by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
“So what do you think of the court ruling, Alan?” said Vince, lighting another cigarette.
He didn’t need to say which court ruling. It had been headline news throughout the hearing, the cause célèbre of the day. Penguin Books had had the effrontery, the impudence, to challenge the censors and publish a paperback version of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The defence that Penguin Books chose to offer was that this was art, not pornography, and they trotted out one witness after another in support of the classification. Witnesses from among the Great and the Good – people who could be expected to know what art was – who could afford to purchase it for themselves out of their own pockets.
If there was a case to answer, it was that art ceases to be art when it comes out in paperback. But Penguin Books wasn’t a sleazy back-street trader in imported comics. Theirs were quality paperbacks.
That very Wednesday the court had delivered its verdict: Not Guilty.
In true British fashion the battle had been fought, not on its proper battlefield, but somewhere else – where some lucky commander had chanced to catch the enemy napping. It was the Horatio Nelson spirit – was Napoleon invincible on land? Then defeat him at sea.
“I don’t know,” Alan mumbled. “We’ll have to see how things turn out.”
Although articulate enough on familiar ground, Alan wasn’t very good at expressing deeper feelings. What he had meant to say was that it had been the censors that were on trial, not Penguin Books. The battle had been inconclusive – because the law empowered the censors to indict, but not themselves to be indicted. However they had lost the credibility among the nation that they could ever again bring a successful action against an obscene publication.
The big fish had torn the net. They should have stuck to small-fry.
The outcome was going to be unpredictable. Maybe it would open floodgates of filth. Maybe in time it would restore the nation to public sanity. Maybe (since this was Britain) something between the two.
“Have you read the book, Alan?” said Jo.
“You can borrow my copy,” chipped-in Vince mischievously. Jo shot him a glance of mock disapproval.
But Alan had been able to afford his own copy. It had indeed been an embarrassment to go into the bookshop and have it wrapped by a girl of his own age, but the past year had taken the edge off his sense of shame. In public anyway.
“It’s got a few good ideas in it…” he ventured in a serious voice. Vince and Jo laughed. “But DH Lawrence’s grasp of anatomy isn’t all that it should be.”
At that they laughed even more.
But nowadays, thanks to his experience of being a nursing assistant, Alan had an original slant on the story that his friends were unlikely to hear from anyone else.
“My big grouse about the book is the way he treats Sir Clifford. The man’s made out to be the villain of the piece – but it seems the worst he can be accused of is having had the carelessness to go and get his bits shot off in battle. He is a war veteran. A hero. But look at the way his wife treats him – having it off with the gamekeeper because the fellow’s got a magnificent undercarriage.”
Vince stifled a yawn. “I think the point Lawrence is trying to get across is that women need a bit of a leg-over now and then – and it’s no use denying them.” He smirked at Jo, who again parried with her mock-disapproving look.
“Yes, but don’t you see,” said Alan, “Sir Clifford is such an easy figure to despise for his lack of balls – to put it crudely. Or rather, his lack of potency. But it isn’t his fault.” He tried to engage Vince’s eye. “It’s so unjust. If we can despise him for that, then it’s us that’s on trial…”
Vince could see the conversation heading into a hazy swamp, so he decided to change the subject. “Bonfire night tomorrow, Alan. Going to see the fireworks in the park?”
“No, I’ll miss them. There’s a dance on at the Adelphi – I’m going to that.”
“Got a girl to take along?”
“They’re finding me one.”
It was true – they were fixing him up with a schoolmate’s sister.
In the final year sixth-form they had been the only two Catholics – Sean and he. Back-to-back they’d fought against the infidels – boys who found it entertaining to bait Sean with what they saw as the absurd aspects of his belief. Not that these weighty questions mattered a fig to them. It was just that Sean was so rewarding to bait.
Alan, on the other hand, could hold his ground and argue the case. They wouldn’t have chosen to bandy words with him. He despaired at the issues which Sean got himself jockeyed into the position of having to defend. He didn’t always come in on Sean’s side. But it drew the fire from Sean – and that must have resulted in a measure of gratitude straight from the soul. Alan might not be Irish, Sean would have reported back home, but he’d staunchly defended the Faith.
Alan had no inkling of the debt Sean must have felt he’d incurred until one day he happened to remark approvingly on Sean’s sister – a pretty girl he’d spotted briefly once in passing. The die was cast. Good Catholic boys weren’t exactly two-a-penny in Seagate. The Irish, as a rule, preferred to live where they could find work.
The other day Alan had run into Sean in the street and Sean had reminded him that the Old Boys were having a dance at the Adelphi on Bonfire Night. Alan would be most welcome to join their family group. It was an invitation – nay, a three-line whip – and he would have the honour of taking Sean’s sister to the dance. Alan had accepted with unsuspecting delight.
She certainly was pretty. But she refused to speak a word. They danced – he bought her drinks – and Alan conversed enthusiastically with the family, who gave every sign of being ready to worship the sun beaming out of his bottom. But a glance at Sean’s face was enough to confirm Alan’s impression that all was not well. In fact Sean was clearly mortified at his sister’s behaviour.
That Alan needed his impression confirming was a clear sign of the curious life he’d been living. For almost a year he had been constantly working among people who did not and could not talk. They were his chief companions – and they had begun to represent normality for him. The girl’s silence was not initially disagreeable to him.
The band struck up a waltz and Alan invited the girl onto the dance-floor. Out of earshot of the party, Alan asked her what was wrong. She shook her head in a brief quiver, as if it didn’t matter.
“Did they make you come to the dance with me, when you were hoping to go with someone else?”
She didn’t reply to that, but her fleeting expression showed Alan he had hit the mark. He clasped her close in the reverse turn, which for once he carried off perfectly. “That was very wrong of… us,” he murmured in her ear. He had almost said: “wrong of them” – but he was implicated. He felt ashamed that he had been an accessory to this act of ruthless coercion – recklessly if not knowingly, as lawyers were apt to say. If you invited a girl to a dance, she might prefer it if you asked her yourself, rather than get her family to lean on her. That was something he could sympathise with.
They were out of sight of the tables. “Well, look,” he said to her face. “Let’s enjoy ourselves for the rest of the evening – and you need never see me again.”
It was a hard thing to say, because she really was rather pretty – even when she wasn’t smiling. But he did earn a ghost of a smile in return. Maybe now her avatar would break free and live like Cinderella for the evening – to expire at midnight.
But when they were back at the table, she was as silent as before. Her hurt was a deep one. It would have taken more than one suture to close it. More than one session of ECT to clear her mind. At home she was never going to hear the end of it – but that wasn’t going to do the pair of them any good here and now.
…to be continued.