When the nameless narrator embarks upon an affair with Karen, a seemingly vapid P.E. teacher married to a boring accountant, he does not know her fetish is for adultery while her husband is in the room or loitering nearby. But once he finds out, he doesn’t care. He has been abroad for twenty years, and since his return to merry old England he’s been startlingly uninhibited by morals or a conscience. Which is not only why he eventually gets involved with blackmail, a kidnapping, and two murders, but also how, with hilariously syllogistic logic, he’s able to justify his role in all of it.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
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First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn't I? And since I've just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can't back them up. I can't call witnesses, I can't produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You're either going to believe me or you're not.
Nevertheless, I am going to tell you the truth. Not because I'm incapable of lying. On the contrary, my story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind, as you will see. Nor do I expect you to believe me because my bearing is sincere and my words plausible. Such things might influence the judges of my own country, where people still pretend to believe in the essential niceness of the human race -- or at least pretend to pretend. But this country, in its short and violent history, has had no time to develop a taste for such decadent indulgences. Yours is the clear-sighted, undeceived vision of the ancients, who knew life for what it is and men for what they are, and did not flinch from that knowledge.
So I do not say, 'Believe me, for I cannot tell a lie.' I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to lie my teeth off if it was either useful or necessary. Only it isn't. As it so happens, I am actually innocent of the murders detailed in the extradition request before you. It is therefore quite simply in my own best interests to tell you the truth.
It began, inevitably, at a dinner party. That's where the social action is in my country, among people of my class. Half the English feed fast and early and then go down the pub to drink beer, the other half eat a slow meal late and drink wine before, during and after. (I am anxious that you should understand the customs and manners of the country where the events in question took place, so different from your own. Otherwise it may be difficult to appreciate how very natural it is that things should have turned out as they did.) When I say dinner parties, I mean drinking parties with a cooked meal thrown in. And with Karen Parsons in the state she was that evening, there seemed a very real possibility that it would be. Both she and Dennis were chain-drinking. This was perfectly normal. But even then, before I knew her at all, I sensed that normality was not really Karen's thing. She could fake it, up to a point. She could put it on, like a posh accent, but it didn't come naturally to her.
I'd met the Parsons a week earlier, at an end-of-term social at the language school where I was teaching. We rolled up at the same time, I on my bike, the Parsons in their BMW. I thought at first they must be students. No one else I knew could afford a car like that. But as soon as they got out I realized I was wrong. What is it that sets us Brits apart so unmistakably? The clothes? The posture? Whatever it was, the moment I saw the Parsons I knew them for British as surely as though they'd had the word stamped on their hides like bacon. The man was thickset and heavy, like a rugby player, the woman thin and bony. I didn't give them a second glance.
Parties at the Oxford International Language College, like everything else, were designed with cost-effectiveness in mind. Clive had to have them, because the competition did, but since the benefits were at best indirect he had to come up with the idea of asking the students from each country to get together and prepare a 'typical national dish'. These were then combined as a buffet and served back to the students together with one free soft drink of their choice. Subsequent or alternative drinks had to be paid for at saloon-bar prices, so Clive managed to turn a profit on the evening.
In previous years he had forbidden staff to bring their own booze 'so as to avoid making an invidious distinction'. This had caused a ripple of protest. No more than that, for we were all on renewable annual contracts and Clive never tired of reminding us just how many eager applicants there had been the last time he'd had to 'let someone go'. Nevertheless, he had relented to the extent of allowing the teachers to bring a bottle as long as it was kept out of sight of the paying customers. The result was that we all kept making surreptitious trips to the staff room to refill our plastic beakers. I was lingering near the assembled bottles, wondering who on earth could have brought the Bourgueil, when I was joined by the man I had seen stepping out of the BMW. He walked over, holding out his hand.
'Dennis Parsons. I do Clive's accounts.'
Close up, he looked softer and less fit than I had thought, not so much rugby as darts. Spotting my empty beaker, he grasped the bottle I had been admiring, carefully covering the label with his hand.
'Have some of this.'
His voice was filled with self-congratulatory emphasis. I stuck my nose in the beaker and hoovered up the aroma in the approved fashion.
I got busy with my nose again, then took a sip and gargled it about my mouth for some time.
'What do you make of it?'
I frowned like someone who has just been put on the spot and is afraid of making a fool of himself.
'Cabernet?' I suggested tentatively.
Dennis grinned impishly. He was enjoying this.
'Well, yes and no. Yes, and then again no.'
'I see what you mean. Cabernet franc, not sauvignon.'
That shook him.
'But is it Bergerac or Saumur?' I mused as though to myself. 'I think I'd go for the Loire, on the whole. But something with a bit of class. There's breeding there. Chinon?'
Dennis Parsons breathed a sigh of relief.
'Not bad,' he nodded patronizingly. 'Not bad at all.'
He showed me the label.
'Ah, Bourgueil! I can never tell them apart.'
'Very few people can,' Dennis remarked in a tone which suggested that he was one of them.
After that I couldn't get rid of him. The man turned out to be a wine bore of stupendous proportions. I must have kept my end up successfully, though, for just before he left Dennis sought me out and invited me to dinner the following Friday.
'Can't speak for the food, that's Kay's department, but I think I can promise that the tipple will be up to par.'
As for Karen, she left not the slightest impression on me. Apart from that initial glimpse of them both getting out of the car, I literally have no image of her at all. I emphasize this to make clear that what happened the following weekend was as unforeseeable as a plane falling on your house.
Dennis told me that he lived in North Oxford, but that was geographical hyperbole. True, the street he lived in was north of the city centre, but that didn't mean it was in North Oxford. My country is full of distinctions of this kind, and in the congenial climate of Oxford they flourish to form a semantic jungle through which only the natives can make their way. Thus it's the Isis not the Thames, the Charwell not the Cherwell, the Parks not the park, and Carfax is not the latest executive toy but a crossroads. There's a street called South Parade and, half a mile south of it, one called North Parade. The area where the Parsons lived lay not in the desirable temperate zone called North Oxford but further north, too far by half, in the boreal tundra of pre-war suburbia out towards the ring road, beyond which lie the arctic wastes of Kidlington, where first-time buyers huddle in their brick igloos and watch the mortgage rate rising.
Nevertheless, even though it wasn't quite the real thing, Dennis had done all right for himself. When I was young, accountants used to be figures of fun. Not the least of the many surprises I got on returning home was to find that all that had changed. For the kids today, the people we used to snigger at are role models, swashbuckling marauders sailing the seas of high finance, corporate raiders whose motto is 'Get in, get out, get rich'. Dennis Parsons was an accountant of the new creative' variety, for whom the firm's actual turnover represents only the original idea on which the completed tax return is based. When it came to cooking the books, Dennis was in the Raymond Blanc class. Socially, though, he and Karen, who taught part-time at a girls' school in Headington, were both from a lower-middle-class, comp/tech background, and it may not have been only the fearsome price of property in the North Oxford heartlands which had put them off moving there. Even after five years they were finding it a bit difficult in Oxford, you see, a bit sticky.
Still, it wasn't these fine distinctions that were uppermost in my mind that Friday evening in April when I turned off the Banbury Road into the quiet, tree-lined avenue where the Parsons lived, but the rather more obvious contrast, the gaping abyss between these genteel surroundings and the ones in which I myself was then living. For if property values and social status north of St Giles shaded imperceptibly from one microclimate to another, the other side of the Cherwell they just dropped out of sight. We didn't have much time for subtle distinctions down in East Oxford. They weren't our style. We went in for agitprop caricature and grotesque exaggeration. Derelict vagrants hacking their lungs up while a group of students in evening dress pass by waving bottles of champagne, that sort of thing. I was always surprised that you could cross Magdalen Bridge without having to show your papers, that you could just walk across. It felt like Checkpoint Charlie, but in fact no one tried to stop you except the alkies lurching up off their piss-stained benches with some story about needing the bus fare back home to Sheffield.
As I wheeled my tenth-hand push-bike through the gates of the Parsons' large detached house and made my way across the gravel forecourt past the guests' Volvos and Audis, I began to feel uncomfortably out of my depth. These people were armed and dangerous. They had houses, wives, cars, careers, pensions. They bought and sold, consumed and produced, hired and fired. They ski'd and sailed and rode and shot. Once I could have seen them off by asserting that I had no interest in such things, preferring to live from one day to the next, unfettered by possessions and responsibilities. But that wouldn't wash any more, not at my age. It would be like the denizens of Magdalen Bridge claiming they drank VP sherry rather than Tio Pepe because they preferred the taste.
Once I got inside the house I began to cheer up. The Parsons had tried, you could see that. They had tried and they had failed. The furnishings were an indiscriminate mess: a bit of Habitat here, a dash of Laura Ashley there, a few nearantiques, some Scandinavian minimalism, an MFI recliner-rocker, and let's bung a tank of Japanese fighting-fish in the corner. They knew their own taste wouldn't do, poor dears, but they weren't quite sure what would. Well not those fish, for a start-off. Or the block-mounted Manet print in the downstairs loo. There there was the collection of Demi Roussos and Richard Clayderbuck albums, and the Skivertex-clad set of 'Great Classics of World Literature' ranging from Ulysses at one end to HMS Ulysses at the other. None of those would do. To say nothing of Karen's Merseyside vowels and over-eager laugh. To say nothing of Karen.
As I said earlier, the drink was flowing freely. Dennis was an assiduous host, constantly on the move, opening bottles, disposing of empties, topping up everyone's glasses and handing round salty snacks in case anyone's thirst began to flag. But one look at Karen was enough to confirm that her present state wasn't simply the result of fast-lane drinking since the guests arrived. She'd been at it since tea-time, since lunch, since she got up. In fact the prospect of hosting a dinner party was so fraught with terrors that she'd probably started to get drunk for it the night before. The initial elation the rest of us were experiencing was as far away as her childhood. She'd been there and come back, and been again. It's not quite so good the second time around, never mind the fourth or fifth. By now she had the look of a refugee, a displaced person. She was elsewhere.
The people who had put her in such a tizzy were a solicitor, a computer analyst and someone in advertising. The Parsons wanted to know people like that. They didn't know why. They didn't know what they were going to do with them. They were on heat socially. They needed to couple with the big dogs. When Dennis summoned us to table, I ended up with Karen
on one side of me and the computer analyst's wife on the other. Marisa? Marika? The British authorities will no doubt have the name, if you're interested. As far as that sort of thing goes they can't be faulted.
'What do you do?' she fluted.
I told her I taught English to foreign students.
'Oh, that must be interesting,' she said. Meaning, that must be boring and badly paid.
'And you?' I inquired politely.
She made a little throw-away gesture.
'Oh, I'm just a housewife!'
Meaning, my husband's weekly lunch bills exceed your monthly income.
I took very little part in the conversation. There are certain topics about which I have nothing to say, and they covered almost every one of them that night. The guests' children, recent ailments, accomplishments, acquisitions and priceless sayings of. Preparatory schools in Oxford, their relative value for money. The public education system, its declining educational and social standards. A good start in life, the importance of providing one's children with, particularly these days. You would never have guessed from the way the Parsons talked that they were childless. The subject was de rigueur and they knew it. We then moved on to the spiralling property prices in Oxford, the purchase price of the Parsons' house compared to its current estimated value, the solicitor's recent attic conversion, and so on and so forth.
It was towards the end of the main course, some sort of en croute affair which Karen must have bought oven-ready at Marks and Spencer's, that the muscles in the arch of my right foot suddenly seized up. The Parsons' slimline dining table was too low for me to get a proper purchase to relieve the cramp. The pain was agonizing. I groped around with my foot for the table-leg and pressed down hard until the spasm gradually subsided. A moment later, to my astonishment, I felt an answering pressure on my own foot.