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Authors: Elizabeth Jane Howard

Falling

BOOK: Falling
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FALLING
ELIZABETH
JANE HOWARD

PICADOR

For my daughter
Nicola

CONTENTS

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

1
HENRY

She has left me. This last, most terrible blow has knocked me out. I don’t seem able to think about it for long enough to gain the slightest inkling of
why
this
has happened. She was in love with me – I’m sure of that – or was she simply sexually infatuated? My experience of women – considerable, for I am, after all, over sixty
– had, I presumed, taught me a good deal about how extraordinarily different they are from most men. I except myself here as I feel I have always had an intuitive understanding of the
comparatively few women I’ve been in love with, have known them often better than they’ve known themselves. I now think that one reason why I’ve found it difficult to get on with
my own sex has been that what I’ve learned of them has been largely through women. It has been through their confidences, and sometimes simply their responses, that I realized long ago how so
many of them are mistreated, that that enchanting early awareness of their sexuality and romantic inclination is all too often nipped in the bud. Thus are bred the ice maidens, the termagants, the
nymphos, the drab domestic servitors and the hysterically sentimental matriarchs. I blame men for these sad consequences, much as other people blame parents for the delinquent child.

It has been my good fortune, and naturally my pleasure, to undo and heal some of this damage; indeed, I can honestly say that my greatest joy has come from pleasing a woman – in teaching
her to inhabit her own body with pleasure and pride. This cannot be achieved by mere sexual prowess; I have no way of, and indeed no interest in, measuring my own against that of any other man. It
comes from that mixture of affection, cherishing and
loving
that cannot be assumed, but once present needs constant expression. Women need not only to be loved; they need to be told so. I
believe George Eliot has something to say about that.

But knowing what I do, how has it happened that she has gone? Why? What can have possessed her to do anything so destructive of her happiness? Not to mention my own: I have as much – some
would say more – to lose by her defection. It took many months to find her, time and ingenuity to effect a meeting, and then many more months and a quantity of letters to assure and reassure
her of my eligibility. I must confess that when I started the whole thing, I was very uncertain of success, regarded her as something of a challenge, but I have a romantic as well as an adventurous
nature, and at the time had little or nothing to lose. In the course of a very few months I had lost both my job and my wife, and while these losses were more tiresome than tragic their coincidence
was, financially at least, most unfortunate. I was reduced at a stroke to isolation and penury.

I have lived for two years now in a small cabin-cruiser lent by a couple who were going to live abroad and who wanted me to sell it for them. I have my state pension, for some time supplemented
by money that I had salted away from the joint bank account with Hazel. I was glad to be shot of
her
with her cold prying nature, her controlling ways and her carping at everything I did or
didn’t do. She had a steady and well-paid job, which fortunately occupied her so thoroughly that for the last few years of our marriage we did not have to spend very much time together. But
her resentment at my failure to earn as much money as she, and more, the fact that she was of no importance to me, manifested itself in spasmodic outbursts of bitterness and anger, and my
indifference to her congealed to something very like hatred. The boat was a relief. I could stay in bed in the mornings as long as I pleased, eat what I wanted when I felt like it, read all night
if I was so inclined, and have my papers undisturbed. Very few people came to see the boat, and it was easy to put them off buying it. I would fill the bilges before they came and explain that I
had spent the morning pumping them out, which had become a daily occurrence. No doubt if the boat was taken out of the water, repairs to her hull could be made, but who knew what else might then be
found? My frankness was commended and that was invariably the end of that. I had no compunction about this; the owners already had a house to live in when they returned, which would not be for
another year. I was content. I am never bored, and when I felt the need for company I could always go to the village pub.

Once a week I would take a bus to the public library to return and collect books. For the past year I’ve been making a study of women novelists, both nineteenth-and twentieth-century
authors. Another fascinating light thrown upon the relations between the sexes is often contained in their novels.

But towards the end of my first year in the boat, the future began to loom, as I realized that the present situation had a finite ending. True, there would one day be a divorce from which I
might expect some money: the flat that Hazel and I had bought was in my name and she would eventually get a handsome pension from the people she worked for. But this money, in turn, while it would
not provide me with enough to live on, might affect the amount I could expect from the state. I would have to do something.

My first attempt led to nothing at all. I began with my local pub, the only place where, apart from shop people, I had any social contact, though that had been of the most casual order. The
customers were mostly men, and on the occasions that they were accompanied by a woman she proved always to be a wife or a girlfriend – the wives looking variously like people I was glad not
to have had as a mother, and the girlfriends so jealously partnered that it would have been folly to approach them. I did consider the landlady, an ample widow in her late forties, but there was
something both mechanical and common about her responses that put me off. I never saw any woman there who was capable of inspiring a spark of romance, and I am someone who cannot function without
that. I would have to go further afield than the small village a quarter of a mile up the towpath from my boat.

Over the years I have come to understand that while one should always look out for opportunity, it was equally important to determine what kind of opportunity it was worth looking out for. What
I now sought was a woman about ten years younger than myself: anything younger and one would be faced with having to endure their menopause, and the thirty-year-old and younger tended to want more
bedtime than I at my age felt willing to provide, or worse, to want children which I have taken the means to make impossible. This may sound cold-blooded: it is not. If you have a temperament as
whole-hearted, as passionately absorbed in the object of affection as I know mine to be, a certain caution at the outset repays itself.

The woman I sought proved, after many nights of cogitation, to be someone who had survived the elementary fences and was facing the last straight home in solitude. No longer in her prime, she
would have at least to
have been
possessed of some beauty – to have the air of past romance, like the classical folly in a great park, past its original use and now surrounded by an
aura of neglect. I could carry this analogy much further: the ivy of her experience that had been slowly strangling her for years would be gently stripped from her by my experienced touch, et
cetera.

She should have
had
her marriage and her children and have slaked all commonplace ambition in those directions. It would be an added bonus if she had achieved something in her own right,
had some profession or career: I’ve always found success aphrodisiac. She must like men and have been disappointed by them. I should not in the least object to her liking women as well
– indeed, for a week or two I indulged the fantasy of finding a woman already in love with another woman, and my completing the trio. However, I am able to be realistic, and recognized the
improbability of hitting such a sexual jackpot. But I did, of course, fantasize about her appearance, and lived in my mind with a small, full-breasted woman with tiny hands and feet and short, very
thick, reddish-gold hair, bobbed to a point at the back of her neck. This was all very well, but imagining such a creature brought me no nearer to finding her.

On one of my visits to the library, it occurred to me that I should look at the personal columns where people advertise their requirements for a partner. It was interesting how similar the
advertisements were. All the women seemed to want a non-smoker with a sense of humour interested in the arts and aged between thirty-five and fifty. They were also usually keen on being sent a
photograph. I smoke, but am able to lay off it when necessary, and in any case have had to cut down considerably owing to lack of funds. I have a sense of humour, although for a good deal of my
life this does not seem to have been appreciated by most of the women with whom I have been connected. I cannot honestly say that I’m interested in all the arts – pictures, for
instance, do not make much impression upon me. Whoever it was would have to make do with a mild enjoyment of music and my considerable knowledge of fiction, and although I had accumulated a
collection of photographs of myself, including a few as a child, none of them were more recent than ten years ago. Still, if fifty was the top age limit, one of the more recent pictures should
do.

I chose one of these in which I’m leaning against a large tree, wearing an open-necked shirt and smiling at the photographer. My hair, which has always been satisfactorily thick and curly,
is ruffled by the wind and has all its original colour – a dark brown that is almost black. I look confident, kind and – dare I say it? – sexy. While copies of this picture were
being made (I did not expect to strike lucky first time), I began drafting the letter that I would send with them. As my hair has graduated inexorably from pepper and salt to a decent grey, I would
have to account for this. It was not difficult. I decided that I should have been recently widowed – not from Hazel, who no stretch of my imagination could render a romantic figure, but from
somebody far younger and more lovable than she had ever been. Suddenly the girl at Jane Eyre’s terrible school came to mind – the clever, patient Helen Burns who died, you may remember,
from tuberculosis after months of starvation, abuse and general neglect. Helen should be my dead wife whom I had nurtured until her end.

Once I had decided this, thoughts flowed from it in all directions. Helen Burns had been an orphan and so was my Helen. Her life had been difficult and lonely until she met me, when all had
changed for her. With me, she flowered. My love for her, my care and ceaseless vigilance of her peace and happiness changed her whole being and what remained of her tragically short life. The
bitterness of discovering her illness was terrible. I remember reading that Rex Harrison had concealed the gravity of her disease from Kay Kendall, that she had died without ever knowing that he
had married her because he knew that she was to die. So would I conceal the same knowledge from my Helen. It was a short step from this to my having married her with the awful knowledge of her
failing health.

I have to say that for a couple of weeks I forgot the reason for my writing this account, so fascinated did I become by making it for its own sake. I wept for Helen as, in the story of her
dying, she came more and more alive to me. At the end of two weeks – when I collected the prints of the photograph – there was nothing I did not know about her and I had covered over
seventy pages. When I read them through (of course I knew that they could not be a letter to anyone), I realized not only how much I loved her, but how much I had gained from the experience. It was
clear to me, first, that I had never loved anyone as I loved Helen, and second, that in order to fulfil and ennoble the deepest part of my nature, I
needed
such a love. I set to work on the
letter with renewed enthusiasm.

Apart from the fact that my instinct told me that the letter should be short, I had the problem of how to present myself in the best possible light without appearing in any way smug. The seventy
pages were full of my tenderness, my cherishing and my courage in facing the steadily approaching end. The best way of presenting this must be through the expression of my great love. But it might
not be wise to give the impression of
too
great a love, or the recipients of the letters might feel that they had no hope of taking Helen’s place, and none of us like the notion of
being second best. I could, of course, place Helen’s death much earlier in my life, but this meant that I could not send the photograph and claim that my hair had turned grey from grief,
which had been my intention. No, it would all have to be in the last ten years, but I could have recovered from it – enough to know that I sought a comparable life with a new partner. The
answer, of course, was to make clear my
capacity
for love in general, rather than dwell upon Helen, but in the end I settled for a simple statement of my marriage, her illness and death.

BOOK: Falling
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