"Oh, that chap... you know, that chap who used to publish us both."
"Yes, that's right."
"Jane, how can you possibly forget Jim's name?"
"Well, I just did." The train blasted through some village halt, too fast to catch the signboard. Why did Alice need to be so stern?
She wasn't exactly spotless herself. "By the way, did you ever sleep with him?"
Alice frowned slightly. "You know, to be perfectly honest, I can't remember. Did you?"
"I can't either. But I suppose if you did, then I probably did as well."
"Doesn't that make me sound a bit of a tart?"
"I don't know. I thought it made me sound more of a tart."
Jane laughed, to cover the uncertainty.
"Do you think it's good or bad - the fact that we can't remember?"
Jane felt back onstage, facing a question she was unprepared for. So she reacted as she usually did there, and referred the matter back to Alice: the team leader, head girl, moral authority.
"What do you think?"
"Oh, I think it's best to have a Zen approach to that sort of thing."
Sometimes, Alice's poise could make her rather too oblique for ordinary mortals. "Are you saying it's Buddhist to forget who you slept with?"
"It could be."
"I thought Buddhism was about things coming round again in different lives?"
"Well, that would explain why we slept with so many pigs."
They looked at one another companionably. They made a good team. When they were first asked to literary festivals, they soon realised it would be more fun to appear as a double act. Together they had played Hay and Edinburgh, Charleston and King's Lynn, Dartington and Dublin; even Adelaide and Toronto. They traveled together, saving their publishers the cost of minders.Onstage, they finished one another's sentences, covered up each other's gaffes, were satirically punitive with male interviewers who tried to patronise them, and urged signing queues to buy the other one's books. The British Council had sent them abroad a few times until Jane, less than entirely sober, had made some unambassadorial remarks in Munich.
"What's the worst thing anyone's done to you?"
"Are we still talking bed?"
Excerpted from Pulse by Julian Barnes. Copyright © 2011 by Julian Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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