Original Bliss (A.L. Kennedy)

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  Mrs. Brindle lay on her living-room floor, watching her ceiling billow and blink with the cold, cold colours and the shadows of British Broadcast light. A presumably educative conversation washed across her and she was much too tired to sleep or listen, but that was okay, that was really quite all right.

"What about the etiquette of masturbation? Because everything runs to rules, you know, even the bad old sin of Onan. So what are the rules in this case? About whom may we masturbate?"

"Someone we have only ever seen and never met?"

"Quite common, almost a norm--we feel we are offending no one, we superimpose a personality on a picture, in as far as our dreadful needs must when that particular devil drives, and that's that."

Harold Wilson's baby, friend to the lonely, the Open University.

"How about a casual acquaintance? Someone with whom we have never been intimate and with whom we never will? Someone our attentions would only ever shock?"

"Actually, that's much more rare. We imagine their, shall we say disgust, and find it inhibits us. We steer our thoughts another way."

Mrs. Brindle rolled onto her stomach, noticing vaguely how stiffened and tender her muscles had grown. Women of her age were not intended to rest on floors. Beside her head, the moving picture of a man with too much hair grinned clear across the screen. Video recorders were catching his every detail in who could tell how many homes where students and other interested parties were now sensibly unconscious in their beds, their learning postponed to coincide with convenience. Mrs. Brindle didn't care about education, she cared about company. She was here and almost watching, almost listening, because she could not be asleep. Other people studied at their leisure and worked towards degrees, Mrs. Brindle avoided the presence of night.

"On the other hand, we are highly likely to make imaginary use," the voice was soft, jovially clandestine, deep in the way that speech heard under water might be, "of someone with whom we intend to be intimate."

She tried to concentrate.

"The closer the two of us get, the more acceptable our fantasies become, until they grow up into facts and instead of the dreams that kept us company, we have memories--to say nothing of a real live partner with whom we may have decided to be in love."

"And here is where we reach my point, because this is all one huge demonstration of how the mind affects reality and reality affects the mind. I indulge in a spot of libidinous mental cartooning and what happens? A very demonstrable physical result. Not to mention a monumental slew of moral and emotional dilemmas, all of which may very well feed back to those realities I first drew upon to stimulate my mind, and around and around and around we go and where we'll stop, we do not know."

"That around and around is what I mean by Cybernetics. Don't believe a soul who tells you different--particularly if they're engineers. This is Cybernetics--literally, it means nothing more than steering. The way I steer me, the way you steer you. From the inside. Our interior lives have seismic effects on our exterior world. We have to wake up and think about that if we want to be really alive."

Something about the man was becoming persistent. Mrs. Brindle felt herself approach the slope of a black-out, the final acceleration into nowhere she needed to worry about, a well of extinguished responsibilities. It seemed not unlikely that his voice might follow her in.

She counted herself down the list of things still undone through her own deliberate fault: breakfast not prepared for, low milk not replaced, her surrender to the pointlessness inherent in ironing socks.

Dawn was up before her, but still not entirely established, just a touch delicate. The television was dark and dumb in the corner. She must have remembered to turn it off. Her left hip throbbed alive, commemorating another night spent bearing her weight against a less than forgiving carpet. Not for the first time, she pushed herself up to her knees with thoughts of how much more convenient she might find a padded cell. The idea didn't crack a smile, not this morning.

Furious, humid rain was banging at the windows. Its noise must have roused her. She relished downpours, their atmosphere of release. Stepping gently through to the kitchen, she knew this particular pleasure came mainly from the air pressure falls that could accompany lavish rain. The harmless impacts of water on glass were among the small, domesticated sounds that Mrs. Brindle loved. Like the first whispers from a kettle when it clears its throat before a boil, they made her feel at home and peaceful in ways that many other things did not.

She steeped real coffee in the miniature cafetière that held exactly enough for one and tried not to remember the space in her morning routine. Mrs. Brindle tried not to think, "This is when you would have prayed. This is when you would have started your day by knowing the shape of your life."

While she sat and waited for the time when she could set the bacon to the grill, Mrs. Brindle remembered the programme she'd slept with last night. It had been about steering. A long-boned man who spoke about steering and wanking. That didn't seem exactly likely, now she thought, but the man who'd spoken seemed too coherent and unfamiliar and just too tall to be someone her imagination had simply conjured up and slipped inside her sleep. She hadn't exactly dreamed about him, but something of him had been constantly there, like the ticking of a clock, leaked in from another room.

Having completed her coffee, she worked her way through yesterday's paper and considered she might even try to find out his name.

"Edward E. Gluck. Edward E. Gluck. Edward E. Gluck. You hear that? I have a wonderfully rhythmical name. My mother gave it me. She played semi-professional oboe when she was young and I think this meant that she always approached things as if they were some kind of score: arguments, gas bills, christenings; anything. I could be wrong on this, but I like to believe it anyway, you know?"

Radio Two, Mrs. Brindle's favourite; it didn't pretend to be better than it was. She was mixing a batter for Yorkshire pudding, properly in advance so that it would settle and mature and make something which would taste well and be sympathetic with gravy. She was nowhere near the time for gravy yet.

As Edward E. Gluck repeated and repeated his own name, she recognised his voice. On the television, he had sounded just the same--he made very ordinary words seem dark and close. Now, beneath his enthusiasm, she could hear a harder type of consistent energy, unidentifiable, but engaging. She put the batter bowl into the fridge and sat to concentrate on Gluck.

"She was a lady, my mother. A remarkable woman. On the night I'm referring to, I was maybe four years old and unable to sleep because freight trains ran close by the back of our flat almost continuously. And I was restless because my parents had separated not long before and I'd been moved from my home and money was tight and sleeping seemed too much like dropping my guard. Anything could have happened while I was out."

"Now I remember this clearly. I'm sitting up, right inside the dark with the blankets neat in to my waist and the rest of me cold. I'm concentrating. But there's no way to know what I'm concentrating on--I only know I've been thinking when my mother opens up my door. She snaps me back from a place in my mind that is smooth and big and nowhere I've been before. I've liked it. I want to go there again, to the place that's only thoughts and me thinking them."

"Mother, she sat by my bed. I can still picture her beautiful shape and know she smelt all powdery and breakable and sweet. She waited with me for the next of the trains to pass. She made me listen to the carriages--listen to them, not just hear."

"And they were saying my name. All of them, all of the time, for all of their journeys, were saying my name. Edward E. Gluck, Edward E. Gluck, Edward E. Gluck. Every train on every railway in the world can't help saying my name."

"That night, my mother taught me two things I have never forgotten since. That she loved me enough to offer me her time.
And that my fundamental egomania will always cheer me up. I indulge it as often as I can."

Gluck talked a great deal about himself--he put his inside on his outside with a kind of clinical delight. Mrs. Brindle rolled cubes of pork in egg yolk and then salt and black pepper and flour and listened to someone with ridiculous personal confidence and a small but happy laugh. Whatever his life was doing, he seemed to understand it perfectly, because that was his job, his Cybernetics. Within the few minutes of his talk, he ricocheted from essential freedom to creative individuality and his new collection of accessible and entertaining essays which dealt with these and many other subjects. Available in larger bookshops now.

Mrs. Brindle knew about bookshops. For a while she had thought they might help her. Publishers were, after all, always bringing out books intended as guides to life and all-purpose inspirations. She had scoured an exhaustive number of first- and second-hand suppliers without finding a single volume of any use. She had also discovered since, that the fungi which thrived upon elderly books--even of the self-improving type--could cause hallucinations and psychosis and were, in short, a genuine threat to mental health. This did not surprise her.

The amount of time and hope she must have wasted in that particular search for enlightenment threatened to make her feel discontented now, so she decided to focus her mind on Gluck. She would like to read Gluck. This would do no more harm or good than the reading of anything else and would allow someone entertaining inside her head.

Her previous experiences had taught her that she could reach the closest sizeable bookshop, buy herself a book, and be home again in time to preserve the success of her evening meal. So she left the kitchen and then entirely abandoned the house with the radio still singing and murmuring to itself behind the locked front door.
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Excerpted from Original Bliss by A. L. Kennedy. Copyright© 1999 by A. L. Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in w. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.