Lonesome, Tonight? [ 2013 ]
"Other people enjoy themselves," Mrs. Carter said.
"Well," her husband replied, "we've seen—"
"The reclining Buddha, the emerald Buddha, the floating markets," Mrs. Carter said. "We have dinner and go home to bed."
"Last night we went to Chez Eve...."
"If you weren't with me," Mrs. Carter said, "you'd find... you know what I mean—Spots."
It was true, Carter thought, eyeing his wife over the coffee cups: her slave bangles chinked in time with her coffee spoon: she had reached an age when the satisfied woman is at her most beautiful, but the lines of discontent had formed. When he looked at her neck he was reminded of how difficult it was to unstring a turkey. Is it my fault, he wondered, or hers--or was it the fault of her birth, some glandular deficiency, some inherited characteristic? It was sad how when one was young, one so often mistook the signs of frigidity for a kind of distinction.
"You promised we'd smoke opium," Mrs. Carter said.
"Not here, darling. In Saigon. Here it's 'not done' to smoke."
"How conventional you are."
"There'd be only the dirtiest of coolie places. You'd be conspicuous. They'd stare at you." He played his winning card. "There'd be cockroaches."
"I should be taken to plenty of Spots if I wasn't with a husband."
He tried hopefully, "The Japanese strip teasers..." but she had heard all about them.
"Ugly women in brassiéres," she said. His irritation rose. He thought of the money he had spent to take his wife with him and to ease his conscience—he had been away too often without her—but there is no company more cheerless than that of a woman who is not desired. He tried to drink his coffee calmly: he wanted to bite the edge of the cup.
"You've spilt your coffee," Mrs. Carter said.
"I'm sorry." He got up abruptly and said, "All right. I'll fix something. Stay here." He leant across the table. "You'd better not be shocked," he said. "You've asked for it."
"I don't think I'm usually the one who is shocked," Mrs. Carter said with a thin smile.
Carter left the hotel and walked up towards the New Road. A boy hung at his side and said, "Young girl?"
"I've got a woman of my own," Carter said gloomily.
Carter paused. "How much?"
They stood and haggled awhile at the corner of the drab street. What with the taxi, the guide, the films, it was going to cost the best part of eight pounds, but it was worth it, Carter thought, if it closed her mouth forever from demanding "Spots." He went back to fetch Mrs. Carter.
They drove a long way and came to a halt by a bridge over a canal, a dingy lane overcast with indeterminate smells. The guide said, "Follow me."
Mrs. Carter put a hand on Carter's arm. "Is it safe?" she asked.
"How would I know?" he said, stiffening under her hand.
They walked about fifty unlighted yards and halted by a bamboo fence. The guide knocked several times. When they were admitted it was to a tiny earth-floored yard and a wooden hut. Something—presumably human—was humped in the dark under a mosquito-net. The owner showed them into a tiny stuffy room with two hard chairs and a portrait of the King. The screen was about the size of a folio volume.
The first film was peculiarly unattractive and showed the rejuvenation of an elderly man at the hands of two blonde masseuses. From the women's hairdressing the film must have been made in the late twenties. Carter and his wife sat in mutual embarrassment as the film whirled and clicked to a stop.
"Not a very good one," Carter said, as though he were a connoisseur.
"So that's what they call a blue film," Mrs. Carter said. "Ugly and not exciting."
A second film started.
There was very little story in this. A young man -one couldn't see his face because of the period soft hat -picked up a girl in the street (her cloche hat extinguished her like a meat-cover) and accompanied her to her room. The actors were young: there was some charm and excitement in the picture. Carter thought, when the girl took off her hat, I know that face, and a memory that had been buried for more than a quarter of a century moved. A doll over a telephone, a pin-up girl of the period over the double bed. The girl undressed, folding her clothes very neatly: she leant over to adjust the bed, exposing herself to the camera's eye and to the young man: he kept his head turned from the camera. Afterwards, she helped him in turn to take off his clothes. It was only then he remembered—that particular playfulness confirmed by the birthmark on the man's shoulder.
Mrs. Carter shifted on her chair. "I wonder how they find the actors," she said hoarsely.
"A prostitute," he said. "It's a bit raw, isn't it? Wouldn't you like to leave?" he urged her, waiting for the man to turn his head. The girl knelt on the bed and held the youth around the waist—she couldn't have been more than twenty. No; he made a calculation: twenty-one.
"We'll stay," Mrs. Carter said. "We've paid." She laid a dry hot hand on his knee.
"I'm sure we could find a better place than this."
The young man lay on his back and the girl for a moment left him. Briefly, as though by accident, he looked at the camera. Mrs. Carter's hand shook on his knee. "Good God," she said, "it's you."
"It was me," Carter said, "thirty years ago." The girl was climbing back onto the bed.
"It's revolting," Mrs. Carter said.
"I don't remember it as revolting," Carter replied.
"I suppose you went and gloated, both of you."
"No, I never saw it."
"Why did you do it? I can't look at you. It's shameful."
"I asked you to come away."
"Did they pay you?"
"They paid her. Fifty pounds. She needed the money badly."
"And you had your fun for nothing?"
"I'd never have married you if I'd known. Never."
"That was a long time afterwards."
"You still haven't said why. Haven't you any excuse?" She stopped. He knew she was watching, leaning forward, caught up herself in the heat of that climax more than a quarter of a century old.
Carter said, "It was the only way I could help her. She'd never acted in one before. She wanted a friend."
"A friend," Mrs. Carter said.
"I loved her."
"You couldn't love a tart."
"Oh yes, you can. Make no mistake about that."
"You queued for her, I suppose."
"You put it too crudely," Carter said.
"What happened to her?"
"She disappeared. They always disappear."
The girl leant over the young man's body and put out the light. It was the end of the film. "I have new ones coming next week," the Siamese said, bowing deeply. They followed their guide back down the dark lane to the taxi.
In the taxi Mrs. Carter said, "What was her name?"
"I don't remember." A lie was easiest.
As they turned into the New Road she broke her bitter silence again. "How could you have brought yourself...? It's so degrading. Suppose someone you knew—in business—recognized you."
"People don't talk about seeing things like that. Anyway, I wasn't in business in those days."
"Did it never worry you?"
"I don't believe I have thought of it once in thirty years."
"How long did you know her?"
"Twelve months, perhaps."
"She must look pretty awful by now if she's alive. After all, she was common even then."
"I thought she looked lovely," Carter said.
They went upstairs in silence. He went straight to the bathroom and locked the door. The mosquitoes gathered around the lamp and the great jar of water. As he undressed he caught glimpses of himself in the small mirror; thirty years had not been kind: he felt his thickness and his middle-age. He thought, I hope to God she's dead. Please, God, he said, let her be dead. When I go back in there, the insults will start again.
But when he returned Mrs. Carter was standing by the mirror. She had partly undressed. Her thin bare legs reminded him of a heron waiting for fish. She came and put her arms round him: a slave bangle joggled against his shoulder. She said, "I'd forgotten how nice you looked."
"I'm sorry. One changes."
"I didn't mean that. I like you as you are."
She was dry and hot and implacable in her desire. "Go on," she said, "go on," and then she screamed like an angry and hurt bird. Afterwards she said, "It's years since that happened," and continued to talk for what seemed a long half hour excitedly at his side. Carter lay in the dark silent, with a feeling of loneliness and guilt. It seemed to him that he had betrayed that night the only woman he loved.
1954 | The Blue Film | Graham Greene