is killed, and the attitude often attributed to the French that however far from admirable sexual infidelity is, it is perfectly acceptable if conducted properly. Vive la France!

This attitude I shared, and still share, with Barry, with whom, after I had finally shed the scars of a broken heart, I eventually settled down into an extraordinarily happy loving friendship, which remained at its best for about eight years until it began to be affected not by emotional complications, but by Time. This was not a sudden event, but its early stage, which took place during my mid- and late fifties, was followed by a reprieve, which made it possible to ignore its significance. Gradually I had become aware that my interest in, and therefore my physical response to, making love with my dear habitual companion was dwindling: familiarity had made the touch of his hand feel so like the touch of my own hand that it no longer conveyed a thrill. Looking back, I wonder why I never talked about this with him, because I didn’t. I simply started to fake. Probably this was because the thought of ‘working at’ the problem together, as I supposed a marriage counsellor would suggest, struck me as unlikely to solve it. Tedious and absurd: that was how I envisaged such a procedure. If something that had always worked naturally now didn’t work—well, first you hoped that faking it would bring it back, which sometimes it did, and when that stopped happening you accepted that it was over.

That acceptance was sad. Indeed, I was forced into it, at a time when our household was invaded by a ruthless and remarkably succulent blonde in her mid-twenties and he fell into bed with her. There was one sleepless night of real sorrow, but only one night. What I mourned during that painful night was not the loss of my loving old friend, who was still there, and still is, but the loss of youth: ‘What she has, God rot her, I no longer have and will never, never have again.’ A belated recognition, up against which I had come with a horrid crunch. But very soon another voice began to sound in my head, which made more sense. ‘Look,’ it said, ‘you know quite well that you have stopped wanting him in your bed, it’s months since you enjoyed it, so what are you moaning about? Of course you have lost youth, you have moved on and stopped wanting what youth wants.’ And that was the end of that stage.

Soon afterwards came the reprieve, when I found, to my amusement and pleasure, that novelty could restore sex. I described in Instead of a Letter how after an early, real and long-lasting sorrow my morale had begun to be restored by an affair with a man I called Felix, which did not involve love but was thoroughly enjoyable otherwise. Now, as I approached my sixties, it happened again, and my life as a sexual being was prolonged by seven years while Barry went his own way, our companionship having become more like that of brother and sister than of lovers. A second man with whom I had little in common won himself a place in memory made warm by gratitude. After him there was no reprieve, nor did I want one.

The last man in my life as a sexual being, who accompanied me over the frontier between late middle age and being old, was Sam, who was born in Grenada in the Caribbean. Whether he had come to England in order to volunteer for the war, or his arrival just happened to coincide with its outbreak, I don’t know. He joined the RAF Regiment, in which he worked as a clerk, and in his own time came to know George Padmore and other black elders of that day who were concerned with establishing the black man’s rights in Britain. He gained a good deal of experience in broadcasting at this time, which served him well later, when he moved on to Ghana and soon attracted the attention of Kwame Nkrumah, who put him in charge of his government’s public relations so that he became in effect a member of it, although he was never a minister. He remained Nkrumah’s trusted servant and friend until the coup which brought the Redeemer down, simultaneously putting an end to Sam’s palmy days in Africa. Because he was known in Accra as an honest man who took no bribes he escaped prison, but he had to leave the country at four days’ notice, taking nothing but his clothes. When I met him, all he had left from those days was a beautiful camel-hair overcoat with a sable collar, and the gold watch on a handsome bracelet given him by Haile Selassie.

Being an impressive-looking man, very tall, with pleasant manners, easygoing but sensible, clearly on the side of good sense and decorum, he had no trouble getting a job almost at once in the British government’s organization concerned with race relations. He was just settling into it when we met at a party at which there were several old African hands of one sort and another. My partner at André Deutsch had kick-started a publishing firm in Nigeria during the Sixties and we had some African writers on our list, so the newly independent countries, and race relations, were part of the landscape in which I existed at that time.

In addition to that, in the course of my close and happy relationship with Barry, which had by then lasted about eight years, I had come to feel more at home with black men than with white. Barry, having been educated by English schoolmasters at his Jamaican school and by English dons at Cambridge, used sometimes to say that his fellow Jamaicans saw him as ‘a small, square, brown Englishman’, and some of them may have done so, but he was black enough to have received his share of insults from white men; and one can’t identify with someone of whom that is true without feeling more like him than like his insulters.

The first black person with whom I was ever in the same room was an African undergraduate at a party during my first term at Oxford in 1936. Dancing was going on, and I was deeply relieved at his not asking me for a dance. I knew that if he asked I would have to say yes, and I hadn’t the faintest idea why the prospect seemed so appalling. It was just something which would have appalled my parents, so it appalled me. But I am glad to say that when, a week later, a friend said to me, ‘I think I would be sick if a black man touched me,’ I was shocked. I don’t remember thinking about it in the intervening days, but somehow I had taken the first tiny step of seeing that my reaction to the idea of dancing with that man had been disgusting.

After that I must gradually have given the matter enough thought to get my head straight about it, because when I next came in touch with black people, which didn’t happen for some years, I was able to see them as individuals. The first time I was kissed by a black man—a friendly peck at the end of a taxi ride from one pub to another—I did note it as an occasion, because the fact that it was just like being kissed by anyone else proved me right in a satisfactory way: I was still feeling pleased with myself for not having racist feelings. But by the time I met Barry, although I had never had occasion to make love with a black man, I had met many black people and worked with some of them, so clicking with him at a party and soon afterwards going to bed with him didn’t seem particularly noteworthy except for being much more fun than the last such encounter I’d had, because this time we liked each other so well. It was only after we had settled into togetherness that I started expecting to like black men better than whites. I always might, of course, end up disliking the one or liking the other contrary to expectation, but I did, from then on, start out with a bias towards the black, or at any rate the un-English.

So when at our first meeting Sam made a stately swoop, I was pleased: it was both funny and revivifying to be seen as attractive by this agreeable and sexy person, just after concluding that my love-making days were over. Soon after that he moved into a flat near Putney Bridge, and for the next seven years I spent a night with him there about once a week.

We rarely did anything together except make ourselves a pleasant little supper and go to bed, because we had very little in common apart from liking sex. Sam had an old-fashioned sense of what was proper, but I am sure it had never entered his head to think of sex in connection with guilt. As well as The Pickwick Papers, The Bab Ballads and several booklets about the Rosicrucians and the Christian Scientists, The Kamasutra was among the books permanently entangled in his bed-clothes. We also shared painful feet, which was almost as important as liking sex, because when you start feeling your age it is comforting to be with someone in the same condition. You recognize it in each other, but there is no need to go on about it. We never mentioned our feet, just kicked our shoes off as soon as we could.

To be more serious, the really important thing we had in common was that neither of us had any wish to fall in love or to become responsible for someone else’s peace of mind. We didn’t even need to see a great deal of each other. We knew that we would give each other no trouble.

So what did we give each other?

I gave Sam sex that suited him. The first, but not most enduring attraction was that I was white and well bred. Sam had nothing against black women (except his wife, whom he saw as a burden imposed on him by his mother before he’d developed the sense to understand what a mistake it was); but since he came to England at the end of the 1930s all his most important women had been white. He had been bettering himself ever since his mother urged him to work hard at school, and claiming a white woman for yourself would, alas, be recognized by most black men from his background, at that time, as part of that process. This was a fact that gave older and/or not particularly glamorous white women an edge with black men that they hadn’t got for white ones, which is evidently deplorable although I can’t help being grateful for it. Sam was not a man of vulgar instincts so he didn’t want to show his woman off, but it gave him private satisfaction to feel that she was worth showing. Then it turned out that physically I was right for him, and that I could be good company. So I was satisfying as a status symbol, agreeable as a companion in so far as he wanted one, and was able and willing to play along with him in a way he enjoyed. He obviously felt he need look no further.

Sam’s chief attraction to me was that he wanted me: to be urgently wanted at a time when I no longer expected it cheered me up and brought me alive again—no small gift. Also, I am curious. His background and the whole course of his life, being so different from mine, seemed interesting even when he was being dull. A middle-class Englishman with his nature would have bored me because I would have known too much about him. Sam I wanted to find out about, and what I found out was likeable. Even when I was thinking ‘What an old noodle!’ I liked him, and what I liked best was the sense I picked up of the boy he used to be.

He had the calm self-confidence and general benevolence bestowed by a secure and happy childhood. A middle-class adoring mother can sometimes damage her child, but in a peasant family she is more likely to make him: she must get him out of this hard life if she possibly can, even if she loses him in the process. Sam’s father owned the patch of land on which they lived (and that, too, contributed to self-confidence, because being raised on your own place, however small, is stabilizing), but it was a property too small to support a family, so he had to find work in Trinidad, and then in Venezuela. It was the mother who ran the home, and she gave her son unquestioned precedence over her two daughters (Barry’s mother did the same thing and her daughter never quite forgave her).

‘We didn’t know it,’ Sam told me, ‘but the food we ate was just what everyone says nowadays is the healthiest: fish, fruit and vegetables, we were never short of those.’ They lived right on the sea, so escaped the common West Indian over-dependence on root vegetables. ‘And all that air and exercise. I thought nothing of running five miles to school and five miles back—long-distance running was a craze with us boys, we ran everywhere.’ They rode, too. Most people kept a horse (this surprised me) and if a boy wanted to get somewhere in a hurry he could jump on to some neighbour’s bare-backed nag without having to ask. And they swam as much as they ran. He marvelled when he remembered how no one fussed when they used to swim out to a little islet about two miles off-shore. A very tall, good-looking, even-tempered boy, good at all the local pastimes, crammed with healthy food and plunged by his fond mother into herb baths of which she knew the secrets, Sam was evidently secure among his friends as a leader. When he recalled those happy times he seemed to bring glimpses of them into the room—a whiff of nutmeg-scented sea breeze, very endearing.

His mother lost him of course—that wife was her big mistake. He begot two children on her, then could stand it no longer, left for England and his mother never saw him again. She died asking for him; people wrote and told him that. He spoke of it solemnly but placidly: it was a mother’s fate, he implied, sad but inevitable.

He did not consider himself a bad son, husband or father for having left. He had kept in touch, sent money, seen to it that his children were educated: he had done what was proper. His son became a doctor and moved to the United States, and they saw each other from time to time. His daughter was unforgiving, ‘a stupid girl’. And his wife… Thirty-five years after he left Grenada he returned for the first time, for a three-week visit at the invitation of the prime minister. He didn’t let his wife know he was coming, but after the first week it occurred to him to drop in on her, still without warning. ‘So what happened?’ I asked. He shook his head, clicked his tongue, and said slowly and disapprovingly, ‘That’s a very cantankerous woman.’ This made me laugh so much that he took offence and provided no more details. Not that he would have been able to provide any of real interest, since he obviously had no conception of the life to which he had condemned that ‘stupid’ daughter and that ‘cantankerous’ wife: a convenient ignorance shared by a great number of West Indian husbands and ‘baby-fathers’—though many of the women left behind seem to take it calmly.

Our relationship ended gently, the gaps between our meetings becoming gradually longer. The last time we met, after an especially long one (so long that, without regret, I had thought it final), he was slower than usual and seemed abstracted and tired, but not ill. Although we had agreed already that our affair was over, he said, ‘What about coming to bed?’ but I could see he was relieved when I said no. ‘The trouble with me,’ I said, ‘is that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. My body has gone against it.’ He didn’t say, ‘Mine too,’ he wouldn’t want to go as far as that, but he did say, ‘I know, the body does go against things. You can’t do anything about that.’ And the next thing I heard about him, not very much later, was that he had died suddenly of a heart attack.

You can’t miss someone grievously if you haven’t seen them or wanted to see them for several months and they had touched only a comparatively small corner of your life, but after his death Sam became more vivid in my mind than many of my more important dead. I saw him with photographic clarity—still can. His gestures, his expressions, the way he walked and sat, his clothes. The seven years of him played through my head with the immediacy of a newsreel: all we said, all we did; perhaps the pattern of our meetings was so repetitive that I couldn’t help learning him by heart. I particularly remember the feel of him. His skin was smooth and always seemed to be cool and dry, a pleasant, healthy skin, and his smell was pleasant and healthy. I feel him lying beside me after making love, both of us on our backs, hands linked, arms and legs touching in a friendly way. His physical presence is so clear, even now, that it is almost like a haunt (an amiable one).

The faith Sam had decided to favour was in the transmigration of souls because, he said, how else could one explain why one person had a good life and another a horrid one: they were getting what they had earned in their previous lives, it was obvious. He was displeased when I said that if that were so, how odd that so many black people must have been very wicked in the past. He refused to take it up because, I think, transmigration was promising to him personally. He had, after all, been uncommonly lucky: a little refinement of the soul towards the end and up he would go. That, he once explained to me, was why he had given up meat and hard liquor once he was past sixty. I wish I could hope that Sam was right in expecting to come back to earth for another life. If he could, I doubt whether it would be so rarefied a life as he had aimed for, but it would certainly be several degrees more enjoyable than the one he left, which would make it much better than most.

Meanwhile, perhaps because he carried into the beginning of my old age something belonging to younger days, he is still alive in my head, and I am glad of it. Dear Sam.


The Deep End: Introduction
On Monday Last Week