"Are you sure that was the reason?"
Alice took a breath. She was damned if she was going to carry on apologising for the rest of her life. "No, I can't really remember what the reason was at the time. I'm just guessing. Post hoc," she added, as if that made it more authoritative, and closed the matter. But Jane wasn't so easily put off.
"I wonder if Derek did it because he wanted to make me jealous."
Now Alice was feeling properly cross. "Well, thank you for that. I thought he did it because he couldn't resist the many charms I had to offer in those days."
Jane remembered how much décolletage Alice used to show. Nowadays it was all well-cut trouser suits with a cashmere sweater and a silk scarf knotted around the tortoise neck. Back then it had been more like someone holding up a fruit bowl in your direction. Yes, men were simple beings, and Derek was simpler than most, so maybe it was all really about a cunning bra.
Not entirely changing the subject, she found herself asking, "Are you going to write your memoirs, by the way?"
Alice shook her head. "Too depressing."
"Remembering all that stuff?"
"No, not the remembering - or the making up. The publishing, the putting it out there. I can just about live with the fact that a distinctly finite number of people want to read my novels. But imagine writing your autobiography, trying to summarise all you've known and seen and felt and learnt and suffered in your fifty-odd years - "
"I only start counting at sixteen, didn't you know? Before that I wasn't sentient, let alone responsible for what I was."
Perhaps that was the secret of Alice's admirable, indefatigable poise. Every few years she drew a line under what had gone before and declined further responsibility. As with Derek.
"...only to find that there was no one extra out there wanting to know. Or perhaps even fewer people."
"You could put lots of sex in it. They like the idea of old..."
"Biddies?" Alice raised an eyebrow. "Bats?" "...bats like us coming clean about sex. Old men look boastful when they remember their conquests. Old women come across as brave."
"Be that as it may, you've got to have slept with someone famous." Derek could never be accused of fame. Nor could Simon the novelist, let alone one's own publisher. "Either that or you've got to have done something peculiarly disgusting."
Jane thought her friend was being disingenuous. "Isn't John Updike famous?"
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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