End of An Affair

January 1, 2009

Excerpt: The End of An Affair

by Graham Greene

The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihhilates us: we lose our identity. The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God, and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation, contemplation to explain the intensity of the love we feel for a woman. We too surrender memory, intellect, intelligence, and we too experience the deprivation, the noche oscura, and sometimes as a reward a kind of peace. The act of love itself has been described as the little death, and lovers sometimes experience too the little peace. It is odd to find myself writing these phrases as though I loved what in fact I hate. Sometimes I don’t recognize my own thoughts. What do I know of phrases like “the dark night” or of prayer, who have only one prayer? I have inherited them, that is all, like a husband who is left by death in the useless possession of a woman’s clothes, scents, pots of cream … And yet there was this peace …

That is how I think of those first months of war – was it a phoney peace as well as a phoney war? It seems now to have stretched arms of comfort and reassurance all over those months of dubiety and waiting, but the peace must, I suppose, even at that time have been punctuated by misunderstanding and suspicion. Just as I went home that first evening with no exhilaration but only a sense of sadness and resignation, so again and again I returned home on other days with the certainty that I was only one of many men – the favourite lover for the moment. This woman, whom I loved so obsessively that if I woke in the night I immediately found the thought of her in my brain and abandoned sleep, seemed to give up all her time to me. And yet I could feel not trust: in the act of love I could be arrogant, but alone I had only to look in the mirror to see doubt, in the shape of a lined face and a lame leg – why me? There were always occasions when we couldn’t meet – appointments with a dentist or a hairdresser, occasions when Henry entertained, when they were alone together. It was no good telling myself that in her own home she would have no opportunity to betray me (with the egotism of a lover I was already using that word with its suggestion of a non-existent duty) while Henry worked on the widows’ pensions or – for he was soon shifted from that job – on the distribution of gas-masks and the design of approved cardboard cases, for didn’t I know it was possible to make love in the most dangerous circumstances, if the desire were there? Distrust grows with a lover’s success. Why, the very next time we saw each other it happened in jut the way that I should have called impossible.

I woke with the sadness of her last cautious advice still resting on my mind, and within three minutes of waking her voice on the telephone dispelled it. I have never known a woman before or since so able to alter a whole mood by simply speaking on the telephone, and when she came into a room or put her hand on my side she created at once the absolute trust I lost with every separation.

“Hello,” she said, “are you asleep?”

“No. When can I see you? This morning?”

“Henry’s got a cold. He’s staying at home.”

“If only you could come here …”

“I’ve got to stay in to answer the telephone.”

“Just because he’s got a cold?”

Last night I had felt friendship and sympathy for Henry, but already he had become an enemy, to be mocked and resented and covertly run down.

“He’s lost his voice completely.”

I felt a malicious delight at the absurdity of his sickness: a civil servant without a voice whispering hoarsely and ineffectively about widows’ pensions. I said, “Isn’t there any way to see you?”

“But of course.”

There was silence for a moment on the line and I thought we had been cut off. I said, “Hello. Hello.” But she had been thinking, that was all, carefully, collectedly, quickly, so that she could give me straightaway the correct answer. “I’m giving Henry a tray in bed at one. We could have sandwiches ourselves in the living room. I’ll tell him you want to talk over the film – or that story of yours”, and immediatley she rang off the sense of trust was disconnected and I thought, how many times before has she planned in just this way? When I went to her home and rang the bell, I felt like an enemy – or a detective, watching her words as Parkis and his son were to watch her movements a few years later. And then the door opened and trust came back.

There was never any quesiton in those days of who wanted whom – we were together in desire. Henry had his tray, sitting up against two pillows in his green woollen dressing-gown, and in the room below, on the hardwood floor, with a single cushion for support and the door ajar, we made love. When the moment came, I had to put my hand gently over her mouth to deaden that strange sad angry cry of abandonment, for fear Henry should hear it overhead.

To think I had intended to just pick her brain. I crouched on the floor beside her and watched and watched, as though I might never see this again – the brown indeterminate-coloured hair like a pool of liquor on the parquet, the sweat on her forehead, the heavy breathing as though she had run a race and now like a young athlete lay in the exhaustion of victory.

And then the stair squeaked. For a moment we neither of us moved. The sandwiches were stacked uneaten on the table, the glasses had not been filled. She said in a whisper, “He went downstairs.” She sat in a chair and put a plate in her lap and a glass beside her.

“Suppose he heard,” I said, “as he passed.”

“He wouldn’t have known what it was.”

I must have looked incredulous, for she explained with dreary tenderness, “Poor Henry. It’s never happened – not in the whole ten years,” but all the same we weren’t so sure of our safety: we sat there silently listening until the stair squeaked again. My voice sounded to myself cracked and false as I said rather too loudly, “I’m glad you like that scene with the onions,” and Henry pushed open the door and looked in. He was carrying a hot-water-bottle in a grey flannel cover. “Hello, Bendrix,” he whispered.

“You shouldn’t have fetched that yourself,” she said.

“Didn’t want to disturbe you.”

“We were talking about the film last night.”

“Hope you’ve got everything you want,” he whispered to me. He took a look at the claret Sarah had put out for me. “Sholud have given him the ’29,” he breathed in his undimensional voice and drifted out again, clasping the hot-water-bottle in its flannel cover, and again we were alone.

“Do you mind?” I asked her, and she shook her head. I didn’t really know what I meant – I think I had an idea that the sight of Henry might have roused remorse, but she had a wonderful way of eliminating remorse. Unlike the rest of us she was unhaunted by guilt. In her view when a thing was done, it was done: remorse died with the act. She would have thought it unreasonable of Henry, if he had caught us, to be angry for more than a moment. Catholics are always said to be freed in the confessional from the mortmain of the past – certainly in that respect you could have called her a born Catholic, although she believed in God as little as I did. Or so I thought then and wonder now.

If this book of mine fails to take a straight course, it is because i am lost in a strange region: I have no map. I sometimes wonder whether anything that I am putting down here is true. I felt that afternoon such complete trust when she said to me suddenly, without being questioned, “I’ve never loved anybody or anything as I do you.” It was as if, sitting there in the chair with a half-eaten sandwich in her hand, she was abandoning herself as completely as she had done, five minutes back, on the hardwood floor. We most of us hesitate to make so complete a statement – we remember and we foresee and we doubt. She had no doubts. The moment only mattered. Eternity is said not to be an extension of time but an absence of time, and sometimes it seemed to me that her abandonment touched that strange mathematical point of endlessness, a point with no width, occupying no space. What did time matter – all the past and the other men she may from time to time (there is that word again) have known, or all the future in which she might be making the same statement with the same sense of truth? When I replied that I loved her too in that way, I was the liar, not she, for I never lose the consciousness of time: to me the present is never here: it is always last year or next week.

She wasn’t lying even when she said, “Nobody else. Ever again.” There are contradictions in time, that’s all, that don’t exist on the mathematical point. She had so much more capacity for love than I had – I couldn’t bring down that curtain round the moment, I couldn’t forget and I couldn’t not fear. Even in the moment of love, I was like a police officer gathering evidence of a crime that hadn’t yet been committed, and when more than seven years later I opened Parkis’s letter the evidence was all there in my memory to add to my bitterness.

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