At night, Mr Phillips lies beside his wife and dreams about other women.
Not all of the dreams are about sex. Not all the women are real. There are dreams in which composite girls, no one he knows, look on while Mr Phillips goes about his dream-business of worrying about things, or looking for things, or feeling obscurely guilty about things. There is a dream he has been having since he was ten years old, in which he saves a whole group of strange women from certain disaster by diverting a runaway train or safely landing an aeroplane or encouraging them to hang on to the roof fittings on a tilting ship until just the right moment. He has even had a couple of dreams which involve him doing something vague but heroic in relation to the Channel Tunnel.
In the aftermath of these feats he is becomingly casual, almost dismissive. To camera crews and the world's press he explains that it is no big deal; but the women in the dream know that that isn't true.
Mr Phillips has anxious dreams about meeting the Queen and being awarded an honour, but not being able to remember what it is for. He has dreams about being told off by Mrs Thatcher. He has dreams about meeting his mother and not being sure whether they are in Australia (where, in real life, she lives, with Mr Phillips's sister), or London (where, in real life, he lives), or somewhere else. He once had a dream about Indira Gandhi. None of these dreams was about sex. He never told his wife about them. What good could come of it?
As for the sex dreams, he never told her about them either. What good, etc., only more so.
Mr Phillips grades them from one to ten. A one out of ten is quite mild. For instance, he often dreams about Christine Wilson, his next-door neighbour but two when he was growing up in Wandsworth. At the age of twelve she was half a notch posher than most of the children in the street; she had brown hair worn in plaits and a naughty streak well hidden from grown-ups. Christine would often instigate uproar, though she was never blamed for causing it. Mr Phillips had gone from hardly noticing her to being horribly, drowningly in love with her in the course of a single Saturday. They had spent that day crawling around in the foundations of a new office building that was going up on land that had lain empty since a stray V-2 had cleared it thirteen years before. They played hide-and-seek among the concrete mixers, ducking and scrabbling through partially built walls. When an adult shouted at them they ran home. As he lay in bed that night Mr Phillips found that he was very much in love.
In the dream, he and Christine are at school together, which in real life they never were. Mr Phillips sits next to her at a scratched wooden double desk which is covered in archaeological layers of graffiti. They are solving, under test conditions, a series of simple algebraic equations: a + b = x; if a = 2 and x = 5, what is b? He has an erection so strong that he is worried his fly is going to pop open. The end of the lesson is approaching and he is going to have to stand up and everyone is going to see his cock. The unfair thing is that he doesn't feel sexually aroused, he has the erection only because he's got caught up inside his underpants. In fact his penis is trapped outside the entrance to his knickers and is pinned vertically upwards. But no one will believe that. He wouldn't believe it in their shoes. In the dream he starts to blush, feeling the blood rush upwards and his face become lava hot, electric-fire hot. Then he wakes up. That is a one out of ten.
By three out of ten, the sex component is more definite. Mr Phillips is kissing his secretary, Karen, on the cheek while the telephone rings. He knows that he should pick up the receiver, but Karen's eyes are closed and she looks so happy that he doesn't want to stop. He has such a good close-up view of the tiny hairs on the side of her neck that when he stops kissing her he says, "You'll have to start shaving there soon." She reaches down and puts a hand on his cock. Mr Monroe, the Aberdonian colleague with whom he shares an office and Karen's services, looks on approvingly. Then he wakes up.
Reprinted from Mr Phillips by John Lanchester by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by John Lanchester. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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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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