When I made contact with Brenda again, in the last year of war, I hadn't actually set eyes on her for eight years. There had been all those phone calls, and some notes connected with business, but no meeting. One might have supposed that, in all that time, there would have been a chance meeting, or a glimpse of Brenda from a passing bus. There was not. London is a big city, and, for much of that time, I had been out in Richmond, far from her usual haunts.
Our first meeting after my retreat took place in a restaurant chosen by Brenda. It was an odd choice, a little place near the South Kensington tube station which served Polish food and had a French name. It also served as a meeting place for some of the many Poles who had been driven into exile by the Germans and Russians.
I arrived in mid-afternoon, with a little time to spare, to find the restaurant nearly full of Poles taking an early tea. All the little tables covered with red oilcloth were taken except for the one by the front window. Even then, I had to displace a large cat sleeping on the bench lining one wall. The cat grumbled, but moved down from the bench and curled up on a shelf against the window. I sat down, ordered coffee, and looked around.
Even apart from the fact that no English was to be heard, the whole restaurant had that combination of sophistication and squalor which could never be English. It's mainly in central Europe that there are significant numbers of cultivated people who think little enough of worldly display to happily eat sardines out of a tin with a toothpick.
At the next table were three men in RAF uniform, and, although I couldn't understand a word, I could tell from their insignia that they were pilots with the very distinguished Polish Squadron. The one across from me was old for a pilot, and had a black handlebar moustache. He had probably begun when the Germans invaded Poland, fighting against impossible odds. He must then have escaped to England, and had obviously gone on fighting. It was extraordinary that he hadn't been killed somewhere along the line. As I was pondering these matters, I caught sight of Brenda crossing the street.
The period from the early thirties to the late thirties is a critical one in a woman's life. That old twaddle, "once a beauty, always a beauty", hardly bears inspection. All it takes is a gain of thirty pounds to put an end to that. Of course, a woman who's beautiful at thirty may still be so at forty or older, but it's a different kind of beauty. There's a transition that must be made, a line to be crossed. Brenda had crossed it in a way I couldn't have imagined. I knew that she had become a Jew. I didn't know that she had also become a Pole.
There were greetings from all sides as Brenda entered, and she returned them in Polish. Then she saw me. As I rose, in considerable confusion, to embrace her, I managed to tip over the little table. The glass coffee cup crashed to the floor and shattered, some of the coffee ending up on Brenda's skirt. The laughter was universal and good-humored, even from the waitress. Brenda kissed me and led me around to introduce me to her friends while the damage was put to rights.
It all reminded me of my first meeting with Brenda in Wilhelmina Sanderson's home. Then, too, I was dazzled, but scarcely more than now. She had gained scarcely any weight. Never willowy, her figure now looked muscular, energetic, and capable. She had a touch of, not gray, but white in her hair, just enough to be noticeable. It could have been disguised very easily with a rinse, but I sensed that she was proud of it. It also made the rest of her hair blacker than ever. Brenda's extraordinary face was now even more remarkable. The ski jump nose blended better, and the little lines around her eyes gave her a knowing satiric look that she hadn't had before.
Brenda was dressed rather drably in a grayish brown cardigan and skirt, but had on high heels with little white cotton ankle socks. Silk and nylon stockings were scarce at this time, but those socks completed the East European look. I could easily imagine a pre-war lady in Prague or Warsaw, sitting so attired with one leg crossed languidly over the other while she balanced a glass cup and saucer on her knee.
As we sat down, I noticed the wet coffee stain on Brenda's skirt and apologized. She laughed and replied,
"I got it at the Polish Relief Shop for sixpence. You can come and get me a new one."
She then lifted the hem to mop it with a napkin, and I caught sight of a silk slip with elaborate lace. I was glad to see that some things hadn't changed.
There was a lot to catch up on. Brenda was quite curious about my activities for the last eight years, but I could give her only a sketch of the onset and progress of my alcoholism. I ended with an edited version of that last episode with the buzz bomb, less humiliating than the reality, but still indicative of the state of my spiritual decline. She answered,
"I'm sorry you had such a nasty experience, but I suppose it would have taken something like that to make you stop. Are you sure you're over it now?"
"Yes. It's been some time now, and I feel myself gaining strength continually. One drink could put me back into the nightmare, and I have very little temptation to take it. How are you doing?"
"On one level, fine. My investments seem to be doing well, and I've been busy with relief projects. First German Jews, then Polish Jews, and now, mostly, other kinds of Poles. But I haven't had a child."
"You used to bemoan not being married, but, at the same time, dismiss your suitors. Some were quite desirable."
Brenda laughed and gestured toward the white in her hair.
"The suitors, except for the ones just interested in money, have thinned out. They don't want middle-aged ladies."
When I said nothing, she explained herself further,
"Since I last saw you, I've thought more about a baby than a husband. It would have been very easy to have one by almost anyone, and say afterwards that the father was a pilot who got killed. They almost all seem to in the end. A couple of times I went to bed with men without using any contraceptives. I didn't get pregnant, but I didn't do it often enough so that I can say I made a serious attempt to have a child."
"Couldn't you still?"
"Perhaps. My doctor thinks it unwise to have a first child at my age. It's a little the way marriage used to be. I often think I want it, but I grasp at any excuse not to."
"You seem to know yourself much better than you used to."
Brenda smiled and sipped at her coffee before replying.
"Perhaps it's the company I keep."
Gesturing toward the rest of the restaurant, she said,
"These people have had any illusions they ever had systematically destroyed."
"They seem cheerful enough."
"Oh they are. They aren't depressed. They have realistic plans for the future, even the ones still in the firing line."
She indicated the pilots at the next table with her eyes before continuing.
"But they have a lot of gallows humor, and the plans are very modest. They want a secure little place with a tiny garden and lots of peace and quiet."
"Don't they want to go back to Poland when the war's over."
"Not in the least. They all assume that it'll be part of Russia, in fact if not in name. I don't know a single one who wants to go back. That's one of the many illusions they don't have."
"So they're on the lookout for a new country. Wouldn't they rather go to America than stay in England?"
"A lot would. Almost every one of them seems to have relatives in America."
"Speaking of finding new countries, you seem to have been active. When I last saw you, you were fast becoming an Englishwoman. Then you became a Jew, and now, apparently, a Pole. Are you looking around to find a culture and country that suits?"
"Not at all. I'm in the process of ridding myself of nationalism. The way to avoid getting too close to a lover is to take on a lot more. I'm doing the same thing with countries."
I suppose I asked her why in the world she wanted to do that. She answered,
"It's very simple. Most evils in the world are traceable to nationalism. Hitler and the Nazis represent an extreme of nationalism. But, even without them, the rest of the world might have been nationalistic enough to produce a war. As it did the time before."
I wasn't really in disagreement with Brenda about that. I did think that she underestimated the difficulties in ridding oneself of national feeling, but I didn't make an issue of it.
As we talked on, I, as so often, missed the main point. That seems to be my fate with Brenda. She never conceals anything from me, but she never tells me everything. I didn't, at that time, know of her investments in Germany. She did mention that she had invested the profits from the Spitfire landing gear and from housing in American industry, and didn't have much in England.
This was another of those strokes of intuition, the proclivity for which she must have inherited direct from Wilhelmina Sanderson. She had gotten most of her money out of England before currency restrictions would have made it impossible to do so. Instead of taking a beating with England's post-war decline, the money that wasn't in Germany was in America. There was even a good chunk of IBM when no one had heard of it. Brenda's airy remark that her investments were "doing well" was the understatement of the century.
The point that I missed, however, was only indirectly concerned with money. Brenda had made it clear that she had become a sort of honorary Pole, and she had also been quite frank in her disappointment in not having had a child. I was too insensitive to put the two together. Meanwhile, the conversation turned to Ralph. Brenda was worried about him.
"He practically runs an American heavy bomber base in East Anglia, but he does what he calls "hitching rides" in bombers flying over Germany. It's very dangerous."
"I'm surprised that it's allowed."
"It's probably against the rules, but no one seems to care. One time, he replaced a gunner who was hit and apparently shot down a German fighter. Ralph denies it, but I met the pilot of the plane when I was up there one weekend, and he swears that it's true."
"Well, the war can't last much longer, and we seem to have overwhelming superiority in the air. The risks will be getting less all the time."
When, finally, we went our separate ways, I was conscious of a slight confusion, an uncertainty as to how this old friendship, now renewed, should be carried on in the future.
In that last tag end of war, London began to change in ways I had never anticipated. Before the war, it had seemed to contain every sort of brilliant attraction, whether intellectual, artistic, or scientific. During the war, there was naturally a shortage of all sorts of things, but that didn't affect the underlying spirit. Women accoutered themselves imaginatively with anything available. Poets wrote, better than they ever had, from the jungles of Burma or convoys on their way to Murmansk. The glamour was now a uniformed one with air aces and fleet commanders striding victoriously down Piccadilly and Knightsbridge. London was at the center of the greatest armed force the world had ever seen. But now, with victory actually in sight, there were signs that the city was about to become drab.
Some of the signs appeared in the papers, and on the news broadcasts. Even after the war, there would be food shortages, and rationing would continue into peacetime. The war debt would be immense, and there would be austerity until it was brought under control.
There was also a political change that brought the Labour Party into power and unceremoniously dumped the great war leader, Winston Churchill, into sudden and undeserved obscurity. But even that was only the tip of the iceberg.
In the first world war, the English working class had volunteered enthusiastically, some out of jingoism and some because the army fed them better. A great many were slaughtered on the Somme or in the fields of Flanders.
In the second war, the working class again submitted to the demands of war, but with much less enthusiasm. This time it was a bargain. They would go, but, in return, they demanded the end of class privilege. They didn't even wait for the end to call in the bargain. The limited resources available to the country wouldn't be used to make it again supreme, nor would they be used to preserve the position of London as the capital of the world. Those resources would instead be used to build worker housing in every ugly grimy corner of Britain.
I have nothing against the poor. I don't react with glee when they starve. I merely find them boring. If given too much political power, they will elect boring men who will, out of perverse resentment, destroy anything of any interest in national life. However, while I was beginning to fume impotently against these changes, Brenda was preparing to take actions of various sorts.
Brenda's house looked much as it had years before. There was no apparent bomb damage in the neighborhood, and even the fancy paintwork of the houses had been kept in good condition despite the austerities. However, the soccer players were long gone, and the house seemed oddly quiet as I rang the buzzer and mounted the stairs.
Brenda opened the door without shoes on, and in the act of tying closed a dressing gown. I was somewhat surprised to see that she wasn't alone. The other occupant of the room, a girl, presented a rather confusing appearance. In an obviously expensive green silk dress with matching shoes, the oddity, on closer inspection, consisted in the fact that she was only twelve or thirteen. Brenda introduced the girl to me as Maria, and said cheerfully,
"We've been trying on clothes."
I then saw that Maria had on the dress and shoes that Brenda had just been wearing. She was as tall as Brenda, but had no hips or bust, and the dress hung loosely from her shoulders. When she moved, she wobbled unsteadily in the unfamiliar heels, but seated herself in a chair without loss of aplomb.
In the conversation that followed, it transpired that Maria, despite a combination of black hair and white skin that would have done credit to a Spaniard, was from Poland. That hardly surprised me. From the way in which Brenda quickly changed the subject, I guessed that something unpleasant had happened to her parents. Indeed, I couldn't help noticing that Maria didn't have the normal reactions of a child. She had a trick of smiling, slightly out of phase with what was being said, which reminded me of a nervous hostess who hoped, against all odds, that her party would be a success.
Then it hit me. I had seen it before. Maria was an orphan who had been sent around on approval. If she pleased Brenda, she would be kept and adopted. If not, she would be returned to the orphanage. No wonder she was nervous.
Brenda was, naturally, extremely nice to Maria. She involved her in the conversation in ingenious ways, complimented her on her appearance, and treated her as if she were grown up. Maria, sitting bolt upright in her absurd costume, managed remarkably well. Obviously a bright child, she had got the hang of a certain kind of adult conversation. In good English, with just a trace of a rather charming accent, she could speak of flowers, taxicabs, and urban life. I almost expected her to comment on the difficulty of getting and keeping good servants. Still, all the while, she had a habit of rolling her black eyes up until little but the whites showed.
After about half an hour, Brenda said to her,
"It's about time for you to get back to St. Ann's if you don't want to be late for tea. I'll call a taxi for you."
Maria went to change, and came back looking like a schoolgirl. It was another few minutes before she left. When she was gone, Brenda asked breathlessly,
"Do you think she'll be able to manage money?"
How, I wondered, could someone as clever as Brenda be so stupid? I replied with some heat,
"I don't know if she'll be able to manage money, but I do know that she's a psychological wreck. Has she been raped and tortured, or were her parents hacked to death in front of her?"
That gave Brenda pause. She replied slowly,
"She is a refugee, of course, and it's pretty certain that her mother, at any rate, is dead. She was Jewish. Her father is also presumed dead. She's had a rough time, but probably not as bad as you suggest."
I felt sorry for Brenda and relented somewhat.
"Are you thinking of adopting her?"
"Yes. After all, it doesn't look as if I'm going to have a child any other way."
I nodded and said nothing. Brenda then continued,
"You probably don't remember it, but I recall once saying to you and Ralph that I wanted to reconstruct the Sanderson fortune."
"I remember it distinctly."
"Yes. Well, I'm beginning to see my way clear, and I've got to start thinking about an heir or heiress."
I had seen it all before. A new fortune was arising out of the ashes of the old, and it would need a line of competent and loving guardians strething out into the future. At that moment, Brenda looked, for the very first time in my experience, as if she might be hurt deeply if I uttered the wrong words. I said, outwardly quite casually,
"Ralph might have some children."
"I've thought of that, naturally. But, since he's still sort of divided between Jane and Muggs, it doesn't seem likely. If he does, I'll see that they're well provided for. But you can't just thrust a fortune on most people. It's likely to do them more harm than good."
I agreed wholeheartedly.
"So you're looking for a very special sort of person."
"Yes. And I want it to be a woman. It's a woman's fortune. It was Wilhelmina Sanderson, not Mott Rogers, who created it. A bunch of stupid men almost destroyed it. I'm going to restore it. This time, there's going to be a worthy successor."
There was an uncommonly intense look in Brenda's eyes. The fortune was her real baby, and Maria was, not the child, but the woman elected to inherit it. Woe betide any man who attempted to interfere with those arrangements. I asked,
"What's Maria's surname? I didn't quite catch it."
Brenda pronounced it slowly for my benefit.
She then asked,
"Does that mean anything to you?"
"Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniewski. Joseph Conrad. Is she related?"
"Yes. Oddly enough, she's also related independently to Conrad's mother's family. She comes from good people. Her father was a well-known Polish logician and her mother was the first to translate some of Conrad's works into Polish. Both her parents were middle-aged when she was born, their only child."
"Do you read Conrad?"
"Some. Not a great deal. I'm not thrilled with his treatment of women. I think he wrote mostly for men."
"Possibly. Still, I actually prefer him to Shakespeare, and I'm far from the only one. So we have here, not only his descendent, but the daughter of the woman who, so to speak, brought him home to Poland. I can hardly imagine a better intellectual heritage."
"That's what I thought. I'm worried that you think she's a psychological wreck, though."
"Perhaps I exaggerated. She's extremely nervous, but who wouldn't be in her situation? I suppose what she needs is love and rest. If you're going to adopt her, it would be better to do it quickly. I'd wait until she's much more comfortable to tell her about the Sanderson fortune and your plans for it."
"Yes. I wanted to know what you thought. I'll go down in the morning and ask her if she wants me to adopt her."
"It'll look as if you wanted my opinion before you acted."
"Well, Thomas, I did. I was very glad that you popped up at just this juncture. Would you be willing to play some role in this affair?"
"Not as a father, obviously, but in some other way. I'll be one of those people who are always called an "uncle" in quotes."
"There are worse things to be called. I suppose that terminology arose because there's a reality to match it. There are people who aren't related to children, but whom they can trust and rely on in time of need."
"That's what I'll be, then."
As I walked down Haverstock Hill, I wondered if Brenda would ever have thought of Maria, if there hadn't been the Joseph Conrad connection. It was important to me. It wasn't just a matter of fealty to the great writer. It made one see Maria in a different light. Was she a genius, too? Very possibly. She had learned in a matter of months how to sound like a young London society matron. Not a great accomplishment until one realized that, until very recently, she could have had no concept of such a woman. Perhaps Maria was capable of other, more significant, things.
For that matter, how had Maria escaped? Brenda didn't seem to know. That was extraordinary. She obviously knew Maria well, but didn't know that. I was curious enough to call Brenda when I got home.
Maria had surfaced a few months previously at a Salvation Army mission near the London docks. She had only a garbled story expressed in broken English. It seemed that she must, even then, have been more fluent than she let on. It took them a long time even to discover that she was Polish. When they did determine her nationality, Maria was sent to an orphanage where there were other Polish children.
Maria's parents were well-known in the London Polish community, and there were people who had known them personally. The situation was considerably confused by the fact that Maria, whose real name turned out to be Ludmila, claimed to be the daughter of her uncle, who did have a daughter named Maria.
That was natural enough. The uncle hadn't married a Jew, and the real Maria was dead. These facts, however, may have come out only because there was a man in London who had known the real Maria. Our Maria said that she wanted to go on being called by that name just the same. That was all anyone ever got out of her. The people at the orphanage, and in the community, were kind enough not to ask her direct questions she didn't wish to answer.
It was highly probable that our Maria had come by ship from liberated France. But how had she gotten from Poland to France? Had she escaped from a concentration camp for Jews before she started pretending to be the other Maria? Had she actually managed to cross all of Germany as a fugitive? It seemed unlikely that she could have done that, but the other routes, via Yugoslavia and Italy, were hardly more likely. In any case, she must have had some sort of story that went beyond just pretending to be her cousin.
Maria could talk a mile a minute about the advantages of living in Hampstead, as opposed to Kensington, but there wasn't a word about the advantages of pretending to be, say, a Turk rather than a Roumanian when crossing the heart of the Third Reich. Joseph Conrad had gone from Poland to Marseilles to reach the sea and, ultimately, England. Had Maria also passed that way?
When I hung up, I actually did know more about Maria in spite of Brenda's lack of information. There was a mystery around Maria. That was important, and I had only guessed at it before.
I have known a good many people with shadowy backgrounds, and I have come to recognize a particular syndrome, that displayed by the politically compromised. I don't here refer to politics in the narrow sense. It's characteristic of those who have been on the wrong side, and are afraid that someone will recognize them. In the extreme case, this syndrome is the mark of the man who has betrayed his fellows, and is afraid that one of them might still be alive.
There was nothing to suggest anything of that sort in this case. But I could have sworn that Maria's behavior wasn't just that of someone who didn't want to dwell on a nightmare. On the long road from Cracow to the West India Docks, something had happened that Maria wanted to conceal. I doubt that anyone will ever find out what it was. Indeed, I'm sure that Brenda will excise this very speculation from the final version of this work. This draft is intended for her alone.
It wasn't long before I had my reunion with Ralph and Jane in the dining room of the Great Western Hotel. Brenda wasn't present this time. Ralph, on leave from his base, had just gone over to check on his houseboat at Little Venice.
Jane looked hardly a day older, but Ralph was noticeably different. He had gained a good deal of weight and, while not really overweight, had become a very big man indeed. He had also lost a good deal of hair. It looked as if he might be bald before he was thirty.
There was also something important that hadn't changed about Ralph. Even though he had reached the rank of major in the USAAF, and was obviously used to power and authority, there was still that unassuming pleasantness he had had at eighteen. It was still easy to imagine him uncomplainingly holding up a drunken companion who was engaged in vomiting on his, Ralph's, trousers. I asked him about his rides in bombers over Germany. He replied,
"The best time was when I went in an RAF bomber at night. The scene over the target was unforgettable. In the daytime you may not see much of anything. Unless the flak is near, you don't hear it over the engine noise. And, unless you happen to be looking in the right direction, you may not see the enemy fighters. The biggest problem is often keeping warm. But, even on a relatively easy mission, there are always aircraft that don't come back. If you keep flying, it's just a matter of time."
Jane broke in,
"Ralph doesn't do it any more."
I wondered how she had arranged that. Then, I looked at Ralph and saw that it had been easy. He wasn't in the least crazy. He had proven his courage. He saw no point in sitting as a useless eleventh wheel in a B-17, waiting for the time when the ship went spinning down and he, nowhere near an exit hatch, was trapped by centrifugal force.
Jane had just left MI5. She seemed to have no regrets on that score, and she announced trimphantly that, since some relatives had died leaving her money, she could engage in some joint ventures with Brenda.
Hardly had I taken this much in when Jane spoke of having a child. "Will the Lord save us", I thought. Yet another woman obsessed with having babies. Moreover, Jane, despite looking much younger, was now, by my calculations, over forty. She had best hurry! On the other hand, she seemed much more likely to indulge in abrupt spontaneous behavior than Brenda. She might just do it. In her case, anything was possible. I assumed that Ralph was to be the father, but, again, one couldn't be sure. I spoke quite non-committally, but included him, so to speak, in my glance. Jane caught it immediately and replied,
"Ralph won't be the father. He doesn't want children."
It was an odd fact about Jane that, although she seemed never to hold anything back, she occasionally spoke in an absolutely neutral tone in circumstances where anyone else, by tone alone, would have revealed a great deal. I couldn't tell whether there had been friction between Ralph and Jane on this point. It even seemed quite possible that it was Jane's idea, just now put forward, that Ralph didn't want children. For all I knew, she was hoping that he would contradict her.
Ralph, of course, has never been hard to read. He was obviously uncomfortable in his pleasant embarrassed way. But that discomfort could have had many causes. He volunteered nothing. Jane spoke casually,
"I'm looking around for someone suitable."
Unless Ralph had flatly refused to marry her, it seemed to me that Jane was treating him in an indefensible way. But, then again, I didn't know.
The conversation could easily have come to a dead halt at that point, but it stuttered and then moved on. It didn't entirely change subject, but circled lazily around the main point. Ralph talked about himself for a bit. He was more fascinated with mathematics than he had ever been. He could take a degree after the war, but wasn't sure he really needed to. He had settled on topology, and, despite the many demands on his time, was proving theorems. A couple of his proofs had been published, and he saw no reason not to go on indefinitely in the same way. I gathered that it meant, among other things, a return to Little Venice. As Jane put it,
"Someone who's obsessed with geometry might not care much about the color or tastefulness of his surroundings, only with their shape. Topology seems to be so much more abstract that not even shape matters. If someone turns Ralph's houseboat upside down with him inside, he'll hardly notice. He'll just start sleeping on the ceiling."
She spoke, this time, with evident good humor, and I could see what had happened. Ralph, the most genial and helpful young man in the world, couldn't be maneuvered one iota from his pre-determined path. That path was so clear that there could be little question of his marrying and having children. Jane would have, literally, to move into the houseboat and raise her children on its decks. It transpired that Ralph had, indeed, made such a suggestion, pointing out that there were other children in Little Venice.
Jane, unwontedly gentle, intimated to him that some of his notions came out of the nicer sorts of fairy tales. She, on the other hand, didn't wish to wash nappies by dipping them in the filthy waters of Little Venice. There was nevertheless warmth between them, and a connection so strong that it would never be broken. I looked on it and found it nice.
It was in this mood, with a tea cup half-way to my mouth, that I received an unprecedented shock. Ralph said,
"Apart from the pleasure of seeing you, Thomas, we're awfully glad you've come around just now. We'd like you to be the father of Jane's child."
I made some noise or other, and spilled tea. Jane, probably for the first time in her life, was solicitous. As she mopped tea, she said,
"We decided you'd be best. For one thing, Ralph trusts you so."
That part I could interpret. Ralph perceived me to be no threat. Jane then told me, in the tone of one giving assurance to a London urchin evacuated to a country village, that it would make very little difference to my life.
"I'll come to your flat, just the way Muggs used to. In fact, you can pretend that I am Muggs. We could begin next Tuesday, if that will suit."
As Jane took directions to my flat in Richmond, I was decidedly conscious of a feeling that had been absent for a long time, lust. I had always thought that Jane looked magnificent, and, weird as the situation promised to be, it was clearly something of a windfall. It was only on my way home that I started to work out some of the implications.
Days after Brenda signed me up as the "uncle" of one child, Jane wanted me to be the biological father of another. Was I thereafter to be the "uncle" there too? Was Ralph to be another "uncle", or was he to be a "father"? Perhaps we were both supposed to be "fathers."
I presumed that Jane and I were to meet and mate only until she became pregnant. It seemed to me that I might, in that time, become quite attached to her, and not want to give her up. It was easy to imagine a jubilant telephone call from her, in which she announced her pregnancy and didn't even bother to mention that she'd no longer be coming to my flat.
On the other hand, it seemed quite likely that she wouldn't get pregnant. She was on the edge of being too old, and I was a good deal older. Moreover, she had been childless with Smith, and I had given my procreative parts a good soaking in alcohol. The more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed. What would happen then? Would she give up after six months or so, or perhaps try someone else?
None of these eventualities boded terribly well for me, but I couldn't mask my growing excitement. A woman who looked much more a queen than the actual one was going to make her way to my flat the next Tuesday and submit herself to my attentions.
The next afternoon, I walked down Richmond Hill to the railway station. The newspaper headlines were all predicting the imminent collapse of Germany, and there was a happy atmosphere in the thick crowd of pedestrians overflowing from the sidewalks on to the streets. Arriving at Waterloo, I walked over the Westminster Bridge in the bright cold sunshine. The Houses of Parliament looked as if there had never been a war.
Going down Whitehall, past the Treasury buildings, the Foreign Office, and Downing Street, I congratulated myself on having done less than the majority of the officials in those buildings to hinder the progress of the war. I had only marginally confused the air defense system where they, with their forms and fussiness, had delayed the deployment of whole weapons systems.
Chugging through the Admiralty Arch with my rejuvenated sober step, I avoided the gaze of Lord Nelson, high above Trafalgar Square, as I made for a little Indian restaurant in the Charing Cross Road. Brenda was already there, and she embraced me enthusiastically as I came up. We started jabbering away immediately, but there was then a pause in our conversation. Ever since I had re-established contact with Brenda, I had wondered whether our little prostitution arrrangement might be renewed. Having given things an exploratory whirl with Muggs, I found my appetites quite strong, seemingly stronger than they had been before my withdrawal. In a word, I wanted every second woman I saw on the street.
In the weeks before I had had any inkling of Jane's availability, I had wanted Brenda more than anyone. It was almost as if I had never touched her. On the other hand, so much had happened. What would a cultivated Polish woman think of such an arrangement? And, then too, what would she think of the proposed goings on between myself and Jane? As it happened, I never got the chance to put my proposition. Brenda looked at me, crinkles forming around her wonderful knowing eyes, and asked,
"Thomas, are you trying to get up your nerve to tell me of an extraordinary proposition put to you by Jane?"
I was surprised that she knew, and indicated as much. She replied,
"It was actually my idea."
"Why, on earth, did you suggest it?"
"She really wants to have a baby. She doesn't have any sort of ambivalence about it. She's much healthier and more straight-forward than I am, at least in that respect. She also loves Ralph. But she can't fully respect any man who has sex with her. It's an odd quirk, but not really so odd when you consider our culture."
"You mean, because we're taught that sex is dirty?"
"Yes. It's supposed to change overnight when we're married, but Jane is more consistent and rational than the culture. If it's really dirty, a simple ceremony couldn't make it clean."
"So she needs someone she doesn't respect?"
"It's not as bad as that, Thomas. She likes you and certainly respects you as much as she does most people. On the other hand, you never thought of yourself as a knight in shining armor. That's what Ralph is to her. And, then, Ralph trusts you. Last, but not least, I thought you might enjoy it. Jane's quite a woman, and you've always looked at her in that funny way of yours."
"Yes. I don't mean to complain. I was actually quite pleased when it was put to me. I don't know if I can get her pregnant, though. I'm rather old, and I've been soaked in alcohol for some years."
Brenda looked alarmed.
"You can still do it, can't you?"
"Yes. I had a most satisfactory encounter with Muggs last week."
Brenda smiled in her alternative, vixenish, way, and said that she was very glad. The curry then arrived, and we fell to with a will.
After eating, I again wanted to suggest something, but couldn't quite manage it. We separated at the Leicester Square tube station. The lift was broken, and, as I descended the long dank circular staircase into the bowels of the earth, a few thoughts came to me. I was no threat to Ralph, I had a funny way of looking at women who attracted me, and Jane wasn't troubled by having to respect me.
Then, another thought struck me, in some ways even more painful than the others. But, at the same time, it had reassuring implications. Brenda would only get sexually involved with a man she pitied. Then, having pitied him, she couldn't respect him enough to marry him. The strong self- reliant ones could never get much past first base with her, and the others were too weak to be husband material. It was obvious that I wasn't going to get much respect in any direction, but, Brenda, unlike Jane, was rather like an insurance policy. The worse things might get for me, the more I could count on her.