© BM 2008
Chapter Eighteen – Episode 28
It was now over two years since they had parted, and he decided that he needed to try and find some female company. Some men seemed to be quite content to be on their own. Alex was not one of them. He was now sixty, and he didn’t know what to do. How do you meet a woman who is also lonely, someone who also wants company? In any case, what did he have to offer? He had a house, a job, a car, some money, most of his own teeth and some of his own hair. He was interested in things that he believed the average woman would not care about. Things like cricket, Jaguars, reading, history and his job. He thought that Jag driving, cricket loving, history reading, female journalists were probably thin on the ground. He discussed it with Neil.
“Apart from Francesca, I have never liked any of the birds I met in the profession. They all seemed to be foul mouthed, whiskey swilling dykes or nymphos.”
Neil grunted. “Sounds just like your type of woman, especially the nymphos.”
“Well, that’s what I found.”
“You’re not a tad prejudiced, at all?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Alex, don’t rip my face off, but let me say this. Francesca was a hell of a nice girl. You loved her, still do, for that matter. Julie liked her, and so did I. But she was not a cross between Princess Diana and Mother Theresa, you know, and she did the dirty on you. No, don’t stop me, this needs saying. It was not all your fault, not all of it anyway. She contributed as well. But you will never make it with anyone else when she is filling your mind like she was a saint.” He stopped.
Alex said nothing.
Neil spoke again. “OK, go ahead and thump me now.”
Alex rubbed his beard and pulled his ear lobe before replying. “I can’t do that, mate. You’re right. I know it, but it makes no difference. I love her and I always will. I’d like to meet someone else, but I don’t know how to go about it anymore. I don’t know what to do or what to say.”
“Advertising? What do you mean, advertising?”
“You know the sort of thing. Lonely heart agencies, newspapers, dating bureaux. That sort of thing.”
“I can’t do that.”
But he did, tried all three. Over the next twelve or fifteen months, he saw and went out with perhaps thirty five women, ranging in age from younger than Kate to older than himself. Mostly it was only once. On two occasions, it was twice, and in one unhappy instance four times. There was no success to be found, and, mostly, he blamed himself. He did not believe that there would be any happy result, and this probably communicated itself to his various companions. One attractive Frenchwoman got into his beloved Jaguar, and immediately lit a cigarette.
“Without so much as a ‘may I’, ‘kiss my arse’, or anything,” he complained to Neil.
‘You should have explained to her that you loved the bloody car more than you loved her,” he grunted in reply.
“I love you more than I love her.”
Neil grinned. “Thank you, sweetie.”
Just once did things come to the stage of physical contact. It was with a Brazilian woman in her early forties, called Liz. She made most of the running, and he did not resist, as it had been a long time since he had been with a woman. They were both naked, and caressing each other, when he realized that he could not carry it through, either emotionally, or physically.
“I’m sorry, Liz, but I can’t.”
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
“I don’t want to. I’m sorry, I should never have started, but I really can’t go through with it.”
She stared at him for some seconds, and saw he was serious. “You bastard, you fucking pervert, are you fucking queer or something?” She began pounding at him with her fists, and he tried to shield himself with his hands. She was right, and he deserved what she was doing and saying. He grabbed his clothes, and rushed from her bedroom, dressing hurriedly and leaving Liz crying behind him.
It was his last try, he knew that he could never face that experience again. Alex tried to analyze all of this. The only explanation he arrived at was that he still loved Francesca, and it confirmed what he already knew. His quest for romance ceased. If the rest of his life had to be womanless, so be it. She had been the best part of his life, and they had shared five years. On reflection, that was more time than he and Anne had shared, and that was a prize to remember. He still loved Daina, although she no longer loved him. He couldn’t change that, so he must live with it. After three years he fully understood what he had long suspected; Francesca had been, and was still, the love of his life. There would never be any other woman. It gave him no satisfaction to know that he had been right all along, and the people with the ‘more fish in the sea’ theories had all been wrong. As he played his Sinatra music, he reflected that Frankie had never got over his love for Ava Gardner, and had loved the lady until her death, and beyond that, despite Mia, Lauren Bacall, Juliet Prowse, Barbara Marx, any of the others.
Perhaps because of his introversion, he was having difficulties at work. People like Neil had known Alex for a very long time and were prepared to accept his moods. Harry Sawyer was of the same mind, but Harry was due to retire. The agency had been bought out by an American news agency, and they appointed a black American to manage the London office. Louis Simons was, in Alex’s eyes, a brash, loud and very ugly American. Their chemistry was incompatible from the start. Louis believed that, as a black man, he knew about, and understood Africa and Africans. He had been to one African country, Nigeria, to ‘seek his roots’, and this was the basis for his beliefs. Alex had been working into the continent for almost fifteen years, and had been to over thirty-five countries. He was regarded by most in the world’s press corps as probably the most experienced ‘Africa hand’ around.
Clashes were inevitable, and they occurred with increasing frequency. Alex found himself being given fewer and fewer ‘juicy’ assignments, and more and more tedious and routine ones. He tried talking it over with Neil.
“Talk to the man. Tell him your problems.”
“I can’t talk to the bastard, Neil, we always end up arguing.”
“Well, just calm down, count to ten, then count to ten again.”
“It doesn’t work. He just gets up my nose.”
“Alex, me old mate, like it or not, he’s the boss.”
“He’s an incompetent, arrogant buffoon.”
“Alex, don’t hang back. Say what you really think.”
The final explosion came when Louis called Alex into the office to discuss an article he had written about the oil industry in Kazakhstan.
“This is no good, Alex.”
“What would you know, Louis, you’ve never been to the bloody place. I’ve been there eight or ten times. I know people in the industry, in the Kazak government. I have contacts at the FCO. There is nothing wrong with the bloody article. It is topical, and the facts all check out.”
“There is no strategic dimension to it, Alex.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Things went downhill from that point. It ended with Louis accusing Alex of being ‘racist’.
Alex exploded. “What? Me? Racist? That’s a load of bollocks. Why am I racist?”
“You are always criticizing me.”
“Louis, if you behave like a fucking dickhead, I will call you a fucking dickhead, and I don’t care if you are black, white, pink or fucking striped.”
There seemed to be only one way to go after that, and Alex went, out of the door, with a parting shot of “Shove your fucking job up your arse.”
In the pub Neil did not have much sympathy. “You asked for it, mate. I told you to count up to ten.”
“Neil, it doesn’t matter. I have had enough. I’m not bad at what I do and I can pick up the odd job here and there on my own. I have enough money for a while, so I will sit back and think.”
“You’re too active just to sit and think. You need to do something.”
“I have been thinking about it for a while. I knew I could not stay with that fat bastard. I’m going to write a book. I don’t really know about what, but I will write.”
Neil was doubtful. “Hazardous bloody occupation that, mate. Many are called but few are chosen. Not many journalists make good writers.”
“What about Winston Churchill?”
“OK, he could write, but you aren’t Winston bloody Churchill, and in any case, it is not easy to get published.”
“I didn’t say anything about getting published. I just want to write. Get things off my chest.”
And so he began writing.
The idea had been growing inside Alex’s head for some months. He could not make any sense of what had happened between him and Francesca, and he decided that if he could write it down, it might, just might, begin to make sense. These thoughts had been swirling around in his brain for weeks, and he had allowed them to ferment, hoping that something worthwhile could be distilled. Something had been distilled, but he had no idea if it was any good. It did not matter, as he needed to do this for himself, publishing was not an option at that early stage.
And so he continued writing, tying in his experiences around the world, mostly in Africa, with what was essentially a love story. As he got deeper into the book, he quickly realized that it was a catalogue of personal failure, set against what others might consider professional success. He had never thought very much about the working side of his life. He had been a soldier, and then a journalist, and much respected, even held in awe by some, but he came to believe as he wrote that his failures overwhelmed and denigrated his successes. He had failed at the most important things.
The title came easily to him, once he had accepted that what he was doing was a love poem, in 120.000 words, to Francesca. He had considered ‘Daina’, as a title, but rejected that as too obscure in favour of ‘A mud hut in Mali’. He had said that to her once, in Kenya, that a mud hut in Mali would be all right with him, if she was there also.
His days followed a familiar routine. He woke up, after his usual unsatisfactory sleep, and reviewed what he had written the night before. He had breakfast, and read the Daily Telegraph before going out for a walk or a bike ride. He then pottered around the house for a while, and sat down in mid afternoon to write at the computer until two or three in the morning. His leaving his job was well known, and he was much in demand as a freelancer. He took some jobs, and then resented them. He wanted to get back to his book. Alex had found in his book a world, a safer, happier, more acceptable world where he and Daina were still lovers, and where anything was possible. He could slip into his world, and seek shelter from the storm that still raged around him outside.
It was the early part of 2000 when he finished, and Neil read his book.
“This is about you, isn’t it? You and Francesca?”
“Well, it’s a novel, but it has an autobiographical thread, yes.”
Despite Neil’s urging, Alex decided against pursuing the idea of publication. In truth, he feared another rejection. This was his, and Francesca’s baby, a joint production of which she had no knowledge. He knew he could not bear another kick in the teeth. In any event, his purpose had been to write the bloody thing, not to get it published. The book lay as a paper manuscript in a drawer for years, and simmered away on Microsoft Word, visited occasionally.
He became accustomed to, if not content with, living on his own and was offered a number of jobs in Africa, including a marvelous six month stay in Cape Town. The book slipped into the background. It was not revisited for about four years when his working life was coming to an end. It was like meeting an old friend after a long absence and he enjoyed re reading it and was quietly delighted at what seemed to be half reasonable writing.
Neil again urged him to try for publication, and did most of the leg work for Alex. No one was more surprised that Alex when his book was accepted for publication, and he was embarrassed to the point of wishing he had used a ‘nom de plume’ instead of his own name when it became a best seller. He no longer needed to accept any more journalistic assignments, and he didn’t. He was awkward when the publisher suggested that he do another book, and offered to pay an advance. Alex knew that he was a fraud. He only had the one book in him, and it stemmed from her. He had nothing left to say.
He traded the XJS in for an XKR convertible, and again was reminded of Peggy Lee. “Is that all there is?” And that was all there was to his life. Writing the book had not exorcised her from his soul, his skin, his sinews, his blood. And he knew that nothing ever would, no amount of literary success, friends, or Jaguars, could replace Francesca. He could not change that, so he would have to live with it.
He had lunch one day with Julie.
“Did writing the book help?”
“Help you, Alex, help you?”
“At the time, yes. But now it’s finished, well, no, not any more.”
He knew that the secret world he had created, a world he could influence, and in which he had sought refuge, had disappeared with the publication of the book.
“Have you forgotten about her yet?”
“You can use her name. Have I forgotten Francesca? No, I only think about her twice a week now. Once from Monday to Wednesday, and the second time from Thursday to Sunday.”
“But, it’s better, isn’t it?”
“Julie, please do not talk to me in cliches. I told everyone nine years ago that she was the only one. You all knew me better than I did, and told me that I was wrong. But I was right, and you were all wrong. It gives me no pleasure to say this. She still is the only one.”
Julie was silent for a moment. “But you don’t think about killing yourself any more, do you?”
He looked at her, her face anxious, and then he looked away without replying.
“Alex, you don’t, do you?”
He looked at her, and squeezed her hand. “I’ll get the bill, shall I?”
One evening about nine, as he was watching television, and drinking coffee, the phone rang. Coffee mug in hand, he went into the kitchen to answer it.