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Reading Aloud 2

Aldous and his wife

I could tell by the way they were looking at me last time I saw them that my reputation was changing rapidly.

The evening started off very innocently. My husband offered drinks and they both opted for white wine, explaining they had just been to a conference where they had heard the latest results of research done into the compatibility of red and white wine. Apparently seventy-five per cent of people were allergic to red wine as opposed to thirty per cent to white wine. They had observed this themselves, they said, not feeling good after having had the relevant drink. I congratulated myself on obviously belonging to the small group of people who can have red wine impudently, for that’s the one I prefer.

They then told us about two days they had spent with Yan and his wife in the latters’ time-share holiday resort. They had enjoyed going for walks with them, although Yan always seemed to be ahead of everybody. With these huge legs of his, Aldous’ wife commented mildly, he can’t help it. We were pleased to hear that Aldous had stayed behind to keep the ladies company.
What a posh place they had rented, Aldous’ wife exclaimed next. She had asked where the bed was they were going to sleep in, and all Yan’s wife had had to do was to push a button and the thing came out of the wall! Luxuriously equipped, they didn’t know their country was capable of anything like that, hidden away, a whole complex of flats with swimming pool, shops and any modern amenities, in the most beautiful countryside! It must have cost enormous sums of money to build, Aldous thought. I wondered quietly what the countryside had looked like before and why Aldous made such efforts to keep our part of the world ‘rural’, threatened as we were by a take-over bid from another county that would go in for urbanization. True enough, they started talking about this subject.

We hadn’t been to the important meeting starring Aldous as one of the main speakers. Had we at least read the report in the newspaper? No, we hadn’t. Well, a totally distorted report written by a silly woman who hadn’t opened her mouth once during the debate. We said, how extraordinary. Yes, Aldous said. They had had to ring up people and tell them to write letters in reply. The local County Councillor among others. A pleasant man, Aldous thought. A nice face, his wife added. A dickensian face, Aldous said, the main character from the Pickwick Papers. Anyway, the week after there had been a whole page of letters in the newspaper putting things right. Very satisfying.

Next thing, Aldous’ wife asked me, had I seen anyone this week, then checking herself – of course, you don’t see the Georges any more – , she informed me that George’s wife was ‘cheerful’ last time she saw her. I was glad. And the Vicar’s wife! She had me interested now because I had no news at all and had seen her car driven by another person. How was she? Very poorly, poor lady, Aldous’ wife said, she’s best off in bed and broke down in tears when I telephoned her. I must go and see her, poor dear. I hope she will.

We passed on to the subject of music. Wasn’t that a lovely concert, an English singer singing in German all evening. Is there a German singer singing songs in English all evening? Aldous asked me. I asked back, were there English songs? One or two, he answered and had no more to say. Let’s have some practice, Aldous’ wife said, we’re doing a duet on a Victorian party given by the W.I. She asked my husband to accompany them on the piano and they sang with much feeling the Victorian ‘Keys to heaven’. I wondered what these keys were. This was revealed stanza by stanza :

A suitor proposes in general terms the ‘keys of heaven’ to his beloved, his words accompanied by the relevant gestures and facial expressions.
The lady turns him down, this also accompanied by …
He proposes a dress out of blue silk.
The lady turns him down.
He proposes a coach and six.
The lady turns him down.
He then, at last, is forced to go to extremes and offers the ‘keys to his heart’.
The lady falls for him now, in other words grabs him and secures him lifelong by accepting him in marriage.
They sang the last stanza together, praising this happy turn of events.

I thanked them and Aldous said: Well, there was an English song for you. You said there weren’t any! I couldn’t accept this and had to put him right, having asked a simple question, no more. He shrugged his shoulders. I added, perhaps the German songs are in a different … category? He said, oh yes, of course, they’re in a different category. I don’t know why he repeated my very words. Maybe he felt this was the best way of putting it. My husband then played the piano for them, sending them to sleep while I was knitting.

To bring everybody back to life I suggested to try and amuse them a little by reading something to them. I definitely had them interested, although they might have preferred me to play the recorder instead, I’m not sure. I told them there was a choice of subjects :
The Church; A book from the school library; Impressions of British Rail . They laughed a little uneasily and hesitated. Choosing British Rail would have been chickening out and I had told them a bit about it already. What sort of a book was the one discussed in the other essay, they inquired. I thought to myself, a sexy one but didn’t say so, it would have put them off. We let you choose, Aldous said. I objected to that. Well, it’s not yet Sunday … , Aldous’ wife said. I misunderstood her and took the hint. Alright, it was practically Sunday, 11p.m. or so … Not yet Sunday, she laughed. Alright, I said, it’s nearly Sunday, is it a case for the Church ? You please yourself, Aldous said. Which one do you want? I asked back. Let’s have the Church, Aldous’ wife answered. I told them I hoped they could see the humour in it, but I don’t think they did. They kept a straight face most of the time. Aldous consulted his watch once, very unusual for him who is a polite person normally, my fault probably for claiming his undivided attention for the best part of five or six minutes.

They laughed aloud only once, about the ‘shampoo position’ when praying. I suppose this would appeal to their sense of humour. When I had finished they looked at me as if not knowing what to think. Perhaps they didn’t recognize me or thought I had changed or felt that some of their unease concerning me was justified after all, because Aldous said ‘You damn the Church!’. I had to defend myself, because nowhere did I say that. Aldous took the paper and quoted the offensive first sentence, I hope he can forget it again, and indeed I was right. He raised his eyebrows saying: Of course it can be interpreted as a damnation!’. I told him he was free to interpret it the way he liked. He now started to look into the meaning of ‘self-preservation’, found out that everybody suffered from this instinct, our Society certainly for one thing, and I said it was very human and nothing wrong with it.
He left off, deplored the Church’s involvement in politics, said there was reason for a lot of complaint, things that could be done better and things that needed reforming, certainly in his view … This could be understood as him knowing what had to be done. ‘And yet …’, Aldous pondered. His wife threw in that the large Franciscan order followed a rule of poverty, they weren’t rich! And what about such and such a nun devoting her life to the poor in India! She wasn’t interested in money! ‘And yet’ Aldous continued, the Church is the only place where there is room for spirituality. Nowhere else are people confronted with spirituality. The Church is their only chance. He added: It may not be for you. It may not be for me. But it may help others. He gave me a scrutinizing look at the same time, assessing me as not exactly the spiritual sort. I said, there was a saying: people who talk most about … love, for example, are furthest from it. He disqualified this as a ‘rather glib’ statement. I said it was open for discussion, but he didn’t take up the point.

Somehow the conversation turned to brain-washing and brain in general, the difference between brain and mind and what it all meant. Aldous gave us his view in a long monologue, but I didn’t look at my watch.
Suddenly I was reminded of something I had read in the press, an important lady-member of the royal family having described her brain in an interview as being the size of a pea. What did they think to that? I asked. Aldous’ wife told me the information wasn’t new to her, she had heard it on T.V. Nationwide. She thought it was wonderful of the princess to possess this degree of self-knowledge and to own up to it openly. The princess had greatly risen in her esteem, Aldous’ wife said. Very honest indeed, Aldous remarked. She will be in a leading position later on, his wife said with satisfaction. I confirmed that this latter idea had come to my mind, too, when reading the article in question…
In any case, Aldous went on with authority, the size of the brain doesn’t mean anything. Elephants with their huge heads are supposed to be no more intelligent than dolphins. I said, we should stay within a certain species, the human one, for example, and draw comparisons there. Unfortunately he didn’t know anything about that.

What’s the point of being cynical, Aldous said, he could be cynical, too …
I’m not cynical, I interrupted him. He wasn’t cynical, he pursued, he was … He was looking for a word and came up with ‘bitter’. He was bitter, he said, because they had a daughter who didn’t look at them and a son who gradually ruined himself. I told him there was no reason why he should be bitter. He was frustrated, because he had done what he could for them without achieving anything. He said, I’m not bitter … and was looking for a word to describe his feelings. His wife helped out: a kind of sadness … They dropped the subject.

My husband urged me to make tea and said I could cheer them up by reading the other essay, the one about the book. He was in fact ready to give them an introduction to it, but I stopped him, since he had read neither the book nor the essay. He then volunteered to send them to sleep by playing the piano while I was in the kitchen. Aldous seemed very tired and used the opportunity to lie down, resting his head on his wife’s chest, from which position he arose when I came back in. I poured the tea, supplied everyone with a piece of cake and then promised them some real excitement this time. They became more and more awake as I progressed with the reading. It was about a book which from a literary point of view had to be called trash and which was peppered with references to sex, some very detailed description of it, too.

Aldous and his wife were aghast. Sex in this context is only a means of achieving pleasure, he pointed out, people forget it is for procreation. I said, this was exactly the Church’s teaching. However, not many people looked at it that way. They do it for pleasure. What about sex in marriage, by the way? He said, sex in marriage was a different thing and gave us a little lecture about two beings amalgamating and spirits mingling and similar things. There was a spiritual component to it, he said, and that was the difference. Unless you call it all hogwash, he ended. It is all hogwash, I said, glad about the new-found word. He was taken aback and I don’t know what they thought about my marriage, they didn’t tell me, I imagine they felt sorry for my husband. I explained what I meant, the old tale of egoism and personal satisfaction, but they didn’t give me any credit.

They were both getting tired now. Aldous’ wife thanked us for a ‘lovely’ evening without looking at either of us which I thought was unfair to my husband and we opened the door for them. It was cold. Mid-October. Aldous said: Winter draw(er)s on! looking at me expectantly. I laughed at him: Some people have a one-track-mind. He laughed back, pleased that I had understood his little joke. I gave him a hearty bye-bye kiss on his cheek. The same to his wife. I said, hope you’ll go to church tomorrow. Aldous’ wife replied: Only if you go!.