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Reading Aloud 2

Four at a time

What a day! First thing this morning I bumped into New Friend. I recognized his red car and round head from a distance. We waved to one another at the crossroads. I was dearly hoping he would go the other way, not being in a mood for talking nor indeed seeing him. He obliged and I heard later that he offered my son a lift to school which my son, having nearly arrived, declined. Next thing, I bumped into the Vicar whom I questioned about his wife’s health. After that, I spent quite a lot of time thinking about Yan whom I wanted to do work for me. Last thing, in the evening, the telephone rang at an unusual time. It was Paul whom I hadn’t seen nor heard for about three months, I had in fact nearly forgotten him.

I liked the sound of his voice over the telephone and the way he said my name. He was apologetic about his long silence, business of all kinds, the usual, I told him that time had passed quickly for me, too, no lack of occupation either. We exchanged insignificant news, as good an excuse as any to stay on the phone, and then he wondered, would my husband have any time to spare to help arrange chairs for the concert next day but one in the school hall. I was pretty sure my husband wouldn’t like that idea and offered my son’s help. I never thought I could have offered myself. Of course, I tend to be busy on a Saturday. My husband would have been surprized for one … Paul accepted my son. Then he said that in the next month or two he was hoping to see more of me. How convenient this word ‘you’ in English, singular or plural. It sounded a nice proposition. We would all meet up at the concert to start with. I said, bye-bye, and he, cheerio.

I decided to send my two daughters along with my son. Three helpers, that’s not a bad contribution from one family, is it ? Would there be any free tickets around, for the children, I wondered. I don’t know why he boosted my spirits, but he did.

 

Interlude

The children came back with free tickets and we all went in the evening.
It was pretty uneventful altogether, but useful from a practical point of view : I was able to renew my contact with Yan and Paul. I arranged for Yan to come and see me because I needed help with language work and for Paul to come to our house because his wife had told us he needed practice with a song he was going to sing in my language at a concert in the near future. In addition to that, Aldous’ wife asked us round to their house on the evening following the concert. I welcomed the idea because I heard that Yan and Paul with their wives would be there, too. It sounded a promising gathering and I wondered on the quiet how the seating would be arranged.

Evening at Aldous’

Steve and I arrived at Aldous’ last. There was the usual semi-circle round the fire, a few chairs and a settee, the latter occupied on our arrival by Yan and Paul with a free space between them. Aldous was in an armchair this side of the settee and all the ladies plus a free chair on the other side. Our hostess assigned us our seats : I was to join “the boys”, one short, one long, on the settee and Steve the ladies at the other end of the room. It suited everybody fine.

The boys gave me a warm welcome and I settled down between them. Contact was made straight away on either side. We had to be careful, though, because unfortunately the lights were fully on. So we crossed our legs, casually put down hands in the gaps between us, moved arms, stretched or bent, from time to time, occasionally changed position slightly, leaning backward or forward or to one side or the other as was convenient, disengaging completely at times and always keeping a close eye on everybody else.

It worked very well, even if it was a little hot now and then. I slapped the boys’ knees once or twice in the heat of the discussion. Yan found an excuse to pretend to want to strangle me, putting both his large hands round my neck, it felt lovely. I said so and everybody laughed. I think he did it when Aldous proposed a motion following which women should be excluded from higher education, so that they couldn’t answer men back. It was noted that this came too late in my case, I thanked him for the compliment, and hence the symbolical punishment.

I didn’t take part very much in the conversation initially, firstly being occupied with other things and secondly not too interested in discussing concerts and related matters. I did manage to put in a request for an explanation of the term ‘White Elephant’ which my husband hadn’t been able to give and was informed that it designated any useless, obsolete object. Like a mini-skirt, Aldous elucidated, you wouldn’t wear it now, being out of fashion, and would therefore get rid of it. I appreciated the choice of example and noticed that my skirt had slipped up a bit. I explained we didn’t have sales of useless objects in my country… For some reason Yan’s wife didn’t like this remark and pointed out that an object useless for one person might well serve a purpose for another one, like lovers of candlesticks, for example, who have these things all over their houses and just can’t get enough of them, they would turn to a White Elephant sale. I could see her point.

The conversation seemed to stagnate a little and I said to Aldous, we hadn’t had an argument yet. He said indeed not and did I have a provocative statement to make, he would treat it like a bull faced with a red cloth. The idea frightened me a bit and I held back for a while. Aldous himself then volunteered what he called a provocative statement, I forget what it was about, and Yan after him. I had an excuse now to come forward with mine. Much to my surprize everybody stopped talking, and it came over very clearly. Here it is : ‘For nearly two thousand years mankind has been in the clutches of Christianity.’ The success was quite unexpected. Aldous was speechless for a few seconds, rolling his eyes, drawing deep breaths, giving me looks of a peculiar kind and then wanting me to substitute the word ‘Christianity’ by ‘Church’. I refused. In the ensuing discussion the boys manly defended me against Aldous, and the point came when Paul nudged me, whispering that Aldous was on his own, now. Everybody agreed in the end that mankind would have to improve very much. How could that be done ?

Aldous being a scientist thought of some well-known author, Aldous Huxley, who had experimented on himself with a drug, mescaline. Administered in the right dose, it had a beneficial effect on his moral behaviour, the author claimed. Aldous liked the idea. All the processes in our body, physical, mental, psychical, are of a chemical nature, anyway. Add another chemical, and he could well believe that it had an impact on our attitude to life. Choose the right one and administer it to everybody – how about that for a revolution ? A pleasant one at that, people loving their neighbours, etc. It might be worth an experiment. What was there to lose ? He looked enthusiastic, visualizing chemistry as the ruler of the world. It was pointed out that this would spare mankind the effort of “pulling their finger out”. Aldous was pessimistic: would mankind ever do that ? If the state of affairs could be improved, would not the end justify the means ? Would it not be better to have little rather than nothing at all ? We may as well blow ourselves up, Paul’s wife, a strong-willed and resolute lady, remarked. What would you prefer, Aldous asked her, have everybody blown up or the situation improved by administering the right chemical ? She could not be moved, not even by Aldous. He became thoughtful after that.

The conversation turned to a less controversial chemical, Zn, which had had a wonderful effect on many people’s health. Aldous’ wife showed us a thank-you letter Aldous had received from a young lady who claimed to “love him without ever having met him” and to be “eternally grateful” to him. The letter was passed round so that everybody could read it. It could have been read out aloud, I suppose, to save time. We were all impressed and wanted to see Aldous’ book, written by a journalist and published recently. He only had one copy which was passed round, too. I looked at it together with Paul. I was struck by the cover design of which I caught a glimpse before Paul turned over to the last page, he always looked at the last sentence first, he said. The words on the cover that had caught my attention at first sight were “male fertility” as one of the fields where Zn was successfully used. I asked Aldous, had he had anything to do with the cover design? He denied it. Later I noticed a broad grin on my husband’s face, he had just noticed the same thing. Aldous then gave a long monologue about the well-known subject Zn. He was really at ease now, the previous disturbances forgotten, and we were in fact privileged by a little private lecture delivered with authority from the depth of a large armchair. Of course, the subject matter was his “daily bread”. We asked for more copies of the book. How could they be obtained ? Go to the bookshops! Make them order it for you! Let them know there’s a demand for it! Aldous’ wife suggested. She is practically-minded. He would get 10p for every copy sold, Aldous laughed. I thought that was a bit mean. No free copies for their friends! On the other hand, there is a precedent, now, which I can follow myself when the time comes. Aldous explained he had sent all the free copies he had been given to medical people which is, of course, more important.

Yan was looking tired and a bit bored. He didn’t have his watch with him and tried to look at mine. I didn’t have one, either, and we had to consult Paul: It was well into the next day!
The meeting ended with the usual kissing ritual, all the ladies kissing all the gentlemen and vice versa. I quite enjoyed it. Aldous’ wife let us out with the words “ And don’t forget: buy a copy each!”