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The Magus - John Fowles, Page 2

John Fowles

  * * *

  The Russell Square flat below the one I had rented had been empty through most of August. But then one Sunday I heard movements, doors slammed, and there was music. I passed a couple of uninteresting-looking girls on the stairs on the Monday; heard them talking, all their short a's flattened into ugly short a's, as I went on down. They were Australians. Then came the evening of the day I had lunch with Miss Spencer-Haigh; a Friday.

  About six, there was a knock on the door, and the stockier of the two girls I had seen was standing there.

  "Oh hi. I'm Margaret. From below." I took her outstretched hand. "Gled to know you. We're heving ourselves a bottle pardy. Like to come along?"

  "Oh. Well actually. .

  "It'll be noisy up here."

  It was the usual thing, an invitation to kill complaint. I hesitated, then shrugged. "All right. Thanks."

  "Well thet's good. Eight?" She began to go downstairs, but she called back. "You hev a girlfriend you'd like to bring?"

  "Not just now."

  "We'll fix you up. Hi."

  And she was gone. I wished then that I hadn't accepted.

  So I went down when I could tell a lot of people had already arrived, when the ugly girls — they always arrive first — would, I hoped, be disposed of. The door was open. I went in through a little hall and stood in the doorway of the living room, holding my bottle of Algerian burgundy ready to present. I tried to discover in the crowded room one of the two girls I had seen before. Loud male Australian voices; a man in a kilt, and several West Indians. It didn't look my sort of party, and I was within five seconds of slipping back out. Then someone arrived and stood in the hall behind me.

  It was a girl of about my own age, carrying a heavy suitcase, with a small rucksack on her shoulders. She was wearing a whitish old creased mackintosh, and she had the sort of tan that only weeks in hot sun can give. Her long hair was not quite blonde, but bleached almost to that color. It looked odd, because the urchin cut was the fashion; girls like boys, not girls like girls; and there was something German, Danish, about her — waif-like, yet perversely or immorally so. She kept back from the open doorway, beckoned me. Her smile was very thin, very insincere, and very curt.

  "Could you find Maggie and ask her to come out?"


  She nodded. I forced my way through the packed room and eventually caught sight of Margaret in the kitchen.

  "Hi there! You made it."

  "Someone wants to see you outside. A girl with a suitcase."

  "Oh no!" She turned to a woman behind her. I sensed trouble. She hesitated, then put down the quart beer bottle she was opening. I followed her plump shoulders back through the crowd.

  "Alison! You said next week."

  "I know, Maggie. I spent all my money." Her voice was faintly Australian. "It doesn't matter. I feel like a party. Is Pete back?"

  "No." Her voice dropped, half warning. "But Charlie and Bill are."

  "Oh merde." She looked outraged. "I must have a bath."

  "Charlie's filled it to cool the beer. It's stecked to the brim."

  The girl with the tan sagged. I broke in.

  "Use mine. Upstairs."

  "Yes? Alison, this is . . ."


  "Would you mind? I've just come from Paris." I noticed she had two voices; one almost Australian, one almost English.

  "Of course. I'll take you up."

  "I must go and get some things first." As soon as she went into the room there was a shout. "Hey, Allie! Where you been, girl?"

  Two or three of the Australian men gathered round her. She kissed them all briefly. In a minute Margaret, one of those fat girls who mother thin girls, pushed them away. Alison reappeared with the clothes she wanted, and we went up.

  "Oh Jesus," she said. "Australians."

  "Where've you been?"

  "All over. France. Spain."

  We went into the flat.

  "I'll just clean the spiders out of the bath. Have a drink. Over there."

  When I came back, she was standing with a glass of Scotch in her hand. She smiled again, but it was an effort; shut off almost at once. I helped her take off her mackintosh. She was wearing a French perfume so dark it was almost carbolic, and her primrose shirt was dirty.

  "You live downstairs?"

  "Uh huh. Share."

  She raised her glass in silent toast. She had very wide-apart gray eyes, the only innocent things in a corrupt face, as if circumstances, not nature, had forced her to be hard. To fend for herself, yet to seem to need defending. And her voice, only very slightly Australian, yet not English, veered between harshness, faint nasal rancidity, and a strange salty directness. She was bizarre, a kind of human oxymoron.

  "Are you alone? At the party?"


  "Would you keep with me this evening?"

  "Of course."

  "Come back in about twenty minutes?"

  "I'll wait."

  "I'd rather you came back."

  We exchanged wary smiles. I went back to the party.

  Margaret came up. I think she'd been waiting. "I've a nice English girl enxious to meet you, Nicholas."

  "I'm afraid your friend's jumped the gun."

  She looked round, and pulled me out into the little hall.

  "This is difficult to explain. But Alison — well, we're second cousins, and she's engaged to my brother. A lot of my brother's friends are here tonight."


  "She's been very mixed up."

  "I still don't understand."

  "It's just that I don't want a roughhouse. We hed one once before." I looked blank. "People grow jealous on other people's behalf?"

  "I shan't start anything."

  Someone called her from inside. She tried to feel sure of me, but couldn't, and apparently decided she couldn't do anything about it. "Fair deal. But please remember. Will you?"

  "If you insist."

  She gave me a veteran's look, then a nod, not a very happy one, and went away. I waited for about twenty minutes, near the door, and then I slipped out and went back up to my own flat. I rang the bell. There was a long pause, then there was a call behind the door.

  "Who is it?"

  "Twenty minutes."

  The door opened. She had her hair up, and a towel wrapped round her; very brown shoulders, very brown legs.

  "I've been soaking. Boy, it was good." She went quickly back into the bathroom. I shouted through the door.

  "I've been warned off you."


  "She says she doesn't want a roughhouse."

  "Fucking cow. She's my cousin."

  "I know."

  "Studying sociology. London University." There was a pause. "Thinks she knows it all."

  "She tells me you're engaged."

  "Isn't it crazy? You go away and you think people will have changed and they're just the same."

  "What does that mean?"

  "Wait a minute."

  There was a long pause.

  "Here I am." The door opened and she came out into the living room. She was wearing a very simple white dress, and her hair was down again. She had no makeup, and looked ten times prettier.

  She gave me a little bitten-in grin. "Je vous plais?"

  "Very much." Her look was so direct I found it disconcerting. "We go down?"

  "Just one finger?"

  I filled her glass again, and with more than one finger. Watching the whisky fall, she said, "I don't know why I'm frightened. Why am I frightened?"

  "What of?"

  She turned away. "I don't know. Maggie. The boys. The dear old diggers."

  "This roughhouse?"

  "Oh God. It was so stupid. There was a nice Israeli boy, you see, and we were just kissing. It was a party. That was all. But Charlie told Pete, and they just picked a quarrel, and . . . oh God. You know. He-men."

  Downstairs I lost her for a time. A group formed round her. I went and got a drink and passed
it over someone's shoulder; talk about Cannes, about Collioure and Valencia. Jazz had started in the back room and I went into the doorway to watch. Outside the window, past the dark dancers, were dusk trees, a pale amber sky. I had a sharp sense of alienation from everyone around me. A girl with spectacles, myopic eyes in an insipidly pretty face, one of those soulful-intellectual creatures born to be preyed on and exploited by artistic phonies, smiled coyly from the other side of the room. She was standing alone and I guessed that she was the "nice English girl" Margaret had picked for me. Her lipstick was too red, and she was as familiar as a species of bird. I turned away from her as from a cliff-edge, and went and sat on the floor by a bookshelf. There I pretended to read a paperback.

  Alison knelt beside me. "I'm sloshed. That whisky. Hey, have some of this." It was gin. She sat beside me. "Well?" I thought of that white-faced English girl with the red smudged mouth. At least this girl was alive; brown, crude, but alive.

  "I'm so glad you returned tonight."

  "Yes?" She sipped her gin and gave me a small gray look.

  "Ever read this?"

  "Let's cut corners. To hell with literature. You're clever and I'm beautiful. Now let's talk

  about what we really are."

  The gray eyes teased; or dared.

  "Who's Pete?"

  "He's a pilot." She mentioned a famous airline. "We live together. Off and on. That's all."


  "He's doing a conversion course. In the States." She turned and gave me that incongruously sincere look. "I'm free. And I'm going to stay free." It wasn't clear whether she was talking about her fiancé or for my benefit; or whether freedom was her pose or her truth.

  "What do you do?"

  "Things. Reception mostly."


  "Anything." She wrinkled her nose. "I've applied for a new job. Air hostess. That's why I went off polishing French and Spanish these last weeks."

  "Can I take you out tomorrow?"

  A heavy Australian came and leant on a door opposite. "Oh Charlie," she cried across the room. "He's just lent me his bath. It's nothing."

  Charlie nodded his head slowly, then pointed an admonitory stubby finger. He pushed himself off the doorjamb and went unsteadily away.


  She turned over her hand and looked at the palm.

  "Did you spend two and a half years in a Jap prisoner-of-war camp?"

  "No. Why?"

  "Charlie did."

  "Poor Charlie."

  There was a silence.

  "Australians are boors, and Englishmen are prigs."

  "If you —"

  "I make fun of him because he's in love with me and he likes it. But no one else ever makes

  fun of him. If I'm around."

  There was a silence.


  "That's okay."

  "About tomorrow."

  "No. About you."

  Gradually — I was offended at having been taught a lesson in the art of not condescending — she made me talk about myself. She did it by asking blunt questions, and by brushing aside empty answers. I began to talk about being a brigadier's son, about loneliness, and for once mostly not to glamorize myself but simply to explain. I discovered two things about A]ison: that behind her bluntness she was an expert coaxer, a handler of men, a sexual diplomat, and that her attraction lay as much in her candor as in her having a pretty body, an interesting face, and knowing it. She had a very un-English ability to suddenly flash out some truth, some seriousness, some quick surge of interest. I fell silent. I knew she was watching me. After a moment I looked at her. She had a shy, thoughtful expression; a new self.

  "Alison, I like you."

  "I think I like you. You've got a nice mouth."

  "You're the first Australian girl I've ever met."

  "Poor Pom."

  All the lights except one dim one had long ago been put out, and there were the usual surrendered couples on all available furniture and floor space. The party had paired off. Maggie seemed to have disappeared, and Charlie lay fast asleep on the bedroom floor. We danced. We began close, and became closer. I kissed her hair, and then her neck, and she pressed my hand, and moved a little closer still.

  "Shall we go upstairs?"

  "You go first. I'll come in five minutes." She slipped away. I went up. Ten minutes passed, and then she was in the doorway, a faintly apprehensive smile on her face. She stood there in her white dress, small, innocent-corrupt, coarse-fine, an expert novice.

  She came in, I shut the door, and we were kissing at once, for a minute, two minutes, pressed back against the door in the darkness. There were steps outside, and a sharp double rap. Alison put her hand over my mouth. Another double rap; and then another. Hesitation, heartbeats. The footsteps went away.

  "Come on," she said. "Come on, come on."


  It was late the next morning when I woke. She was still asleep, with her creole-brown back turned to me. I went and made some coffee and took it into the bedroom. She was awake then, staring at me over the top of the bedclothes. It was a long expressionless look that rejected my smile and my greeting and ended abruptly in her turning and pulling the bedclothes over her head. She began to cry. I sat beside her and tried rather amateurishly to comfort her, but she kept the sheet pulled tight over her head; so I gave up patting and making noises and went back to my coffee. After a while she sat up and asked for a cigarette. And then if I would lend her a shirt. She wouldn't look me in the eyes. She pulled on the shirt, went to the bathroom, and brushed me aside with a shake of her hair when she came and got back into bed again. I sat at the foot of the bed and watched her drink her coffee.

  "What's wrong?"

  "I'm a whore. Do you know how many men I've slept with the last two months?"


  She didn't smile.

  "If I'd slept with fifty I'd just be an honest professional."

  "Have some more coffee."

  "Half an hour after I first saw you last night I thought, if I was really vicious I'd get into bed with him."

  "Thank you very much."

  "I could tell about you from the way you talked."

  "Tell what?"

  "You're the affaire de peau type. You're already thinking, how the hell am I going to get rid of this stupid Australian slut."

  "That's ridiculous."

  "I don't blame you."

  A silence.

  "I was sloshed," she said. "So tired."

  A possibility occurred to me. "Catholic?"

  She gave me a long look, then shook her head and shut her eyes.

  "I'm sorry. You're nice. You're terribly nice in bed. Only now what?"

  "I'm not used to this."

  "I know, I know. I'm impossible."

  "It's not a crime. You're just proving you can't marry this chap."

  "What I'm proving is that I can't marry."

  "That's absurd. Good God, at your age."

  "I'm twenty-three. How old are you?"


  "Don't you begin to feel things about yourself you know are you? Are going to be you forever? That's what I feel. I'm going to be a whore forever."

  "Come on."

  "I tell you what Pete's doing right now. You know, he writes and tells me. 'I took a piece out last Friday and we had a wuzzamaroo.'"

  "What's that mean?"

  "It means 'and you sleep with anyone you like, too." She stared out of the window. "We lived together, all this spring. You know, we get on, we're like brother and sister when we're out of bed." She gave me a slanting look through the cigarette smoke. "You don't know what it's like waking up with a man you didn't even know this time yesterday. It's losing something. Not just what all girls lose."

  "Or gaining something."

  "God, what can we gain. Tell me."

  "Experience. Pleasure."

  "Did I tell you I love your mouth?"

  "Several times."

he stubbed the cigarette out and sat back.

  "Do you know why I cried just now? Because I'm going to marry him. As soon as he comes back, I'm going to marry him. Because he's all I deserve." She sat leaning back against the wall. The too large shirt, a small female boy with a swollen, hurt face, staring at me, staring at the bedcover, in our silence. "I'm a nympho."

  "It's just a phase. You're unhappy."

  "I'm unhappy when I stop and think. When I wake up and see what I am."

  "Thousands of girls do it."

  "I'm not thousands of girls. I'm me." She slipped the shirt over her head, then retreated under the bedclothes. "What's your real name? Your surname?"

  "Urfe. U, R, F, E."

  "Mine's Kelly. Was your dad really a brigadier?"

  "Yes. Just."

  She gave a timid mock salute, then reached out a brown arm and took my hand. I sat down beside her.

  "Don't you think I'm a tramp?"

  Perhaps then, as I was looking at her, so close, I had my choice. I could have said what I was thinking: Yes, you are a tramp, and even worse, you exploit your tramphood, and I wish I'd taken your sister-in-law-to-be's advice. Perhaps if I had been farther away from her, on the other side of the room, in any situation where I could have avoided her eyes, I could have been decisively brutal. But those gray, searching, always candid eyes, by their begging me not to lie, made me lie.

  "I like you. Really very much."

  "Come back to bed and hold me. Nothing else. Just hold me."

  I got into bed and held her. Then for the first time in my life I made love to a woman in tears.

  * * *

  She was in tears more than once that first Saturday. She went down to see Maggie about five and came back with red eyes. Maggie had told her to get out. Half an hour later Ann, the other girl in the flat, one of those unfortunate women whose faces fall absolutely flat from nostrils to chin, came up. Maggie had gone out and wanted Alison to remove all her things. So we went down and brought them up. I had a talk with Ann. In her quiet, rather prim way she showed more sympathy for Alison than I was expecting; Maggie was evidently and aggressively blind to her brother's faults.