In Melton Mowbray in 1875 at an auction of articles of
'curiosity and worth', my great-grandfather, in the company of M
his friend, bid for the penis of Captain Nicholls who died in Horsemonger
jail in 1873. It was bottled in a glass twelve inches long, and,
noted my great-grandfather in his diary that night, 'in beautiful
state of preservation'. Also for auction was 'the unnamed portion
of the late Lady Barrymore. It went to Sam Israels for fifty guineas.'
My great-grandfather was keen on the idea of having the two items
as a pair, and M dissuaded him. This illustrates perfectly their
friendship. My great-grandfather the excitable theorist, M the man
of action who knew when to bid at auctions. My great-grandfather
lived for sixty-nine years. For forty-five of them, at the end of
every day, he sat down before going to bed and wrote his thoughts
in a diary. These diaries are on my table now, forty-five volumes
bound in calf leather, and to the left sits Capt. Nicholls in the
glass jar. My great-grandfather lived on the income derived from
the patent of an invention of his father, a handy fastener used
by corset-makers right up till the outbreak of the First World War.
My great-grandfather liked gossip, numbers and theories. He also
liked tobacco, good port, jugged hare and, very occasionally, opium.
He liked to think of himself as a mathematician, though he never
had a job, and never published a book. Nor did he ever travel or
get his name in The Times, even when he died. In 1869 he married
Alice, only daughter of the Rev. Toby Shadwell, co-author of a not
highly regarded book on English wild flowers. I believe my great-grandfather
to have been a very fine diarist, and when I have finished editing
the diaries and they are published I am certain he will receive
the recognition due to him. When my work is over I will take a long
holiday, travel somewhere cold and clean and treeless, Iceland or
the Russian Steppes. I used to think that at the end of it all I
would try, if it was possible, to divorce my wife Maisie, but now
there is no need at all.
Often Maisie would shout in her sleep and I would have to
'Put your arm around me,' she would say. 'It was a horrible
dream. I had it once before. I was in a plane flying over a desert.
But it wasn't really a desert. I took the plane lower and I could
see there were thousands of babies heaped up, stretching away into
the horizon, all of them naked and climbing over each other. I was
running out of fuel and I had to land the plane. I tried to find
a space, I flew on and on looking for a space
'Go to sleep now,' I said through a yawn. 'It was only a
'No', she cried. 'I mustn't go to sleep, not just yet.'
'Well, I have to sleep now,' I told her. 'I have to be up
early in the morning.'
She shook my shoulder. 'Please don't go to sleep yet, don't
leave me here.'
'I'm in the same bed,' I said. 'I won't leave you.'
'It makes no difference, don't leave me awake
my eyes were already closing.
Lately I have taken up my great-grandfather's habit. Before
going to bed I sit down for half an hour and think over the day.
I have no mathematical whimsies or sexual theories to note down.
Mostly I write out what Maisie has said to me and what I have said
to Maisie. Sometimes, for complete privacy, I lock myself in the
bathroom, sit on the toilet seat and balance the writing-pad on
my knees. Apart from me there is occasionally a spider or two in
the bathroom. They climb up the waste pipe and crouch perfectly
still on the glaring white enamel. They must wonder where they have
come to. After hours of crouching they turn back, puzzled, or perhaps
disappointed they could not learn more. As far as I can tell, my
great-grandfather made only one reference to spiders. On May 8th,
1906, he wrote, 'Bismark is a spider.'
In the afternoons Maisie used to bring me tea and tell me
her nightmares. Usually I was going through old newspapers, compiling
indexes, cataloguing items, putting down this volume, picking up
another. Maisie said she was in a bad way. Recently she had been
sitting around the house all day glancing at books on psychology
and the occult, and almost every night she had bad dreams. Since
the time we exchanged physical blows, lying in wait to hit each
other with the same shoe outside the bathroom, I had had little
sympathy for her. Part of her problem was jealousy. She was very
of my great-grandfather's forty-five-volume diary,
and of my purpose and energy in editing it. She was doing nothing.
I was putting down one volume and picking up another when Maisie
came in with the tea.
'Can I tell you my dream?' she asked. 'I was flying this
plane over a kind of desert
'Tell me later, Maisie,' I said. 'I'm in the middle of something
here.' After she had gone I stared at the wall in front of my desk
and thought about M, who came to talk and dine with my great-grandfather
regularly over a period of fifteen years up until his sudden and
unexplained departure one evening in 1898. M, whoever he might have
been, was something of an academic, as well as a man of action.
For example, on the evening of August 9th, 1870, the two of them
are talking about positions for lovemaking and M tells my great-grandfather
that copulation a posteriori is the most natural way owing to the
position of the clitoris and because other anthropoids favour this
method. My great-grandfather, who copulated about half-a-dozen times
in his entire life, and that with Alice during the first year of
their marriage, wondered out loud what the Church's view was and
straight away M is able to tell him that the seventh-century theologian
Theodore considered copulation a posteriori a sin ranking with masturbation
and therefore worthy of forty penances. Later in the same evening
my great-grandfather produced mathematical evidence that the maximum
number of positions cannot exceed the prime number seventeen. M
scoffed at this and told him he had seen a collection of drawings
by Romano, a pupil of Raphael's, in which twenty-four positions
were shown. And, he said, he had heard of a Mr F. K. Forberg who
had accounted for ninety. By the time I remembered the tea Maisie
had left by my elbow it was cold.
An important stage in the deterioration of our marriage was
reached as follows. I was sitting in the bathroom one evening writing
out a conversation Maisie and I had had about the Tarot pack when
suddenly she was outside, rapping on the door and rattling the door-handle.
'Open the door,' she called out. 'I want to come in.'
I said to her, 'You'll have to wait a few minutes more. I've
'Let me in now,' she shouted. 'You're not using the toilet.'
'Wait,' I replied, and wrote another line or two. Now Maisie
was kicking the door.
'My period has started and I need to get something.' I ignored
her yells and finished my piece, which I considered to be particularly
important. If I left it till later certain details would be lost.
There was no sound from Maisie now and I assumed she was in the
bedroom. But when I opened the door she was standing right in my
way with a shoe in her hand. She brought the heel of it sharply
down on my head, and I only had time to move slightly to one side.
The heel caught the top of my ear and cut it badly.
'There,' said Maisie, stepping round me to get to the bathroom,
'now we are both bleeding,' and she banged the door shut. I picked
up the shoe and stood quietly and patiently outside the bathroom
holding a handkerchief to my bleeding ear. Maisie was in the bathroom
about ten minutes and as she came out I caught her neatly and squarely
on the top of her head. I did not give her time to move. She stood
perfectly still for a moment looking straight into my eyes.
'You worm,' she breathed, and went down to the kitchen to
nurse her head out of my sight.
During supper yesterday Maisie claimed that a man locked
in a cell with only the Tarot cards would have access to all knowledge.
She had been doing a reading that afternoon and the cards were still
spread about the floor.
'Could he work out the street plan of Valparaiso from the
cards?' I asked.
'You're being stupid,' she replied.
'Could it tell him the best way to start a laundry business,
the best way to make an omelette or a kidney machine?'
'Your mind is so narrow,' she complained. 'You're so narrow,
'Could he,' I insisted, 'tell me who M is, or why
'Those things don't matter,' she cried. 'They're not necessary.'
'They are still knowledge. Could he find them out?'
She hesitated. 'Yes, he could.'
I smiled, and said nothing.
'What's so funny?' she said. I shrugged, and she began to
get angry. She wanted to be disproved. 'Why did you ask all those
I shrugged again. 'I just wanted to know if you really meant
Maisie banged the table and screamed, 'Damn you! Why are
you always trying me out? Why don't you say something real?' And
with that we both recognized we had reached the point where all
our discussions led and we became bitterly silent.
Work on the diaries cannot proceed until I have cleared up
the mystery surrounding M. After coming to dinner on and off for
fifteen years and supplying my great-grandfather with a mass of
material for his theories, M simply disappears from the pages of
the diary. On Tuesday, December 6th, my great-grandfather invited
M to dine on the following Saturday, and although M came, my great-grandfather
in the entry for that day simply writes, 'M to dinner.' On any other
day the conversation at these meals is recorded at great length.
M had been to dinner on Monday, December 5th, and the conversation
had been about geometry, and the entries for the rest of that week
are entirely given over to the same subject. There is absolutely
no hint of antagonism. Besides, my great-grandfather needed M. M
provided his material, M knew what was going on, he was familiar
with London and he had been on the Continent a number of times.
He knew all about socialism and Darwin, he had an acquaintance in
the free love movement, a friend of James Hinton. M was in the world
in a way which my great-grandfather, who left Melton Mowbray only
once in his lifetime, to visit Nottingham, was not. Even as a young
man my great-grandfather preferred to theorize by the fireside;
all he needed were the materials M supplied. For example, one evening
in June 1884 M, who was just back from London, gave my great-grandfather
an account of how the streets of the town were fouled and clogged
by horse dung. Now in that same week my great-grandfather had been
reading the essay by Malthus called 'On the Principle of Population'.
That night he made an excited entry in the diary about a pamphlet
he wanted to write and have published. It was to be called 'De Stercore
Equorum'. The pamphlet was never published and probably never written,
but there are detailed notes in the diary entries for the two weeks
following that evening. In 'De Stercore Equorum' ('Concerning Horseshit')
he assumes geometric growth in the horse population, and working
from detailed street plans he predicted that the metropolis would
be impassable by 1935. By impassable he took to mean an average
thickness of one foot (compressed) in every major street. He described
involved experiments outside his own stables to determine the compressibility
of horse dung, which he managed to express mathematically. It was
all pure theory, of course. His results rested on the assumption
that no dung would be shovelled aside in the fifty years to come.
Very likely it was M who talked my great-grandfather out of the
One morning, after a long dark night of Maisie's nightmares,
we were lying side by side in bed and I said,
'What is it you really want? Why don't you go back to your
job? These long walks, all this analysis, sitting around the house,
lying in the bed all morning, the Tarot pack, the nightmares
what is it you want?'
And she said, 'I want to get my head straight,' which she
had said many times before.
I said, 'Your head, your mind, it's not like a hotel kitchen,
you know, you can't throw stuff out like old tin cans. It's more
like a river than a place, moving and changing all the time. You
can't make rivers flow straight.'
'Don't go through all that again,' she said. 'I'm not trying
to make rivers flow straight, I'm trying to get my head straight.'
'You've got to do something,' I told her. 'You can't do nothing.
Why not go back to your job? You didn't have nightmares when you
were working. You were never so unhappy when you were working.'
'I've got to stand back from all that,' she said. 'I'm not
sure what any of it means.'
'Fashion,' I said, 'it's all fashion. Fashionable metaphors,
fashionable reading, fashionable malaise. What do you care about
Jung, for example? You've read twelve pages in a month.'
'Don't go on,' she pleaded, 'you know it leads nowhere.'
But I went on.
'You've never been anywhere,' I told her, 'you've never done
anything. You're a nice girl without even the blessing of an unhappy
childhood. Your sentimental Buddhism, this junk-shop mysticism,
joss-stick therapy, magazine astrology
none of it is yours,
you've worked none of it out for yourself. You fell into it, you
fell into a swamp of respectable intuitions. You haven't the originality
or passion to intuit anything yourself beyond your own unhappiness.
Why are you filling your mind with other people's mystic banalities
and giving yourself nightmares?' I got out of bed, opened the curtains
and began to get dressed.
'You talk like this was a fiction seminar,' Maisie said.
'Why are your trying to make things worse for me?' Self-pity began
to well up from inside her, but she fought it down. 'When you are
talking,' she went on, 'I can feel myself, you know, being screwed
up like a piece of paper.'
'Perhaps we are in a fiction seminar,' I said grimly. Maisie
sat up in bed staring at her lap. Suddenly her tone changed. She
patted the pillow beside her and said softly,
'Come over here. Come and sit here. I want to touch you,
I want you to touch me
' But I was sighing, and already on
my way to the kitchen.
In the kitchen I made myself some coffee and took it through
to my study. It had occurred to me in my night of broken sleep that
a possible clue to the disappearance of M might be found in the
pages of geometry. I had always skipped through them before because
mathematics does not interest me. On the Monday, December 5th, 1898,
M and my great-grandfather discussed the vescia piscis, which apparently
is the subject of Euclid's first proposition and a profound influence
on the ground plans of many ancient religious buildings. I read
through the account of the conversation carefully, trying to understand
as best I could the geometry of it. Then, turning the page, I found
a lengthy anecdote which M told my great-grandfather that same evening
when the coffee had been brought in and the cigars were lit. Just
as I was beginning to read Maisie came in.
'And what about you,' she said, as if there had not been
an hour break in our exchange, 'all you have is books. Crawling
over the past like a fly on a turd.'
I was angry, of course, but I smiled and said cheerfully,
'Crawling? Well, at least I'm moving.'
'You don't speak to me any more,' she said, 'you play me
like a pinball machine, for points.'
'Good morning, Hamlet,' I replied, and sat in my chair waiting
patiently for what she had to say next. But she did not speak, she
left, closing the study door softly behind her.
'In September 1870,' M began to tell my great-grandfather,
I came into the possession of certain documents which not
only invalidate everything fundamental to our science of solid geometry
but also undermine the whole canon of our physical laws and force
one to redefine one's place in Nature's scheme. These papers outweigh
in importance the combined work of Marx and Darwin. They were entrusted
to me by a young American mathematician, and they are the work of
David Hunter, a mathematician too and a Scotsman. The American's
name was Goodman. I had corresponded with his father over a number
of years in connection with his work on the cyclical theory of menstruation
which, incredibly enough, is still widely discredited in this country.
I met the young Goodman in Vienna where, along with Hunter and mathematicians
from a dozen countries, he had been attending an international conference
on mathematics. Goodman was pale and greatly disturbed when I met
him, and planned to return to America the following day even though
the conference was not yet half complete. He gave the papers into
my care with instructions that I was to deliver them to David Hunter
if I was ever to learn of his whereabouts. And then, only after
much persuasion and insistence on my part, he told me what he had
witnessed on the third day of the conference. The conference met
every morning at nine thirty when a paper was read and a general
discussion ensued. At eleven o'clock refreshments were brought in
and many of the mathematicians would get up from the long, highly
polished table round which they were all gathered and stroll about
the large, elegant room and engage in informal discussions with
their colleagues. Now, the conference lasted two weeks, and by a
long-standing arrangement the most eminent of the mathematicians
read their papers first, followed by the slightly less eminent,
and so on, in a descending hierarchy throughout the two weeks, which
caused, as it is wont to do among highly intelligent men, occasional
but intense jealousies. Hunter, though a brilliant mathematician,
was young and virtually unknown outside his university, which was
Edinburgh. He had applied to deliver what he described as a very
important paper on solid geometry, and since he was of little account
in this pantheon he was assigned to read to the conference on the
last day but one, by which time many of the most important figures
would have returned to their respective countries. And so on the
third morning, as the servants were bringing in the refreshments,
Hunter stood up suddenly and addressed his colleagues just as they
were rising from their seats. He was a large, shaggy man and, though
young, he had about him a certain presence which reduced the hum
of conversation to a complete silence.
'Gentlemen,' said Hunter, 'I must ask you to forgive this
improper form of address, but I have something to tell you of the
utmost importance. I have discovered the plane without a surface.'
Amid derisive smiles and gentle bemused laughter, Hunter picked
up from the table a large white sheet of paper. With a pocket-knife
he made an incision along its surface about three inches long and
slightly to one side of its centre. Then he made some rapid, complicated
folds and, holding the paper aloft so all could see, he appeared
to draw one corner of it through the incision, and as he did so
'Behold, gentlemen,' said Hunter, holding out his empty hands
towards the company, 'the plane without a surface.'
Maisie came into my room, washed now and smelling faintly
of perfumed soap. She came and stood behind my chair and placed
her hands on my shoulders.
'What are you reading?' she said.
'Just bits of the diary which I haven't looked at before.'
She began to massage me gently at the base of my neck. I would have
found it soothing if it had still been the first year of our marriage.
But it was the sixth year and it generated a kind of tension which
communicated itself the length of my spine. Maisie wanted something.
To restrain her I placed my right hand on her left, and, mistaking
this for affection, she leaned forward and kissed under my ear.
Her breath smelled of toothpaste and toast. She tugged at my shoulder.
'Let's go in the bedroom,' she whispered. 'We haven't made
love for nearly two weeks now.'
'I know,' I replied. 'You know how it is
with my work.'
I felt no desire for Maisie or any other woman. All I wanted to
do was turn the next page of my great-grandfather's diary. Maisie
took her hands off my shoulders and stood by my side. There was
such a sudden ferocity in her silence that I found myself tensing
like a sprinter on the starting line. She stretched forward and
picked up the sealed jar containing Capt. Nicholls. As she lifted
it his penis drifted dreamily from one end of the glass to the other.
'You're so COMPLACENT,' Maisie shrieked, just before she
hurled the glass bottle at the wall in front of my table. Instinctively
I covered my face with my hands to shield off the shattering glass.
As I opened my eyes I heard myself saying,
'Why did you do that? That belonged to my great-grandfather.'
Amid the broken glass and the rising stench of formaldehyde lay
Capt. Nicholls, slouched across the leather covers of a volume of
the diary, grey, limp and menacing, transformed from a treasured
curiosity into a horrible obscenity.
'That was a terrible thing to do. Why did you do that?' I
'I'm going for a walk,' Maisie replied, and slammed the door
this time as she left the room.
I did not move from my chair for a long time. Maisie had
destroyed an object of great value to me. It had stood in his study
while he lived, and then it had stood in mine, linking my life with
his. I picked a few splinters of glass from my lap and stared at
the 160-year-old piece of another human on my table. I looked at
it and thought of all the homunculi which had swarmed down its length.
I thought of all the places it had been, Cape Town, Boston, Jerusalem,
travelling in the dark, fetid inside of Capt. Nicholl's leather
breeches, emerging occasionally into the dazzling sunlight to discharge
urine in some jostling public place. I thought also of all the things
it had touched, all the molecules, of Captain Nicholl's exploring
hands on lonely unrequited nights at sea, the sweating walls of
cunts of young girls and old whores, their molecules must still
exist today, a fine dust blowing from Cheapside to Leicestershire.
Who knows how long it might have lasted in its glass jar. I began
to clear up the mess. I brought the rubbish bucket in from the kitchen.
I swept and picked up all the glass I could find and swabbed up
the formaldehyde. Then, holding him by just one end, I tried to
ease Capt. Nicholls on to a sheet of newspaper. My stomach heaved
as the foreskin began to come away in my fingers. Finally, with
my eyes closed, I succeeded, and wrapping him carefully in the newspaper,
I carried him into the garden and buried him under the geraniums.
All this time I tried to prevent my resentment towards Maisie filling
my mind. I wanted to continue with M's story. Back in my chair I
dabbed at a few spots of formaldehyde which had blotted the ink,
and read on.
For as long as a minute the room was frozen, and with each
successive second it appeared to freeze harder. The first to speak
was Dr Stanley Rose of Cambridge University, who had much to lose
by Hunter's plane without a surface. His reputation, which was very
considerable indeed, rested upon his 'Principles of Solid Geometry'.
'How dare you, sir. How dare you insult the dignity of this
assembly with a worthless conjuror's trick.' And bolstered by the
rising murmur of concurrence behind him, he added, 'You should be
ashamed, young man, thoroughly ashamed.' With that, the room erupted
like a volcano. With the exception of young Goodman, and of the
servants who still stood by with the refreshments, the whole room
turned on Hunter and directed at him a senseless babble of denunciation,
invective and threat. Some thumped on the table in their fury, others
waved their clenched fists. One very frail German gentleman fell
to the floor in an apoplexy and had to be helped to a chair. And
there stood Hunter, firm and outwardly unmoved, his head inclined
slightly to one side, his fingers resting lightly on the surface
of the long polished table. That such an uproar should follow a
worthless conjuror's trick clearly demonstrated the extent of the
underlying unease, and Hunter surely appreciated this. Raising his
hand, and the company falling suddenly silent once more, he said,
'Gentlemen, your concern is understandable and I will effect
another proof, the ultimate proof.' This said, he sat down and removed
his shoes, stood up and removed his jacket, and then called for
a volunteer to assist him, at which Goodman came forward. Hunter
strode through the crowd to a couch which stood along one of the
walls, and while he settled himself upon it he told the mystified
Goodman that when he returned to England he should take with him
Hunter's papers and keep them there until he came to collect them.
When the mathematicians had gathered round the couch Hunter rolled
on to his stomach and clasped his hands behind his back in a strange
posture to fashion a hoop with his arms. He asked Goodman to hold
his arms in that position for him, and rolled on his side where
he began a number of strenuous jerking movements which enabled him
to pass one of his feet through the hoop. He asked his assistant
to turn him on his other side, where he performed the same movements
again and succeeded in passing his other foot between his arms,
and at the same time bent his trunk in such a way that his head
was able to pass through the hoop in the opposite direction to his
feet. With the help of his assistant he began to pass his leg and
head past each other through the hoop made by his arms. It was then
that the distinguished assembly vented, as one man, a single yelp
of utter incredulity. Hunter was beginning to disappear, and now,
as his legs and head passed through his arms with greater facility,
seemed even to be drawn through by some invisible power, he was
almost gone. And now
he was gone, quite gone, and nothing
M's story put my great-grandfather in a frenzy of excitement.
In his diary that night he recorded how he tried 'to prevail upon
my guest to send for the papers upon the instant' even though it
was by now two o'clock in the morning. M, however, was more sceptical
about the whole thing. 'Americans,' he told my great-grandfather,
'often indulge in fantastic tales.' But he agreed to bring along
the papers the following day. As it turned out M did not dine with
my great-grandfather that night because of another engagement, but
he called round in the late afternoon with the papers. Before he
left he told my great-grandfather he had been through them a number
of times and 'there was no sense to be had out of them'. He did
not realize then how much he was underestimating my great-grandfather
as an amateur mathematician. Over a glass of sherry in front of
the drawing-room fire the two men arranged to dine together again
at the end of the week, on Saturday. For the next three days my
great-grandfather hardly paused from his reading of Hunter's theorems
to eat or sleep. The diary is full of nothing else. The pages are
covered with scribbles, diagrams and symbols. It seems that Hunter
had to devise a new set of symbols, virtually a whole new language,
to express his ideas. By the end of the second day my great-grandfather
had made his first breakthrough. At the bottom of a page of mathematical
scribble he wrote, 'Dimensionality is a function of consciousness'.
Turning to the entry for the next day I read the words 'It disappeared
in my hands'. He had re-established the plane without a surface.
And there, spread out in front of me, were step by step instructions
on how to fold the piece of paper. Turning the next page I suddenly
understood the mystery of M's disappearance. Undoubtedly encouraged
by my great-grandfather, he had taken part that evening in a scientific
experiment, probably in a spirit of great scepticism. For here my
great-grandfather had drawn a series of small sketches illustrating
what at first glance looked like yoga positions. Clearly they were
the secret of Hunter's disappearing act.
My hands were trembling as I cleared a space on my desk.
I selected a clean sheet of typing paper and laid it in front of
me. I fetched a razor blade from the bathroom. I rummaged in a drawer
and found an old pair of compasses, sharpened a pencil and fitted
it in. I searched through the house till I found an accurate steel
ruler I had once used for fitting window panes, and then I was ready.
First I had to cut the paper to size. The piece that Hunter had
so casually picked up from the table had obviously been carefully
prepared beforehand. The length of the sides had to express a specific
ratio. Using the compasses I found the centre of the paper and through
this point I drew a line parallel to one of the sides and continued
it right to the edge. Then I had to construct a rectangle whose
measurements bore a particular relation to those of the sides of
the paper. The centre of this rectangle occurred on the line in
such a way as to dissect it by the Golden Mean. From the top of
this rectangle I drew intersecting arcs, again of specified proportionate
radii. This operation was repeated at the lower end of the rectangle,
and when the two points of intersection were joined I had the line
of incision. Then I started work on the folding lines. Each line
seemed to express, in its length, angle of incline and point of
intersection with other lines, some mysterious inner harmony of
numbers. As I intersected arcs, drew lines and made folds, I felt
I was blindly operating a system of the highest, most terrifying
form of knowledge, the mathematics of the Absolute. By the time
I had made the final fold the piece of paper was the shape of a
geometric flower with three concentric rings arranged round the
incision at the centre. There was something so tranquil and perfect
about this design, something so remote and compelling, that as I
started into it I felt myself going into a light trance and my mind
becoming clear and inactive. I shook my head and glanced away. It
was time now to turn the flower in on itself and pull it through
the incision. This was a delicate operation and now my hands were
trembling again. Only by staring into the centre of the design could
I calm myself. With my thumbs I began to push the sides of the paper
flower towards the centre, and as I did so I felt a numbness settle
over the back of my skull. I pushed a little further, the paper
glowed whiter for an instant and then it seemed to disappear. I
say 'seemed' because at first I could not be sure whether I could
feel it still in my hands and not see it, or see it but not feel
it, or whether I could sense it had disappeared while its external
properties remained. The numbness had spread right across my head
and shoulders. My senses seemed inadequate to grasp what was happening.
'Dimensionality is a function of consciousness,' I thought. I brought
my hands together and there was nothing between them, but even when
I opened them again and saw nothing I could not be sure the paper
flower had completely gone. An impression remained, an after-image
not on the retina but on the mind itself. Just then the door opened
behind me, and Maisie said,
'What are you doing?'
I returned as if from a dream to the room and to the faint
smell of formaldehyde. It was a long, long time ago now, the destruction
of Capt. Nicholls, but the smell revived my resentment, which spread
through me like the numbness. Maisie slouched in the doorway, muffled
in a thick coat and woollen scarf. She seemed a long way off, and
as I looked at her my resentment merged into a familiar weariness
of our marriage. I thought, why did she break the glass? Because
she wanted to make love? Because she wanted a penis? Because she
was jealous of my work, and wanted to smash the connection it had
with my great-grandfather's life?
'Why did you do it?' I said out loud, involuntarily. Maisie
snorted. She had opened the door and found me hunched over my table
staring at my hands.
'Have you been sitting there all afternoon,' she asked, 'thinking
about that?' She giggled. 'What happened to it, anyway? Did you
suck it off?'
'I buried it,' I said, 'under the geraniums.'
She came into the room a little way and said in a serious
tone, 'I'm sorry about that, I really am. I just did it before I
knew what was happening. Do you forgive me?' I hesitated, and then,
because my weariness had blossomed into a sudden resolution, I said,
'Yes, of course I forgive you. It was only a prick in pickle,'
and we both laughed. Maisie came over to me and kissed me, and I
returned the kiss, prising open her lips with my tongue.
'Are you hungry?' she said, when we were done with kissing.
'Shall I make some supper?'
'Yes,' I said. 'I would love that.' Maisie kissed me on the
top of my head and left the room, while I turned back to my studies,
resolving to be as kind as I possibly could to Maisie that evening.
Later we sat in the kitchen eating the meal Maisie had cooked
and getting mildly drunk on a bottle of wine. We smoked a joint,
the first one we had had together in a very long time. Maisie told
me how she was going to get a job with the Forestry Commission planting
trees in Scotland next summer. And I told Maisie about the conversation
M and my great-grandfather had had about a posteriori, and about
my great-grandfather's theory that there could not be more than
the prime number seventeen positions for making love. We both laughed,
and Maisie squeezed my hand, and lovemaking hung in the air between
us, in the warm fug of the kitchen. Then we put our coats on and
went for a walk. It was almost a full moon. We walked along the
main road which runs outside our house and then turned down a narrow
street of tightly packed houses with immaculate and minute front
gardens. We did not talk much, but our arms were linked and Maisie
told me how very stoned and happy she was. We came to a small park
which was locked and we stood outside the gates looking up at the
moon through the almost leafless branches. When we came home Maisie
took a leisurely hot bath while I browsed in my study, checking
on a few details. Our bathroom is a warm, comfortable room, luxurious
in its way. The bed is seven foot by eight, and I made it myself
in the first year of our marriage. Maisie made the sheets, dyed
them a deep, rich blue and embroidered the pillow cases. The only
light in the room shone through a rough old goatskin lampshade Maisie
bought from a man who came to the door. It was a long time since
I had taken an interest in the bedroom. We lay side by side in the
tangle of sheets and rugs, Maisie voluptuous and drowsy after her
bath and stretched full out, and I propped up on my elbow. Maisie
'I was walking along the river this afternoon. The trees
are beautiful now, the oaks, the elms
there are two copper
beeches about a mile past the footbridge, you should see them now
ahh, that feels good.' I had eased her on to her belly and was caressing
her back as she spoke. 'There are blackberries, the biggest ones
I've ever seen, growing all along the path, and elderberries, too.
I'm going to make some wine this autumn
' I leaned over her
and kissed the nape of her neck and brought her arms behind her
back. She liked to be manipulated in this way and she submitted
warmly. 'And the river is relay still,' she was saying. 'You know,
reflecting the trees, and the leaves are dropping into the river.
Before the winter comes we should go there together, by the river,
in the leaves. I found this little place. No one goes there
Holding Maisie's arms in position with one hand, I worked her legs
towards the 'hoop' with the other. '
I sat in this place for
half an hour without moving, like a tree. I saw a water-rat running
along the opposite bank, and different kinds of ducks landing on
the river and taking off. I heard these plopping noises in the river
but I didn't know what they were and I saw two orange butterflies,
they almost came on my hand.' When I had her legs in place Maisie
said, 'Position number eighteen,' and we both laughed softly. 'Let's
go there tomorrow, to the river,' said Maisie as I carefully eased
her head towards her arms. 'Careful, careful, that hurts,' she suddenly
shouted, and tried to struggle. But it was too late now, her head
and legs were in place in the hoop of her arms, and, I was beginning
to push them through, past each other. 'What's happening?' cried
Maisie. Now the positioning at her limbs expressed the breathtaking
beauty, the nobility of the human form, and, as in the paper flower,
there was a fascinating power in its symmetry. I felt the trance
coming on again and the numbness settling over the back of my head.
As I draw her arms and legs through Maisie appeared to turn in on
herself like a sock 'Oh God'. She sighed, 'What's happening?' and
her voice sounded very far away. Then she was gone... and not gone.
Her voice was quite tiny. 'What's happening?' and all that remained
was the echo of her question above the deep blue sheets.