"Jane, what a question."
"Well, we're bound to be asked it sooner or later. The way everything's going."
"I've never been raped, if that's what you're asking. At least," Alice went on reflectively, "not what the courts would call rape."
When Alice didn't answer, Jane said, "I'll look at the landscape while you're thinking." She gazed, with vague benignity, at trees, fields, hedgerows, livestock. She had always been a town person, and her interest in the countryside was largely pragmatic, a flock of sheep only signifying roast lamb.
"It's not something... obvious. But I'd say it was Simon."
"Simon as in the novelist or as in the publisher or as in Simon but you don't know him?"
"Simon the novelist. It was not long after I was divorced. He phoned up and suggested coming round. Said he'd bring a bottle of wine. Which he did. When it became pretty clear that he wasn't going to get what he'd come for, he corked up the rest of it and took the bottle home."
"What was it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, was it champagne?"
Alice thought for a moment. "It can't have been champagne because you can't get the cork back into the bottle. Do you mean was it French or Italian or white or red?"
Jane could tell from the tone that Alice was riled. "I don't know what I meant actually. That's bad."
"What's bad? Not remembering what you meant?"
"No, putting the cork back in the bottle. Really bad." She left an ex-actress's pause. "I suppose it might have been symbolic."
Alice giggled, and Jane could tell the moment had only been a hiccup. Encouraged, she put on her sitcom voice. "Got to laugh after a bit, haven't you?"
"I suppose so," replied Alice. "It's either that or get religion."
Jane might have let the moment pass. But Alice's reference to Buddhism had given her courage, and besides, what are friends for? Even so, she looked out of the window to confess. "Actually, I've got it, if you want to know. A little, anyway."
"Really? Since when? Or rather, why?"
"A year or two. It sort of makes sense of things. Makes it all feel less... hopeless." Jane stroked her handbag, as if it too needed consolation.
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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