Getting a Life: Stories

Getting a Life: Stories


But you love opera," he said. "Particularly the early stuff. I know you do."

"Yes," she said. "I do."

"So what's the problem?" he said. "Try that red thing on now."

She was standing in her underwear with clothes heaped round her feet, while he lolled on the bed. Since the children and then the loss of her job she had retreated into a shambles of soft leggings and sweatshirts, merely day versions of her pajamas, except on occasions like now, when, kicking and screaming, she was dragged out for Client Entertainment. Then Christopher showed sudden interest in what she wore, as keen-eyed on the effect of this or that dress as any old-style libertine.

"Front stalls, gala performance," he persisted. "Orpheus and Eurydice. Just right for a wedding anniversary, I'd have thought. Hold your stomach in, Janine. No, it's still no good. Try that black skirt again with the beaded top."

"It's just about my favorite opera of all," she panted, hating her reflection in the mirror. "So fresh and unencumbered and straight to the heart. But."

"But what," he said.

"But not with clients," Janine said reluctantly, as she knew this would enrage him.

"What difference does it make? They're all perfectly all right people. You're always on about how you like people."

When he talked like this, she regarded it as a temporary madness in his life which she would have to put up with, like Pamina walking through the fire with Tamino, and have faith that they would be together again once he was over it.

"Clients aren't friends," she said.

"They can be," he said. "You're so narrow-minded. They can become very good friends."

"No," she mumbled. "Clients are about money."

"Oh, wicked Mammon," he hooted. "Everything's about money if you're talking in that ignorant way. Music certainly is. Look at Covent Garden, for goodness' sake!"

"Clients are business," she persisted, "not pleasure."

"Client entertainment is all about pleasure," he snarled. Good tickets, champagne, the works. You used to be more generous-spirited."

"You can't get drunk with clients," she said.

"You certainly can," said Christopher. "I do."

"True," she conceded. "But you couldn't ever be really rude or insulting to clients."

"You won't keep many friends that way either."

"You don't make friends for their usefulness," she said. "There can't be strings attached."

"Why not?" he said. "Mutually beneficial relationships, that's the way the world works. Special relationships, hadn't you heard? Symbiotic's the word. Hadn't you noticed?"

"Is that why you married me?" she asked. "Because of what I could do for you?"

"Obviously not," he said with some truculence.

There was silence. He looked her straight in the eye.

"No," he said.

"Good," she said, and went and lay beside him on the bed.

"Your smell," she said at last, her face in his shoulder. "That's how I know it's still you."

"Music! Me, I'm mad for it," said Nigel Perkins from Littleboy and Pringle. "All sorts. Depends on my mood. Verdi when I'm down. Which isn't often. A bit of Bowie. Some Cajun. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It's like food really, isn't it. Like Shakespeare said."

Janine nodded and smiled.

"It's what you're feeling like at the time," he continued. "I usually listen in the car, to be honest, or on the Walkman. Like most of us. So this'll be a novelty."

"Do you know the story?" asked Janine.

"No," he said. "I guess I'll pick it up as I go along."

"Um, but they're singing in French," said Janine. " It's the Berlioz version. Orpheus was a singer whose music charmed the wild beasts. Then his wife Eurydice died suddenly. He went down to the underworld looking for her--"

"Janice, Janice," he said. "It's OK! I get the drift.

"Sorry," said Janlne.

"I think it ruins these things if you analyze them," he said, looking round for more champagne. "All that chatterchatterchatter."

"Mmm," went Janine.

"Ah, here's my wife. Penny! This is Christopher's wife, Janice."

"Hi," said Penny. "Horrific journey, darling. Mega holdup at Sevenoaks. Now, who's this Gluck fellow?"

"Born in Bohemia, studied in Italy," said Janine before she could stop herself. "Visited London, made friends with Handel, wrote an opera celebrating the Battle of Culloden, which flopped. Then he went to Vienna and--"

"Now then, Janice!" said Nigel Perkins playfully. "Chatterchatterchatter."

"The mummies on the bus go chatterchatterchatter," sang Penny brightly.

"What?" said her husband.

"It's a nursery school song," muttered Janine. "Mine sing it too. The daddies on the bus go rustlerustlerustle. Their newspapers, you see."

"Ladies and gentlemen, the performance is about to begin," announced a waiter, shimmying up to their group and holding out a tray for empty glasses.

"Any idea how long it is to halftime?" inquired Nigel Perkins.

"I'm not quite sure, sir, but I believe it's a very short opera."

"That's good," said Penny as they made their way to the auditorium. "Time to enjoy the meal in the interval that way. Not like in Pelléas and Mélisande." "No, that was terrible!" agreed her husband. "Massive long affair that was, and only two fifteen-minute breaks."

"Awful," said Penny, shaking her head. "Bolting down Coronation Chicken in the first interval, if you could call it an interval, then not-very-nice blueberry cheesecake in the second one and no time to finish your coffee. This is much nicer," she said, turning to Janine with a gracious smile.

In the dark listening to the music, Janine lifted away from the world of people and things. She forgot about the shadowy pinstripes each side of her and concentrated on the stage, where mourners like moving white statues tossed flowers on Eurydice's tomb. The bereaved husband Orpheus lay poleaxed by grief while the chorus of mourners sang their beautiful lament. "Eurydice!" cried Orpheus, and she felt the frisson in her flesh. "Eurydice!" he cried again, interrupting the mourners, and she sighed. Then for a third time he cried out "Eurydice!" and this time she jumped, for Nigel Perkins was whispering in her left ear.

"That's cheerful," he was hissing. "Kicking off with a funeral."

On stage the spirit of Hymen extinguished his torch to show marriage sundered by death, and the chorus sang:

L'amoureuse tourterelle
Tonjours tendre, toujours fidèle
Ainsi soupire et meurt de douleur.

Again Janine felt the unwelcome warmth of Nigel Perkins's breath in her ear.

"I said, look, they've got surtitles," he whispered noisily. "You needn't have worried about me after all."

Janine forced herself to nod and smile.

"Nice of you, though," he added huskily.

At this point someone in the row behind shushed him and he settled back into his seat and shut up.

Was it marriage itself which had died, then, she wondered, returning to the other world; was it this ideal of turtledoves and fidelity, of the long-haul flight without betrayal which had proved unworkable? Orpheus sang with mounting grief, urgent and controlled. It was coming back to her now, the particular quality of distress in this opera, where from the start something terrible has happened; something irreversible. And that's just like death, she thought. The line has been crossed and everything has changed.

The music had stolen up on her like hot water flooding over her skin. She remembered that morning, in the half hour before waking, how a procession had trooped through her mind of all the people she had loved who were now dead. Last time Christopher had come home drunk from a client reception, she had wondered aloud whether he would notice if she died, and he had said how he bet she would like him dead, then she would have no more pain or trouble. She stifled a groan.

Now Amour was informing Orpheus in cheery silvered tones that the gods had taken pity on him and would allow him down into the infernal regions to fetch Eurydice back to life--on one condition. He must not look at her while in the precincts of the dead, nor tell her why not.

Soumis au silence
Contrains ton désir
Fais-toi violence

sang Amour, and above the stage the surtitles slid past: In obedient silence / Hold your longing in check / Go against your every instinct. The words flew at her and landed in her like arrows. Wait in silence, yes, that was what was required of her, with the traditional carrot that love would be rewarded. But, she thought wrathfully, unlike in operas, we grow old while waiting in silence.

Orpheus was facing the Furies now, their rancorous music with booms and blaring from the horns, their flashing strings and fierce runs in octaves. He waited, then pleaded with the help of harp and flute to be allowed down to the kingdom of the dead. Again and again the Furies refused him, but at last his entreaties softened their hearts and they let him go. If only, thought Janine. When she said, I'm miserable, to Christopher, he said, No you're not. When she raged at him like one of the Furies, he said, I love you. Unfair. Unanswerable.

Back in the hospitality room at the interval, Christopher was all tenderness and attention, hovering dotingly over Dominic Pilling of Schnell-Darwittersbank and hanging on Dominic Pilling's wife's every word.

"London's getting terribly crowded, isn't it," said the wife. "Too many people. I'm afraid I'm a country girl at heart."

"You love gardening," Christopher suggested fondly.

"Oh yes. Except I get dreadful hay fever," she said.

"So we have to get someone in to do it," laughed Dominic.

"Because Dominic's not around enough at weekends to guarantee keeping it down," she said.

"I have better things to do with my leisure time than cut the grass.

"Like work," she said nastily.

Janine caught Christopher's eye and looked away again. We'll be like them in five years' time, she thought, if we carry on like this; it's what you do every day that changes you.

"Ah leisure," said Christopher hastily. "That precious commodity. We're just in the process of booking ourselves a holiday aren't we, darling. Where did you go last time?"

"Club Med," said Dominic Pilling with enthusiasm. "Brilliant. The actual country you're in is irrelevant. They're all organized to the same very high standards so it hardly matters."

"You don't have to lift a finger," cooed his wife. "The children are taken care of. You never see them! They adore it."

"The main thing is to recharge the batteries," declared Dominic.

"Are you enjoying the opera?" asked Janine.

"Oh, it's super," said his wife. "And not too long either."

Sitting in the dark again, Janine realized that they had not been out on their own together that year. The music of Elysium came creeping in through her ears, slow, sublime, holding and catching her breath until she sighed deeply and shifted in her seat. He had no time for her. This must be what music was for, she thought, so while on the outside you moderated and rationalized and subdued, in your secret self you were allowed to live with an intensity not otherwise sanctioned. He was never there. Now the orchestral music became more complex, an oboe melody with rippling triplet accompaniment from the strings, braided like the surface of a fast-flowing river, or like the patterned weavings of thought and feeling, trouble and desire.

Eurydice was pleading with her husband to take her in his arms. She sang her hurt in soft slow soaring phrases and descents. Why was he ignoring her? Was she no longer beautiful to him?

Janine felt a hot prickling sensation behind her face, like walking into a rosebush. Almost the worst thing was being frozen into these corny, passive and wifely attitudes of grief and betrayal. The ravishingly sweet quarrel of their voices blended and untangled, pulling air down into her lungs, making her sigh helplessly.

Eurydice sang, Dear husband, I can hardly breathe for sorrow. Orpheus was protesting his devotion and at the same time crushing her with his indifference. Then at last he cracked. He turned to look back at her. She died instantly. It was the least bombastic of operatic deaths, and the most comfortless. He had misjudged and this time she was lost forever.

As he began his famous aria, J'ai perdu mon Euridice, Janine realized that tears were streaming down her face. For pity's sake, she thought, not here, and tried to wipe them away unobtrusively with the back of her hand. But they kept on coming. The next thing was that Nigel Perkins was smuggling his handkerchief into her lap and whispering something in her ear. What was he saying? It sounded like, One too many. That made her want to giggle, or spit at him. Luckily Christopher was at the other end of the row. She took some deep slow breaths and pushed the music away from her.

At least this was not an opera where the best was kept till last. The final two scenes were as unconvincing as ever, trundling on towards their unearned happy ending. As far as Janine was concerned, it was over already. She listened unmoved as Amour stopped Orpheus from killing himself and told him everything would be all right. She couldn't have cared less when he produced Eurydice like a rabbit from a hat before ascending to heaven on a cloud attended by zephyrs and cupids. By the time the last note had sounded, she was ready to go. First, though, there was the crashing tide of applause to wade through.

"Thank you for lending me your handkerchief," she said to Nigel Perkins as they clapped on steadily, side by side. "I sometimes get a bit swept away when I go to the opera."

"My wife can't handle champagne either," he said. "I won't let her touch it."

"Ah," said Janine.

"It was a bit of a cop-out, the ending, I thought," said Nigel, jerking his head towards the stage.

"Difficult to do the original, though," she replied. "Drunken maenads tear Orpheus into pieces and rip his head off."

"There you are, you see," grinned Nigel. "Women and alcohol. Fatal combination. Keep the hankie, by the way."

"No thanks," said Janine, handing it back. "You cloth-eared jerk."

He stared at her as though he couldn't believe his ears; and, after all, she had spoken softly enough in the middle of all this noise for doubt to exist.

"But it was sweet of you to think of me," she gushed, smiling at him gratefully and leaning across the arm of the seat to give him a peck on the cheek.

At last it was over, the queuing for coats, the milling around outside in the night air and the hulloo'd thanks and farewells as cab doors slammed shut. When the last client had been tucked into a taxi and sent purring off into the darkness, Janine yawned a great yawn and finished this yawn with a growl. Christopher had switched off his hospitality smile and was giving her a wary look.

"Are you all right," he said.


"Goodgood." He paused. "The cabs seem to have dried up all of a sudden. You wait here, I'll go and find one."

"I'm coming with you," she said, but he was off.

She went wild. She started to run after him, but he was faster than her.

"Christopher," she shouted.

He pretended not to hear.

"Christopher!" she yelled again.

He was a dark figure about to melt into the blackness.

"Christopher!" she bellowed with all her might and lung power.

He slowed down gradually, unwillingly, then stopped and stood where he was for a few long seconds before turning to look back at her.

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Excerpted from Getting a Life: Stories by Helen Simpson. Copyright © 2002 by Helen Simpson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.