After the bestselling Arthur & George and Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes returns with fourteen stories about longing and loss, friendship and love, whose mysterious natures he examines with his trademark wit and observant eye. From an imperial capital in the eighteenth century to Garibaldis adventures in the nineteenth, from the vineyards of Italy to the English seaside in our time, he finds the stages, transitions, arguments that define us. A newly divorced real estate agent cant resist invading his reticent girlfriends privacy, but the information he finds reveals only his callously shallow curiosity. A couple come together through an illicit cigarette and a song shared over the din of a Chinese restaurant. A widower revisiting the Scottish island hed treasured with his wife learns how difficult it is to purge oneself of grief. And throughout, friends gather regularly at dinner parties and perfect the art of cerebral, sometimes bawdy banter about the world passing before them.Whether domestic or extraordinary, each story pulses with the resonance, spark, and poignant humor for which Barnes is justly heralded.
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Julian Barnes is the author of nine novels, two collections of stories, and two collections of essays. His honors include the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Prix Femina, and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives in London.
the previous November, a row of wooden beach huts, their paintwork lifted and flaked by the hard east wind, had burnt to the ground. The fire brigade came from twelve miles away, and had nothing to do by the time it arrived. Yobs on Rampage, the local paper decided; though no culprit was ever found. An architect from a more fashionable part of the coastline told the regional TV news that the huts were part of the town’s social heritage, and must be rebuilt. The council announced that it would consider all options, but since then had done nothing.
Vernon had moved to the town only a few months before, and had no feelings about the beach huts. If anything, their disappearance improved the view from the Right Plaice, where he sometimes had lunch. From a window table he now looked out across a strip of concrete to damp shingle, a bored sky and a lifeless sea. That was the east coast: for months on end you got bits of bad weather and lots of no weather. This was fine by him: he’d moved here to have no weather in his life.
“You are done?”
He didn’t look up at the waitress. “All the way from the Urals,” he said, still gazing at the long, flat sea.
“Nothing between here and the Urals. That’s where the wind comes from. Nothing to stop it. Straight across all those countries.” Cold enough to freeze your knob off, he might have added in other circumstances.
“ Oorals,” she repeated. As he caught the accent, he looked up at her. A broad face, streaked hair, chunky body, and not doing any waitressy number in hope of a bigger tip. Must be one of those Eastern Europeans who were all over the country nowadays. Building trade, pubs and restaurants, fruit picking. Came over here in vans and coaches, lived in rabbit warrens, made themselves a bit of money. Some stayed, some went home. Vernon didn’t mind one way or the other. That’s what he found more often than not these days: he didn’t mind one way or the other.
“Are you from one of them?”
“One of what?”
“One of those countries. Between here and the Urals.”
“ Oorals. Yes, perhaps.”
That was an odd answer, he thought. Or maybe her sense of geography wasn’t so strong.
“Fancy a swim?”
“Yes, you know. Swim. Splash splash, front crawl, breaststroke.”
“Fine,” he said. He hadn’t meant it anyway. “Bill, please.”
As he waited, he looked back across the concrete to the damp shingle. A beach hut had recently sold for twenty grand. Or was it thirty? Somewhere down on the south coast. Spiralling house prices, the market going mad: that’s what the papers said. Not that it touched this part of the country, or the property he dealt in. The market had bottomed out here long ago, the graph as horizontal as the sea. Old people died, you sold their flats and houses to people who in their turn would get old in them and then die. That was a lot of his trade. The town wasn’t fashionable, never had been: Londoners carried on up the A12 to somewhere pricier. Fine by him. He’d lived in London all his life until the divorce. Now he had a quiet job, a rented flat, and saw the kids every other weekend. When they got older, they’d probably be bored with this place and start acting the little snobs. But for the moment they liked the sea, throwing pebbles into it, eating chips.
When she brought the bill, he said, “We could run away together and live in a beach hut.”
“I do not think,” she replied, shaking her head, as if she assumed he meant it. Oh well, the old English sense of humour, takes a while for people to get used to it.
He had a few rentals to attend to—changes of tenancy, redecoration, damp problems—and then a sale up the coast, so he didn’t return to the Right Plaice for a few weeks. He ate his haddock and mushies, and read the paper. There was some town in Lincolnshire which was suddenly half Polish, there’d been so many immigrants. Nowadays, more Catholics went to church on Sundays than Anglicans, they were saying, what with all these Eastern Europeans. He didn’t mind one way or the other. Actually, he liked the Poles he’d met—brickies, plasterers, electricians. Good workers, well trained, did what they said, trustworthy. It was time the good old British building trade had a kick up the arse, Vernon thought.
The sun was out that day, slanting low across the sea, annoying his eyes. Late March, and bits of spring were getting even to this part of the coast.
“How about that swim, then?” he asked as she brought the bill.
“Oh no. No swim.”
“I’m guessing you might be Polish.”
“My name is Andrea,” she replied.
“Not that I mind whether you’re Polish or not.”
“I do not also.”
The thing was, he’d never been much good at flirting; never quite said the right thing. And since the divorce, he’d got worse at it, if that was possible, because his heart wasn’t in it. Where was his heart? Question for another day. Today’s subject: flirting. He knew all too well the look in a woman’s eye when you didn’t get it right. Where’s he coming from, the look said. Anyway, it took two to flirt. And maybe he was getting too old for it. Thirty-seven, father of two, Gary (8) and Melanie (5). That’s how the papers would put it if he was washed up on the coast some morning.
“I’m an estate agent,” he said. That was another line which often hampered flirting.
“What is this?”
“I sell houses. And flats. And we do rentals. Rooms, flats, houses.”
“Is it interesting?”
“It’s a living.”
“We all need living.”
He suddenly thought: no, you can’t flirt either. Maybe you can flirt in your own language, but you can’t do it in English, so we’re even. He also thought: she looks sturdy. Maybe I need someone sturdy. She might be my age, for all I know. Not that he minded one way or the other. He wasn’t going to ask her out.
He asked her out. There wasn’t much choice of “out” in this town. One cinema, a few pubs, and the couple of other restaurants where she didn’t work. Apart from that, there was bingo for the old people whose flats he would sell after they were dead, and a club where some halfhearted goths loitered. Kids drove into Colchester on a Friday night and bought enough drugs to see them through the weekend. No wonder they burnt down the beach huts. He liked her at first for what she wasn’t. She wasn’t flirty, she wasn’t gabby, she wasn’t pushy. She didn’t mind that he was an estate agent, or that he was divorced with two kids. Other women had taken a quick look and said: no. He reckoned women were more attracted to men who were still in a marriage, however fucked up it was, than to ones picking up the pieces afterwards. Not surprising really. But Andrea didn’t mind all that. Didn’t ask questions much. Didn’t answer them either, for that matter. The first time they kissed, he thought of asking if she was really Polish, but then he forgot.
He suggested his place, but she refused. She said she’d come next time. He spent an anxious few days wondering what it would be like to go to bed with someone different after so long. He drove fifteen miles up the coast to buy condoms where no one knew him. Not that he was ashamed, or embarrassed; just didn’t want anyone knowing, or guessing, his business.
“This is a nice apartment.”
“Well, if an estate agent can’t find himself a decent flat, what’s the world coming to?”
She had an overnight bag with her; she took off her clothes in the bathroom and came back in a nightdress. They climbed into bed and he turned out the light. She felt very tense to him. He felt very tense to himself.
“We could just cuddle,” he suggested.
“What is cuddle?”
“So cuddle is not fucking?”
“No, cuddle is not fucking.”
After that they relaxed, and she soon fell asleep. The next time, after some kissing, he reacquainted himself with the lubricated struggle of the condom. He knew he was meant to unroll it, but found himself trying to tug it on like a sock, pulling at the rim in a haphazard way. Doing it in the dark didn’t help either. But she didn’t say anything, or cough discouragingly, and eventually he turned towards her. She pulled up her nightie and he climbed on top of her. His mind was half filled with lust and fucking, and half empty, as if wondering what he was up to. He didn’t think about her very much that first time. It was a question of looking out for yourself. Later you could look out for the other person.
“Was that OK?” he said after a while.
“Yes, was OK.”
Vernon laughed in the dark.
“Are you laughing at me? Was not OK for you?”
“Andrea,” he said, “everything’s OK. Nobody’s laughing at you. I won’t let anyone laugh at you.” As she slept, he thought: we’re starting again, both of us. I don’t know what she’s had in her past, but maybe we’re both starting again from the same sort of low point, and that’s OK. Everything’s OK.
The next time she was more relaxed, and gripped him hard with her legs. He couldn’t tell whether she came or not.
“Gosh you’re strong,” he said afterwards.
“Is strong bad?”
“No, no. Not at all. Strong’s good.”
But the next time he noticed that she didn’t grip him so hard. She didn’t much like him playing with her breasts either. No, that was unfair. She didn’t seem to mind if he did or didn’t. Or rather, if he wanted to, that was fine, but it was for him, not for her. That’s what he understood, anyway. And who said you had to talk about everything in the first week?
He was glad neither of them was any good at flirting: it was a kind of deception. Whereas Andrea was never anything but straight with him. She didn’t talk much, but what she said was what she did. She would meet him where and when he asked, and be standing there, looking out for him, brushing a streak of hair out of her eyes, holding on to her bag more firmly than was necessary in this town.
“You’re as reliable as a Polish builder,” he told her one day.
“Is that good?”
“That’s very good.”
“Is English expression?”
“It is now.”
She asked him to correct her English when she made a mistake. He got her to say “I don’t think so” instead of “I do not think”; but actually, he preferred the way she talked. He always understood her, and those phrases which weren’t quite right seemed part of her. Maybe he didn’t want her talking like an Englishwoman in case she started behaving like an Englishwoman— well, like one in particular. And anyway, he didn’t want to play the teacher.
It was the same in bed. Things are what they are, he said to himself. If she always wore a nightie, perhaps it was a Catholic thing—not that she ever mentioned going to church. If he asked her to do stuff to him, she did it, and seemed to enjoy it; but she didn’t ask him to do stuff back to her—didn’t even seem to like his hand down there much. But this didn’t bother him; she was allowed to be who she was.
She never asked him in. If he dropped her off, she’d be trotting up the concrete path before he’d got the hand brake on; if he picked her up, she’d already be outside, waiting. At first this was fine, then it began to feel a bit odd, so he asked to see where she lived, just for a minute, so he could imagine where she was when she wasn’t with him. They went back into the house— 1930s semi, pebbledash, multioccupation, metal window frames rusting up badly—and she opened her door. His professional eye took in the dimensions, furnishings, and probable rental cost; his lover’s eye took in a small dressing table with photos in plastic frames and a picture of the Virgin. There was a single bed, tiny sink, rubbish microwave, small TV, and clothes on hangers clipped precariously to the picture rail. Something in him was touched by seeing her life exposed like that in the minute or so before they stepped outside again. To cover this sudden emotion, Vernon said,
“You shouldn’t be paying more than fifty-five. Plus services. I can get you somewhere bigger for the same price.”
Now that spring was here, they went for drives into Suffolk and looked at English things: half-timbered houses with no damp courses, thatched roofs which put you in a higher insurance band. They stopped by a village green and he sat down on a bench overlooking a pond, but she didn’t fancy that so they looked at the church instead. He hoped she wouldn’t ask him to explain the difference between Anglicans and Catholics—or the history behind it all. Something about Henry the Eighth wanting to get married again. The king’s knob. All sorts of things came down to sex if you looked at them closely enough. But happily she didn’t ask.
She began to take his arm, and to smile more easily. He gave her the key to his flat; tentatively, she started leaving over night stuff there. One Sunday, in the dark, he reached across to the bedside drawer and found he was out of condoms. He swore, and had to explain.
“No, Andrea, is bloody not OK. Last thing I need is you getting
“I do not think so. Not get pregnant. Is OK.”
He trusted her. Later, as she slept, he wondered what exactly she had meant. That she couldn’t have kids? Or that she was taking something herself, to make doubly sure? If so, what would the Virgin Mary have to say about that? Let’s hope she isn’t relying on the rhythm method, he suddenly thought. Guaranteed to fail on a regular basis and keep the pope as happy as Larry. Time passed; she met Gary and Melanie; they took to her. She didn’t tell them what to do; they told her, and she went along with it. They also asked her questions he’d never dared, or cared, to ask.
“Andrea, are you married?”
“Can we watch TV as long as we like?”
“Were you married?”
“If I ate three would I be sick?”
“Why aren’t you married?”
“How old are you?”
“What team do you support?”
“You got any children?”
“Are you and Dad getting married?”
He learnt the answers to some of these questions—like any sensible woman, she wasn’t telling her age. One night, in the dark, after he’d delivered the kids back, and was too upset for sex, as he always was on these occasions, he said, “Do you think you could love me?”
“Yes, I think I would love you.”
“Is that a would or a could?”
“What is the difference?”
He paused. “There’s no difference. I’ll take either. I’ll take both. I’ll take whatever you’ve got to give.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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