Graham Greene


Mortmain

    How wonderfully secure and peaceful a genuine marriage seemed to Carter, when he attained it at the age of forty-two. He even enjoyed every moment of the church service, except when he saw Josephine wiping away a tear as he conducted Julia down the aisle. It was typical of this new frank relationship that Josephine was there at all. He had no secrets from Julia; they had often talked together of his ten tormented years with Josephine, of her extravagant jealousy, of her well-timed hysterics. 'It was her insecurity,' Julia argued with understanding, and she was quite convinced that in a little while it would be possible to form a friendship with Josephine.

    'I doubt it, darling.'

    'Why? I can't help being fond of anyone who loved you.'

    'It was a rather cruel love.'

    'Perhaps at the end when she knew she was losing you, but, darling, there were happy years.'

    'Yes.' But he wanted to forget that he had ever loved anyone before Julia.

    Her generosity sometimes staggered him. On the seventh day of their honeymoon, when they were drinking retsina in a little restaurant on the beach of Sunium, he accidentally took a letter from Josephine out of his pocket. It had arrived the day before and he had concealed it, for fear of hurting Julia. It was typical of Josephine that she could not leave him alone for the brief period of the honeymoon. Even her handwriting was now abhorrent to him - very neat, very small, in black ink the colour of her hair. Julia was platinum-fair. How had he ever thought that black hair was beautiful? Or been impatient to read letters in black ink?

    'What's the letter, darling? I didn't know there had been a post.'

    'It's from Josephine. It came yesterday.'

    'But you haven't even opened it!' she exclaimed without a word of reproach.

    'I don't want to think about her.' 'But, darling, she may be ill.'

    'Not she.'

    'Or in distress.'

    'She earns more with her fashion-designs than I do with my stories.'

    'Darling, let's be kind. We can afford to be. We are so happy.'

    So he opened the letter. It was affectionate and uncomplaining and he read it with distaste.


        Dear Philip, I didn't want to be a death's head at the reception, so I had no chance to say goodbye and wish you both the greatest possible happiness. I thought Julia looked terribly beautiful and so very, very young. You must look after her carefully. I know how well you can do that, Philip dear. When I saw her, I couldn't help wondering why you took such a long time to make up your mind to leave me. Silly Philip. It's much less painful to act quickly.
        I don't suppose you are interested to hear about my activities now, but just in case you are worrying a little about me - you know what an old worrier you are - I want you to know that I'm working very hard at a whole series for - guess, the French Vogue. They are paying me a fortune in francs, and I simply have no time for unhappy thoughts. I've been back once - I hope you don't mind - to our apartment (slip of the tongue) because I'd lost a key sketch. I found it at the back of our communal drawer - the ideas-bank, do you remember? I thought I'd taken all my stuff away, but there it was between the leaves of the story you started that heavenly summer, and never finished, at Napoule. Now I'm rambling on when all I really wanted to say was: Be happy both of you. Love, Josephine.


    Carter handed the letter to Julia and said, 'It could have been worse.'

    'But would she like me to read it?'

    'Oh, it's meant for both of us.' Again he thought how wonderful it was to have no secrets. There had been so many secrets, for fear of misunderstanding, of Josephine's rage or silence. Now he had no fear of anything at all: he could have trusted even a guilty secret to Julia's sympathy and comprehension. He said, 'I was a fool not to show you the letter yesterday. I'll never do anything like that again.' He tried to recall Spenser's line - '... port after stormie seas'.

    When Julia had finished reading the letter she said, 'I think she's a wonderful woman. How very, very sweet of her to write like that. You know I was - only now and then of course - just a little worried about her. After all I wouldn't like to lose you after ten years.'

    When they were in the taxi going back to Athens she said, 'Were you very happy at Napoule?'

    'Yes, I suppose so. I don't remember, it wasn't like this.'

    With the antennae of a lover he could feel her moving away from him, though their shoulders still touched. The sun was bright on the road from Sunium, the warm sleepy loving siesta lay ahead, and yet ...' Is anything the matter, darling?' he asked.

    'Not really ... It's only ... do you think one day you'll say the same about Athens as about Napoule? "I don't remember, it wasn't like this."'

    'What a dear fool you are,' he said and kissed her. After that they played a little in the taxi going back to Athens, and when the streets began to unroll she sat up and combed her hair. 'You aren't really a cold man, are you?' she asked, and he knew that all was right again. It was Josephine's fault that - momentarily - there had been a small division.

    When they got out of bed to have dinner, she said, 'We must write to Josephine.'

    'Oh no!'

    'Darling, I know how you feel, but really it was a wonderful letter.'

    'A picture-postcard then.'

    So they agreed on that.

    Suddenly it was autumn when they arrived back in London - if not winter already, for there was ice in the rain falling on the tarmac, and they had quite forgotten how early the lights came on at home - passing Gillette and Lucozade and Smith's Crisps, and no view of the Parthenon anywhere. The BOAC posters seemed more than usually sad - 'BOAC takes you there and brings you back.'

    'We'll put on all the electric fires as soon as we get in,' Carter said, 'and it will be warm in no time at all.' But when they opened the door of the apartment they found the fires were already alight. Little glows greeted them in the twilight from the depths of the living-room and the bed-room.

    'Some fairy has done this,' Julia said.

    'Not a fairy of any kind, ' Carter said. He had already seen the envelope on the mantelpiece addressed in black ink to 'Mrs Carter'.


        Dear Julia, you won't mind my calling you Julia, will you? I feel we have so much in common, having loved the same man. Today was so icy that I could not help thinking of how you two were returning from the sun and the warmth to a cold flat. (I know how cold the flat can be. I used to catch a chill every year when we came back from the south of France.) So I've done a very presumptuous thing. I've slipped in and put on the fires, but to show you that I'll never do such a thing again, I've hidden my key under the mat outside the front door. That's just in case your plain is held up in Rome or somewhere. I'll telephone the airport and if by some unlikely chance you haven't arrived, I'll come back and turn out the fires for safety (and economy! The rates are awful). Wishing you a very warm evening in your new home, love from Josephine.
        P.S. I did notice that the coffee jar was empty, so I've left a packet of Blue Mountain in the kitchen. It's the only coffee Philip really cares for,


    'Well,' Julia said laughing, 'she does think of everything.'

    'I wish she'd just leave us alone,' Carter said.

    'We wouldn't be warm like this, and we wouldn't have any coffee for breakfast.'

    'I feel that she's lurking about the place and she'll walk in at any moment. Just when I'm kissing you.' He kissed Julia with one careful eye on the door.

    'You are a bit unfair, darling. After all, she's left her key under the mat.'

    'She might have had a duplicate made.'

    She closed his mouth with another kiss.

    'Have you noticed how erotic an aeroplane makes you after a few hours?' Carter asked.

    'Yes.'

    'I suppose it's the vibration.'

    'Let's do something about it, darling.'

    'I'll just look under the mat first. To make sure she wasn't lying.'

    He enjoyed marriage - so much that he blamed himself for not having married before, forgetting that in that case he would have been married to Josephine. He found Julia, who had no work of her own, almost miraculously available. There was no maid to mar their relationship with habits. As they were always together, at cocktail parties, in restaurants, at small dinner parties, they had only to meet each other's eyes ... Julia soon earned the reputation of being delicate and easily tired, it occurred so often that they left a cocktail party after a quarter of an hour or abandoned a dinner after the coffee - 'Oh dear, I'm so sorry, such a vile headache, so stupid of me. Philip you must stay ...'

    'Of course I'm not going to stay.'

    Once they had a narrow escape from discovery on the stairs while they were laughing uncontrollably. Their host had followed them out to ask them to post a letter. Julia in the nick of time changed her laughter into what seemed to be a fit of hysterics. ... Several weeks went by. It was a really successful marriage. ... They liked - between whiles - to discuss its success, each attributing the main merit to the other. 'When I think you might have married Josephine,' Julia said. 'Why didn't you marry Josephine?'

    'I suppose at the back of our minds we knew it wasn't going to be permanent.'

    'Are we going to be permanent?'

    'If we aren't, nothing will ever be.'

    It was early in November that the time-bombs began to go off. No doubt they had been planned to explode earlier, but Josephine had not taken into account the temporary change in his habits. Some weeks passed before he had occasion to open what they used to call the ideas-bank in the days of their closest companionship - the drawer in which he used to leave notes for stories, scraps of overheard dialogue and the like, and she would leave roughly sketched ideas for fashion advertisements.

    Directly he opened the drawer he saw her letter. It was labelled heavily 'Top Secret' in black ink with a whimsically drawn exclamation mark in the form of a girl with big eyes (Josephine suffered in an elegant way from exophthalmic goitre) rising genie-like out of a bottle. He read the letter with extreme distaste:


        Dear, you didn't expect to find me here, did you? But after ten years I can't not now and then say, Good-night or good-morning, how are you? Bless you. Lots of love (really and truly), Your Josephine.


    The threat of 'now and then' was unmistakable. He slammed he drawer shut and said 'Damn' so loudly that Julia looked in. 'Whatever is it, darling?'

    'Josephine again.'

    She read the letter and said, 'You know, I can understand the way she feels. Poor Josephine. Are you tearing it up, darling?'

    What else do you expect me to do with it? Keep it for a collected edition of her letters?'

    'It just seems so unkind.'

    'Me unkind to her? Julia, you've no idea of the sort of life that we led those last years. I can show you scars: when she was in a rage she would stub her cigarettes anywhere.'

    'She felt she was losing you, darling, and she got desperate. They are my fault really, those scars, every one of them.' He could see growing in her eyes that soft amused speculative look which always led to the same thing.

    Only two days passed before the next time-bomb went off. When they got up Julia said, ' We really ought to change the mattress. We both fall into a kind of hole in the middle.'

    'I hadn't noticed.'

    'Lots of people change the mattress every week.'

    'Yes Josephine always did.'

    They stripped the bed and began to roll the mattress. Lying on the springs was a letter addressed to Julia. Carter saw it first and tried to push it out of sight, but Julia saw him.

    'What's that?'

    'Josephine, of course. There'll soon be too many letters for one volume. We shall have to get them properly edited at Yale like George Eliot's.'

    'Darling, this is addressed to me. What were you planning to do with it?'

    'Destroy it in secret.'

    'I thought we were going to have no secrets.'

    'I had counted without Josephine.'

    For the first time she hesitated before opening the letter. 'It's certainly a bit bizarre to put a letter here. Do you think it got there accidentally?'

    'Rather difficult, I should think.'

    She read the letter and then gave it to him. She said with relief, 'Oh, she explains why. It's quite natural really.' He read:


        Dear Julia, how I hope you are basking in a really Greek sun. Don't tell Philip (Oh, but of course you wouldn't have secrets yet) but I never really cared for the south of France. Always that mistral, drying the skin. I'm glad to think you are not suffering there. We always planned to go to Greece when we could afford it, so I know Philip will be happy. I came in today to find a sketch and then remembered that the mattress hadn't been turned for at least a fortnight. We were rather distracted, you know, the last weeks we were together. Anyway I couldn't bear the thought of your coming back from the lotus islands and finding bumps in your bed the first night, so I've turned it for you. I'd advise you to turn it every week: otherwise a hole always develops in the middle. By the way I've put up the winter curtains and sent the summer ones to the cleaners at 153 Brompton Road. Love, Josephine.


    'If you remember, she wrote to me that Napoule had been heavenly,' he said. 'The Yale editor will have to put in a cross-reference.'

    'You are a bit cold-blooded,' Julia said. 'Darling, she's only trying to be helpful. After all I never knew about the curtains of the mattress.'

    'I suppose you are going to write a long cosy letter in reply, full of household chat.'

    'She's been waiting weeks for an answer. This is an ancient letter.'

    'And I wonder how many more ancient letters there are waiting to pop out. By God, I'm going to search the flat through and through. From the attic to the basement.'

    'We don't have either.'

    'You know very well what I mean.'

    'I only know you are getting fussed in an exaggerated way. You really behave as though you are frightened of Josephine.'

    'Oh hell!'

    Julia left the room abruptly and he tried to work. Later that day a squib went off - nothing serious, but it didn't help his mood. He wanted to find the dialling number for oversea telegrams and he discovered inserted in volume one of the directory a complete list in alphabetical order, typed on Josephine's machine on which O was always blurred, a complete list of the numbers he most often required. John Hughes, his oldest friend, came after Harrods; and there were the nearest taxi-rank, the chemist's, the butcher's, the bank, the dry-cleaner's the greengrocer's, the fishmonger's, his publisher and agent, Elizabeth Arden's and the local hairdressers - marked in brackets ('For J. please note, quite reliable and very inexpensive') - it was the first time he noticed they had the same initials.

    Julia, who saw him discover the list, said, 'The Angel-woman. We'll pin it up over the telephone. It's really terribly complete.'

    'After the crack in her last letter I'd have expected her to include Cartier's.'

    'Darling, it wasn't a crack. It was a bare statement of fact. If I hadn't had a little money, we would have gone to the south of France too.'

    'I suppose you think I married you to get to Greece.'

    'Don't be an owl. You don't see Josephine clearly, that's all. You twist every kindness she does.'

    'Kindness?'

    'I expect it's the sense of guilt.'

    After that he really began a search. He looked in cigarette-boxes, drawers, filing-cabinets, he went through all the pockets of the suits he had left behind, he opened the back of the television-cabinet, he lifted the lid of the lavatory-cistern, and even changed the roll of toilet-paper (it was quicker than unwinding the whole thing). Julia came to look at him, as he worked in the lavatory, without the usual sympathy. He tried the pelmets (who knew what they mightn't discover when next the curtains were sent for cleaning?, he took their dirty clothes out of the basket in case something had been overlooked at the bottom. He went on hands-and-knees through the kitchen to look under the gas-stove, and once, when he found a piece of paper wrapped around a pipe, he exclaimed in a kind of triumph, but it was nothing at all - a plumber's relic. The afternoon post rattled through the letter-box and Julia called to him from the hall - 'Oh, good, you never told me you took in the French Vogue.'

    'I don't.'

    'Sorry, there's been a kind of Christmas card in another envelope. A subscription's been taken out for us by Miss Josephine Heckstall-Jones. I do call that sweet of her.'

    'She's sold a series of drawings to them. I won't look at it.'

    'Darling, you are being childish. Do you expect her to stop reading your books?'

    'I only want to be left alone with you. Just for a few weeks. It's not so much to ask.'

    'You are a bit of an egoist, darling.'

    He felt quiet and tired that evening, but a little relieved in mind. His search had been very thorough. In the middle of dinner he had remembered the wedding-presents, still crated for lack of room, and insisted on making sure between the courses that they were still nailed down - he knew Josephine would never have used a screwdriver for fear of injuring her fingers, and she was terrified of hammers. The peace of the solitary evening at last descended on them: the delicious calm which they knew either of them could alter at any moment with a touch of the hand. Lovers cannot postpone as married people can. 'I am grown peaceful as old age tonight,' he quoted to her.

    'Who wrote that?'

    'Browning.'

    'I don't know Browning. Read me some.'

    He loved to read Browning aloud - he had a good voice for poetry, it was his small harmless Narcissism. 'Would you really like it?'

    'Yes.'

    'I used to read to Josephine,' he warned her.

    'What do I care? We can't help doing some of the same things, can we, darling?'

    'There is something I never read to Josephine. Even though I was in love with her, it wasn't suitable. We weren't - permanent.' He began:

            How well I know what I mean to do
            When the long dark autumn-evenings come ...

    He was deeply moved by his own reading. He had never loved Julia so much as at this moment. Here was home - nothing else had been other than a caravan.

            ... I will speak now,
                  No longer watch you as you sit
            Reading by firelight, that great brow
                  And the spirit-small hand propping it,
            Mutely, my heart knows how.

    He rather wished that Julia had really been reading, but then of course she wouldn't have been listening to him with such adorable attention.

            ... If two lives join, there is oft a scar.
                  They are one and one, with a shadowy third;
            One near one is too far.

    He turned the page and there lay a sheet of paper (he would have discovered it at once, before reading, if she had put it in an envelope) with the black neat handwriting.


        Dearest Philip, only to say goodnight to you between the pages of your favourite book - and mine. We are so lucky to have ended in the way we have. With memories in common we shall for ever be a little in touch. Love, Josephine.


    He flung the book and the paper on the floor. He said, 'The bitch. The bloody bitch.'

    'I won't have you talk of her like that,' Julia said with surprising strength. She picked up the paper and read it.

    'What's wrong with that?' she demanded. 'Do you have memories? What's going to happen to our memories?'

    'But you don't see the trick she's playing? Don't you understand? Are you an idiot, Julia?'

    That night they lay in bed on opposite sides, not even touching with their feet. It was the first night since they had come home that they had not made love. Neither slept much. In the morning Carter found a letter in the most obviously place of all, which he had somehow neglected: between the leaves of the unused single-lined foolscap on which he always wrote his stories. It began, 'Darling, I'm sure you won't mind my using the old term ...'

    1967