What about the spider?
The spider. The spider’s point of view. Have you ever thought of that?
The woman comes into the tent, hesitant, brave; you can see the tension that is screwing her up to this bravery, the coiled fingers, the tremors in her bare arms. She gestures, to the tent, which is only a roof and one wall, the table, the chairs, a gesture that means, is it all right for me to come here … ?
I gesture back, to the chair where she sits, to the tray of fruit, watermelon in triangles, slices of peach, orange rings, blood-red halves of plums. Refreshment for a hot day. She sits, shakes her head to the fruit.
I thought, maybe it was just for the writers, she says.
And visitors, I reply.
Well. She sits still for a moment. Well, I wanted to say, in my case I’m the spider, and I don’t think I’m a bad person. Have you ever thought of writing from the spider’s point of view?
She’s just been to a workshop on a novel of mine, the one called Spider Cup, about a woman whose husband tells her he’s fallen in love with a much younger person and is leaving her, his wife, and the group was talking about this young woman being a spider with hairy legs who’s drawn the husband to her and is clutching him tight with these sticky hairy legs. The women, they were nearly all women at the workshop, laughed with malice, they liked this image of a predatory young husband-stealer. They could see the word as a kind of revenge.
The thing is, I say to my visitor, the book’s about the wife, so it’s from her point of view, and naturally she sees the girl like that. She might not be right, but it’s her book, so that’s the way she shows the situation to us. We don’t get the girl’s point of view, and we don’t get the husband’s either.
I’m racking my brains. I do write about adulteries a lot, I know, but do I ever do it from the point of view of the other, the third, the one who when you come to think of it makes the story? She’s the agent in the narrative of the couple but she has her own tale as well. I can’t think of any times I’ve told it, but then I do have a bad memory for things I’ve written. It’s as though writing them is what counts, and then I let them go, forget them.
It’s a good question, I say, and now you’ve brought it up maybe I’ll do it.
She’s sitting straight in her chair, her knees and ankles together, her arms straight in her lap, her hands clasped. Outside the sun is shining on emerald green lawn and on the gently flowing river, which is emerald-coloured too, and very beautiful if you don’t think about the green being algae. You wouldn’t drown if you fell into it, someone says, it would poison you first. Nevertheless, it flows very prettily, with languid lapping ripples, between its green grass banks, the willows, the dappling gums. Even knowing it is poisonous I think it is beautiful.
The woman is rather good-looking, with dear rosy skin and that silky thick nearly white hair that comes from going grey young. I don’t think I’m a bad person, she says again. She wants to tell me her story. When people want to tell you something they are very strong, their will holds you. She is determined that I will hear her spider narrative. Tellers of their own stories are all ancient mariners, they don’t let you get away.
Nineteen years she’s been with this man, she says. Nineteen years.
It’s a long time. I think, so it’s a story about an albatross, too.
He always said he wouldn’t break up his family, she says. She knew that from the start, he’s never pretended otherwise. When I ask about children, she nods. Yes, there are children. It turns out he has three children with his wife, two with her.
That’s two families, really, I say. So how old are the children? She tells me the wife’s are twenty-one, twenty-four and twenty-eight, hers are seven and four. I say that the wife’s children are grown-up, they should be leading their own lives, it wouldn’t be wrecking a family now. What about his family with her? Doesn’t he owe them something?
It’s his wife, she says. It would be hard for her, he doesn’t want to hurt her.
I mention a friend of mine who has children about the same age as the wife’s. She fell in lust (she called it) with someone else and had passionate times with him and thought that would be all there was to it, fantastic sex, but then she fell in love with him too; her husband’s pride was hurt but now he’s found someone else, who thinks the orchestras on his CDs are awful. But he can cope with that. The sex isn’t good, she says, the sex is lousy.
Nineteen years, I think, and lousy sex.
The thing is, she says, he doesn’t want to betray his wife.
But he is, isn’t he, he’s betraying her and he’s betraying you. I think this. I say: She doesn’t know, then?
Oh no. No.
Do you ever think of telling her? Letting her, maybe, find out?
No. She clutches herself round her elbows. If she found out she’d be round on my doorstep … She shakes her head, gives a shiver.
You mean you think she’d harm you?
Me, her husband, herself. She’d do a lot of damage. He’s about to become mayor, she says.
I think of revenge. A big scandal and beautiful disgrace for the new mayor. Do you know the wife?
Oh yes. I know her. She knows me.
And she doesn’t suspect anything?
I wonder. Not aloud. Do you live here? I ask, looking out at the green view, the white buildings where the festival is being held. It’s quite something for a place this size to manage a literary festival.
No, she says, and names a place further down the coast. About seventy kilometres away. People come from all over the region to this festival.
Later, when I tell this story to Jill, while we’re sitting in the airport lounge waiting for planes home, she says, Well, maybe the wife doesn’t know but I bet she’s the only person in the whole town who doesn’t. Do you know how small that place is? Tiny. Much, much smaller than here.
She doesn’t believe anybody knows.
She could be mistaken. Or, have you thought, she might be making it all up?
I look at Jill.
Knowing how interested in narratives you are. Giving you a present of this story, and tricking you at the same time. Somehow generously cheating you.
I suppose it’s possible. But I don’t believe it. She was so tentative, so tremulous, so keyed up. You can’t fake those things. I’m sure she was honest, I say. You know how people say, painfully honest? That’s what she was. It was so important to her. An immense secret, and she couldn’t bear not to tell someone, and I was from far away, and it would be safe.
Secrets are never safe with writers.
They turn them into fiction, and that’s safe.
Maybe, says Jill, she tells you this tragic story so that you’ll make it public, a grand and glorious catastrophe, and that will save her.
She does need saving. The more I hear of her story, the more that becomes clear.
She says, I’m thinking of getting out, finishing.
I nod. Maybe the expression on my face is the kind that would let you describe it as wisely. I’m doing sums. Nineteen years, and the eldest child seven. Whose decision? I bet not his. Mister greedy cake-eater cake-keeper. She’s pretty and smooth-faced, but I bet she thought she was getting to her last chance of having kids. Biological clocks ticking, and all that. Ask not for whom the clock ticks, etcetera. I wish it ticked for lover boy. Like Captain Hook’s crocodile, biding its time, never forgetting.
Do you see any villains in all this? I ask.
She shrugs. I remember that she came looking for me to tell me that she wasn’t, that the spider wasn’t, necessarily the wicked one.
Do you have a career? I ask. I’m shocking myself a bit with this conversation, at the frankness of the questions I’m asking, of their rudeness. The tension of her body, the delicate tight springing of it, is asking for my honesty. We have bypassed politeness, or rather, pared it away. There are things I don’t pry after, like her name. I imagine she doesn’t want to tell me her name. I’d expect it to be elegant, like Diana, or Caroline. Helen perhaps.
Yes, she says, I’m a vet.
I smile, I’m delighted, excited. That’s great, I say. You’ve got something really interesting to do.
I’m not practising. Not since the children.
I don’t ask where the money comes from. But you could go back to it, I say.
If I were telling this story, not her, I’d feel I had some explaining to do: the small place, the vet who suddenly stops work and has two children. What’s gossip doing with this? Who can it think is the father? Small towns are cesspits where secrets fester.
I say: What does … Does the wife have a job? What does he do in life?
They run a business together.
I wish now I’d asked what the business was. Such reticence in the midst of frankness; looking back I think of course she controlled that. Later I try to imagine. Is he a butcher, and his wife helps in the shop? Wrapping up the meat he cuts with his endlessly sharpened knife. That seems old-fashioned, like being a grocer, but it is a very small town. A pub? A service station? A card and greeting shop? What kind of job does a man do that takes him on to getting himself made mayor? Anything’s possible, I suppose, except that you think wanting to be mayor means you’d be a certain sort of person, which means you’d be doing a certain kind of job. Public-spirited, ambitious, greedy … If I were writing this story as fiction, which I am sure my spider wants me to do … She wants me to write an account of how a good woman, an honest woman, a sensible woman, gets to spend nineteen years of her life as mistress of a man who isn’t even any good at sex and not much better it seems at loving. If I were fleshing out her life as fiction I’d have to invent his business for him and I can’t imagine what it could be. Don’t forget it has to allow him time to see her, which his wife doesn’t suspect. Flower farming? Does she make something and he deliver it? Jam, perhaps, Mrs McGinty’s Home Made Preserves, and he’s on the road selling it, but not as long as she thinks. Maybe it’s a bookshop. But the town would be too small. A newsagency perhaps, and he delivers the papers, and isn’t home sleeping as she thinks while she minds the shop.
Do you ever wish she were dead, I ask, that she dies in her sleep, say? For in my novel the wife spends quite a lot of time slitting the wrists and ankles of the other woman and letting her bleed to death in the forests of the mind, as she puts it, and why shouldn’t my spider woman fantasise too?
I think of her getting run over by a bus, she says. I laugh.
But, she goes on, he wouldn’t come and live with me even so, even if he was free.
He’s a loner.
I don’t laugh, I snort. This two-familied man, a loner?
I think it would a good idea to break with him, I say, the right thing. Then I put my hand over my mouth and make horrified eyes at her. Look, I say, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, people should never give people advice. Even when they know them. Sorry, pretend I didn’t say that. I can’t possibly say anything about the situation. I don’t know you, I don’t know it.
I’d like to say, there are other men, kind men, who’ll love you and not cheat you, but I can’t, I’d like to think so, I’ve known some, but they seem to have got pretty thin on the ground and maybe there aren’t any at all where she is, otherwise why spend time with this one? When she leaves him it will almost certainly have to be for herself, respect for herself and faith that she can manage, with the help of a good profession and her own courage, not transferring the responsibility to someone else.
I bought your book, she says, I thought it might help me.
I don’t think it will, the spider in that just disappears, stops being relevant. But I don’t say that. I say I’ll remember what she says, I’ll write something from the point of view of … the point of view she’s suggested, I can see there’s a lot to be said.
I wonder if I ought to offer to sign the book for her but decide she mustn’t want me to, otherwise she’d ask. I can see she’s talked to me enough, I’ve still got a mass of questions but she wants to go; I shake her hand and wish her well. She walks firmly away through the green afternoon, a slender bare-armed woman in a straight white linen dress showing her nice round bottom that rolls just a little as she walks.
I could give her and her lover and her children and her lover’s wife names and places to live and habits and words in their mouths, but I think I won’t, I’ll leave her in her handful of facts, anonymous. But maybe one day there’ll be a woman in a story who’s not just an agent in a dicey marriage but a narrative herself. In a white dress, with soft white silky hair and a tentative smile. And in the meantime, maybe the lover’s wife will read these bare bones and recognise them—though the town she lives in isn’t seventy kilometres from the literary festival, I changed that—and … well, what?
Maybe that’s what the mistress, the spider woman, wants, not so much the wife finding out but using me to put an end to it. She’s made a story of it and given it away. Maybe now she can write her own ending. I’d be inclined to go for catastrophe and utter denouement, but maybe she will just stop.
It’s much later that it occurs to me that at no time does either of us mention her love for the man. Why didn’t I say, Do you love him? Isn’t that the only question? If it isn’t asked, does that mean we both suspect that the answer is, No … ?