Her long hair was not quite blonde, but bleached almost to that colour. It looked odd, because the urchin cut was the fashion: girls like boys, not girls like girls; and there was something German, Danish, about her — waif-like, yet perversely or immorally so. She kept back from the open doorway, beckoned me. Her smile was very thin, very insincere, and very curt.
. . . . When I came back, she was standing with a glass of Scotch in her hand. She smiled again, but it was an effort; shut off almost at once. I helped her remove her mackintosh. She was wearing a French perfume so dark it was almost carbolic, and her primrose shirt was dirty.
. . . . She raised her glass in a silent toast. She had candid grey eyes, the only innocent things in a corrupt face, as if circumstances, not nature, had forced her to be hard. To fend for herself, yet to seem to need defending. And her voice, only very slightly Australian, yet not English, veered between harshness, faint nasal rancidity, and a strange salty directness. She was bizarre, a kind of human oxymoron.
. . . . We exchanged wary smiles.
. . . . The door opened. She had her hair up, and a towel wrapped round her; very brown shoulders, very brown legs. She went quickly back into the bathroom. Draining water gurgled. I shouted through the door.
. . . . ‘Wait a minute.’
I waited several. But then the door opened and she came out into the living-room. She was wearing a very simple white dress, and her hair was down again. She had no make-up, and looked ten times prettier.
She gave me a little bitten-in grin. ‘I pass?’
‘The belle of the ball.’ Her look was so direct I found it disconcerting. ‘We go down?’
. . . . There I pretended to read a paperback.
Alison knelt beside me. ‘I’m sloshed. That whisky. Hey, have some of this.’ It was gin. She sat sideways, I shook my head. I thought of that white-faced English girl with the red smudged mouth. At least this girl was alive; crude, but alive.
‘I’m glad you returned tonight.’
She sipped her gin and gave me a small sizing look.
I tried again. ‘Ever read this?’
‘Let’s cut corners. To hell with literature. You’re clever and I’m beautiful. Now let’s talk about who we really are.’
The grey eyes teased; or dared.
. . . . Gradually, though I was offended at having been taught a lesson in the art of not condescending, she made me talk about myself. She did it by asking blunt questions, and by brushing aside empty answers. I began to talk about being a brigadier’s son, about loneliness, and for once mostly not to glamourize myself but simply to explain. I discovered two things about Alison: that behind her bluntness she was an expert coaxer, a handler of men, a sexual diplomat, and that her attraction lay as much in her candour as in her having a pretty body, an interesting face, and knowing it. She had a very un-English ability to flash out some truth, some seriousness, some quick surge of interest. I fell silent. I knew she was watching me. After a moment I looked at her. She had a shy, thoughtful expression; a new self.
‘Alison, I like you.’
‘I think I like you. You’ve got quite a nice mouth. For a prig.’
. . . . All the lights except one dim one had long ago been put out, and there were the usual surrendered couples on all available furniture and floor-space. The party had paired off. Maggie seemed to have disappeared, and Charlie lay fast asleep on the bedroom floor. We danced. We began close, and became closer. I kissed her hair, and then her neck, and she pressed my hand, and moved a little closer still.
‘Shall we go upstairs?’
‘You go first. I’ll come in a minute.’ She slipped away, and I went up to my flat. Ten minutes passed, and then she was in the doorway, a faintly apprehensive smile on her face. She stood there in her white dress, small, innocent-corrupt, coarse-fine, an expert novice.
She came in, I shut the door, and we were kissing at once, for a minute, two minutes, pressed back against the door in the darkness.
. . . . She sat leaning back against the wall, with the too-large shirt on, a small female boy with a hurt face, staring at the bedcover, in our silence.
. . . . But those grey, searching, always candid eyes, by their begging me not to lie, made me lie.
‘I like you. Really very much.’
‘Come back to bed and hold me. Nothing else. Just hold me.’
I got into bed and held her. Then for the first time in my life I made love to a woman in tears.
. . . . Alison was always feminine; she never, like so many English girls, betrayed her gender. She wasn’t beautiful, she very often wasn’t even pretty. But she had a fashionably thin boyish figure, she had a contemporary dress sense, she had a conscious way of walking, and her sum was extraordinarily more than her parts. I would sit in the car and watch her walking down the street towards me, pause, cross the road; and she looked wonderful. But then when she was close, beside me, there so often seemed to be something rather shallow, something spoilt-child, in her appearance. Even close to her, I was always being wrong-footed. She would be ugly at one moment, and then some movement, expression, angle of her face, made ugliness impossible.
When she went out she used to wear a lot of eye-shadow, which married with the sulky was she sometimes held her mouth to give her a characteristic bruised look; a look that subtly made one want to bruise her more. Men were always aware of her, in the street, in restaurants, in pubs; and she knew it. I used to watch them sliding their eyes at her as she passed. She was one of those rare, even among already pretty, women that are born with a natural aura of sexuality: always in their lives it will be the relationships with men, it will be how men react, that matters. And even the tamest sense it.
There was a simpler Alison, when the mascara was off. She had not even been typical of herself, those first twelve hours; but still always a little unpredictable, ambiguous. One never knew when the more sophisticated, bruised-hard persona would reappear. She would give herself violently; then yawn at the wrongest moment. . . . She liked doing things, and only then finding a reason for doing them.
. . . . I couldn’t see her face. We sat in silence, close and warm, both aware that we were close and aware that we were embarrassed by the implications of this talk about children. In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love.
. . . . I remember one day when we were standing in one of the rooms at the Tate. Alison was leaning slightly against me, holding my hand, looking in her childish sweet-sucking way at a Renoir. I suddenly had a feeling that we were one body, one person, even there; that if she had disappeared it would have been as if I had lost half of myself. A terrible deathlike feeling, which anyone less cerebral and self-absorbed than I was then would have realized was simply love. I thought it was desire. I drove her straight home and tore her clothes off.
. . . . There was a difficult pause. I knew what she wanted me to say, but I couldn’t say it. I felt as a sleepwalker must feel when he wakes up at the end of the roof parapet. I wasn’t ready for marriage, for settling down. I wasn’t psychologically close enough to her; something I couldn’t define, obscure, monstrous, lay between us, and this obscure monstrous thing emanated from her, not from me.
. . . . ‘If I say what I feel about you, will you … ‘
‘I know what you feel.’
And it was there: an accusing silence.
I reached out and touched her bare stomach. She pushed my hand away, but held it. ‘You feel, I feel, what’s the good. It’s what we feel. What you feel is what I feel. I’m a woman.’
I was frightened; and calculated my answer.
‘Would you marry me if I asked you?’
‘You can’t say it like that.’
. . . . The rain came in sudden great swathes across the tree-tops and hit the windows and the roof; like spring rain, out of season. The bedroom air seemed full of unspoken words, unformulated guilts, a vicious silence, like the moments before a bridge collapses. We lay side by side, untouching, effigies on a bed turned tomb; sickeningly afraid to say what we really thought. In the end she spoke, in a voice that tried to be normal, but sounded harsh.
‘I don’t want to hurt you and the more I … want you, the more I shall. And I don’t want you to hurt me and the more you don’t want me the more you will.’
. . . . We overslept in the morning. I had deliberately set the alarm late, to make a rush, not to leave time for tears. Alison ate her breakfast standing up. We talked about absurd things; cutting the milk order, where a library ticket I had lost might be. And then she put down her coffee-cup and we were standing at the door. I saw her face, as if it was still not too late, all a bad dream, her grey eyes searching mine, her small puffy cheeks. There were tears forming in her eyes, and she opened her mouth to say something. But then she leant forward, desperately, clumsily, kissed me so swiftly that I hardly felt her mouth; and was gone. Her camel-hair coat disappeared down the stairs. She didn’t look back. I went to the window, and saw her walking fast across the street, the pale coat, the straw-coloured hair almost the same colour as the coat, a movement of her hand to her handbag, her blowing her nose; not once did she look back. She broke into a run. I opened the window and leant out and watched until she disappeared round the corner at the end of the street into Marylebone Road. And not even then, at the very end, did she look back.
I turned to the room, washed up the breakfast things, made the bed; then I sat at the table and wrote out a cheque for fifty pounds, and a little note.
Alison darling, please believe that if it was to be anyone, it would have been you; that I’ve really been far sadder than I could show, if we were not both to go mad. Please wear the ear-rings. Please take this money and buy a scooter and go where we used to go — or do what you want with it. Please look after yourself. Oh God, if only I was worth waiting for …
It was supposed to sound spontaneous, but I had been composing it on and off for days. I put the cheque and the note in an envelope, and set it on the mantlepiece with the little box containing the pair of jet ear-rings we had seen in a closed antique-shop one day. Then I shaved and went out to get a taxi.
The thing I felt most clearly, when the first corner was turned, was that I had escaped; and hardly less clearly, but much more odiously, that she loved me more than I loved her, and that consequently I had in some indefinable way won. So on top of the excitement of the voyage into the unknown, the taking wing again, I had an agreeable feeling of emotional triumph. A dry feeling; but I liked things dry. I went towards Victoria as a hungry man goes towards a good dinner after a couple of glasses of Mananzilla. I began to hum, and it was not a brave attempt to hide my grief, but a revoltingly unclouded desire to celebrate my release.
— John Fowles, The Magus