Somewhere Beyond Reproach

Somewhere Beyond Reproach

TIM JEAL

To Joyce

I wrote
Somewhere Beyond Reproach
, my second novel, while working on BBC TV’s evening discussion programme
Late Night Line Up
. Production teams worked two weeks on and one week off; so at regular intervals I would have a whole week clear to devote to my writing. I was twenty-two years old and fascinated (predictably enough) by the subject of relationships between men and women and by what made them satisfactory for one party or both.

Many more young men, then than now, thought of women almost entirely as sources of gratification, happiness, and self-affirmation rather than as partners in equal relationships in which an honest dialogue was essential. I thought I could write an intriguing story about a man with an obsessive infatuation for a woman whom he has known since he and she were children. His ideal image of her, I decided, should bear no resemblance to the real woman. Although I decided to write in the first person, I hoped I had little in common with my solipsistic narrator and distanced myself by making him a rich business-man, almost half a lifetime older than myself. Harry and Dinah have an affair, and although he is convinced that she truly is the love of his life, in reality he is still captivated by his idea of her, rather than by the person she actually is. 

My obsessive Harry is frightened that unless he keeps on burnishing his mental image of his loved one, his passion for her will soon fade away. ‘Once I had reached some consummation what could be beyond it? I feared I should soon be proclaiming my happiness and at the same instant realising that this happiness had passed while I spoke.’ Dinah starts to feel that she has become a sort of drug for him and that his happiness exists almost independently of her. In time his self-absorption makes her feel horribly lonely and used, but she finds it impossible to tell him so to his face. So while Harry is abroad, recuperating after a minor operation, Dinah leaves him without warning and goes to live with another man, Mark, whom she has also known for many years. With equal haste, she marries Mark, and later a child is born. 

Harry does his best to get over his loss, but he fails to do so and ten years later he coolly and systematically sets out to unearth all he can about Dinah’s marriage and then intrudes upon it, buying his way into her son’s life (and thereby into his mother’s) with expensive presents. Harry gets some alarming surprises along the way and the final revelation is a bombshell for him. Until then, he had gone through the whole book expecting to remove Dinah from Mark and live with her again, but this final discovery is so shocking for him that the idea he started with is completely shattered. At last the ideal figure he had made her in his mind is destroyed and he is thrown into total confusion. But the outcome of his disillusion is that he is released from his obsession and now has a chance to know Dinah as she really is.

Harry’s rite of passage from his ten years of fantasy to immediate reality is not always a solemn business.  He is undeniably prim and disengaged but my deliberately ordinary and straightforward first-person narration was meant to contrast comically with the bizarre and outrageous nature of the events that occur as his campaign to recapture Dinah gathers pace. There is often something a bit creepy about Harry’s calm and clinical proceedings as he tracks down the family like a private detective, but he never troubles himself with how other people might view his behaviour. He just works out his stratagems and calmly records what he sees in front of his eyes as he follows through his plan to the letter.

After my first novel, which had drawn on my direct experience, I deliberately set out in my second to rely on my imagination. All fictitious characters inevitably contain something of their author. In the case of Harry I hoped that this ‘something’ didn’t contain too much of the essential me. Only when I’d finished did I realise how very different this book’s atmosphere was from the more light-hearted tone of my first novel. Where the idea came from for the polio-stricken husband or for Harry’s long obsession, I still have no idea, but I’m glad they came from somewhere. I think the novel summons up its own world and was a surprising book for someone of my age to have written. 

Tim Jeal

April 2013

Ten years ago to the day: 4 May 1957. I had just come out of hospital after an operation for the removal of a growth in my left ear. On leaving the hospital I had taken a taxi to Dinah’s flat. I remember my sense of well-being as I sprawled across the broad back seat of the taxi and breathed in the unique taxi-leather smell. We drove through the park and I noticed with surprise the new leaves, yellowish green as the sun shone through them. The green of grass and trees, the sun-flecked sparkle on the water of the
Serpentine
, all glistened reflected in the glass panel behind the driver.

Dinah then lived in a peeling but well-proportioned
Paddington
square. The front door of the house she lived in was always open. I walked into the darker hall and started up the uncarpeted stairs. Nobody cared about those stairs, nobody owned them.

She had welcomed me with a smile of happiness. Would she have welcomed any other man with the same smile at that particular moment? The question never crossed my mind. I wanted to go out, but she insisted on finishing some ironing. I sat listening to the gentle groaning of the ironing board and the thump as she pressed the iron on it. It was nearly noon but she was still in her dressing gown … and I remember that too; it had been mine … faded blue
padded
silk. It came down to her ankles, just showing her feet. Her long black hair flopped slightly across her face as she bent over her work. We spoke very little. I sat down in a cane-bottomed chair in front of the window and gave myself
up to the pleasure of watching her. I felt excellent and good simply because of my love. Still feeling the slight
throbbing
of my ear, I felt a tender but eminently worthy object of love. Passively I sat in front of the window and the sun warmed me through the glass. A channel of sunlight lit the ironing board as though specially appointed to do so … the focal point of the room. Often in her company I was able to excuse my silence by reasoning that silence led to the discovery of ideas, whereas persistent conversation left one finding nothing to say.

The events that followed several months later leave little room for me to continue thinking that her feelings at this meeting were the same as mine. Yet I still manage to
remember
the scene as perfect, even though I am now convinced that the boredom of people sitting looking at each other is only paralleled by the boredom of loneliness.

Perhaps she had wanted more than the embrace and kiss I had given her when I first came in. She paused after she had finished ironing. I remained sitting. She was mine, perfectly mine. The occasion was as
I
saw it. It could be nothing else. As I waited for her to get dressed I thought back to the time two months before when I had first had her. The
following
morning we had gone out for a walk, we had stopped at a coffee bar. Something I very rarely do myself. The coffee tastes so little. We sat down in a dark corner under a trellis, which a rubbery looking plant was vainly trying to climb. She had leant towards me, her glass cup held firmly in both hands. She told me that a lot of people were afraid of her. I felt no inclination to laugh. In those days I had the sense to believe this. She was animated. I had sensed her
excitement
as she stared at me, her face half-lit. I knew she was happy. Yet as I looked at her, I almost doubted that I was the cause. Her eyes were brilliant … I stirred my foamy coffee and looked away. But as time passed I had taken for granted more, feared less, but also depended more.
Inside
we had been serious. In the street one of her shoes fell off, she bent down to pick it up; I smiled, she smiled back. All was well.

At the theatre or in the cinema I find myself too critical of the actors. The pauses are too long, filled with meaning for some perhaps but not for me. I see faces as insensitive and immobile. If only I had been able to apply my powers of criticism to myself in company with Dinah.

The day after the May morning I have been describing I went to convalesce in south-western France. I stayed with friends in a small village outside Carcassonne. I sent letters to Dinah almost every day. As I drove through the vineyards or walked in the sombre coolness of a cloister, I thought how much better I should have enjoyed myself had she been with me. I did not say this in my postcards or in my letters. Instead I communicated a painstakingly exact traveller’s itinerary. My pathetic belief was that she would thus enjoy the places I had enjoyed at a close second-hand. I looked at the solid walls and rounded towers of Carcassonne more carefully as I thought of how well I should describe them. I noticed the way the light left well-marked triangles of shadow as it outlined the contours of a buttress, I listened more carefully to the plash of a fountain in a courtyard and felt the cooler air on my cheek. Blindfolded I could have described a place by the individuality of its smell. I thought of Dinah in her Paddington room reading these missives from a more interesting, more desirable place. I imagined how her pleasure would be mixed with a slight jealousy not to be there with the man she loved. I had been there only a month, the time my firm had agreed to let me go for. I wrote to my doctor, who agreed to ask them to grant me more time. It was in everybody’s interests that I should make the best possible recovery. The reason why I did not rush back to my loved one was simple. I felt that I was able to communicate with her better by writing. The sensitivity which I had never shown in her presence I managed effortlessly to display in my letters. The infrequency of her replies did not worry me. It seemed perfectly natural that I should write more often than she. More was happening to me. Her everyday working life was the same. The bashfulness I felt with her disappeared in my letters. They were confident and fluent. I managed to
write of our love with ease. I explained the feelings I
experienced
merely looking at her. I enjoyed this a lot. I did not spoil the feeling; if anything I augmented it. Never once though did I talk about returning or suggest that she should come out and join me. During my last two weeks there I did not hear from her. I went on writing, but gradually her failure to reply began seriously to worry me. I decided to come back. I had been away two months.

Once again I was in a taxi crossing the park. This time I did not notice anything. I willed the taxi on faster. The sunshine did little to appease the anxiety I felt, the
quickening
of my breath, the loud beating of my heart. I had not telephoned from the air terminal. But it was evening; I felt that she would be in. I ran up the stairs and rang the bell. There was no answer. Loosely stuck in the letter-flap was a note. ‘Back in two weeks’. I heard a dog barking on the landing above. I stood for a moment. As soon as I took in the note I half fell, half ran down the stairs. On the
mahogany
table in the hall I saw a small pile of letters addressed to her. The bright colour of the postcards, the French stamps on the letters filled me with a terrible desire to cry. I ran out into the street, the letters crumpled in my hand.

*

In order to convey exactly how acute my misery was, I shall have to go back rather further; back in fact to the time when I first met Dinah. Ours was a long courtship. Dinah herself was probably unaware of seven years of it; I, on the other hand, was painfully aware of all of it. I grew into the habit of looking for success with her at some
far-off
time in the future. Even when, years later, I had slept with her, even in France, I still had this feeling. If
everything
was not perfect now, it would be. My misguided letters were part of my drive for the perfection of future happiness. I almost felt frightened of any other approach. Dinah was my passion. My determination never to completely satisfy this passion made me often self-conscious and never quite able to live for the present. With this distant view of my
present
life, I was able to ignore most tiresome details, most of the difficulties of a close social life. My dream of the future and perfection may have been sentimental, adolescent, but it was real, absolutely real. I lived for it. I had selected Dinah as the Goddess of my personal Utopia. Nobody else would do. Nothing was to shatter the illusion I had formed. As I write this I am embarrassed and pained. Before my fatal journey to France I remembered her saying: ‘Only a mind in touch with another mind can be full. Left to itself it is useless.’ I have made this sound more pedantic than she made it. Possibly the words are not exact.

I first met Dinah in 1949. She was staying with an aunt in her cottage outside Tewkesbury. I was fifteen. I was staying in Tewkesbury with a school friend, Mark
Simpson
. The Simpsons had a tennis court. Dinah used to come over and play. I still have a photograph of Mark, Dinah and myself, all of us in tennis clothes, standing outside the french windows that led out from the dining room on to a spacious and well-mowed lawn. Mark and Dinah look perfectly natural, I am looking away with a slightly
supercilious
smile — the smile of the would-be aesthetic
non-games
player. In fact my scorn for the game was the result of my lack of aptitude for it. I would dearly have liked to excel. Often I would sit out and watch Mark and Dinah play. The netting round the court sagged in places. Often the ball was hit out into the rhododendrons that encircled the court. They didn’t notice the pantomime of my shrugging disdain when they asked me to throw back the balls. Dinah at sixteen in tennis clothes. The photograph in front of me brings back some of the agony I felt as I waited for her forehand drive. I was mystified that
somebody
so slender could hit the ball so hard. She played with careless grace. I can still hear the agile scuffing of her
gym-shoed
feet and the noise of the ball. And there I’d be
grappling
in the rhododendrons, scraping my shins. ‘No, further over there,’ I would hear her voice. Not the faintest hint of gratitude. I was a servant to be taken for granted. I was
thankful
for the dark green luxuriance of the protecting foliage
that hid my blushing face. Why is it so easy to love those who do not notice one?

‘Oh, you’ve cut yourself,’ Mark observed once.

‘Not badly,’ I added hastily, all pretence of arrogant
indifference
gone. Then to prevent further sympathy I hastened to the bathroom to wash and lick my wounds.

*

Then two years later I stayed with Mark again. This time I found out that Dinah came every summer but that she lived in London like me. Mark, a year older than I, was away for a few days, sitting a university exam. I spent much of that time alone with Dinah. I discovered her London
address
. The day before Mark came back, I jokingly said, ‘I love you.’ I meant it though. She knew I did. She replied calmly, ‘There’s no “I love
you
”, just “I love”.’ She probably read it somewhere: ironic words. We were standing by a stream in the meadow beside Tewkesbury Abbey. Perfect scene: the sun on the warm pink of the square tower,
grazing
cattle, and the sound of the bells ringing for evensong. I had meant to tell her about the Battle of Tewkesbury. How the stream, that ran so placidly today, had once been red with blood. After her remark there was no need. The
meadow
was filled with my misery.

When we got out of the local bus outside her aunt’s
cottage
, I held her hand, but she withdrew it. ‘Not even that?’ I asked and she walked through her aunt’s gate without another word. The coat slung over her shoulder brushed against the uncut hedge beside the path. Yet she had also said, earlier the same day, ‘Give me your arm, I need a strong arm.’ I left for London several days later, wounded but still determined.

Most people seem able to laugh at the adolescent they used to be. I find this still difficult; so much has survived. I reacted to Dinah’s indifference with a caricature of
normal
adolescent pride. At parties from then on I decided that the people who interested me most would be those I would speak to least. I resolved never to stay longer than
necessary
with anybody: never risk having it pointed out that
they were busy or going anywhere. I should not easily do people’s bidding. I would make a virtue out of being old enough not to have to do things I did not like merely out of a sense of duty. I listened to couples in coffee bars and at bus stops. I wondered patronisingly how either party could suffer the banalities served up by the other. I concluded that for most people hearing something, however
banal
was better than hearing nothing. I relished the knowledge that a fund of anecdotes and stories, though leaving the possessor in no better state in his own eyes, left him a good deal better in the eyes of others. I decided that it was easier to shine with a large number of people present than alone with
anybody
. I became expert in sarcasm, picking up things that somebody else had said and then repeating them in another tone. I used to sit alone and dream about being insulted. How dextrously I turned the attacker’s barbs to his
disadvantage
. My replies were perfect pleasure. That I never actually managed a quarter of the effect that I gained in these reveries did not destroy my pleasure. I began to enjoy my mental processes more than company. Yet all this was for a purpose and the purpose was the possession of Dinah. Everything I did was to be a form of preparation.

I decided that in order to be ready for Dinah I should have to increase my experience with others … other women. My deviousness increased with experience. If I was interested in one sister, I would first of all pay a lot of attention to another. I did not have to analyse my emotions in order to tame them. Nor did I have to remind myself that I was dealing with mere mortals — ordinary women. My
passion
was for Dinah and my succcess with others disgusted and saddened me as much as my victims. Compliments about my indifference, remarks about how calculating and experienced I was, did not please me, except that they proved to me that I might be already in a better state of preparation to attack Dinah. On several occasions I nearly managed to convince myself by the power of my eloquence that I was fond of these passing faces. Several days later and I was disgusted with my conceit and my disillusion.
After I slept with a woman several times, I could not manage anything in bed without imagining that my partner was Dinah. When any unfortunate girl told me that she loved me, I might repeat the words Dinah had spoken to me. Usually I said nothing. I would think of how Dinah had told me that she had never been in love. This made other professions of love seem emptier still.

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