A five-out-of-ten sex dream might involve what used to be called "heavy petting," or some form of explicit display. One of the most common of these dreams involves the television personality Clarissa Colingford. She has hair that is whitish blond and what would once have been called "a lovely figure" and eyes that are the same colour as the middle of a Mars bar. Mr Phillips is hiding in her cupboard, terrified and excited, as he watches her masturbate, covered only by a single thin cotton sheet. That is actually one of the most exciting of his dreams, but it scores only five since Mr Phillips's system is to grade the dreams not on how stimulating they are but on the explicitness of their sex content.
At seven out of ten, the sex component is such that it becomes hard to meet the eye of the woman in the dream, the next time he meets her in real life. There is, for instance, something embarrassing or delirious about bumping into Janet - secretary to his boss Mr Mill, the incompetent head of the accountancy department - as she walks down the corridor with two plain digestive biscuits balanced on the saucer of a cup of tea, for all the world as if she had not, the night before, been eagerly responding to Mr Phillips's frightened but keen request to be sodomised with a nine-inch rubber penis.
It can't just be him, Mr Phillips feels. Office life is an erotic conspiracy. Everybody in offices thinks about sex all the time - that's exactly what they do. If the air at Wilkins and Co. were like one of those swimming pools which change colour when someone pees in them, so that the air would be dyed blue whenever anyone looked on their colleagues with lust, or need, or at the very least sexual speculation, then the atmosphere would be as clogged and dense as a London pea-souper. Does he stalk rampant through the dreams of co-workers, a vivid principle of priapism, so that the working day carries the lurid after-tinge of the night before? Perhaps Karen herself has beguiled an idle moment by speculating as to what it would be like with Mr Phillips. After all, she's only human. People fall in love with their secretaries all the time, and vice versa - not least because most men are at their most attractive when at work, their attention directed outside themselves, with chores to perform and decisions to exercise, all unlike the sulking, shifty tyrants of the domestic stage, wanting everything their own way and locked in a battle to the death to get it.
It goes without saying that people use offices for sex all the time too. It's a rare photocopier that hasn't been used to take a picture of somebody's bum. It's a very unusual desk that has never had people fucking on it. In an important sense all this is what offices are for. Mr Phillips has even done it on a desk himself once, when he was working at Grimshaw's, his first employer. His girlfriend Sharon Mitchell came to the office late to collect him on the way to a film, a Western with James Stewart in it. This was in the days before security guards and after-hours subcontracted office cleaners. They had done it on Mr Phillips's very own desk, indeed on his very own ink blotter. Sharon was the first girl Mr Phillips did it with who was on the pill; she chucked him for a musician. A sixties memory.
One thing that all the dreams have in common is that Mr Phillips never actually manages to have sex in them. Even in the ten-out-of-ten dreams, Mr Phillips never gets it wet. He looks and sees and feels and kisses, he plots and schemes and gets women to agree to have sex with him, and in some versions they even pursue him to ask for it ("begging for it," "gagging for it"), but he never, in the dreams, actually puts his penis inside another person, not even in the homosexual dreams which come along every now and then, with their own agenda, as if trying to make a point.
This morning, Mr Phillips has just woken from a seven-out-of-ten dream in which he was trying to arrange to have sex with Miss Pettifer, his younger son Thomas's form teacher at St Francis Xavier's. She is in her early fifties and therefore around the same age as Mr Phillips. In real life, he hasn't been conscious of being even vaguely attracted to her-but when he wakes after the dream, he realises that isn't the whole story. The fact that she is, say, twenty pounds overweight he feels in part of himself as a liberation, as if, in throwing off one set of worries about being sensible and watching your weight, other worries might be thrown off too, so that her half-double chin and wildly blossoming hips, all the more visible because her clothes are a third of a size too small, hold a promise: With me, you can do anything you want.
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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