A Misunderstanding

I wake all night from dreams, delighted by three reprieves against the terrible morning. The waking must be to remind me: Don't forget the children or you shall go mad. Children simply wander through the ordinary dreams. Sam then stirs, says nonsense and I argue back with him for fun. "That's nonsense, Sam," I tell him firmly. It isn't Samuel but Sami Hassan. I've married him because he is Indian and quite wretched, a good boy, whereas I am rotten; though, of course, it isn't true, none of that, I'm simply arch enough to snap, which is the reason for the dreams and they do their job, apparently, for if I'm not mad now, when should I be?

It's black as night when I draw the thin curtain and so cold I want to die at once. Sometimes I've squeezed so tight to keep my warmth in at night that I wake aching in my joints. Twenty-three years old! Next, I must see Sam out of bed or he might stay in all morning and miss work. He promises every day I don't need to see him put his feet on the floor but if I take him at his word he doesn't get up till noon and we simply can't afford for him to lose another job or we never shall leave this disgusting city. I set a cup of coffee on the night table and beg Sam to jump out quickly. "Please get up right now."

He stares, rigid. He does not know who I am. I add formally, "This is London and I'm your wife. Get out of bed right now. Please," and I grip his shoulder till he starts to promise, but I haven't the time to listen through. "Please, Sam, please get up now, I haven't the time." Dazed, he swings his long starved legs to the cold floor and reaches for tobacco and papers, and I leave for school.

He never gets up first, never. He still promises every Friday to shop for me Saturday, but by now I tell him, "Never mind, Sam, you know you won't and I don't really mind as long as I'm not counting on you to do it." But he insists, so I warn him, "Now if you say you'll get up, get up, but don't ask me to wake you. If you can't wake yourself up, only tell me and I'll shop, myself, because I'd rather shop than wake you up, that's no holiday for me." But he does promise and of course he's not up by noon, and the shops close before one, and if we don't shop then, we'll have no food in for the weekend and we can't afford to eat out and would be spending next week's dinner money if we bought from the high-priced, late-closing shops down the road, so I get up and slip out by myself. He's still snoozing when I come back an hour later with a cut in the palm of each hand from my two shopping bags. I wake him neatly with the morning paper, right in the face, and he bounces up like a ball: "What is it? What is it?" he asks.

"What is what? I've just done the shopping."

"Oh, no. Oh, no. I'm sorry, love."

"Don't be sorry. Just don't promise you'll do what you have no intention of doing."

He comes out of bed scrawny and grey in his greying tag of a vest to hold me and say, crooningly, "All right, all right, love, it's all right."

"I know it's all right," I tell him, shaking him off to put the groceries away. "You can't help sleeping and I can't help being a bitch, but at least let's admit it."

"No, no," he insists. Elaborately contrite, like some shrewd servant in a comedy, he takes the frypan out of my hand, sits me down full of great spirits and gets breakfast, thinking he'll salvage a shred of my wretched little holiday, but he only spoils the eggs and bacon and crumpets I've been looking forward to all week. I tell him just that, too, I always do, but he goes right on with his little act, as if I were some stock-character virago and he the comic hero, and it's really not fair.

At half past seven I climb through fog to the bus. The sun rises, like blood on the fog, and I think: "The bloodied sky, the sun in its own filthy afterbirth," and that sort of sensationalistic imagery. France won't let us in her market; though we put ourselves on continental time and wake up in the middle of the night to match her business hours, she simply won't have us. Certain headmasters and headmistresses, so reports the Standard, are starting classes an hour late to spare their children from early deaths on the dark roads, and for one brilliant instant I'm filled with hope--I could sleep till eight!--but of course, these council-flat types live so close to school they hardly have to cross streets. Poverty excluded, their only real danger is the foul canal some one or two drown in every year; so we teach swimming even before reading as a service to our wretched little community, and I must say it's a pleasure. They warm the pool water and I hold their bare bodies in my bare arms, their hair slick and tight to their little skulls like newborn babies, and I remember all over again what babies they really are, what tiny throats their nasty mews issue from, what tiny bones poke at the fragile stretch of white skin on them, scarcely an armful of child.

I'm a wretched teacher, of course, an idealist, desperate. I mean well enough, but I just miss the point; I have all the philosophy down but none of the plans and no one learns a thing in my shabby class. Not so shabby as it was before I took Mrs. Singh's class, who became ill at half-term. One guesses what sort of ill: defeat. Everyone pitied her. No one pities me, which proves they don't shun me from racial prejudice--I married one, but she is one yet no one pities me. And it isn't that I wouldn't accept pity. God knows, I beg for it like pasty Glenda who turns my stomach tugging at my skirt all day, though I know she's not any more to blame for whining than Scott Philpott is for sparring on the classroom floor. Why do we forgive the gruff ones who don't need our love, and want to smack right off the face of the earth the ones who need it most?

For example, Gregory. I'd assumed my own experience would lend me special sensitivity to his problems as a coloured child, but Gregory doesn't need to be drawn out, far from it: I spend my day reminding him that others, too, need attention or special privileges or toys, and he spends his in tears because he can't have just what he wants. He makes no special fanfare about it, just cries while he plays, or sits numbly in his beautiful white shirt buttoned right up to the collar, but I can't soften to him. His selfishness enrages me and his tears don't make me change my mind, though I shake with shame when his fat, melancholy mother asks me, "He still crying all day?"

"No, no," I say casually, smiling sympathetically at her. "He's doing fine." I rub Gregory's knotty hair and he does a little pleased hop, more fool he, and I'm torn with shame and remorse.

Gregory finds a curious way into my life during a tortured conversation with Sybil, a jet-set English girl who had visited Sam bearing a pipe of hasheesh and a message from his old schoolchum Saadat in Capetown (Sam himself has never seen India, any more than I have). Sybil, chic in an embroidered cape, is obviously appalled at the dark, damp room with its pitiful excuse for a kitchen stuck in the corner, the monstrous furniture, the strained, cracked cups and plates and the bare meal we offer her in them, but, though she's Sam's friend, not mine, he won't put in a word, so it's up to me to make excuses for everything--not our fault, not our wardrobe, not our wretchedness. One thing leads to another, and when I run out of furniture I move on into classroom ethics in which, too, I've inherited monstrosities and it's too stuffed and cramped for every need, what one child gets, another loses, take Gregory, and then I can't get off him, for Sam's quiet as death and Sybil seems intrigued. And, though I suspect her apparent interest might be one more version of the English politeness that I shall never truly understand, I'm finally drawn to Sybil since no one's even seemed intrigued by me for such a long time.

"I liked her," I say, pleased, when Sybil's gone. Sam often accuses me of coming between him and his friends.

Sam doesn't answer at once, so I take a little break (gather wool) while he trembles attractively, doubtless preparing a fresh batch of his standard critique, white-English variant. But when he speaks at least it is to say, "How can I ever look at her again?"

That shocks me out of my dreams. Cautiously, still not at all sure I heard him properly, I ask, "What do you mean, love?"

"You know it as well as I what I mean."

It turns out well enough: he'd constructed a fantasy in which Sybil and I have invented a secret code on the spot, meaning Sam by Gregory. I can hardly believe he means this, but perhaps he really is that mad, textbook mad, which comes as something of a relief to learn, if it's true.

He hadn't suspected women before, jealous as he is. It was the men that tortured him, that handful Sam brought in from work or school that kept him grey with rage for days after they sat with us for miserable dinners they were never asked to again, men so unappealing I had to wonder whether Sam hadn't put on an act of jealousy to torture me for real grievances: my insensitivity, inconsideration, selfishness, condescension. In fact, I'm delighted by these false accusations, for they prove I'm not to blame for Sam's moods. "You thought I flirted with Peter?" I would laugh. "But I don't care for Peter. Peter's not my type."

But Sam would only brood. "What is it really, love?" I might go on, then lose patience. "Look, if something's on your mind, you tell it to me, otherwise I can't be bothered." When in doubt, Sam stretches his fingers toward the gas fire and stares at them; I pick up a book. Then I'm swept with pity for my husband, who is saying, tightly, "How can I meet this man again?" I must answer blandly, not to raise suspicion: "Very easily, I should think."

Quivering, he goes over old ground: "How can I look at this man's face?"

"Look," I snap, as there's no point conceding it's anything but rubbish, "if you can't look in his rotten face that's your problem. Don't go blaming your inhibitions on me. What shall I do? Go into purdah?" He stares at me intently, then dulls his gaze and drops it to his fingers? Shall I have them cast in bronze?"

He starts up as if woken from sleep and, seeing his own outstretched fingers, clenches them and lays them on his knee. Of course I soften and go kiss his fingers and his eyes as well, saying, "I don't love anyone else. There's no one else but you. Do you believe me?"

He stares as if he has never seen my face before, then smiles briefly and says, "It's all right," though I wonder why he said that and not, "I know," or "I love you, too."

I dream that Sam and I live in my classroom, which has a dirt floor. Sam's been a soldier in the war and, far from the front, heard news of the armistice just after killing an enemy soldier. He killed the soldier thinking it was wartime but war being over he's legally guilty of murder. What shall he do with the corpse? We dig a hole in the dirt floor of the classroom and bury the corpse there but Gary Trower comes in with a pet cat on a leash who runs straight to the spot and starts to sniff and scratch crazily, and I freeze. When I force myself awake Sam is panting in his sleep. I wake him and say, "What is it? What is it?" His eyes are beady; he doesn't know me. He always forgets dreams but this time he remembers: "I dreamed two ferocious beasts were in there--" he points to the hulking wardrobe. "A lion, a tiger perhaps, trying to get out. And I was terrified, you see, terrified they would come out and hurt you."

Still shaken, I turn a light on. Then we hear a scream, not in our house but not far off, perhaps a few houses away. We look at each other. "What do you think?" I say.

Sam says, like a fool, "Perhaps it's nothing."

The woman screams again and I get out of bed, Sam crying, "Take care, love, take care!" I knew he would not go himself, he never gets up first, it's always me who starts the fire, gets the paper, keeps him when I can from losing his filthy job, and I'm as cold in the night and morning air as he is, just more disciplined, simply that; so to show what contempt I have for his pretense of concern for me, I part the thin ragged curtains.

It's a terrifying night, cold and black. The trees are in full bloom, still, and the moon's ice-cold and fiercely white; the flowering trees are lit with it. Across the yards I can see the row of neat alike houses, square, chimney pots quaint and black against the sky. There are no lights in any of the houses. There is no more screaming and I don't know what to do. "Can you see?" Sam asks. He's lit a cigarette.

"What do you think it was?" I ask.

He shrugs. "Perhaps a quarrel." I'm shivering and I put on my heavy coat. "Come to bed," he says.

"No," I say, "I don't want to dream again. You go to sleep.

"Don't be cold, love," he says.

"Don't worry about me," I say. I put on water to boil and find a match for the gas fire. I light the gas and listen to it hiss. I'm still frightened, shaken, chill, sick with the strangeness of the night. By now, it's April, though night and morning and even afternoons are raw and always grey, but it's a time of hope, a moist and growing time, I think. I read a French novel, huddled by the fire, and I get up to make cocoa with the boiled water so the caffeine from tea won't give me hairier dreams. Sam is sleeping, but I can't be bothered to worry about making noise; he'll always be able to drop off again. He cries urgently, waking, "What is it?" Are you all right?"

"Of course I am, what did you think?" I snap and then ask myself why I had to snap, why couldn't I just say, "Yes, love. I'm all right. Don't worry, my love."

"Don't catch cold," he murmurs, falling back to sleep.

Still not a sign of spring except the recklessness of flowers and certain modish secretaries in minis and blue knees. Odd to think it was just a year ago that, walking under the leafy trees up and down Holland Park and Notting Hill, I thought, "The streets were lightly sprinkled with sun," or "Up and down the broad quiet streets the dogs were seeing evening in." The raw damp goes directly to my bones if I even cast off my wool vest, but I make Sam take long walks with me on the weekend, all the way into town, where we see a film. In Oxford Circus, we meet Rick, a student we once knew until Sam took it into his head he was my lover. I keep my eyes on my shoes and try not to shake. Sam says to Rick, "You are looking very smart. Don't you think Rick is looking smart?" I smile, "I think he is a very smart man. Are you smart, Rick?" Rick must laugh; I don't look. "I hope you are smart," Sam says. "For your sake."

Rick says, willing to be cheerful still, "I don't think I understand what you mean."

"Oh, I think you do," Sam says, trembling and grey. I tug at his arm to leave. "A smart man like you understands," Sam says, and I tug at him.

"He didn't understand," I tell Sam when we've left.

Sam says, "Believe me, Maia, I know these men, they would sleep with my mother."

"He's a young boy," I say.

"I know these young boys," Sam says. "I was also one. Believe me."

He broods, and I grow delicate: I bring cups of tea and run out for cigarettes and even invite him, once or twice, to bed; then I fear my sweetness will feed his suspicions. In any case he doesn't answer. I ask, "What is it? What is it?" I say, "Please tell me. Love? Please, Sam. We'll never work it out if you don't tell me." He clenches his jaw from supper till bed, at times nodding abruptly to himself. I ask nastily, "Are you still obsessed with Rick?"

"Don't play with me, Maia," he flashes, and I feel ashamed and I protest, "I never slept with Rick. I never even wanted to."

"I warn you," he says at once, staring intensely at me. "I will not be played with," and I stop, because of course that's what I've done, answered the question he wasn't asking and left unanswered what he must really mean--though he can't really mean what I fear he does, or why would he stay? If he stays, he must know I love him, as I do, I'm simply a difficult person, irritable and hypercritical, a bully, but I do love Sam, no one's ever cared so much for me, which is why I can put up with his mistakes, which after all are only a matter of culture. How would I feel in his world, after all? It's just that I can't stop insulting him, and who could blame Sam for resenting that? But he must realize that I only dare show him this side of me because I do love him, and if I rarely tell him so it's only because I don't trust feelings like that to words, which can distort or even destroy the truest feelings. As soon as I've said, "I love you," I think, "Is that really true?" I only need to say a thing exists for it to disappear. Even at school, the words "my husband" seem to hang in the air after I've spoken them, as if we weren't married at all and these teachers were the landladies and shopkeepers and neighbors I lied to when the ring I wore cost three and six. In fact, I seemed to believe that lie more easily than I do this truth, which might prove that, if lies don't make you guilty, the truth will, later.

Yet, surely, if "my husband" hangs in the air it could as well be the teachers' small-minded prejudice as my odd guilt. I do forget that. They are so cold, these English, that one never can be quite sure what has really gone on, and that's how racism works on this dreadful island, perhaps, it simply drives the victims mad by never letting on that it does exist. Or do I only wish to blame others for what in my heart I know is my fault? If I were they, what would I think of myself, after all, with my disgusting apologies, my lumpiness, my stinking clothes that I can't afford to clean or even hem properly with no one to help, my annoying questions? "Don't you hate yourself when you have to punish them?" I absurdly ask. They glance uneasily over my shoulder and say, "Oh, well, you have to look out for yourself, don't you," and in fact I have begun to use their tricks, their petty jibes and rewards; but I haven't the skill or conviction to bring that off. I threaten, then forget, protect favorites and let others fend for themselves. Blood spurts, paint spills, books are smeared and puzzle pieces disappear forever. I ignore the meek until nothing's left for them but naughtiness, which I reward with interest; I forgive the bad.

For instance, one day Gary Trower, the wordless sadist whose father beats and mother pets him, gouges Maisie's forehead and I resolve to take some action at last: I drag him to Miss Lewcock's office. I have to pry his tiny fingers from every door on the way. His milk-blue eyes, behind the thick circle of his glasses, are saucer-wide with terror. "I yood!" he bleats, or pipes, or squeaks. It's the first sound to pass from Gary Trower's lips all term and it makes me want to throw up. It sounds like an insect imitating a child. "I yood! I yood!" I consider how terrible his fear must be, to expose this secret voice, and, sickened, bring him back to class instead. He's good.

At last I even turn to crisp Miss Lewcock, the headmistress, for advice. In her cozy office, she tells me, "Oh, it's a fight!" I pause to rephrase my question so that she can in no way believe I don't want real answers; but to explain my pause I murmur, "Yes, I suppose it is," as if the thought had never crossed my mind, and we go on like that for an hour. By then I shake so peculiarly that she, quivering herself, looks ringed in flame like Blake's angels, and I try to leave, but, as I try not to seem ungrateful, my goodbyes invariably turn into questions I don't want answers to. I walk right into rush hour, my bus crawls, the shops are closed, and I must trudge way up the hill to get kippers and peas at a price we won't be paying for all week; of course Sam's home and staring at the fire when I finally get in, and my excuses sound so lame I don't believe them myself, though Sam pretends he does.

One grey afternoon in June, Miss Lewcock slips through my classroom door and dead silence falls, though Gregory's the fool enough to keep skipping; she grabs him by the wrist while she approaches with her gay conspiratorial smile. I'm never truly sure which side of the conspiracy I'm meant to be on, but whenever the opportunity rises I laugh like a dimwit to suggest the joke's not on me. "Have you some very naughty boys?" she asks. I haven't a clue what my answer must be. Tears go rolling down Gregory's cheek and even Miss Lewcock's taken aback. "Now, now, there's nothing for you to cry about," she says awkwardly. "Go back to your place." He sits down and continues to cry noiselessly. "Well, well," she resumes. "I understand you've some very naughty boys who don't know how to leave alone what's not theirs to play with."

"Have I?" I say archly, trying to pick up the English intonation and shaking from head to foot.

"Some very naughty boys who get into the empty milk containers in the yard and make a dreadful job of it for Mr. Cuddahy, not it's not funny, Scott Philpott, nor you, Jimmy Dawson, and Brian McGuinness, what would your mother think? Do you think she'd be proud? Do you?" Brian's stopped grinning and stares down at his feet. "Do you?"

He whispers, "No, Miss."

"No Miss Lewcock," she tells him.

"No Miss Lewcock," he whispers.

Scott tries to sneak a smile at him and she cries, "I'm sure you won't think it's so funny, Scott Philpott, when your teacher talks to you about it. Nor does Mr. Cuddahy find it so very funny." I want to give it all up at once, as I always do, I don't know why, when Mr. Cuddahy sends special messages to correct us of shoving extra chairs in a corner no one uses or leaving sand under tables or stacks of paper where he wants to sweep. Miss Lewcock nods to me and says, "I'm sure Mrs. Hassan will have something to say about this," and I say, "I certainly will," and I try to look sternly at the three of them. She leaves, and a little murmur starts up again in the room, but I've committed myself in front of everyone; if I don't take some major step they'll never listen to me; I must do it at once though I haven't a clue what it must be. "Scott Philpott," I say, in a loud voice. They all hush. "James Dawson. Brian McGuinness." I'll only have the hush for a moment longer so I say resonantly, "Stand up, the three of you." They do, but they're openly grinning again. Everyone will be shouting in a moment and I've nothing to say, so I repeat, like a fool, "Scott Philpott. James Dawson, Brian McGuinness."

"It's the 'ole gang," cries Scott, and I hesitate for a wondering moment before I let myself laugh, feeling, oh well, they'll see I'm human and respect me the more, and then the class falls apart, Scott spars, and he and Brian tumble to the floor and the whole class seems to spar and scuffle and scream and laugh and I try to outshout them, which you mustn't do, mustn't ever try: "That's enough! That's enough!" but I've lost. "Back in your seats! This minute!" I scream, knowing I've lost. "Scott, Jimmy and Brian, no recess today!"

"We'll play in the room!" Scott shouts

"You will not, Scott, you'll clean the room!"

"Oh boy!" Jimmy cries, "Can we do the board?"

"Me and Jimmy'll do the board, hey, Jimmy?" pipes little Brian.

"Poo poo poo," he shrieks, and they all break into mean, feverish humiliating laughs and I'm speechless, not that a boy of five should say poo to me but that the look in their eyes is mean and nasty, not young. "Scott!" I scream. "Get off the table!" The bell rings and they surge toward the door. "No you don't!" I scream and get there first and hold the knob. "No one's to leave this room until everyone goes out properly! Now get back in your seats! Right this minute or there'll be no recess for anyone, and I mean it! Gregory. I said Gregory!" I scream. He sits still and cries. "Right. We'll try it again. Stand, push your chairs in, I said push your chairs in, Martin Evans. Martin Evans, Martin Evans! Sit down again! Brian, Scott and Jimmy you stay in your seats, no, you're not having any recess. MARTIN EVANS!" I scream. "All right you can stay in too!" This hushes them and I say, hoarse, "Right. We'll try it again. Susan Sawyer." She huffs and fusses, hurt, with her plastic pocketbook. "Right. Stand. Push your chairs in. Susan Sawyer what are you doing?" Nasty, arms folded, I tap my foot and lie hoarsely, "It's all the same to me if you don't have any recess." I whisper, "Right." Exquisitely controlled and practically inaudible I direct them. "Stand. Push your chairs in. And wait." I stare them down. By the time they've moved at last, exhausted, in total silence, to the door there are only a few minutes left to recess. I whisper, "Right. Out you go. Quietly!" Flushed, exhausted, sullen or frightened, they file out. They are perfectly behaved for a week.

They come privately to touch me the next day. Karen says, misty, stroking my odd tights with that touch so gentle I'd use any excuse not to move away, "Miss, I wish you was my ma.""Oh, my ma gets so cross."

"But so do I, don't I."

Karen turns to her best friend Susan who's braiding the ends of my hair. "See, din't I tell you," she says. "She gets cross just like my ma."

Poor pale John Papadouloupos says, hopefully, "You're such a nice teacher, ain't you? I'm always thinking, what a nice teacher I got, ain't I a lucky boy." When I'm up to my neck in mess and rage John's sure to say, bright and mad, "What about me doing some sweeping, hey?"

"What about it," I snap.

"I just thought I'd do a bit of sweeping."

"Well, why not."

"Well," after a pause, "here's me doing a bit of sweeping, hey?"

"I don't see it," I return.

"Right-O, Miss. Well, here I go."

He always sweeps and has no friends. His first day in school John's eyes were so bright and mad they nearly popped. "Miss," he said. "I got new--new trousers."

"Aren't they nice," I said.

"Yes, ain't they. And, Miss," he said.

"Yes, love."

"I got new shirt, ain't it nice."

"It's very handsome," I told him, like a fool.

And--and I got new shoes, lookit them, Miss. And--and--I think I'm goin' to cry," he said like Christopher Robin, and he did cry, huge round mad tears, poor John, poor, quaking, mad John.

I faint at Mrs. O'Leary's annual tea and I can see everyone guessing I'm pregnant, and though I know I can't be I wish it were true, I wish I had a baby, I wish I didn't have to go to work any more. I see Mrs. O'Leary's eyes when I open mine, staring dead at me. She changes when she sees me conscious, but for a moment, when she takes me out, pours a stiff glass of Remy Martin, sets me down on her sofa, and covers me with a shawl, I feel happier than I have since all the family lived together in the house in Georgetown, when Daddy had his two-year home leaves. I drink brandy, listen to the others eat trifle and pork pie in the next room, and wish this moment would never end.

When I get home, Sam's clenching his jaw as if it were fighting an army down. "I told you I'd be late," I say, gently, and I kiss his cheek but he only nods abruptly to his inner voice, as if my kiss confirmed what it had predicted. Cheerful, so as not to sound guilty I explain, "I gold you Mrs. O'Leary was having some of us to tea." I don't want to say then that I fainted or he would think it was a lie to explain my disheveled air or to distract him from my lateness.

"Look, Maia, I don't care," he says, and I go into a blind white rage at once, but pause till it goes down below my eyes again. He would only blame the rage on guilt. I lay down the packet of groceries I've brought for his dinner and look toward him gently, letting him see how tired I feel so he will know it's only because I do love him that I can bear being so tolerant. "What don't you care about, love?" I say, softly, I wait a moment for his silence. "What don't you care about? Love?" He clenches his jaw and looks raptly at his extended fingers. I know if he speaks at all he will not answer me.

But as I put the kettle on and unpack the groceries, I press him a little, so he won't think I don't are. "Did you think I was with some man." This has a sarcastic edge, which I hasten to soften. "You know I wasn't with a man. Do you believe me, Sam?" My voice expects no answer and Sam, hearing it, stays dull, so I try to get up my spirit. "Do you? Do you believe me? Tell me, love." He clamps his teeth terribly, and if he held a knife between them, but suddenly It really don't care, what does it matter what he says he believes? It will only be some murky lost level of the truth I already know better than he ever will, that if he suspects infidelity he hasn't a clue how much more nastily I could and do insult him, under his own body, with anyone, old lovers, animals, filthy photographs, funny men with naked white legs in shoes and socks who work dirty games between my legs, anyone but Sam, and Sam will never know, so why should I care what Sam believes, for I have nothing to learn, only to teach, and it's a lesson he would live better never learning. And I think, where is my life? Why am I in this frigid city? Why do I let this man who can't get out of bed judge me, this man who will never know the truth? I've screamed and thrown my coffee toward him in a flash. He pulls his hands up to his face protectively, terrified, and I get a rush of satisfaction, he looks like an insect, an insect deserves this, oh, how could I think that? Horrible! I sob some awful sound like braying or bellowing, play-acting, for I don't truly need to bellow, but the sound I make sounds so real it fills me with pity to watch myself fly across the room and pull at the door till Sam pries me off and forces me to press my face against him, saying urgently, as if it were a question, "Don't weep? Don't weep?"

"I fainted today," I tell him, sobbing, when he lays me on the bed. "No, love?" he says. "No?" then firmly, "No. No," over my pulpy noises, like some steady nurse, as if he weren't sicker than I'll ever be, "You should have told me," as if it were the fainting after all to be pitied, it's just that, without the drama, he'd never have understood so I do have to exaggerate, must demean myself, even though it wasn't really fair to ask pity for what was in the end a rare taste of peace; I do deserve pity, must, look at my life. I must be miserable enough to deserve pity. I am so miserable. I am so lonely.


Sam doesn't write to me in Paris though I send five letters in the fortnight I spend there. Empty, it's so lovely, cool and grey that I don't want to leave, reminded how much of my unhappiness is the wretched sameness of London life, and I walk for hours. Gouged paving stones are neatly piled at corners. Uprooted trees die in the Latin Quarter. Blurred and still uncovered, red letters on a crumbling brick wall under two chestnut trees read, "Vive la Revolution Perpetuelle," and students, sacrificing holidays to make up for studies lost in May, debate with the grace and passion I have missed in London. The men are easier on me than they were when I was single, just a year ago. I look like a middle-aged schoolmarm, dressed to blunt whatever might be gay and graceful in me with my lumpy tan raincoat and my floppy suede walking shoes. But soon, under the city's influence, I'm trying to strain a gesture toward prettiness out of the pitiful pieces of clothing I've brought; I tie my hair with a wrinkled blue ribbon, deck my throat with a patterned scarf Daddy bought me long ago. All my clothes seem to be the same color and shape, and my face, however thickly I coat it with cheap English makeup, is equally unremarkable, neither strong nor appealing. I wander through the Jeu de Paumes and remember when, surprised by my reflection in the glass over a Toulouse Lautrec I thought, "and the prettiest of all the pictures here is me." The city is subdued, but every inch of it is steeped in that uncanny loveliness I always fear will have been lost, if only in my ability to see it, in between my rare, precious visits.

I reach Victoria early in the morning and Sam's not waiting. I don't mind. I take the bus back alone, loving the leisure of being a tourist in my own home, a bit high from staying up all night crossing the channel. As I lug my pack down the last stretch of the Gardens I meet Sam looking five years younger with a ridiculous haircut, on his way out to try and find himself a job. "But what happened?" I ask, as we turn back.

"Oh, you know." He shrugs and smiles like a girl, embarrassed.

"No I don't, what happened, love? And why didn't you write, you bastard, I sent you five letters."

"I couldn't," he says. He can't stop smiling. "You know it I couldn't, love." So pleased I want to smack him he says, embarrassed, "I missed you a lot."

"So did I," I tell him. "But what about your job?"

"I'll tell you," he says. I set my pack down and put the kettle up. "I got the sack."

"Oh, no, Sam. What did you do?"

"This bastard John Wilson."

"What did you do, Sam?"

"I missed you very much, love, I can't sleep when you're not with me, you know it, love."

"You came in late?"

"Yah," he says, laughing all over his face. "I stayed home for two, three days."

Furious because he's laughing I raise my voice. "And you didn't call them?"

"Friday, I came back, I told them, look, my wife is not with me, I can't sleep . . ."

"Why didn't you call them?"

"You know it I couldn't, love." He shrugs and smiles. "It was a bad job."

I can't bear that he smiles as if it were nothing when we've worked so hard and lived so badly to build up enough money to pay his filthy debt and leave England before we die of wretchedness, and that now we'll have to eat into the savings it cost us so much to build, so much work and bad cuts of meat and walking miles to save shillings for cigarettes and putting off the wash till our underwear rotted on us to save the cost of a ticket to the cinema; he smiles as if he'd done something poetic or at least amusing, and I can't bear it; oh I know he must feel sick with guilt and worry himself and that's why he smiles, after all, but I can't help screaming abuse at him, poor wretched Sam, though I know it's only because I'm so mad at myself I'm in such a state. I should have known, after all, he can't take care of himself without me, I knew that, I should have known he'd lose his job or something like that, it's not his fault, he can't be blamed, after all.

I apologize. He says nothing while I make coffee for both of us. His face is in his hands and he looks up, startled and grey, when I set his cup beside him. I give him the American cigarettes I've bought on the boat for him and he smokes half a pack just sitting there without a word. I kiss his cheek when he goes out but he holds himself tight and nods abstractedly.

I lie down on the unmade bed. It's so rare I lie in bed on a weekday. I notice how shabby and filthy everything is in the bright daylight, notice the smell that I hadn't smelled since we first moved in, old spices. I hear the daytime sounds of children upstairs, scuffles and thumps. Light comes through all the holes in the thin curtain. It's eleven o'clock, the day is long but ticking itself away, and I don't know what to do with it. My plans are wasted now. Sam will come home before I've done anything, depressed, and I'll have to be gentle or he won't feel confident enough to find a good position. Perhaps that's where I went wrong before; I should give him not a moment's peace until, in sheer exasperation, he storms out and comes back with a job. The ashtray's brimming, dishes are stacked in their own grease in the sink; he's bought nothing but the most expensive brands of eggs, butter and coffee, that dumb aspiring middleclassness of English colonials, nothing but the costliest, whatever the quality. I should have known! I burst into simple tears, then stop and sleep till Sam comes home, and I've screamed myself hoarse before I see how abstracted and vague he is. He huddles before the fireless grate staring at his fingers and I ache with shame. For what had he done that he could have helped doing?> Why do I torture him? Who could blame him for staying so silent and closed to me, when this is how I greet his openness?

I try very hard to make it up, harder than ever. All the next day, I'm cheerful and attentive, but Sam, who doesn't go out once I've typed and sent off applications, only sits and broods in his great, rotting armchair, running upstairs in his slippers twice a day when the post comes. He doesn't seem to be angry but simply abstracted.

I feel ashamed to read or write when Sam can't, so I get myself out as often as possible until my holiday ends. I spend an entire afternoon at the public library, choosing with the greatest care my five weekly books. I roam about the big department stores up the hill; or I walk all the way to Gower Street and browse in the book stores. I come home exhausted by decisions not to buy. I find Sam brooding over the cold grate and tell him at once where I've gone and how long every part of it took. I bring books for him from the library and say, "Here's a mystery you might like." He glances at the cover, then lays the book on the table. He studies the paper thoroughly and smokes constantly. I say, "You're smoking a lot." He nods, absorbed in the nearby air. I say, as gently as I know how, "You know, you could really use this time to work on your portfolio. It couldn't hurt."

"It's all right, Maia," Sam says, and I'm ashamed of myself for being so obvious.

I am particularly careful to see that there are good things to eat, and since I know his pride is very low now, I do all the shopping, though Sam has nothing to do all day but wait for the post; I start to wonder how good it can be for him anyway that I lean on him so little now, perhaps showing him my own frustration will help him realize I need him, too, so I let myself snap at him and I say, "Can't you do something? You're driving me out of my mind." He looks up, startled, and he picks his paper up again at once and reads it over. His eyes sink away soon but when he sees me watching him he starts and stares hastily at the page again.

At last he says, "Perhaps it is best that we should separate," and I flash back, "You know you can't even live a week without me."

"It is true, perhaps," he says gravely. He looks very handsome, like a young rajah, full of dignity and pride. "It is true I would suffer perhaps more than you. But, Maia, we both know it is not good between us."

I study him in his new stance. He's never said this before, but I don't believe him. If he wants reassurance, why can't he just ask for it instead of forcing me to go along with his little game? "All right," I snap, out of patience, "but since it's your idea, you can be the one to find yourself a new room. I'll stay here--and don't expect any help from me in getting a place, or money."

"I don't, Maia."

"Oh, come off it, you know you can't buy yourself a rotten postage stamp without me telling you how. You know it, Sam. You just want me to say I can't live without you, and for all we know, that may be true, but that's no way to cure our problems; separation never cured any marriage; it just creates false illusions of how much you need each other, a sentimental reunion and then there you are back where you started, and all that money wasted by two rents that might have made the difference in smoothing the problems out in the first place," but I've gone too far again and undone everything. Why do I need to prove I can always win when I always can, and my only prize is the wreck I make Sam into, grey, old, huddled over the cheerless grate, poor Sam.

For a day, he's so wretched I can hardly bear the sight of him, though I'm full of conversation and take his side. "Those bastards take their time," I tell him, after the post.

Sam looks up from the grate and says, "What is it, love?" In a day, he says again, "Maia, we must separate." By now I can't think what to answer. For I know he's right. I don't know who else would have put up with me for so long, still less who would put up with me now.

I climb on his lap and say, "I love you, Sam," and I believe myself this time.

"I know it, love," Sam says. I hide my face in his neck, and he rocks me, humming some old tune of his. We are more at peace than we have ever been before.

"Sam," I say suddenly, "I don't want to live without you." I realize this changes everything. "Sam? I think I could change. I could, Sam."

"I think it too, love."


"But we must separate, if only for a while."

I know he's right. I've stayed a child too long; Sam has given me a chance to find the woman in myself whom I recognize in a way I never have this thrower of tantrums, this terrible abuser of a gentle man, and I'm terrified that Sam will treat me as I only deserve. "Sam," I ask, "do you want to be together in the end? Because if you don't, I don't think I can do it," and saying it that simply makes me cry, as if out of pity. Sam stiffens at once and holds my face to see my tears; I turn, trying desperately not to use the one argument that never fails, but Sam is already saying, "Don't weep? No?"

"I don't want to live alone," I sob.

"I wouldn't leave you, no, don't weep," he croons. But in the evening, he tells me, "We must separate, Maia."

In the end I say, "If you feel we have to, then I suppose there's nothing more to say." At once everything is clear to me. I put on my nightgown and climb into bed. Sam asks if I'm all right and I say, "Yes," face the wall and pretend to sleep. After a while Sam joins me and turns the lights out.

Tomorrow he will catch an early train, for his interview. When he's gone, I'll get out of bed, close the window, turn the gas on, then get back under the covers and try to sleep. Sam will come home in the afternoon and find me dead; I wouldn't know how to live without him any more, I'd come unstrung completely.

Sarah Overton will take my class. The problem is Sam. He'll surely lose any job possibilities, and the room soon after, no doubt. What will he ever do about my body?--who can barely follow a shopping list. They must do something. Survivors are always distraught, and bodies are always disposed of. Perhaps they do the notifying, as well. Sam will never manage a letter--the thought of Daddy makes my eyes and throat swell up. What a disappointment to him, poor old man. Panicky tears immediately slide to the pillow but I hold my breath: it isn't fair to sway Sam this way, he'll have no choice. But he whispers, "Love? My love?" He feels my cheeks in the dark, as I feared he would, says his "No?" and turns me to him. I try to say, "I'm all right," but I can't help ending on a sob, it's such a pitiful lie. "No, no, we would stay together, don't weep," he says. I do try to resist, but I keep blubbering, and he says, firmly, "It would be all right. We would stay together. Don't weep, no." He presses me so tightly in his arms that my tears stop at once, though this creates a new dilemma, for he wants to go on giving comfort and I've stopped needing it but must pretend I still do, for Sam's sake.

I wake at noon to stare wonderingly at my hands and feet, that would have been dead flesh long since. Sam comes home grey and tight in the face. He says, "I never know what is in your mind," but I'm prepared.

"I love you," I say. "I wouldn't know how to live without you. It's true." He won't believe me, but it 's true anyway, and perhaps if I simply repeat it, day after day, he'll believe it in time. I've tried everything else.


Sam finds a job in a small studio for eleven pounds. I try to encourage him to think about the opportunities for advancement, but he says, bitterly, they try to keep him down and save the better places for Englishmen. "Are you sure it's because you're not English?" I ask cautiously, and he says, "Believe me, Maia, I know these bastards."

School starts. Gregory shows up one morning in blue-rimmed glasses and becomes a good boy at once. Like all the other boys, he says, "Mees, I wants to be your husbrind."

"Do you," I say archly, "but what shall I do with the one I have now?"

"Oh, I cut off hees haed."

I shake all day long. It doesn't matter. The kids learn to read, whatever I do, as if it were a biological, not a social, necessity. In the evenings, Sam's still looking grey. He looks up from the fire occasionally to say things like, "You tell me this. Why do you weep when I want to separate?"

I answer as simply as I can. "Because I want to stay with you." I wait for him to ask me why. I'll answer, "Because I love you."

"I never know what is in your mind," he says.

"I always tell you," I say, gently, smiling and shaking my head.

Because of his job, I don't feel ashamed to read and putter about while he stares at his fingers, and I even tease him. "What a delicious dinner," I say out loud as I take it off the stove. "Yes, it is good, isn't it?" I return. I go on, "How was your day in school? Lovely. Thank you for asking." Sam, eating, nods silently, almost politely,k but so vaguely it is impossible to imagine irony. "Sam," I say and leave my plate, climb into his lap and take his face in my hands. Sam takes my hands down firmly, still looking absent-minded. "Sam, what is it?" I ask. "What is it? What is it? What is it?" I've begun to smack his face and for a moment he's terrified; then he grabs my hands and tries to comfort me, but I scream, "No, you tell me!"

"No, my love?" he says, to soothe me.

I quiet down, but this time I don't cry. I say, "I mean it, Sam. You don't do this to me any more."

And it does seem to perk him up, for soon after, he looks up with a flourish and asks, "Do you know what I am thinking? I am thinking, suppose you did not weep."

I snap, in spite of myself. "Next time I'll try not to and we'll see what happens." I have never told him of my plans for the gasfire; he wouldn't have believed me. But now I've lost him again. He stares at me, rises, buttons his coat and strides to the door, where he pauses. Must I try to stop him?--I venture, "Don't be long." He laughs and goes out. I clear the table calmly and talk to myself. "Do you miss him? No, not really, isn't it odd. How can that be? Well, a little peace is never unwelcome. But you love him? Yes, naturally, but if truth be known I find the whole business overrated. Love you mean. Love, yes. Well, you could have something there. Well, I do." Then I chat. "Shall I help you with the washing up? That would be kind. I'll start the kettle, shall I? Thanks. You're really quite attractive, you know. Watch yourself, sir. No reason to take it like that. No reason to take it at all, is there?" I go on washing. "I'm sorry. Yes, let's not bother with that rubbish, shall we, I get enough of it from my husband. Husband? Yes, didn't you know? What is he, Pakeestawni? More or less, your universal coloured immigrant. It must be fascinating well it's not and if you can't restrain your native racism perhaps you'd better hold your tongue, I'd rather hold yours, get out! Filthy scum! Oh come now, I will not! Get your filthy hands off me! What is it like, let go! let go! to go to bed with a black man? Sam! Is it like this? Sam! Sam! Sam!" (I stop to recover.) "That's rather touching, you know. Oh, God. It is, you know; cigarette? No? No smile at all? I am sorry, you know, love. I don't know why I got so free with my hands there, but you are rather fetching, you know. You do have something, don't you? Well, shall we part friends? I won't lay a finger on you. Not a word? Not one itty bitty insult while you still got the chance? Forget it," I sneer, sit down abruptly, and read.

When Sam returns, I tell him, truthfully, "I just talked to myself."

Sam says, "I bought you something," and throws a packet of mixed nuts on the table, half a crown's worth.

I climb on his bony knees. "Thank you, my love. You're my good love, aren't you," I say.

He looks away, embarrassed, happy. "Don't talk shit," he says. His spirits are clearly improved.

One evening, I notice Sam clenching his jaw so hard that I must draw him out, and at last he reveals, "I saw Rick." Startled, as he hasn't been over that for months, I probe him gingerly. "You see, we spoke of our vacations," Sam says. He takes his time tapping and lighting a cigarette. "He took his in Paris."

I get right to the point. "I never slept with Rick."

"Do you see? How can I look at these men?"

I say, tightly, "Is it something else, too?"

He flashes back, "Did I say that? Or did you?"

If I don't lose patience right now we'll be at it all night, so I shout as loudly as I can, "Sam what have I done?" When he shrinks a little, I try to get in and reason. "Look, I'm only being polite to these men. You bring men here, then you don't say a word. Should I ignore them?" Yet, curiously, as I say this, it occurs to me that I have no qualms ignoring Sam; I've never seen the issue in quite this light before. "Maybe I should," I reflect, brightly.

Sam stares at me. "That is not what you were thinking," he says.

I catch myself before "It is" can break out--protesting would only weaken my credibility--and am about to reply more calmly when, as if in mid-jump, I find myself reversing again, for I remember with the sting of injustice that it's always me who's understanding, so I scream, "What do you want?" Sam doesn't flinch, though.

"Don't you see," I go on, "I'm conceding. What else do you want? I just can't go on defending myself any longer." I begin to like this speech. I've raised my voice. "I haven't got the time, Sam. I work all day keeping thirty-five working-class kids from destroying each other and myself and by the time I come home I haven't got the strength to keep proving the purity of my intentions." I scream, "But I'm not lying!" though protesting will only confirm his suspicions; and I wonder why I protested at all. Could he have never really thought I had a lover, but, as I always suspected, meant something else? Something worse. I had better find out now. "Sam," I ask, full of dread. "Whatever it is you say I do: how long have I done it?"

He says at last, "Right from the beginning," and suddenly I know exactly what he means.

I whisper, "You mean Julian." Sam laughs contemptuously. "You do mean Julian," I repeat, hesitantly; who else could it be? For Julian, a lonely Australian we shared a wretched flat with our first month together, had made a drunken grab at me, and I had confessed it to Sam. But Sam only laughs, and I finally turn desperate; I'm so close to finding out, "Who? Who? Ari? Suhaib? Carol? Oh, tell me, Sam! Please!"

And he finally does relent and say, "That Englishman."

"Ian," I realize, vastly relieved. Sam watches me slyly, so I know that this is really who he's meant, all along. "But I never cared for him at all." And that's true. I liked him less than many others, Rick, for instance. But Sam keeps laughing, silently, and this drives me mad. "But Sam," I plead, "don't you remember? He had a girlfriend. I barely knew him. I only talked to him that once, when he borrowed a shilling for the gas meter." Sam had come home to find this Ian, a carpenter, standing in the doorway of that tiny room in Shepherd's Bush, refusing to come in, unable to leave; he told me he had had a nervous breakdown, and I must have pitied him, that was all. Perhaps it flattered me to see how badly he needed my smile. Perhaps, in my own weakness, it was the only way I could feel a power I haven't ever earned. And, swept with shame, I start to wonder if this is what Sam has meant, all along. I thought he simply didn't know the difference between sympathy and sex, being inexperienced in Western ways. I thought he didn't understand the difference between my kindness to strangers and my kindness to him, but this makes more sense, really, for I know that in his heart, he's kind, too. And it fits with other things, too: it explains, "You must understand, it is not jealous." Sam hasn't been speaking of infidelity, all this time, but sickness, which makes him not jealous but ashamed. I climb in his lap and put my arms around his neck, deeply grateful to Sam who has kept his secret for so long, and with such astonishing patience, until I could understand it, myself, and I begin to sob, "I won't see men, never, you were right," hearing my voice with pity but with envy, too.

But Sam, roused by my tears, stiffens, alarmed. He cries urgently, "No? Don't weep?" Then he croons, "No, love. No. I don't ask that."

The Paris Review 70, Summer 1977