HER: Well. Well, here we are again.
HER: Together again, united. At the end of the day, at the end of our individually long and wearying days.
HER: Together again in the bedroom.
Yes. Can I open my eyes now?
HIM: You can open your eyes whenever you want to.
HER: Yes, but is it the right time?
HIM: It really isn’t desperately important…
HER: Are you ready to give me the present? Ready enough for me to open my eyes?
HIM: You can always open your eyes. I never suggested you should close your eyes…
HER: Of course I have to close my eyes! You’re giving me a present.
HIM: In fact, I would really rather you hadn’t closed your eyes. Here I am, clutching this present. In front of me stands my wife, boring me down with her eyelids.
HER: Oh, so it’s a present you can clutch, is it?
HIM: … Yes.
HER: Oh, how fascinating! A clutchable present. I can’t wait to find out what it is…
HIM: Well, why don’t you simply open your eyes then, you stupid woman?
HER: Right. Well, here goes… Are you ready?
HIM: Yes, yes, get on with it…
HER: I’m opening them now… Oh, darling!! You shouldn’t have…
HIM: You like it?
HER: You really, really shouldn’t have. You naughty little man…
HIM: No, quite, I shouldn’t have, but do you like it?
HER: What exactly is it?
HIM: Well… I don’t know… it’s a bit of fur, isn’t it?
HER: Yes, yes, but where does it go?
HIM: Oh, I don’t know…
HER: I mean, it’s not very big…
HIM: You wrap it around one of your hands or something, I don’t know.
HER: Well, it’s lovely, lovely.
HIM: So you like it.
HER: I think it’s gorgeous.
HIM: Well, good.
HER: And getting me a present like that. Out of the blue.
HER: You just bought it to say that you love me.
HER: That was the idea, was it?
HER: You were trying to say that you love me?
HER: That you love me. Say it, darling.
HIM: That I love you, yes.
HER: And again.
HIM: I love you.
HER: One more time, with feeling.
HIM: I love you.
HER: Which is lovely, lovely, of you. Buying me a bit of fur just to tell me that you love me. But, you know, you can just say you love me if you want to say you love me. Just the words, “I love you,” you can make it as simple as that. You don’t have to buy me a tiny scrap of fur, so tiny I have no idea what to do with it. You shouldn’t have. You really shouldn’t have.
HIM: No, you’re right. I shouldn’t have.
HER: Lovely. Well, time to get into bed, I think.
HER: First, I’ll just drape this bit of fur here…
HIM: Over the bedside table…
HER: That’s right, where I can be absolutely certain I won’t lose it… Good. Good, that’s good. And now I think we’re ready for bed. Mmmm, that’s nice, isn’t it?
HER: Nice and comfy, isn’t it?
HIM: Well, I suppose.
HER: Nice and comfy and lovely, lovely, after our individually long and wearying days. Would you massage me now, please?
HIM: Yes, all right.
HER: Massage my back. And my neck.
HIM: Turn around.
HER: Good. Start gently, very gently indeed, in the small of my back… Oh! You’ve cut your fingernails!
HER: Why did you cut your fingernails? You’ve cut them right down to the skin!
HIM : Well, sometimes, my dear, sometimes the dirt that gathers there gets a little too difficult to remove. The dirt gets stuck to the underside of the nail. Squashed hard against it. And it’s like a cancer, the dirt will grow, and then it’ll spread, the dirt will pour out from under the nail and over the skin and over everything, stinking like shit and disease. You see, my love. My love. And nothing but a full scale removal of that nail is going to do anything about it.
HER: I preferred it when your nails were longer.
HIM: So I gather.
HER: Could you move a little higher up, please? It’s getting a little too warm where you’re rubbing…
HER: I don’t want to start sweating or anything. You know how much I hate sweat.
HIM: I do.
HER: It’s like the body is just leaking, isn’t it?
HIM: I have another surprise for you.
HER: Another present?
HIM: If you like.
HER: Is this bit of fur going to be bigger than the last bit?
HIM: No more fur. This present is going to be a story.
HER: But you never tell me stories.
HIM: This time I shall.
HER: You say that when you’re massaging my body you need all the grim determination you can muster. You never even want to speak to me, to acknowledge me at all, let alone tell me a story. Lovely, lovely. Are you ready to start the story yet? Tell me when you’re going to start, so I can close my eyes.
HIM: You don’t have to close your eyes.
HER: Don’t be silly. You’re about to tell me a story. You can’t listen to a story with your eyes open.
HIM: Well, I’m starting now.
HER: Right… And clossse… There!
HER: I’m ready.
HIM: So I can see.
HER: And massage in a different place now, for Christ’s sake. The sweat’s drenching me.
HIM: There was once a man walking in a park. It was his lunch hour during a long and wearying day. He always decided to walk in the park during the lunch hour, because it always seemed more real to him than the office, as if he were closer to nature. Not that it was the job which bothered him. From dawn to dusk the man would think of nothing but his wife.
HER: That’s lovely…
HIM: He remembered that he had once been miserable, growing increasingly aware that the love he had felt for her was fading, and that whatever desperate attempt he made to revitalise it always smacked of that desperation. But the actual misery by this time had passed, because his love for her had now faded so completely, that he found it impossible to believe that he had ever been in love with her at all. Yet he thought of her continually. He thought of the inevitability that he would have to see her that evening, and was sickened to his heart when there was every reason to believe that he would see her the following evening as well. And she was in his head all the time, and he could only think of her and how much he honestly, genuinely loathed her.
HER: Mmm. Rub a little firmer. Tell me more about this man. What was his name?
HIM: I don’t know, he didn’t have one.
HER: Everyone has a name.
HIM: All right. His name was Paul Lindblad.
HER: That’s a funny name.
HER: Hang on. That’s your name, darling.
HIM: So it is. It’s a coincidence.
HER: Did he have any children?
HIM: No. His wife had never wanted any. That had used to upset him, but now he was relieved. Because he was only too aware of the risk the children could have ended up like their mother, or, more horrifically, some perverse amalgam of both him and their mother, an amalgam of such contradictions that it would break the laws of science.
HER: What did he look like?
HIM: Well, let’s say, he looks extraordinarily like me.
HER: Mmmm. All right. I think… I think I can just about picture him…
HIM: Well, good. That’s very imaginative of you, darling.
And every day I will go and look at the squirrels. Today I looked at one particular squirrel. It was on a branch, and looked straight at me, and I looked straight back and refused to blink. And I have no idea whether that impressed him or not. It was so proud, and it defied me as it sat there. Untarnished by humanity. Come on, it said, come on, it seemed to say, despoil me then. Its little tail languidly swept over the bark; its little eyes darted, but only with a show of supreme unconcern for my presence. Its little head was separated from its little body only by a little neck. I think… I think it was quite a thin neck…
HER: Would you do my neck now, please?
HIM: I backed away slowly, and gently, oh ever so gently, reached into my bag to pull out a slice of white bread. I chose white because it shone better in the sunlight… and today, there was indeed sunlight, though greened and browned maybe by the trees all around. There was plenty of sunlight, and the squirrel tensed as I brought the square of food into it. I could see it quite clearly tense, though always looking at me. Its eyes wide open.
HER: My neck. I said, my neck.
HIM: Its large eyes never leaving mine.
Now, when you feed squirrels, which is something I do a lot, it is never wise to attempt to feed them with acorns. They probably have quite a nice supply already and are too untrusting to risk themselves to take one more. I could see out of the corner of my eye another squirrel, at another tree, threading its way up and down the tree, collecting acorns, taking them up into the branches, coming back down the tree again. But it could only be out of the corner of my eye, because I knew that I could not risk losing contact with this squirrel, what I already thought of as my squirrel… And the man, Paul, that is, thought back to his wife as he held the white bread and he held the squirrel’s attention and he considered how much better it was to build a relationship with this squirrel, which though untrusting, at least was silent and kept its distance. It is useless, of course, to coax a squirrel over towards you, holding your scrap of white bread between forefinger and thumb. That is what the fools of the park were doing, the fat joggers taking a breather, the young children and the old idiots. When I use bread, I always throw a scrap at the base of the tree and make a gentle but swift retreat so that the squirrel can procure the food without feeling threatened. I did this.
HER: A different part of my neck, please. That bit’s getting sweaty.
HIM: And I was able to see the squirrel on the next tree, still finding acorns, climbing the tree, and storing acorns among the branches. Time after time. Indefatigable.
HIM: But my squirrel… I watched him first eye me, then the bread. Then, cautiously, ever so cautiously, it came down the side of the tree, round and round like a helter-skelter… And reaching the grass, it took the bread chunk which was as big as its head and devoured it quickly, before escaping back to the relative security of the tree… And the squirrel in the other tree, back and forth up and down his tree, with his acorns… I approached the tree once more, my squirrel’s tree, and its ears seemed to prick up in anticipation of more food, its eyes scrutinising me, but its tail moving back and forth proudly, as if in contempt for my attempts to buy its friendship. And the squirrel in the next tree, the one collecting acorns, I could still see it out of the corner of my eye, finding these acorns, storing these acorns, and back and forth, back and forth up and down its tree with them…
So. Are you enjoying this story?
HER: I’m enjoying the massage.
HER: Although you are making my skin sweaty and I prefer sharper fingernails. Are you taking a break for a minute?
HIM: I thought I might.
HER: Does that mean I can open my eyes now?
HIM: Of course you can open your eyes. You could always have opened your eyes.
HER: I’m a little confused. There are two squirrels…
HER: The one eating bread and the one eating acorns…
HER: Hmm. Couldn’t you call them Squirrel A and Squirrel B?
HIM: No, I really don’t think I could.
HIM: If I descend to such banality as that, I really don’t think I could live with myself afterwards.
HER: Well, all right.
HIM: And I was rather counting on being able to live with at least somebody.
HER: I don’t see any reason why you should have stopped massaging.
HIM: Sorry. The neck?
HER: Yes. So there are these two squirrels and there’s a man with your name…
HER: Does he still look extraordinarily like you?
HIM: More so by the minute, I assure you.
HER: And there are no other characters?
HIM: Oh, well, there’s the woman. Haven’t I mentioned the woman?
HIM: Well, there’s a woman.
HER: What woman? Where did you meet a woman?
HIM: Close your eyes and I’ll tell you.
And as Paul Lindblad stood there, feeding the squirrel, he still thought of his wife, and how much happier he was with the beasts of the park. Behind him there stood a woman.
HER: What was her name?
HIM: Ssh. He didn’t know her name. All he knew was that she was tall, because she cast a shadow in front of him. He turned around and looked at her. She was dressed from top to toe in fur. Even her deep brown hair for she had deep brown hair – deep brown beautiful hair – even her deep brown hair looked like fur, so that it merged with the furs she was wearing and Paul Lindblad could not tell where the hair ended and the furs began.
HER: She must have been very hot and sweaty.
HIM: But she wasn’t hot and sweaty. And, don’t you see, she wasn’t beneath those furs, she was of those furs, and those furs seemed a part of her. I could see that her skin was cool and dry. Smooth, though, not a rough dryness. There was no sweat at all. Neither on her forehead, nor on her hands which half poked out to exposure. She had long fingernails, and I could see that even these fingernails were cool, they were painted red, but the red was a cool red…
HER: I hate long fingernails…
HIM: From between her long, cool fingers appeared a cigarette. I approached and lit it for her.
HER: Why did you do that?
HIM: Why not?
HER: You never light my cigarette.
HIM: You don’t smoke.
HER: You wouldn’t if I did.
HIM: She breathed her thanks to me through a haze of cloud.
HER: Who was this woman? What was her name?
HIM: I told you, I don’t know her name. Maybe she didn’t have a name.
HER: Everyone has a name. What was she doing in the park? What was she doing there?
HIM: Enjoying herself. Watching the squirrels. And as Paul Lindblad looked at her, as Paul Lindblad admired her cool fingernails and her deep, deep, deep brown hair, he thought of his own wife who sweated neat salt every time he rubbed her skin.
I thought you said you were going to close your eyes.
HER: I don’t have to.
HIM: Quite right. Keep them open.
HER: I shan’t. I’ll close them.
HIM: Paul Lindblad could feel the coolness of her long, long shadow on him as he faced his squirrel again, as he began to throw more bread at the foot of the trunk. After a while, maybe five or six such feedings, I tried to approach the squirrel. As soon as I had taken a step forward, the squirrel had abandoned the bread, scurried back into the branches. I cursed myself silently for my impatience. The squirrel stared back at me from the safety of the foliage, and I could see his dark eye caught in the green sunlight. It was a proud eye, unblinking. I looked back at the woman, but she gave no signs either of encouragement or discouragement. I retreated a good thirty yards, and began throwing the bread to the grass. The squirrel eyed me angrily, made no movement at all towards the white specks beneath it. I stood rigidly, silently, oh, for a good two or three minutes. Maybe more. I could feel on my back the shadow of the woman as she watched, I could see that other squirrel hard at work collecting acorns out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t move my head at all, I tried not to move my eyes. I could see that the squirrel diverted its focus from me to the bread beneath it, but still, still it refused to budge. Paul Lindblad counted softly in his head, but he began to despair that the squirrel would ever move at all, and, to his horror, the image of his wife, which he had succeeded in keeping to the back of his mind during this adventure, that image began to occupy his thoughts once more. And, and just as I was about to give up hope, with what joy, with what carefully muted joy I watched as the squirrel raced to the bottom of the tree, took the bread, and sped back up into the branches. It sat there, munching the food, staring at me sulkily. And, out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the shadow of the woman had never moved, and I could practically smell her coolness on the back of my neck. And, out of the corner of my other eye, I was going practically cross-eyed by this point, I could see the other squirrel, still tirelessly finding acorns and taking them to his store. Again and again and again.
Don’t you ever feel that your life is simply going round in circles?
HER: Rub a little firmer.
HIM: No, not circles, not really circles…
HER: I don’t know what you mean. Above the shoulders now, please.
HIM: The sense, don’t you ever get the sense that everything you’re doing in life you’ve already done before? And, what’s more, have already done better? Don’t you ever feel that everything that you do has already been done before, and that you’ve already done it better, and that even when you’d done it the best, even then, that someone else had already done it better than that, and that, what is more, that the person who’d done it better than your best hadn’t had to push himself to do it his best?
HER: I don’t know what you mean.
HIM: Don’t you ever feel envious, actually envious of people whose lives do go round in circles, because you feel that your own life is only treading back and forward measuring out a particularly small straight line? Don’t you ever feel like that?
HER: I preferred it when your fingernails were longer.
HIM: Don’t you ever feel like that, my love?
HIM: And Paul Lindblad… as Paul Lindblad looked at that squirrel, the worker squirrel, Squirrel B as you would have him called… he envied him his life that went round in circles. He waited… I waited a good half an hour before I dared approach the squirrel again. The woman waited, patiently. The shadow never wavered. Whenever I turned to look at her, she was somehow always breathing out smoke through her nostrils and mouth, though I never caught her inhaling… This time the squirrel tensed as I edged slowly towards it, throwing pieces of bread near it – near it, but never at it – all the while, all the while as I put distance between myself and the shadow, all the while as my still sharp fingernails broke off chunks of bread. The squirrel retreated up the side of the tree, but not nearly as far as it had done before, and watched greedily as I threw bread piece after bread piece to the ground. I did this at the other side of the tree as well, so that it was surrounded by the food, and while I was occupied there, it began to feed on the opposite side. When I encircled the tree, it ran around to the side from which I had just come. I continued walking around its circumference always catching sight of the squirrel’s tail as it darted in front of me. As if we were playing a ridiculous game of follow-my-leader. And I think it too sensed how ridiculous this was. And as I dropped bread, as I walked in circles, always in circles, every time I rounded the tree, I would see standing in the distance a tall woman dressed wholly in fur, followed by a squirrel ever gathering acorns … And then… And then my squirrel stopped… it stayed on my side of the tree…
Still massage your shoulders?
HER: Yes, please…
HIM: But it’s your neck which seems most tense… But even now, you see, standing so close to the animal, I still wasn’t its friend, I still wasn’t trusted. I knew that I must not try yet to stroke it. Instead I threw pieces of bread at my feet, and waited to see whether it would feed so close to me. But it ignored the food. It ignored the bread altogether, and I began to think that maybe it didn’t care about eating so much after all, and… and I wondered whether really… whether it was really interested in me… Claws in tree, head cocked, it looked at me… We looked directly into each other’s eyes. What it saw… well, I can’t say… but it continued to search, and for my part, I saw a pool of blackness. Shining blackness, where the sunlight caught it. It was not a blackness of void, you understand… there was something there… I don’t know, something. It probably was nothing very profound. But I seemed I thought to be drowning in this pool… and I saw all the fear finally quelled in those eyes. And all the pride… And I thought, and I think, that maybe the squirrel began a little to love me. To love me, really. And the eyes continued to burn in mine. For my part, I had to concentrate hard not to blink. A blink itched. I must not blink. I must not blink… I did not blink. Tell me… tell me, my love… are your eyes closed?
HER: Of course my eyes are closed.
HIM: Of course your eyes are closed.
HER: You’re telling me a story.
HIM: Yes. I’m telling you a story… And we stayed there, both of us, playing this preposterous game. And Paul Lindblad wished, so much wished, so dearly wished, that he could forget all about his wife, about her emptiness, her pointlessness, but even then… Yes, even then. But I could only see those harsh, pensive eyes and sense the heavy breathing which shook the fur which encased them… and, for the life of me, I don’t know… don’t know whether the breathing was mine or the squirrel’s … and we stared, stayed like that, for I don’t know how long. And I knew that the woman would wait, and that the other squirrel would gather his acorns… Those eyes. Those eyes! How such a tiny creature can have such large eyes! How such a big animal as myself can outstare them! And as it quivered, so I am certain I did too… rippling… And then… then I took a piece of bread and held it with shaking hand… There was a moment and then… it leaned forward nervously, sniffed it, and then, when it was satisfied, began to nibble. Its teeth never touched me. I took a second piece, then a third, and it began to nibble less cautiously.
I stretched out my hand… actually stretched it out, I could feel it stretching… It closed its eyes as my hands touched its fur, deep deep brown, closed its eyes for the first time… deep… if it could have purred… It hanged there on the tree trunk… A few claws flexed, but it did not fall, just slowly unfastened itself as it relaxed…
HER: Please, a little firmer…
HIM: And I knew it loved me, that it actually loved me…
HER: Lovely, lovely…
HIM: And I stroked more deeply, deep deep brown, my fingers lost in his fur. The eyes remained closed… I like to think in ecstasy. I like to think in love…
HER: I love you, darling…
HIM: I stroked its head with the back of my hand, my fingers explored the smoothness of his chin, and it was smooth…
HER: I love you…
HIM: And surprisingly cool, seducing it with my sharp fingernails, my long fingernails… it responded, oh God yes, it responded! With heaving of the chest, first slow, then quicker…
HER: I said I’m in love…
HIM: Yes, yes, quite, I know what you said…
HER: Rub me a little firmer…
HIM: And I plunged my fingernails into its throat. I put my other hand around the back of the neck and squeezed slowly until I heard just a little crack… And, do you know, it still loved me, it made no resistance, swaying on the branch like a drunkard, and its little chest was still heaving rhythmically and violently as we reached climax. I let it topple into the leaves below, and I was surprised at how much blood I had drawn. And Paul Lindblad was surprised at how dry the blood felt. Its eyes stared up at me. The sunlight caught them again, but they were no longer shining. Greened a little by the foliage, maybe.
HER: You can stop massaging me now, I think.
I said you can stop massaging me. I said… No. No. Stop. Yes. Thank you.
HIM: You’re welcome.
HER: And this fur… this fur was…
Well, I think that’s lovely. Lovely, lovely. And this fur was once… living… and now, now you killed it because you wanted to show how much you loved me. You wanted to show me that. You wanted to tell me that you love me. Out of the blue. Didn’t you, darling? Darling? Didn’t you?
Thank you. I love you.
HIM: … Yes. That fur isn’t the squirrel.
HER: It isn’t?
HIM: And Paul Lindblad walked up to the woman who stood all the while, waiting, breathing smoke into the air in steady, unhurried streams… And he offered her the squirrel. He offered the woman of fur the squirrel. And just as suddenly as it had appeared, her cigarette vanished because there wasn’t room even amongst her long, cool fingers to hold both. And she breathed thank you to him, and somehow she still breathed it through a cloud of smoke. Is there anything she could give him in return? And she offered all the fur she had on her. And he said no. He didn’t need that much fur. Just a little bit of fur. Just the smallest bit of fur, really, the smallest she had. Because any more fur and his wife would get all hot and sweaty. Just a pathetic amount of fur, that’s all his wife deserved. And she smiled and gave him the fur you see there, before you. Draped on the bedside table. And when they shook goodbye, he realised just how cool her hands really were, and how sharp her long, red fingernails were as they glided over his palms.
HER: I don’t… I don’t quite see…
HIM: Well, no, love. Of course not. Your eyes are closed, aren’t they … ? And Paul Lindblad turned round to look at the other squirrel. Squirrel B. And Squirrel B had just finished gathering together all the acorns he could. There were hundreds. And he looked as exhausted a little chap as you could imagine. He gave me a little wink, and a wave, as if to show me he was ready now to tuck into his store. And the really odd thing is… and I kid you not… just as he bent down to eat the acorns… the acorns rose up and ate him instead. Bit of a turn up for the books, don’t you think?
I cut my fingernails when I couldn’t remove the blood… You’re beginning to sweat, darling.
HER: You shouldn’t have… you shouldn’t have…
HIM: No, I know I shouldn’t have. But I did anyway.
HER: When you killed it, did you look into its eyes?
HER: I don’t think I could do it. I could kill. I know I could kill. But I couldn’t look into the eyes.
Darling, can I keep my eyes closed now?