In Swanston Grammar School in the early 1970s, R had only one sex education lesson, which consisted of photos of the final stages of gonorrhoea and syphilis. At the back sat a huge rugby player, who displayed no emotion at the images until one of a nurse with a syringe, at which he fainted.
R recalls the tyranny of Normality. He was constantly being told he was not Normal, and he should try to be. It is hard to get over that.
We went on to The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Tremain, about an Anglican mission to Turkey.
-When is it set?
-The 1950s, when it was published.
She wasn’t writing then? I know it is 2015, but for the first time I got out my new phone, googled on it, and found he meant Rose Macaulay. Anyway. In that book, the protagonist has an adulterous affair with a man, who dies. She could then repent and return to the church, but feels that would betray him: she remains faithful by not making a form of repentance. That seems honourable to me.
In Danny and the Human Zoo, based on the early career of Lenny Henry, Danny’s father is not his mother’s husband, but a man who has a series of affairs. Why would he do that? Because he can. Why would his wife- in the 1960s and 70s- put up with it? Because she cannot see a better alternative.
-There is no consequence for him.
-In this life, at least, says R. I don’t respond to that. I don’t believe in life after death, and do not want to discuss it with him.
I don’t see this as evil. It is more a lack than a positive quality: he forgoes mature interdependence with an equal partner, because he cannot imagine it. He betrays his wife because he cannot see value in faithfulness.
My grandmother had The Screams, like a Dostoevsky peasant-woman, before she died. My uncle beat her. If that is evil, it is a lack: it emerges from his inadequacy. He could not respond to love; he saw nothing better. Then he took over her council flat.
And if he did it from a desire to hurt? Oh, I don’t know. Still, lack, still an inability to empathise, or to control impulse. We both find this hard to contemplate, though we both are aware of the concept of sadism. R shares that fire brigades employ child psychologists to attempt to cure infant arsonists of their impulses. How would you do that? In the moment, when you contemplate a fire and the warmth, excitement and beauty of it, to think of the consequences and Resist-
These dominant men hurting submissive women. Could anyone desire such vulnerability? Yes, like that still-violent man who had been done for attempted murder, and the grey woman who hung around him- not because she could find no better, perhaps, but because she wanted him-
You have some stories, says R, when I tell him of that ageing prostitute. I was trying to craft a plea in mitigation for her after some depressing incident, and she was coming on to me. In my early twenties, I did not realise until after. It was the only thing she knew to try, the only power she had.
I understand that want, how fear and desire mix, wanting to be controlled…