And another thing, while I remember: that bloody great wheel that's appeared on the side of the Thames, next to County Hall. What's that for, exactly?
Anyway, that's enough social commentary for now, I think. The other things I wanted to tell you are, first of all, that I've decided to face the music, bite the bullet and so on, and go back to Birmingham tonight (because the hotel prices here are phenomenal, and I simply can't afford to stay here for another day); and also that I may have been back in England for less than twenty-four hours, but already I'm faced with a blast from the past. It comes in the form of a flyer I picked up at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. There's going to be a reading there on Monday, the title of which is "Goodbye to All That." Six "figures from public life" (it says here) are going to tell us "what they most regret leaving behind or what they are happiest to see the back of, at the end of the second Christian Millennium." And look who's number four on the list: no, not Benjamin (although he was the one we all thought would be a famous writer), but Doug Anderton--who we are told is a "journalist and political commentator," if you please.
Another omen, maybe? A sign I'm not making a bold foray into the future after all, but taking the first involuntary steps on a journey backwards? I mean, for God's sake, I haven't seen Doug in about fifteen years. The last time was at my wedding. At which, I seem to remember, he pressed me drunkenly up against a wall and told me that I was marrying the wrong man. (He was right, of course, but not in the sense that he meant it.) How weird would it be now, to sit in an audience and listen to him pontificating about pre-millennial angst and social change? I suppose it would just be a version of what we all had to put up with more than twenty years ago, sitting around the editorial table of the school magazine. Only now we're all developing grey hair and back problems.
Is your hair grey yet, I wonder, dear Miriam? Or is that not something you have to worry about any more?
There's a Birmingham train in fifty minutes. I'm going to make a dash for it.
Second coffee of the day
New Street, Birmingham
Friday, 10th December, 1999
Oh, Miriam--the house! That bloody house. It hasn't changed. Nothing
about it has changed, since you left it (and a quarter of a century has
gone by since then: almost exactly), except that it is colder, and
emptier, and sadder (and cleaner) than ever. Dad pays someone to keep it
spotless, and apart from her coming in twice a week to do the dusting, I
don't think he speaks to a soul, now that Mum's gone. He's also bought
this little place in France and seems to spend a lot of time there. He
spent most of Wednesday night showing me pictures of the septic tank and
the new boiler he's had installed, which was thrilling, as you can
imagine. Once or twice he said that I should go over there some time and
stay for a week or two, but I could tell that he didn't really mean it,
and besides, I don't want to. Nor do I want to stay under his roof for
more nights than I can help it, this time.
Last night I had a meal out with Philip and Patrick.
Now--I hadn't seen Philip for more than two years, and I suppose it's pretty common, in these circumstances, for ex-wives to look at their ex-husbands and wonder what on earth it was that drew them together in the first place. I'm talking about physical attraction, more than anything else. I remember that when I was a student, and lived in Mantova for the best part of a year, back in 1981 if I can believe myself when I write that (God!), I was surrounded by young Italian men, most of them gorgeous, all of them as good as begging me to go to bed with them. A posse of teenage Mastroiannis in their sexual prime, gagging for it, not to mince words. My Englishness made me exotic in a way which would have been unthinkable in Birmingham, and I could have had my pick of that lot. I could have had them all, one after the other. But what did I choose instead? Or who did I choose, rather. I chose Philip. Philip Chase, whey-faced, nerdy Philip Chase, with his straggly ginger beard and his horn-rimmed specs, who came to stay with me for a week and somehow got me into bed on the second day and ended up changing the whole course of my life, not permanently, I suppose, but radically . . . fundamentally . . . I don't know. I can't think of the word. One word is as good as another, sometimes. Was it just because we were too young, I wonder? No, that's not fair on him. Of all the boys I'd known up until that point, he was the most straightforward, the most sympathetic, the least arrogant (Doug and Benjamin were so up themselves, in their different ways!). There is a tremendous decency in Phil, as well: he is absolutely reliable and trustworthy. He made the divorce so untraumatic, I remember--a back-handed compliment, I know, but if you ever want to get divorced from someone . . . Philip's your man.
Excerpted from The Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Coe. 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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