AN INTRODUCTION BY HEIDI JULAVITS
Jenny Diski, who died of cancer in 2016, just after the publication of her final book, In Gratitude (which was, in part, about dying), has not, I believe, received her full due. The literary ledger needs balancing. Hybrid nonfiction has, over the decades since, benefitted from the best theory of contagion, mutated and passed along by writers like Geoff Dyer, Hilton Als, Rebecca Solnit, Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum, among others. It bothers me personally that I came to Diski so late in my reading life, because she was writing the books that I only recently realized I couldn’t wait to read.
The stories collected in The Vanishing Princess reveal a writer avidly experimenting with voice and structure and execution. Originally published in England in 1995, the stories rove across the aesthetic map. The title story reads like a cheekier, more bitingly urbane take on one of Angela Carter’s stories from The Bloody Chamber. “Leaper” starts on a frank, smart-alecky Grace Paley note before stealthily shifting into oblique emotional territory (I’d say more about this story but I don’t want to ruin anything). “Bath Time” tracks a woman’s lifelong dream to have a perfect bath, and balances the absurd with the penny-pinching real.
Then there are the more typically realist stories that explore contemporary womanhood from less of a slant. These stories start with lines that appear well behaved. “Short Circuit,” the story that appears here, begins, “It was Lillian’s habit to take a walk every lunchtime.” But such an opening sentence is not a staid pace-setter; instead, it is a launch-pad. Lillian athletically muses as a means to analyze, unpack, and cover miles of intellectual and emotional ground between typically disparate landmarks. Lillian starts thinking about ducks and ends up deconstructing her romantic relationship with a man named Charlie, whom she fears is a cheat.
It bothers me personally that I came to Diski so late in my reading life, because she was writing the books that I only recently realized I couldn’t wait to read.
What binds this story to the collection is the feministly interrogative nature. Most forward-thinkingly feminist is Diski’s rattling of words and categories typically used to pathologize actively intelligent women — words and categories like “insane” and “neurotic.” “It was insane,” Lillian thinks, “ — well, neurotic — to give time and energy to suspicions that made no sense in the light of what was actually happening.” Lillian’s maybe-cheating-mate Charlie is “remarkably patient with what he called ‘LM,’ which stood for Lillian’s madness.’” (Basically, he’s patient with her for being actively engaged in the mysteries of her life, him being chief among them.) Diski calls attention to the ways in which women are taught to doubt their cognitive journeying through quotidian space, while also authentically investigating how personally restricting, in the end, such involuted mental spiralings might be. Diski’s strength is her ability to critique her own critique, but from a position of self-awareness: “One problem,” Diski archly writes, “was that Lillian was not mystified about why she was like she was.”
So I am sad that Jenny Diski is no longer around to direct us toward the temporal zones we are not yet ready to inhabit; more than ever, the present day feels like one in which we need a person ahead of her time, at least when it comes to the critical challenge of engaging, with open-hearted ferocity, things and people that make no immediate sense to us. Read Diski for the pleasures of Diski, but also read Diski to learn what we may think, in the future, about how, were we possessed by foresight, we might have better performed our humanity in the now.
Author of The Folded Clock
Deconstructing a Relationship Through Ducks
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by Jenny Diski
It was Lillian’s habit to take a walk every lunchtime. It got her out of the office, she avoided having to eat with the colleagues she already spent most of her week with, and gained a daily dose of fresh air. A nonsense, of course, in an inner-city park with traffic racing and fuming round its perimeter, but the landscaped greenery and docile duck-life in the man-made pond gave at least a symbolic justification for Lillian’s feeling that it was good for her. Anyway, it didn’t do any harm.
Lillian felt also that her daily walk was good for her mind, though if thinking was a deliberate consideration of particular matters about which one came to a judgement, then that probably wasn’t the right word for what went on in her head as she walked the winding path that took her back to where she had started, in just the right amount of time to begin the afternoon’s work. Her thought processes didn’t seem to function in the deliberate, one-step-after-another way of her daily walks, on their defined route.
This really didn’t matter since she was not a professional thinker. She supposed, though she wasn’t sure, that philosophers and scientists thought in an orderly, arranged way. First there was a problem, then the pros and cons of a possible solution and finally a decision which might mean the end of that particular thought, or the choosing of a new solution to be mentally tested. Even if this were an accurate picture of that kind of mind — and she wasn’t convinced it was — her life didn’t require such an orderly approach to thought. She didn’t think she thought about anything very much during her lunchtime walks.
At least that was how it had been, until a couple of months ago. But then she reminded herself as she reached the part of the path which looped itself around the oval duck pond, everything had been the way it had been until that time. Since when, her lunchtime walks had lost their pleasantly pointless flavor, her mind seeming blank enough to do no more than notice the recurring influence of the seasons: leaf-fall and the stark silhouettes of naked branches; new growth and the strange, almost hallucinatory suggestion of pale green like the fuzz on the chin of an adolescent boy; male mallards in their bright mating colors; ranks of ducklings struggling to keep up in the race for the bread Lillian threw to them, but which their mothers always seemed to get to first. That had been what the walks were for; just noticing the same things as the years rolled by — now this is happening again, now that. She valued them for the relaxation that repetition offered. Like the path which led, in space, always to the same sequence of landmarks, the changing seasons provided a similar comfort in time. All Lillian did, or wanted to do, was effortlessly to notice. But although it was now palpably winter — her heavy overcoat and scarf, and the slap of cold air against her cheeks telling her it was so — her mind was too preoccupied to benefit from the pleasure of here it is again. She wondered, though, if what went on in her mind lately would be counted as “thought,” either.
This morning, as she put up with the daily crush on the tube getting to work, a memory of part of a conversation before dinner last night had come into her mind, gleaming and sharp, like a bright, lethal blade.
“I’ll be a bit late this evening. I’m having a drink with Rory.”
“Rory, from God-knows-when in my life. He phoned out of the blue, this morning.”
“How do I know that’s true?”
The sentence had slipped out in spite of Lillian trying to hold it in by sinking her teeth into her bottom lip.
“Because,” the voice calm, without emotion one way or the other, “because I say so.”
End of conversation. Time for a drink before dinner.
On the tube, surrounded by damp, overheated bodies which Lillian would smell on her clothes from time to time during the day, there were two passes from the gleaming, double-edged knife. The memory of having tried and failed — again, always again — to bite back useless words that couldn’t possibly resolve the question constantly paining her, made her almost faint with anger at herself. Until she remembered how deliberately he’d said, “He phoned me out of the blue…” The emphasis on he hadn’t been there as he spoke, but that was what the sentence was for. Allay suspicion, leave no room for it. Rory. He.
The direction of her anger shifted now from her own inability to live with her doubts, to Charlie, for his deceit, his scheming, and for the way his deceit made her feel. The rage at being lied to. The energy it took up.
There were flashes before her eyes as if chemicals surged suddenly in her body, causing a visual disturbance. She saw a picture of Rory — female — telling whoever she was involved with, “I’m seeing Charlie tonight. You remember, the girl I was at college with?” Why not use the coincidence of a pair of cunningly ambiguous names? Make up as little as possible. Always the best way. And then laugh about it together.
Out in the street with enough empty air around her, she shook off the pressure of bodies pushing, close in, against her, and got hold of her thoughts. This had to stop. It was too painful, too awful. Charlie had told her again and again, “Listen to me, I love you. Why else would I be here? What other possible reason could there be for it? Don’t you know, don’t you feel I love you? Can’t you tell?”
Lillian let the familiar assurance spread over her sore parts like a viscous remedy taken to line and soothe raw flesh. There was a simple logic to Charlie’s words. Truth was self-evident. Well, that wasn’t necessarily true, but in this case it was. She couldn’t, if she looked at the history of the two of them, at his behavior, at how things were between them, doubt that he loved her. And the corollary: “I’m not interested in anyone else. I love you — I want you. You are everything I’ve ever wanted, why would I go with anyone else?”
It was insane — well, neurotic — to give time and energy to suspicions that made no sense in the light of what was actually happening.
She climbed the flight of stairs to the office, relieved at the calm certainty — as normal as Charlie, as anyone — she had made herself feel. It was the state of mind in which she wanted to proceed with her day and her life.
It had lasted until lunchtime. Her emotional existence had taken on a new diurnal pattern: the second-thought rage about something said or done as the tube clattered along in time to the build-up of her anger; the coming to her senses as she walked to work, once the pressure of being underground was relieved by being back on the surface again; the simple getting on with her job until lunchtime, when she went downstairs and headed towards the park, and then the other version of “coming to her senses,” and an hour of striding rage. A daily nightmare since Charlie had moved in with her. It was unbearable — whether her suspicions were accurate or not — just the thinking, the supposing, the turmoil of one minute this certainty, the next minute the opposite. It reminded her how, as a child, she had believed in God because it was so clear, so obvious, that he existed. She couldn’t imagine how anyone could think differently. And then, ten years on, the same absolute conviction that there was no deity, no otherness, only the material world that could be seen, heard and felt. How could anyone possibly believe in God? It wasn’t until a further ten years on that she had come to the possibility of agnosticism, and the ability to live with an uncertainty. Even then, she had trouble understanding how anyone could believe firmly one way or the other. But the business of believing in Charlie was more urgent than her problems with God. The swings of conviction — he is seeing someone else — he most certainly isn’t — came around several giddying times a day. Sometimes Lillian felt as if she were going mad, but there was nothing mad about her thoughts in either state of mind. They were all too logical. It was only the persistence and the seesawing that had the quality of madness.
She had told Charlie it wouldn’t work. She kept on telling him, but it seemed that they had different definitions of what working meant. Lillian was at a loss to know what to do. She didn’t understand the situation, had no idea how to assess what was going on, all she knew was the vivid quality of her discomfort.
Lillian had never lived with anyone, not until she was thirty-five and Charlie moved in. Barged in, she would have said, but she had enough respect for the truth to know it couldn’t have happened without her consent, without her wanting it. Nonetheless, it felt now more as if she had been involved in an accident, than that she had made a considered decision. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that an act of God had occurred of which she was the victim.
This was not the truth. Lillian had very definitely made a decision, but looking back on it, it seemed to her that that moment was the root of the madness which had descended on her. It had started there: with a thought-out attempt to be…normal?
There had always been lovers. Lillian liked sex, and sometimes liked to have company. After a few years of getting together with men purely for their talent in bed, she came round to the view that there might be something better to be found. She confined herself to relationships, thereafter, with men who were talented in bed, and whom she could stand to have in her flat for more than five minutes after they’d got dressed. Lillian saw this as a definite moment of growth. At twenty-six, when she made the decision, she had, she felt, matured. Sex on its own was all right, physically, but would no longer do. She felt she wanted more. So from then on she only got involved with men she liked. This caused a decrease in sexual activity, but she was able to cope with it, given her new-found maturity.
At first, at the beginning of Lillian’s sexual history, she was no different from her friends, who had as frequent and superficial relationships as she had. They all had fun, Lillian and her friends, through college. But, gradually, one after another, the other women dropped away as each formed permanent attachments. By the time Lillian was thirty-two, most had married or were living with someone, though some had divorced by then and were on second husbands, and two had decided to be lesbians (which made no difference since both of them were in settled relationships). Only Lillian remained steadfastly single. No one stayed in her flat for more than one night at a time, and her newly discovered dissatisfaction with purely physical relationships did not mean that she felt the need to be with someone twenty-four hours a day, or to have company when she went to the supermarket.
She still saw some of those friends and they frequently tried to persuade her of the joys of being in a committed relationship, but it was not what Lillian wanted. She didn’t argue when they called her neurotic, she acknowledged it.
“Yes, I suppose I am, but there it is. Here I am, and neurotic or not, I live and work and function okay. So if I don’t have a problem, why not just accept that’s how I am?”
Fair enough, but, in fact, Lillian did see a psychotherapist for a while. She went because of car tax. She found keeping her car on the road caused her terrible anxiety. For two months before the road tax was due to be renewed each year, Lillian would be overcome with fear and helplessness. The car needed an MOT, but she was somehow incapable of finding, or getting to, a garage to obtain it. She always did eventually, at the last moment, but until then she would lie awake until it began to get light, consumed with worry about how to find a garage, about making an appointment, then getting to it. All this, night after night, for months before, and then a blind panic a day before the tax was due. Afterwards, always, she wondered what the fuss was about; it had been simple, she only had to repeat next year what she had done this year, but calmly. But, of course, the following year the same thing happened. All kinds of official, required organization left her in this state, and Lillian knew that there was something wrong about it. It made life a misery and she was aware, with one part of her mind, that it wasn’t necessary. She went to see a shrink.
There was, in her fear of coping with everyday details, something of a hankering for a “man about the house.” So David Fanshaw suggested, and in all honesty, Lillian found herself unable to protest much at his analysis as far as it went. Very soon, though, she was confronted with the problem of transference. She was too guarded, Fanshaw told her. After a few weeks, he pointed out that not once had she made a slip of the tongue, she recalled no dreams, and her refusal to lie on the couch, as opposed to sitting opposite him in the chair, was symptomatic of a refusal to trust him, to be prepared to make herself vulnerable to him. They had long since stopped talking about cars and getting domestic machinery mended. Vulnerability had become the issue.
“But why would I deliberately make myself vulnerable?” she asked, her eyes widening in genuine perplexity.
“Because people who refuse to be vulnerable, who refuse to take a risk with other people, are hampered in their ability to make relationships.”
“Are you telling me that to open yourself up to being hurt and unhappy is a sign of health? You aren’t really saying that, are you? That I should deliberately lay myself open to pain? Wouldn’t your lot call that masochistic? There are some genuinely unpleasant people out there, you know.”
David Fanshaw made a church roof and steeple with his fingers.
“Until you take the risk, how do you know what anyone is like? If you reject everyone, because some people aren’t nice, you won’t find the other kind. You’ll never make a real relationship.”
“But,” Lillian explained calmly, “I don’t want a real relationship. I mean, not more than I have already. I see people. I get involved with people…”
“Up to a point.”
“Well, of course, up to a point. Everything’s up to a point. Why would I change my life when it seems very satisfactory to me? I don’t have to be married to be happy.”
“But you’re here.”
“Because of panicking about things, not because I’m not in a cozy domestic situation.”
They carried on for a while, but Lillian never did lie down, and it became clear that David Fanshaw felt they wouldn’t get to the bottom of things until she responded in a less rational way.
One problem was that Lillian was not mystified about why she was like she was. She knew that her background, a pair of hopelessly inept, over-anxious parents and an older sister killed in a pointless and awful accident, made her attitude to life the way it was. She told Fanshaw that at the first session.
“I understand why I’m the way I am, but how I am, preferring to live alone and so on, is fine by me. I don’t want to be cured of my need for independence, I just want some help with my irrational anxieties.”
“I’m afraid that psychotherapy doesn’t work like that,” he warned her. “It’s not a matter of curing inconvenient symptoms, but of looking at underlying causes, at the whole situation.”
She should have realized then that there wasn’t any point, but she kept on hoping that something useful would come out of it. One night, though, she had what David Fanshaw might have called an insight if it had been the kind of thing he approved of. Lillian got up early, wrote a letter to Fanshaw thanking him for his help and enclosing a final cheque, and then put a small ad in the local newspaper offering her car for sale. That was what she called dealing with a problem. She couldn’t panic about the car if she didn’t have one. She promised herself to deal with other anxieties as they arose, in much the same way. If they cause you trouble, do without them. She was only applying to machinery what she had always applied to men. Get rid of whatever areas she found intolerable. Deny the power of anything that could upset her equilibrium. Practical, was the way Lillian thought about it.
So how did it come about that a year after she’d met Charlie, he’d turned up at her doorstep with his suits over one arm, and his stereo under the other? Because she had agreed that he should. And why, Lillian wondered as if it were an entirely new thought, throwing the crusts of her sandwich at the ducks, had she agreed to such a thing?
Because she loved Charlie; because it was different. And because, recognizing the pleasure she got from his company and wanting more of it, more of the time, she had thought why shouldn’t she take a risk, for once in her life? But if love was what she felt for Charlie, it wasn’t the blinding kind that her friends seemed to catch. She wasn’t befuddled into believing herself to be part of a fairy tale. She had no doubt that the relationship would end sooner or later, or, at any rate, peter out. She could imagine only too well the unpleasantness of separating the effects of two lives that had come together in one place. She could see with dismal clarity, when she forced herself, the misery of finding herself alone after a year or two, disoriented by the new kind of existence she had got used to; or worse, the hideous near-certainty of becoming the woman who waited at home while her man found himself more interesting fish to fry without wanting the inconvenience of packing his bags.
Knowing all this, certain that all this applied to her and not some statistical other, Lillian had nevertheless taken a deep breath and said, “Yes,” when Charlie told her for the tenth time that he wanted to be living with her. After all, it seemed suddenly to occur to her, what was the prospect of pain, however clearly she envisaged it, compared to the excitement of doing what she wanted to do, and, for once, to hell with the consequences? Which was a curious thought, since until that moment, she had not felt that the life she chose to lead was anything other than exactly what she wanted.
But throwing caution to the wind is a talent that comes with practice, and Lillian had none. A whim, novel though it might be, wasn’t enough to stop the cold sweat that ran down her spine when Charlie rang the doorbell on the day they had arranged he should move in. So Lillian, learning from the motorcar lesson, took things in hand.
“Listen,” she said while Charlie filled the space in the wardrobe she had made for him. “I want to get something straight. I want to make a deal. I won’t be told lies. In return for you not lying to me, I won’t make any demands about fidelity. It’s just logical,” she said, as Charlie turned to look at her. “If I don’t care about you fucking other women, then you can’t lie to me, can you, because there’s nothing to lie about. And then I won’t have to spend energy worrying if I’m being lied to. It’s the idea of being deceived and not knowing it, not you fucking other women, that I really can’t stand.”
“You don’t care if I have other women?”
Charlie turned to the wardrobe and started taking out the hangers he had just put in.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t want to live with you if you don’t care if I’m fucking other people. I’d rather leave now.”
Lillian stared at him. “Stop it.”
“No. The arrangement isn’t to my taste. I am faithful to you, and that’s all there is to it. I don’t want you not to care if I fuck someone else.”
“It’s just that I don’t want you to have a chance to lie to me. I can’t bear the idea of worrying about it.”
“I don’t lie to you. I won’t ever lie to you. I don’t want other women, because I want you, but if I did, I’d tell you, because it’d be over.”
“How do I know that’s true?”
“Because I’m telling you it’s true.”
It was the first time that pair of sentences were spoken between them, but by no means the last. Lillian recognized the essential truth of the exchange, or rather, recognized that it was as far as truth could go in such matters. She had already solved the problem: if she wanted guarantees about another person’s thoughts and acts, then she simply had to distance herself sufficiently from them, so that their thoughts and acts were not relevant, and only the actual time spent together was of concern. But something had made her want more.
Perhaps it was simply the passage of time — being thirty-five makes you notice that time is limited and that it’s entirely possible for some things never to happen. It also had to do with what might be thought of as a pull towards democracy. If everyone else was taking risks, shacking up with someone and accepting the consequences, then maybe her fear of it was wrong. Maybe she should try it.
Whatever it was, when she was faced with the reality, she discovered that her fears were not merely “neurotic,” as in “superficial,” but ran deep enough to take up most of her mental energies. She knew she could never know what was really going on in another person’s mind, no matter how closely they might have linked their lives, and Lillian found the inescapable reality of this fact intolerable.
“I want to rummage through the files inside your mind,” she had once said to a sleepy Charlie, who had smiled at the idea, not realizing the deadly seriousness of the thought.
That fact, combined with what seemed to be her congenital certainty that, after a time, all relationships became at best comfortable, and that men would inevitably look elsewhere for excitement, made living with Charlie a kind of hell, as bad as her worst imaginings.
Lillian couldn’t understand friends whose confidence in their men seemed to her like a desperate optimism. It seemed that all of them, for the most part, intelligent, well-informed women, believed at the beginning of their involvements that their relationship was the final choice of partner that each party would make. They had found their life-long relationship, and, in spite of both the men and the women having had several other relationships, Lillian’s friends were wonderfully sure that this was it. Never mind the divorce statistics, never mind the figures showing the percentage of men (and women) who were unfaithful in relationships, never mind the fact that some of their friends’ marriages had collapsed into apathy or desertion.
Lillian couldn’t understand the “It’s different for us” attitude that she saw all around her. She didn’t feel like that. She couldn’t help knowing that statistics had as good a chance of applying to her as to anyone else. So there was no doubt that Charlie, ardent and devoted as he might be at their relatively early stage of relationship, would end up wanting a comfortable domestic relationship with her (if such a thing were possible), and sexual excitement with a variety of someone else’s. No, she didn’t really think he was unfaithful to her now (at least, for part of the time she didn’t), but she knew he would be, and she was horrified at the idea that there would be a moment when the change occurred and she would be left foolishly imagining that it was still the way it had been at the beginning. “Bastard!” she yelled at the faithless Charlie of the future. “Treacherous, lying bastard!” And sometimes, when she couldn’t stop herself, she said it to the Charlie of the here and now. It wasn’t that she wept and screamed; their discussions were no more than that. But Lillian knew, for all the apparent reasonableness of her tone, that she couldn’t believe what Charlie said, and, most awful, she knew she never would. There was nothing he could say. Her questions and accusations were more like verbal tics. They could not be answered.
“But you’d know if I was involved with someone else,” Charlie tried to reassure her, defending his future against her pessimism.
She knew, though, that was just another truism not borne out by the figures.
“But you can’t punish me, or throw me out for what I haven’t done but might do in the future.” Charlie was remarkably patient with what he called “LM,” which stood for “Lillian’s madness.”
Enjoy what there is now, and let the future take care of itself. Lillian heard this advice from everyone. It made very good sense. They were, she and Charlie, amazingly happy together; she did enjoy having breakfast with him; she liked them going to the supermarket together; she looked forward to getting home and meeting him, as she often did, on the doorstep, each fumbling in their pocket for the key. Against all the odds their relationship was a huge success. Except for those times when Lillian’s alarm about what was going to happen cut through the pleasure, and made her brain zing with anger at Charlie for bringing potential deceit into her life.
Lillian threw her last piece of bread into the mêlée at the edge of the pond and, seeing no more coming their way, the ducks veered off in search of other lunchtime philanthropists. She didn’t view their behavior as treacherous; it was perfectly natural that they should take what they wanted from wherever they could get it. Lillian liked the openness of the transaction.
Everything about human transactions, on the other hand, was devious, including attempts at openness. All right, so Charlie, loving her and wanting her, assured her that he wasn’t sleeping around; but when he grew tired of her, he would use exactly the same words to lie with. He would say “No” to her question, “Are you fucking anyone?” now, because he wasn’t, and then, because he was. How could anyone know which was which, or when the one turned into the other?
Lillian continued her walk. The path straightened up and took her past neatly manicured grass. In the summer, it was filled with people sunning themselves singly or in couples, with kids racing and shouting, with balls and bikes, dogs and picnickers; now, it was empty, a quiet, green swathe, as soothing and uneventful as she wished her mind would be. But she couldn’t make it be still.
Today it was ambisexual Rory, yesterday it was a postcard that slipped out of the book Charlie was reading. “Sorry you’re feeling low. Here’s something to cheer you up.” On the other side was a reproduction of a Rothko painting, an abstract of solid yellow blocks. Back on the side that really mattered, it was signed, “Janey.” She knew who Janey was: a colleague at work. But she didn’t know what Janey was.
“Nothing. A friend. She left it on my desk.”
“After you told her how unhappy you are with me?” Lillian snapped. “After I’d walked around groaning about my sinuses a couple of weeks ago. Remember? How could I have told her I was unhappy with you? Haven’t you noticed that we’re happy together?”
“You don’t leave cards on someone’s desk without a reason.”
“Yes, you do. Just a friendly gesture.”
“And then you keep it in your book?”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because I’m telling you the truth.”
Charlie’s tone of infinite patience frightened her, but there was also something curiously exciting about it. It felt as if she were walking on a smooth lake of ice, knowing that each step brought her nearer to the middle that was not quite frozen enough to be safe. She had wondered on yesterday’s walk how many more times they could have that conversation before Charlie threw up his hands and left, his patience turning out not to be infinite at all, as she knew it couldn’t be. And now, she recognized suddenly that part of her wished he would. Get it over with. Push him just that bit further, and she wouldn’t have to worry about their future; it would be a thing of the past. And she would be proven right: yes, there was love, but it was only up to a point. How could it be any other way?
So this morning it had been Rory. One step nearer. Even if Charlie brought a resplendently masculine Rory round for dinner, there was no reason to believe that he hadn’t been seeing someone else, using Rory as an alibi. There was no reason to believe anything, not in a world where outcomes are already inevitable, and telling the truth is the same as telling lies at a different time. Even Charlie’s infinite patience was suspect. It was like laying down wine for drinking in the future. The more she grew to trust him, the easier it would be for him to deceive her. It was therefore an act of madness, of self-destruction, to trust Charlie, even if he was telling the truth.
The path curved gently around the neat green field and Lillian walked back on the other side towards the entrance. The park had been carved out of the edge of Hampstead Heath. To her left, as she walked, a fence marked the boundary between the untended heath on one side, and the carefully cultivated park on the other. The heath wasn’t exactly wild land, there was a network of branching paths through and round it, but Lillian preferred to stay on the cultivated side where there were no unexpected turns along the path, no unforeseen distractions — a circle of interesting mushrooms, or an enticing wooded area — so she could be sure she would be back where she had started from in the same amount of time, every day.
And what was wrong with that? What was wrong with enjoying the thoughtlessness that routine allowed? What was the necessity for doing the unknown, the difficult thing?
Tomorrow, she would overhear Charlie speaking to someone on the phone, while she was having a bath. The next day she’d think she’d detected a scent that wasn’t his. The day after, they’d be driving to a restaurant and she’d notice a single, auburn hair on the headrest of the passenger seat. And on. And on. It didn’t matter how happy they were together, the suspicions would squeeze out the pleasure, until anxiety was all that was left. Only one thing could satisfy her. Not reassurance, not logic, not re-affirmations of love; only a simple “Yes” in answer to her question would provide relief. Lillian discovered, as she reached the park gate, that was all she wanted. Love was a charming idea, companionship was nice, but only Charlie’s infidelity could make her really happy. She was working on it, she thought, as she climbed the stairs to her office. She was doing the best she could to make the relationship work.