When Keith had finished up the second bottle of wine he began to yawn, the conversation faltered companionably as it can between old friends, and then he took himself off to bed in Caro's spare room, where she knew he fell asleep at once between her clean white sheets because she heard him snort or snuffle once or twice as she was carrying dishes past the door. She relished the thought of his rather ravaged fifty-five-year-old and oh-so-male head against her broderie anglaise pillowcases. Caro herself felt awake, wide awake, the kind of awakeness that seizes you in the early hours and brings such ultimate penetration and clarity that you cannot imagine you will ever sleep again. She cleared the table in the living room where they had eaten together, stacked the dishes in the dishwasher ready to turn on in the morning, washed up a few delicate bowls and glasses she didn't trust in the machine, tidied the kitchen. In her bare feet she prowled around the flat, not able to make up her mind to undress and go to bed. Tomorrow was Sunday, she didn't have to get up for work.
What was it about Keith, after all this time, that could still make her restless; could make her feel this need to be vigilant while he snored? When they sat eating and drinking together she hadn't felt it; she had felt fond of him, and that his old power to stir and upset her was diminished. He was nicer than he used to be, no doubt about that. They had talked a lot about his children; the ones he had with Penny, Caro’s sister, who were in their twenties now, then the younger ones he had with his second wife Lynne. She had been amused that he —who had once been going to 'smash capitalism' — took a serious and knowledgeable interest in the wine he had brought with him for them to drink (he had come to her straight from France; he and Lynne seemed to spend most of the year at their farmhouse in the Dordogne).
Nonetheless the thought came involuntarily into her head as she prowled, that tonight she had her enemy sleeping under her roof. Of all things: as if instead of a respectable middle-aged PA living in suburban Cardiff she was some kind of Anglo-Saxon thane, sharpening her sword and thinking of blood. Just as the thane might have, she felt divided between an anxious hostility towards her guest and an absolute requirement to protect him and watch over his head.
In May 1968 Caro had turned up for a meeting of the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation at her university wearing a new trouser suit: green corduroy bell-bottoms with a flower-patterned jacket lining and Sergeant Pepper-style military buttons. The meeting was to organise participation in a revolutionary festival in London the following month, generating support for the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation. The festival was already provoking all kinds of ideological dissent: the Trotskyists thought the whole project was 'reformist', and the Communist Party were nervous at the use of the word 'revolutionary'. The Young Communists were going to appear riding a fleet of white bicycles which they had collected and were donating to the Vietnamese.
Caro had bought the trouser suit because her godmother (whom she had adored as a little girl but had stopped visiting recently because of her views on trade unions and immigration) had sent her twenty-one pounds for her twenty-first birthday. She could have put it aside to help eke out the end of her grant, but instead, on impulse, she had gone shopping and spent it in a trendy boutique in town that she had never dared to go inside before. It was months since she had had any new clothes; and she had never possessed anything quite so joyous, so up to the minute and striking, as this trouser suit. She knew that it expressed perfectly on the outside the person she wanted to be from within. With her long hair and tall lean figure it made her look sexy, defiant, capable (in skirts she often only looked gawky and mannish).
The meeting was in a basement room in the History Department as usual. As usual, it was mostly men, though there were three or four girls, bright history and politics students, friends of Caro's, who came regularly. The girls really did get asked to make the tea, and really did make it. They sat at desks arranged in a square under a bleak light bulb with an institutional-type glass shade, surrounded by maps on the walls that were of course nothing to do with them—Europe after the Congress of Vienna, the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914—but nonetheless gave the place an air they all rather enjoyed of being a command centre in some essential world-changing operation. By the time Caro arrived the usual thick fug of cigarette smoke was already building up (she smoked too, in those days). She was greeted, because of the trouser suit, with a couple of wolf whistles, and everyone looked up. It was complicated to remember truthfully now just how one had felt about that whistling. A decade later it became obligatory for women to be indignant at it and find it degrading; at the time, however, she would probably have felt without it that her trouser suit had failed of its effect. You met the whistle without making eye contact but with a little warm curl of an acknowledging smile, a gleam of response.
Two men had come from Agit Prop, to talk to the meeting about the festival (Agit Prop was a loose association of activists and artists named after Trotsky's propaganda train and dedicated to promoting revolutionary messages through aesthetic means). That was how Caro met Keith Reid for the first time: when she arrived he had already taken his place in a chair at the centre of things, commanding the whole room. Keith was a very attractive man—it was the first thing you needed to know about him, to get any idea of who he was, then. Not handsome, exactly: off-centre quirky features held together by a fluid energy, fragile hooked nose, hollow cheeks, a lean loose strong body, a shoulder-length mess of slightly greasy dark curls. He had a Welsh accent: it was a Valleys accent in fact—he was from Cwmbach near Aberdare—but in those days Caro had never been to Wales and couldn't tell one accent from another. At a time when Left politics was saturated in the romance of the workers, this accent was in itself enough to melt most of the women (and the men).
He looked at Caro in her trouser suit.
—Don't you find, he said, —that dressing up like that puts off the working classes?
She thought about this now with stupefaction. Had she really once inhabited a world where such absurdities were a currency? She should have laughed in his face. She should have turned round and walked out of the meeting and never gone back.
—No, she said, calmly taking a place directly in Keith's line of sight, so that he could get his eyeful of the offending item, —I find it gives them something good to look at.
Of course she wasn't really calm. She was raging, and humiliated, and struggling with a muddled and not yet confident sense of something fundamentally flawed and unfair to do with men and women in what he had said and all that lay behind it: everything that was going overflow into the flood of feminism in the next couple of decades. And no doubt at the same time she was scalding with shame at her bourgeois depraved frivolity in the face of decent suffering working-class sobriety, just as Keith meant her to be. And she was thinking how she would make him pay for that.
They had such energy, then, for all the battles.
After the meeting the visitors from Agit Prop had needed a floor to stay on and Caro had taken them back to the disintegrating old mock-Tudor house, its garden overgrown as a jungle, which she shared with a motley collection of students and friends and politicos. (Later she had had trouble with that house; it was rented in her name, and some of the people using it refused to pay their share. She had to hassle them for it, and came home once to find 'Rachman bitch' scrawled in red paint on her bedroom wall.) They sat up until late smoking pot and sparring; Caro and Keith arguing not about the trouser suit, which wasn't mentioned again, but about the dockers' support for Enoch Powell and its implications for the alliance between left alternative politics and the working-class movement. Caro had been on the anti-racist march to Transport House: Keith thought she was overstating the problem in a way that was typical of bourgeois squeamishness in the face of the realities of working-class culture.
The way Keith dominated a room and laid down the law and didn't seriously countenance anybody else's opinions should have made him obnoxious; but his ironic delivery in that accent of his made it seem as though there was something teasing in his most exaggerated assertions. Everyone was willing to listen to him because he was older and his pedigree was impeccable: a miner's son, kicked out of Hornsey Art College for his political activities, he had been working on building sites ever since. In any case, that sheer imperturbable male certainty was intriguing to women in those days. They felt in the face of it a complex mix of thrilled abjection with a desire to batter at it with their fists; also, probably strongest, they believed that given the chance they would be able to find out through their feminine sexuality the weaknesses and vulnerable places behind the imperturbable male front. (This last intuition was all too often accurate.)
Eventually Caro found sleeping bags for everybody and they distributed themselves around mattresses and sofas and floors in the high-ceilinged damp-smelling rooms of the house. And then at some point in the night Keith must have got up again and wandered about until he found, not Caro, who had half expected him, but her sister Penny, who happened to be staying with her for a few days. Penny was a year older than Caro but didn't look it: most people took her to be the younger sister. She was smaller, softer-seeming, prettier. Caro found them in the morning twined around one another in their zipped-together sleeping bags. All she could make out at first was the mess of Keith's dark curls and his naked young shoulders, tanned and muscular from the work he did; and then she saw how down inside the bag Penny's head with its swirl of auburn hair like a fox's brush was wrapped in his brown arms against his chest.
She remembered that she had felt a stinging shock. Not heartbreak or any kind of serious sorrow: she hadn't had time to do anything like fall in love with Keith, and anyway, love didn't seem to be quite what it was that could have happened, if things had gone differently, between them. It was more as if she felt that, if you put the two of them alongside Keith Reid, it was in some obvious way she and not Penny who was his match, his mate. Penny all through the loud debate of the night before had sat quietly while Caro met him, point for point, and smoked joint for joint with him. Also, there was unfinished business between her and him: some contest he had begun and had now abruptly—it made him seem almost cowardly—broken off. Even as Caro recoiled, just for that first moment, in the shock of finding them, she knew she was learning from it something essential she needed to know for her survival, something about the way that men chose women.
Penny had given up after one year at art college and was living at home again with their parents in Banbury. She was thinking about going to do teacher training. Instead, she embarked on the relationship with Keith: it did almost seem, in retrospect, like a career choice. That whole long middle section of Penny's life, twenty years, was taken up in the struggle with him: pursued by him; dedicating herself to him; counselling him through his creative agonies when he was writing; bearing his children; supporting his infidelities, his drinking, his disappearances, his contempts; making every effort to tame him, to turn him into a decent acceptable partner and father. Then when Penny had finished with him once and for all, he slipped without a protest into cosy domesticity with his second wife, as jf there hadn't ever been a problem. —I was just the warmup act, Penny joked about it now. —Softening him up ready for the show with Lynne.
Through all of it, Caro had supported her sister: sometimes literally, with money, mostly just with listening and company and sympathy. When Keith went back to live in Wales and got Welsh Arts Council funding to make the first film, Penny had two small babies. Instead of finding a house in Cardiff, even in Pontypridd, Keith had insisted—on principle —on taking her to live in a council house on the edge of a huge bleak estate on the side of a mountain in Merthyr Tydfil where she didn't know anyone, and no one liked her because she was posh and English. It was half an hour's walk with the pushchair down to the nearest shops. When a job came up in Cardiff, Caro moved there partly to be near enough to help (she was also escaping the fag end of a tormenting love affair): most weekends after work she drove up to Merthyr to give a hand with the kids, take Penny to the nearest supermarket, and try to persuade her to pack up her things and leave. Penny had made the house inside gorgeous on next to nothing, with rush mats and big embroidered cushions and mobiles and chimes pinned to the ceiling; she painted the lids of instant coffee jars in rainbow colours and kept brown rice and lentils and dried kidney beans in them. But the wind seemed never to stop whistling around the corners of the house and in through the ill-fitting window frames, setting the mobiles swinging.
Keith usually wasn't there and if he was he and Caro hardly spoke. One strange Saturday evening he had had a gun for some reason: perhaps it was to do with the film, she couldn't remember, although that wouldn't have explained why he also had live ammunition. He had claimed that he knew how to dismantle it, had taken bits off it and spread them out on the tablecloth in the corner of the room where the children were watching television: he was drinking whisky, and erupted with raucous contempt when Penny said she didn't want that horrible thing in her home. He picked the gun up and held it to Penny's head while she struggled away from him and told him not to be so silly.
—Don't be such a bloody idiot, Keith, Caro said.
—Shut it, sister-bitch, he said in a fake cockney accent, swinging round, squinting his eyes, pretending to take aim at her across the room. Presumably without its bits the gun wasn't dangerous, but they couldn't be sure. They hurried the protesting children upstairs improbably early, bathed them with shaking hands, singing and playing games so as not to frighten them, staring at one another in mute communication of their predicament.
—Put the kids in the car and drive to my place, Caro said, wrapping a towel around her wriggling wet niece, kissing the. dark curls which were just like Keith's.
—Wait and see, said Penny, —if it gets any worse.
In the end Keith had not been able to put the gun back together, and had fallen asleep in front of the television: Penny hid the ammunition in her Tampax box before she went to bed. She had been right not to overreact: Keith wasn't really the kind of man who fired guns and shot people, he was the kind who liked the glamour of the idea of doing it.
Caro could remember going to see Keith's film at the arts centre in Cardiff—not at the premiere, she hadn't wanted to see him feted and basking in it, and had made her excuses, but in the week after—and it had made her so angry that she had wanted to stand up in the cinema and explain to all those admiring people in the audience how unforgivably he used real things that mattered and milked them to make them touching, and how in truth whenever he was home on the estate that he made so much of in the film he was bored and longing to get away to talk with his film-making friends. Actually the audience probably weren't really all that admiring, the film had got mixed reviews. She had seen it again recently when the arts centre did a Welsh film season, and had thought about it differently: only twenty years on it seemed innocent and archaic, and its stern establishing shots of pithead and winding gear were a nostalgic evocation of a lost landscape. The one he did afterwards about the miners' strike was his best, she thought: it was the bleakest most unsentimental account she ever saw of the whole business, capturing its honour and its errors both together; the ensemble work was very funny and complex (apart from the leads he had used non-professional actors, mostly ex-miners and their wives). His career had neither failed nor taken off, since then: there always seemed to be work, but it was always precarious (it was a good job Lynne made money with her photography) .
In the end Penny made friends with some of the women from the estate she met in the school playground, and got involved with the tenants' association, and had her third baby in Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr, and probably looked back now on her time on the estate with some affection. She grew very close, too, to Keith's parents in Cwmbach: she saw more of his father in his last illness than Keith did, she really seemed to love the reticent, neat old man, who had been an electrician at the Phurnacite plant and in his retirement pottered about his DIY tasks in their immaculate big post-war council house, putting a heated towel rail in the bathroom, making a patio for the garden. She stayed good friends with his mother and his sister even after she and Keith were separated.
When Penny eventually decided that he and she should go their different ways (she moved out when he tried to move his latest girlfriend, an actress with a drug habit and a dog, into the house with them), she did the teacher training she had put off for so long, and met her present partner, a biologist working in conservation who was everything suitable and reasonable that Keith was not. They lived now in the country near Banbury, not far from where Penny and Caro had grown up. Meanwhile Keith met Lynne, and they shared their time between London and the Dordogne. So that in the end it was Caro who was left living in Wales, and if she thought sometimes that it was partly because of Keith Reid that she had ended up making her life there she didn't mind, she just thought that it was funny.
She turned out all the lights in the flat; she could see well enough in the light that came from the street lamp outside her front window to pour herself a whisky in hopes that it would help put her to sleep. She sat to drink it with her feet tucked under her on the end of the sofa where she had sat an hour or so before listening to Keith; she heard a soft pattering of rain and a police siren, too far off to think about. In the half-dark, awareness of the familiar fond shapes of the furniture of her present life—tasteful and feminine and comfortable—was like a soft blanket settled around her shoulders. She should have felt safe and complete; it annoyed her that she was still gnawed by some unfinished business just because Keith Reid was asleep in her spare room. There were other men who had been much more important in her life, and yet when they came to stay (sometimes in the spare-room bed and sometimes in hers), it didn't bother her this way.
Her heart had sunk when halfway down the second bottle Keith began to wax nostalgic and maudlin about the sixties and the decay of the socialist dream. You heard this everywhere these days, in the newspapers and on television; usually of course from people who had been young then. The formula, surely inadequate to the complicated facts, was always the same: that what had been 'idealism' then had declined sadly into 'disillusion' now.
—But remember, she had insisted, —that in 1968 when we marched round Trafalgar Square we were chanting 'Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh'! I mean, for Chrissake! Ho Chi Minh! And at that revolutionary festival you could play skittles with French riot police helmets stuck on Coca-Cola bottles. And remember us getting up at the crack of dawn to go and try and sell Socialist Worker to workers in that clothing factory in Shacklewell Lane. Expecting them to spend their hard-earned money on that rag with its dreary doctrine and all its factional infighting. And I used to go back to bed afterwards, when I got home, because I hated getting up so early. Remember that we spoke with respect of Lenin, and Trotsky, and Chairman Mao, all those mass murderers. Remember that we had contempt for the welfare state, as a piece of bourgeois revisionism.
—There were excesses, Keith conceded fondly. —But then, excess was in the air. Anything could have happened. That's what's missing now. Caro, you sound so New Labour. I'm still a revolutionary, aren't you? Don't you still want socialism?
She shrugged. —Oh, well, yes, socialism, I suppose ...
That conversation had ended awkwardly, each embarrassed by what they thought of as the other's false position. Keith probably thought that Caro had 'sold out' (he might even have put it in those words, perhaps to Lynne). She worked as personal assistant to a Labour MP, a man she mostly liked and respected. (Before that she had worked for Panasonic.) On the second and fourth Mondays of every month she went to Amnesty International meetings in a shabby upstairs room of the Friends' Meeting House, and was currently involved in a campaign for the release of a postgraduate student imprisoned in China for his researches into ethnic Uighur history. This compromising pragmatic liberalism might in time turn out to be as absolutely beside the point as the articles she had once written for Black Dwarf: who could tell? Your ethical life was a shallow bowl brimming impossibly; however dedicatedly you carried it about with you there were bound to be spills, or you found out that the dedication you brought wasn't needed, or that you had brought it to the wrong place.
While Caro was tidying up she had had to go into the spare room to put away her grandmother's 1920s water jug, painted with blue irises, in its place on the lace mat on top of the bureau. This could have waited until the morning when Keith was gone; perhaps she had just made it an excuse to go in and take the measure of him uninhibitedly, free of the wakeful obligation to smile and reassure. She swung the door quietly behind her to admit just a narrow ribbon of light, then stood waiting for her eyes to adjust, breathing in the slight, not unpleasant fug of his smell: good French soap and cologne and a tang of his sweat and of gas flavoured with the garlic she had put in her cooking. He slept on his side with his face pressed in the pillow, frowning; his chest with its plume of grey-black hair down the breastbone was bare, the duvet lay decorously across his waist, under it he seemed to have his hands squeezed between his jackknifed knees, his mouth was open, he made noises sucking in air. She wondered all the time she stood there whether he wasn't actually aware of her presence and faking sleep.
He didn't look too bad. He took good care of himself (or Lynne took care of him): he hadn't put on much weight, although where he had been lean and hard he was nowadays rangy and slack, with jutting bowed shoulders under his T-shirt and a small soft pouch of belly above his belt. He probably still had the power of his sexual attraction; whereas Caro who was a couple of years younger knew she could no longer count on hers, even though she also took care of herself, and was slim, and had her hair coloured at Vidal Sassoon (she thought now that this old gender inequity probably had less to do with patriarchal systems than with desires hard-wired into human evolutionary biology). Keith had opted to deal with his advancing baldness by cutting very short even the rim of hair he had left growing behind his ears and at the back; this was a good move, she thought, pre-empting pretence and turning what might have looked like a vulnerability into an assertion of style. However, it made the starkness of his craggy head shocking. All the years of his age, all the drinking, all the history and difficulty of the man, was concentrated in the face laid bare: its eaten-out hollows, the high exposed bony bridge of his nose that rode him like the prow of his ship, the deep closed folds of flesh, the huge dropped purple eyelids flickering with sensitivity.
She sat thinking now about the time when Keith was the most attractive man in the room, the man you couldn't afford to turn your eyes away from, careless and dangerous with his young strength. It hadn't been a good or tender thing exactly; it hadn't had much joy in it for Caro. Nonetheless she quaked at the power of this enemy, stronger than either of them, who had slipped in under her roof and was stealing everything away.
When Keith had telephoned from France to say that he had to come over for a couple of days to talk to some people in Cardiff about a new film project, Caro had planned and shopped for an elaborate meal. She didn't make anything heavy or indigestible, but unusual things that took careful preparation, little Russian cheese pastries for starters, then fillet of lamb with dried maraschino cherries and spinach, and for dessert gooseberry sorbet with home-made almond tuiles. Because she lived alone, she loved to cook when she was entertaining friends.
She had spent all day getting ready what they had eaten in an hour or so. And of course the food had taken second place to their talk, with so much to catch up on; although Keith had helped himself hungrily and appreciatively. In her thirties she had resented furiously this disproportion between the time spent cooking and eating; it had seemed to her characteristic of women's work, exploitative and invisible and without lasting results. She had even given up cooking for a while. These days she felt about it differently. The disproportion seemed part of the right rhythm of all pleasure: a long, difficult and testing preparation for a few moments' consummation.
Now she used her mother's rolling pin to roll out her pastry; she kept Keith's mother's recipes for Welsh cakes and bara brith. In her tasks around the flat — polishing furniture, bleaching dishcloths, vacuuming, taking cuttings from her geraniums, ironing towels and putting them away in the airing cupboard—she was aware that her mother and grandmother had done these same things before her, working alone in quiet rooms, or with the radio for company. In truth she had had a stormy relationship with her parents, and used to think of her mother's domesticated life as thwarted and wasted. But she had learned to love the invisible work, the life that fell away and left no traces. This was how change happened, always obliquely to the plans you laid for it, leaving behind as dead husks all the preparations that you nonetheless had to make in order to bring it about.
© Tessa Hadley
This electronic extract of “The Enemy” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It appears in the author's collection, Sunstroke and Other Stories,published by Vintage Books, 2008; originally published in Granta.. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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Photo credit: Rob Clifford