The House of Sleep  
Jonathan Coe:
The House of Sleep
The House of Sleep (Jonathan Coe)

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  It was their final quarrel, that much was clear. But although he had been anticipating it for days, perhaps even for weeks, nothing could quell the tide of anger and resentment which now rose up inside him. She had been in the wrong, and had refused to admit it. Every argument he had attempted to put forward, every attempt to be conciliatory and sensible, had been distorted, twisted around and turned back against him. How dare she bring up that perfectly innocent evening he had spent in The Half Moon with Jennifer? How dare she call his gift 'pathetic', and claim that he was looking 'shifty' when he gave it to her? And how dare she bring up his mother--his mother, of all people--and accuse him of seeing her too often? As if that were some sort of comment on his maturity; on his masculinity, even...

He stared blindly ahead, unconscious of his surroundings or of his fellow pedestrians. 'Bitch,' he thought to himself, as her words came back to him. And then out loud, through clenched teeth, he shouted, 'BITCH!'

After that, he felt slightly better.

Huge, grey and imposing, Ashdown stood on a headland, some twenty yards from the sheer face of the cliff, where it had stood for more than a hundred years. All day, the gulls wheeled around its spires and tourelles, keening themselves hoarse. All day and all night, the waves threw themselves dementedly against their rocky barricade, sending an endless roar like heavy traffic through the glacial rooms and mazy, echoing corridors of the old house. Even the emptiest parts of Ashdown--and most of it was now empty--were never silent. The most habitable rooms huddled together on the first and second floors, overlooking the sea, and during the day were flooded with chill sunlight. The kitchen, on the ground floor, was long and L-shaped, with a low ceiling; it had only three tiny windows, and was swathed in permanent shadow. Ashdown's bleak, element-defying beauty masked the fact that it was, essentially, unfit for human occupation. Its oldest and nearest neighbours could remember, but scarcely believe, that it had once been a private residence, home to a family of only eight or nine. But two decades ago it had been acquired by the new university, and it now housed about two dozen students: a shifting population, as changeful as the ocean which lay at its feet, stretched towards the horizon, sickly green and heaving with endless disquiet.

The group of four strangers sitting at her table may or may not have asked permission to join her. Sarah couldn't remember. Now, an argument seemed to be developing, but she did not hear what was being said, although she was conscious of their voices, rising and falling in angry counterpoint. What she heard and saw inside her head was, at that moment, more real. A single, venomous word. Eyes blazing with casual hatred. A sense that she had not so much been spoken to, as spat upon. An encounter which had lasted--two seconds?--less?--but which she had now been replaying, involuntarily, in her memory for more than half an hour. Those eyes; that word; there would be no getting rid of them, not for a while. Even now, as the voices around her grew louder and more animated, she could feel another wave of panic swell inside her. She closed her eyes, suddenly weak with nausea.

Would he have attacked her, she wondered, if the High Street had not been so busy? Dragged her into a doorway? Torn at her clothes?

She raised her mug of coffee, held it a few inches from her mouth, looked down at it. She stared at its oily surface, which was shimmering perceptibly. She clasped the mug tighter. The liquid steadied. Her hands were no longer shaking. The moment passed.

Another possibility: had it all been a dream?

'Pinter!' was the first word of the argument to catch her attention. She willed herself to look across at the speaker and concentrate.

The name had been pronounced in a tone of tired incredulity, by a woman who was holding a glass of apple juice in one hand, and a half-smoked cigarette in the other. She had short, jet-black hair, a prominent jaw and lively dark eyes. Sarah recognized her, vaguely, from previous visits to the Café Valladon, but did not know her name. She was later to find out that it was Veronica.

'That's just so typical,' the woman added: then closed her eyes as she puffed on her cigarette. She was smiling, perhaps taking the argument less seriously than the thin, pasy, earnest-looking student sitting opposite her.

'People who don't know anything about theatre,' Veronica continued, 'always talk about Pinter as if he's one of the greats.'

'OK,' said the student. 'I agree that he's overrated. I agree with that. That's exactly what proves my point.'

'It proves your point?'

'The British postwar theatrical tradition,' said the student, 'is so... etiolated, that--'

'Excuse me?' said an Australian voice next to him. 'What was that word?'

'Etiolated,' said the student. 'So etiolated, that there's only one figure who--'

'Etiolated?' said the Australian.

'Don't worry about it,' said Veronica, her smile broadening. 'He's just trying to impress us.'

'What does it mean?'

'Look it up in the dictionary,' snapped the student. 'My point is, that there's only one figure in postwar British theatre with a claim to any kind of stature, and even he is overrated. Massively overrated. Ergo, the theatre is finished.'

'Ergo?' said the Australian.

'It's over. It has nothing to offer. It has no part to play in contemporary culture, in this country, or in any other country.'

'So what--you're saying that I'm wasting my time?' Veronica asked. 'That I'm out of tune with the whole... Zeitgeist?'

'Absolutely. You should change courses at once: to film studies.'

'Like you.'

'Like me.'

'Well, that's interesting,' said Veronica. 'I mean, just look at the assumptions you're making. For one thing, you assume that just because I'm interested in the theatre, I must be studying it. Wrong: I'm doing economics. And then, this whole conviction of yours that you're in possession of some kind of absolute truth: I... well, I find that a very male quality, is all I can say.'

'I am male,' the student pointed out.

'It's also significant that Pinter is your favourite playwright.'

'Why's that significant?'

'Because he writes plays for boys. Clever boys.'

'But art is universal: all real writers are hermaphrodite.'

'Ha!' Veronica laughed with delighted contempt. She stubbed out her cigarette. 'OK, do you want to talk about gender?'

'I thought we were talking about culture.'

'You can't have one without the other. Gender's everywhere.'

Now the student laughed. 'That's one of the most meaningless remarks I've ever heard. The only reason you want to talk about gender is because you're scared to talk about value.'

'Pinter only appeals to men,' said Veronica. 'And why does he appeal to men? Because his plays are misogynist. They appeal to the misogyny deep within the male psyche.'

'I'm not a misogynist.'

'Oh yes you are. All men hate women.'

'You don't believe that.'

'Oh yes I do.'

'I suppose you think that all men are potential rapists?'


'Well, that's another meaningless statement.'

'Its meaning is very clear. All men have the potential to become rapists.'

'All men have the means to become rapists. That's hardly the same thing.'

'I'm not talking about whether all men have the necessary... equipment. I'm saying that there isn't a man alive who doesn't feel, in some murky little corner of his soul, a deep resentment--and jealousy--of our strengths, and that this resentment sometimes shades into hatred and could also, therefore, shade into violence.'

A short pause followed this speech. The student tried to say something, but faltered. Then he started to say something else, but changed his mind. In the end, the best he could manage was: 'Yes, but you've no evidence for that.'

'The evidence is all around us.'

'Yes, but you've no objective proof.'

'Objectivity,' said Veronica, lighting up a new cigarette, 'is male subjectivity.'

The silence to which this magisterial remark gave rise, longer than the first and somewhat awestruck, was broken by Sarah herself.

'I think she's right,' she said.

Everyone at the table turned to look at her.

'Not about objectivity, I mean--at least, I've never thought about it like that before--but about all men being basically hostile, and how you never know when it's going to... flare up.'

Veronica met her eyes. 'Thank you,' she said, before turning back to the student. 'You see? Support on all sides.'

He shrugged. 'Female solidarity, that's all.'

'No, but it's happened to me, you see.' The faltering urgency of Sarah's voice caught their attention. 'Exactly what you're talking about.' She lowered her gaze and saw her eyes reflected, darkly, on the black surface of her coffee. 'I'm sorry, I don't know any of your names, or anything. I don't even know why I said that. I think I'd better go.'

She stood up to find herself boxed into a comer, the edge of the table pressed into her thighs; squeezing hastily past the Australian and the earnest student proved a clumsy business. Her face was on fire. She was sure that they were all watching her as if she were a madwoman. Nobody said anything as she made her way to the till, but as she counted out her change (Slattery, the Café's owner, sitting bookish and indifferent in the corner) she felt the touch of a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Veronica smiling at her. The smile was diffident, appealing--very different from the combative smiles she had been turning on her opponents at the table.

'Look,' she said, 'I don't know who you are, or what happened to you, but... any time you want to talk about it.'

'Thank you,' said Sarah.

'What year are you in?'

'Fourth, now.'

'Oh--you're a postgrad, right?'

Sarah nodded.

'And are you living on campus?'

'No. I live up at Ashdown.'

'Oh well. Maybe we'll bump into each other anyway.'

'I expect we will.'

Sarah rushed out of the Café before this friendly, frightening woman could say anything more to her. After that dark and smoke-heavy interior the sunlight was suddenly blinding, the air fresh with salt. Shoppers trickled through the streets. It would have been the perfect day, normally, for walking home along the cliffs: a long walk, and most of it uphill, but worth it for the sweet ache in your limbs when you arrived, the feel of your lungs distended with clean, thin air. But today was not normal, and she didn't like the thought of those many lonely stretches of pathway, the solitary men she might glimpse approaching in the distance, or who might be sitting on one of the benches, watching her brazenly as she hurried past.

Writing off the cost of a week's suppers, she took a taxi, was home in no time at all, and then lay in bed all afternoon, the numbness refusing to abate.

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Excerpted from The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe. Copyright © 1999 by Jonathan Coe. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.