Read What Was She Thinking? Online

Authors: Zoë Heller

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

What Was She Thinking?

BOOK: What Was She Thinking?
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For Larry and Frankie
March 1, 1998
T
he other night, at dinner, Sheba talked about the first time that she and the Connolly boy kissed. I had heard most of it before of course—there being few aspects of the Connolly business that Sheba has not described to me several times over. But this time round, something new came up. I happened to ask her if anything about the first embrace had surprised her. She laughed. Yes, the smell of the whole thing had been surprising, she said. She hadn’t anticipated his personal odour, and if she had, she would probably have guessed at something teenagey: bubble gum, cola, feet.
When the moment arrived, what I actually inhaled was soap, tumbledried laundry. He smelled of scrupulous self-maintenance. You know the washing-machine vapour that envelops you sometimes, walking past the basement vents of buildings? Like that. So clean, Barbara. Never any of that Spam breath that the other kids have …
Every night since we came to Eddie’s house, Sheba has been talking to me like this. She sits at the kitchen table looking out on the green darkness of Eddie’s garden. I sit across from her, watching her nervous fingers score ice-skating loops in the
plastic tablecloth. It’s often pretty strong stuff she tells me in that newsreader’s voice of hers. But then, one of the many things I have always admired about Sheba is her capacity to talk about low things and make them seem perfectly decent. We don’t have secrets, Sheba and I.
The first time I saw him undress, you know what I thought of, Barbara? Fresh garden vegetables wrapped in a clean white hankie. Mushrooms fresh from the soil. No, really. He was edible. He washed his hair every night. Imagine! It was limp with cleanness. The vanity of adolescence probably. Or no—perhaps the anxiety of it. His body was a new toy still: he hadn’t learned to treat it with the indifferent neglect of adults.
Her account was wending back to familiar terrain. I must have heard the hair rhapsody at least fifteen times in recent months. (I’ve never cared for Connolly’s hair, myself. It’s always struck me as slightly sinister—like that spun fibreglass snow that they used to sell as Christmas tree decoration.) Still, I kept giving her the cues. “And were you nervous, when you were kissing him, Sheba?”
Oh no. Well, yes … Not exactly. [Laughter] Can you be nervous and calm at the same time? I remember being quite relieved that he wasn’t using his tongue. You do need to know someone a bit, first, don’t you? It’s too much otherwise. All the slobber. And that slightly embarrassing sense of the other person trying to be creative in a limited space … Anyway, I relaxed too much or something, because the bike fell-there was this awful clatter-and then, of course, I ran away …
I don’t say much on these occasions. The point is to get Sheba to talk. But even in the usual run of things, I tend to be the listener in our relationship. It’s not that Sheba is cleverer than me. Any objective comparison would have to rate me the
more educated woman, I think. (Sheba knows a bit about art—I’ll give her that; but for all her class advantages, she is woefully ill read.) No, Sheba talks because she is just naturally more loquacious and candid than I am. I am circumspect by nature, and she … well, she isn’t.
For most people, honesty is such an unusual departure from their standard modus operandi—such an aberration in their workaday mendacity—that they feel obliged to alert you when a moment of sincerity is coming on. “To be completely honest,” they say, or “To tell you the truth,” or “Can I be straight?” Often they want to extract vows of discretion from you before going any further. “This is strictly between us, right? … You must promise not to tell anyone …” Sheba does none of that. She tosses out intimate and unflattering truths about herself, all the time, without a second thought. “I was the most fearsomely obsessive little masturbator when I was a girl,” she told me once when we were first getting to know each other. “My mother practically had to Sellotape my knickers to me, to stop me having at myself in public places.” “Oh?” I said, trying to sound as if I were used to broaching such matters over coffee and a Kit Kat.
It’s a class characteristic, I think—this insouciant frankness. If I had had more contact with posh people in my life, I would probably be familiar with the style and think nothing of it. But Sheba is the only genuinely upper-class person I’ve ever known. Her throwaway candour is as exotic to me, in its way, as a plate in an Amazonian tribesman’s lip.
She’s meant to be taking a nap at the moment. (She’s not sleeping well at night.) But I can tell from the creaking of the floorboards overhead that she’s pottering about in her niece’s room. She often goes in there in the afternoons. It was her
bedroom when she was growing up, apparently. She’ll spend hours at a time handling the little girl’s things—reorganising the vials of glitter and glue in art kits, making inventories of the dolls’ plastic shoes. Sometimes she falls asleep up there and I’ll have to go and wake her for dinner. She always looks rather sad and odd, sprawled out on the pink and white princess bed, with her big, rough feet dangling over the edge. Like a giantess who has blundered into the wrong house.
This place belongs to Eddie now. After Sheba’s father died, Sheba’s mother decided it was too big for one person, and Sheba’s brother, Eddie, bought it from her. Sheba is bitter about that, I think. It isn’t fair, she says, that just because Eddie is rich, he should have been able to buy their shared past for himself.
Eddie and his family are away in New Delhi at the moment. The American bank he works for has posted him there for six months. Sheba rang him in India when her trouble started, and he agreed to let her stay in the house until she found something permanent. We’ve been here ever since. It’s anyone’s guess what we will do when Eddie returns in June. I gave up the lease on my little flat some weeks ago, and Sheba’s husband, Richard, is in no danger of taking us in, even temporarily. We probably don’t have enough money to rent a new place and, besides, I’m not sure that any landlords in London would have us right now. I try not to worry, though. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, as my mother used to say.
This is not a story about me. But, since the task of telling it has fallen into my hands, and since I play a minor role in the events I am going to describe, it is only right that I should offer a brief account of myself and my relationship to the protagonist. My name is Barbara Covett. (From time to time, one of my
colleagues will call me Barb, or even less desirably Babs, but I discourage it.) Until I retired this January, I had been living in Archway, North London, and teaching history at St. George’s, a comprehensive school in the same neighbourhood, for the last twenty-one years. It was at St. George’s, a little less than eighteen months ago, that I met Bathsheba Hart. Her name will probably be familiar to most of you by now. She is the forty-two-year-old pottery teacher recently charged with indecent assault on a minor after being discovered having a sexual affair with one of her students—a boy who was fifteen years old when the affair began.
Since it first came to light, Sheba’s case has received nigh on unstinting media coverage. I try to keep up with all of it, although, frankly, it’s a pretty depressing task. There was a time when I placed a certain amount of trust in the integrity of this country’s news organisations, but now that I have seen at close hand the way in which reporters go about their business, I recognise how sadly misplaced that trust was. Over the last fortnight, I must have spotted twenty errors of fact about Sheba’s case, in the newspapers alone. On Monday of this week, some bright spark at the
Daily Mirror
described Sheba as a “buxom bombshell.” (Anyone who has ever so much as glanced at her knows that she is as flat as the Fens.) And yesterday, the Sun ran an “exposé” on Sheba’s husband in which it was claimed that Richard, who lectures in communications theory at City of London, is “a trendy prof who gives sexy seminars on how to read dirty magazines.”
In the end, though, it’s not the carelessness, or even the cheerful mendacity, of the reporting that astounds so much as the sanctimony. Good Lord, the unrelenting sanctimony! I understood when all this came out that there was going to be a fuss. I
did not expect Sheba to receive sympathy. But I could never have predicted the hysterical prurience of the response. The titillated fury. These reporters write about Sheba as if they were seven-year-olds confronting the fact of their parents’ sexuality for the first time.
Despicable
is one of their big words.
Unhealthy
is another. Sheba’s attraction to the boy was “unhealthy.” Her marriage was “unhealthy” too. The boy had had an “unhealthy” interest in winning her approval. Any species of sexual attraction that you can’t find documented on a seaside postcard fails the health test as far as these people are concerned. Any sexual arrangement existing outside the narrow channels of family newspaper convention is relegated to a great, sinister parenthesis of kinky “antics.” Journalists are educated people, aren’t they? College graduates, some of them. How did their minds get so small? Have
they
never desired anyone outside the age range that local law and custom deemed suitable? Never experienced an impulse that fell outside the magic circle of sexual orthodoxy?
It was the papers that finally did Sheba and Richard in, I believe. After she was given bail, the two of them tried to soldier on for a while. But it was too much—too much for any couple—to bear. When you think of the reporters camped outside their house, the awful headlines every day—“Sex Teacher Passes Her Orals with Flying Colours,” “Teacher Takes Keen Interest in the Student Body,” and so on—it’s a wonder that they lasted as long as they did. Just before Sheba made her first appearance in the magistrate’s court, Richard told her that her presence in the house was making the children’s lives a misery. I believe he thought this was a kinder rationale for throwing her out than his own feelings of revulsion.
That was when I stepped in. I put Sheba up for a week or so in my flat and then, when she got Eddie to let her stay in his house, I came with her. How could I not? Sheba was so pitifully alone. It would have taken a very unfeeling individual to desert her. There is at least one more pretrial hearing—possibly two—to be got through before the case goes before the Crown Court and, frankly, I don’t think Sheba would make it on her own. Her barrister says that she could avoid going to the Crown Court altogether if she pleaded guilty to the charges. But Sheba won’t hear of it. She regards a guilty plea—even one that includes a clear denial of “coercion, duress, or bribery”—as unthinkable. “There was no assault and I’ve done nothing indecent,” she likes to say.
In becoming Sheba’s caretaker these last few weeks, I have inevitably drawn some of the media glare to myself. It seems to be a source of some amusement and discomfort to the journalists that a respectable older woman with nearly thirty-five years’ experience as an educator should choose to be associated with Sheba. Every single reporter covering this case—
every single one
—has made a point of describing, with varying degrees of facetiousness, my handbag: a perfectly unexceptional, woodenhandled object with a needlepoint portrait of two kittens on it. Clearly, it would suit them all much better if I were off somewhere with the other jowly old biddies, boasting about my grandchildren, or playing bingo. Not, at any rate, standing on the doorstep of a rich banker’s house in Primrose Hill, defending the character of an alleged child molester.
The only possible explanation that the journalists can find for my having voluntarily associated myself with Sheba’s debauchery is that I am, in some as yet shadowy way, debauched myself.
In the weeks since Sheba’s arrest, I have been required, on several occasions, to speak to reporters on her behalf and, as a result, I am now known to readers of the
Sun
as “the saucy schoolteacher’s spin doctor.” (Those who know me can attest to what an unlikely candidate I am for such a soubriquet.) My naïve hope, in acting as Sheba’s spokeswoman, has been to counter some of the sanctimonious hostility towards my friend, and to shed a little light on the true nature of her complex personality. But, alas, my contributions have done no such thing. Either they have been cruelly and deliberately distorted or they have gone unnoticed in a torrent of lies propagated by people who have never met Sheba and would, very likely, not have understood her even if they had.
This is chief among the reasons why I have now decided to risk further calumny by writing my own account of Sheba’s downfall. I am presumptuous enough to believe that I am the person best qualified to write this small history. I would go so far as to hazard that I am the
only
person. Sheba and I have spent countless hours together over the last eighteen months, exchanging confidences of every kind. Certainly, there is no other friend or relative of Sheba’s who has been so intimately involved in the day-to-day business of her affair with Connolly. In many cases the events I describe here were witnessed by me personally. Elsewhere, I rely upon detailed accounts provided by Sheba herself. I am not so foolhardy as to claim for myself an infallible or complete version of the story. But I do believe that my narrative will go some substantial way to helping the public understand who Sheba Hart really is.
I should acknowledge straightaway that, from a moral point of view, Sheba’s testimony regarding her conduct is not always entirely reliable. Even now, she is inclined to romanticise
the relationship and to underestimate the irresponsibility—the wrongness—of her actions. What remorse she expresses tends to be remorse for having been found out. But, confused and troubled as Sheba still is, her honesty remains utterly dependable. While I may dispute her
reading
of certain events, I have found no cause to doubt the factual particulars of her account. Indeed, I am confident that everything she has told me regarding the how, when, and where of this affair is, to the best of her knowledge, true.
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