Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan – extract
It’s 1972 and culture is the new front line of the cold war. Serena Frome, just down from Cambridge and recently recruited by MI5, is sent for her first assignment to meet a promising young writer
It was a pleasant break in routine to travel down to Brighton one unseasonably warm morning in mid-October, to cross the cavernous railway station and smell the salty air and hear the falling cries of herring gulls. I remembered the word from a summer Shakespeare production of Othello on the lawn at King’s. A gull. Was I looking for a gull? Certainly not. I took the dilapidated three-carriage Lewes train and got out at the Falmer stop to walk the quarter mile to the redbrick building site called the University of Sussex, or, as it was known in the press for a while, Balliol-by-the-Sea. I was wearing a red mini-skirt and black jacket with high collar, black high heels and a white patent leather shoulder bag on a short strap. Ignoring the pain in my feet, I swanked along the paved approach to the main entrance through the student crowds, disdainful of the boys – I regarded them as boys – shaggily dressed out of army surplus stores, and even more so of the girls with their long plain centre-parted hair, no make-up and cheesecloth skirts. Some students were barefoot, in sympathy, I assumed, with peasants of the undeveloped world. The very word “campus” seemed to me a frivolous import from the USA. As I self-consciously strode towards Sir Basil Spence’s creation in a fold of the Sussex Downs, I felt dismissive of the idea of a new university. For the first time in my life I was proud of my Cambridge and Newnham connection. How could a serious university be new? And how could anyone resist me in my confection of red, white and black, intolerantly scissoring my way towards the porters’ desk, where I intended to ask directions?
I entered what was probably an architectural reference to a quad. It was flanked by shallow water features, rectangular ponds lined with smooth river-bed stones. But the water had been drained off to make way for beer cans and sandwich wrappers. From the brick, stone and glass structure ahead of me came the throb and wail of rock music. I recognised the rasping, heaving flute of Jethro Tull. Through the plate-glass windows on the first floor I could see figures, players and spectators, hunched over banks of table football. The students’ union, surely. The same everywhere, these places, reserved for the exclusive use of lunk-headed boys, mathematicians and chemists mostly. The girls and the aesthetes went elsewhere. As a portal to a university it made a poor impression. I quickened my pace, resenting the way my stride fell in with the pounding drums. It was like approaching a holiday camp.
The paved way passed under the students’ union and here I turned through glass doors to a reception area. At least the porters in their uniforms behind a long counter were familiar to me – that special breed of men with their air of weary tolerance, and gruff certainty of being wiser than any student had ever been. With the music fading behind me, I followed their directions, crossed a wide open space, went under giant concrete rugby posts to enter Arts Block A and came out the other side to approach Arts Block B. Couldn’t they name their buildings after artists or philosophers? Inside, I turned down a corridor, noting the items posted on the teachers’ doors. A tacked-up card that said, “The world is everything that is the case”, a Black Panthers poster, something in German by Hegel, something in French by Merleau-Ponty. Show-offs. Right at the end of a second corridor was Haley’s room. I hesitated outside it before knocking.
I was at the corridor’s dead-end, standing by a tall, narrow window that gave onto a square of lawn. The light was such that I had a watery reflection of myself, so I took out a comb and quickly tidied my hair and straightened my collar. If I was slightly nervous it was because in the past weeks I had become intimate with my own private version of Haley, I had read his thoughts on sex and deceit, pride and failure. We were on terms already and I knew they were about to be reformed or destroyed. Whatever he was in reality would be a surprise and probably a disappointment. As soon as we shook hands our intimacy would go into reverse. I had re-read all the journalism on the way down to Brighton. Unlike the fiction it was sensible, sceptical, rather schoolmasterish in tone, as if he’d supposed he was writing for ideological fools. The article on the East German uprising of 1953 began “Let no one think the Workers’ State loves its workers. It hates them”, and was scornful of the Brecht poem about the government dissolving the people and electing another. Brecht’s first impulse, in Haley’s account, was to “toady” to the German State by giving public support to the brutal Soviet suppression of the strikes. Russian soldiers had fired directly into the crowds. Without knowing much about him, I’d always assumed that Brecht had sided with the angels. I didn’t know if Haley was right, or how to reconcile his plain-speaking journalism with the crafty intimacy of the fiction, and I assumed that when we met I would know even less.
A feistier piece excoriated West German novelists as weak-minded cowards for ignoring in their fiction the Berlin Wall. Of course they loathed its existence, but they feared that saying so would seem to align them with American foreign policy. And yet it was a brilliant and necessary subject, uniting the geo-political with personal tragedy. Surely, every British writer would have something to say about a London Wall. Would Norman Mailer ignore a wall that divided Washington? Would Philip Roth prefer not to notice if the houses of Newark were cut in two? Would John Updike’s characters not seize the opportunity of a marital affair across a divided New England? This pampered, over-subsidised literary culture, protected from Soviet repression by the pax Americana, preferred to hate the hand that kept it free. West German writers pretended the Wall didn’t exist and thereby lost all moral authority. The title of the essay, published in Index on Censorship, was “La Trahison des Clercs”.
With a pearly pink painted nail I tapped lightly on the door and, at the sound of an indistinct murmur or groan, pushed it open. I was right to have prepared myself for disappointment. It was a slight figure who rose from his desk, slightly stooped, though he made the effort to straighten his back as he stood. He was girlishly slender, with narrow wrists and his hand when I shook it seemed smaller and softer than mine. Skin very pale, eyes dark green, hair dark brown and long, and cut in a style that was almost a bob. In those first few seconds I wondered if I’d missed a trans-sexual element in the stories. He wore a collarless shirt made of flecked white flannel, tight jeans with a broad belt and scuffed leather boots. I was confused by him. The voice from such a delicate frame was deep, without regional accent, classless.
“Let me clear these things away so you can sit.”
He shifted some books from an armless soft chair. I thought, with a touch of annoyance, that he was letting me know that he had made no special preparations for my arrival.
“Was your journey down all right? Would you like some coffee?”
The journey was pleasant, I told him, and I didn’t need coffee.
He sat down at his desk and swivelled his chair to face me, crossed an ankle over a knee and with a little smile opened out his palms in an interrogative manner. “So, Miss Frome …”
“It rhymes with plume. But please call me Serena.”
He cocked his head to one side as he repeated my name. Then his eyes settled softly on mine and he waited. I noted the long eyelashes. I’d rehearsed this moment and it was easy enough to lay it all out for him. Truthfully. The work of Freedom International, its wide remit, its extensive global reach, its open-mindedness and lack of ideology. He listened to me, head still cocked, and with a look of amused scepticism, his lips quivering slightly as though at any moment he was ready to join in or take over and make my words his own, or improve upon them. He wore the expression of a man listening to an extended joke, anticipating an explosive punchline with held-in delight that puffs and puckers his lips. As I named the writers and artists the Foundation had helped, I fantasised that he had already seen right through me and had no intention of letting me know. He was forcing me to make my pitch so he could observe a liar at close hand. Useful for a later fiction. Horrified, I pushed the idea away and forgot about it. I needed to concentrate. I moved on to talk about the source of the Foundation’s wealth. Max thought Haley should be told just how rich Freedom International was. The money came from an endowment by the artistic widow of a Bulgarian immigrant to the USA who had made his money buying and exploiting patents in the twenties and thirties. In the years following his death, his wife bought up Impressionist paintings after the war from a ruined Europe at pre-war prices. In the last year of her life she had fallen for a culturally inclined politician who was setting up the Foundation. She left her and her husband’s fortune to his project.
Everything I had said so far had been the case, easily verified. Now I took my first tentative step into mendacity. “I’ll be quite frank with you,” I said. “I sometimes feel Freedom International doesn’t have enough projects to throw its money at.”
“How flattering then,” Haley said. Perhaps he saw me blush because he added, “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“You misunderstand me, Mr Haley …”
“Tom. Sorry. I put that badly. What I meant was this. There are plenty of artists being imprisoned or oppressed by unsavoury governments. We do everything we can to help these people and get their work known. But, of course, being censored doesn’t necessarily mean a writer or sculptor is any good. For example, we’ve found ourselves supporting a terrible playwright in Poland simply because his work is banned. And we’ll go on supporting him. And we’ve bought up any amount of rubbish by an imprisoned Hungarian abstract impressionist. So the steering committee has decided to add another dimension to the portfolio. We want to encourage excellence wherever we can find it, oppressed or not. We’re especially interested in young people at the beginning of their careers …”
“And how old are you, Serena?” Tom Haley leaned forward solicitously, as if asking about a serious illness.
I told him. He was letting me know he was not to be patronised. And it was true, in my nervousness I had taken on a distant, official tone. I needed to relax, be less pompous, I needed to call him Tom. I realised I wasn’t much good at any of this. He asked me if I’d been at university. I told him, and said the name of my college.
“What was your subject?”
I hesitated, I tripped over my words. I hadn’t expected to be asked, and suddenly mathematics sounded suspect and without knowing what I was doing I said, “English.”
He smiled pleasantly, appearing pleased at finding common ground. “I suppose you got a brilliant first?”
“A two one actually.” I didn’t know what I was saying. A third sounded shameful, a first would have set me on dangerous ground. I had told two unnecessary lies. Bad form. For all I knew, a phone call to Newnham would establish there had been no Serena Frome doing English. I hadn’t expected to be interrogated. Such basic preparatory work, and I’d failed to do it. Why hadn’t Max thought of helping me towards a decent watertight personal story? I felt flustered and sweaty, I imagined myself jumping up without a word, snatching up my bag, fleeing from the room.
Tom was looking at me in that way he had, both kindly and ironic. “My guess is that you were expecting a first. But listen, there’s nothing wrong with a two one.”
“I was disappointed,” I said, recovering a little. “There was this, um, general, um …”
“Weight of expectation?”
Our eyes met for a little more than two or three seconds, and then I looked away. Having read him, knowing too well one corner of his mind, I found it hard to look him in the eye for long. I let my gaze drop below his chin and noticed a fine silver chain around his neck.
“So you were saying, writers at the beginning of their careers.” He was self-consciously playing the part of the friendly don, coaxing a nervous applicant through her entrance interview. I knew I had to get back on top.
I said, “Look, Mr Haley …”
“I don’t want to waste your time. We take advice from very good, very expert people. They’ve given a lot of thought to this. They like your journalism, and they love your stories. Really love them. The hope is …”
“And you. Have you read them?”
“And what did you think?”
“I’m really just the messenger. It’s not relevant what I think.”
“It’s relevant to me. What did you make of them?”
The room appeared to darken. I looked past him, out of the window. There was a grass strip, and the corner of another building. I could see into a room like the one we were in, where a tutorial was in progress. A girl not much younger than me was reading aloud her essay. At her side was a boy in a bomber jacket, bearded chin resting in his hand, nodding sagely. The tutor had her back to me. I turned my gaze back into our room, wondering if I was not overdoing this significant pause. Our eyes met again and I forced myself to hold on. Such a strange dark green, such long child-like lashes, and thick black eyebrows. But there was hesitancy in his gaze, he was about to look away, and this time the power had passed to me.
I said very quietly, “I think they’re utterly brilliant.”
He flinched as though someone had poked him in the chest, in the heart, and he gave a little gasp, not quite a laugh. He went to speak but was stuck for words. He stared at me, waiting, wanting me to go on, tell him more about himself and his talent, but I held back. I thought my words would have more power for being undiluted. And I wasn’t sure I could trust myself to say anything profound. Between us a certain formality had been peeled away to expose an embarrassing secret. I’d revealed his hunger for affirmation, praise, anything I might give. I guessed that nothing mattered more to him. His stories in the various reviews had probably gone unremarked, beyond a routine thanks and pat on the head from an editor. It was likely that no one, no stranger at least, had ever told him that his fiction was brilliant. Now he was hearing it and realising that he had always suspected it was so. I had delivered stupendous news. How could he have known if he was any good until someone confirmed it? And now he knew it was true and he was grateful.
As soon as he spoke, the moment was broken and the room resumed its normal tone. “Did you have a favourite?”
It was such a stupid, sheepish excuse of a question that I warmed to him for his vulnerability. “They’re all remarkable,” I said. “But the one about the twin brothers, “This Is Love”, is the most ambitious. I thought it had the scale of a novel. A novel about belief and emotion. And what a wonderful character Jean is, so insecure and destructive and alluring. It’s a magnificent piece of work. Did you ever think of expanding it into a novel, you know, filling it out a bit?”
He looked at me curiously. “No, I didn’t think of filling it out a bit.” The deadpan reiteration of my words alarmed me.
“I’m sorry, it was a stupid …”
“It’s the length I wanted. About fifteen thousand words. But I’m glad you liked it.”
Sardonic and teasing, he smiled and I was forgiven, but my advantage had dimmed. I had never heard fiction quantified in this technical way. My ignorance felt like a weight on my tongue.
I said, “And ‘Lovers’, the man with the shop-window mannequin, was so strange and completely convincing, it swept everyone away.” It was now liberating to be telling outright lies. “We have two professors and two well-known reviewers on our board. They see a lot of new writing. But you should have heard the excitement at the last meeting. Honestly, Tom, they couldn’t stop talking about your stories. For the first time ever the vote was unanimous.”
The little smile had faded. His eyes had a glazed look, as though I was hypnotising him. This was going deep.
“Well,” he said, shaking his head to bring himself out of the trance. “This is all very pleasing. What else can I say?” Then he added, “Who are the two critics?”
“We have to respect their anonymity, I’m afraid.”
He turned away from me for a moment and seemed lost in some private thought. Then he said, “So, what is it you’re offering, and what do you want from me?”
“Can I answer that by asking you a question? What will you do when you’ve finished your doctorate?”
“I’m applying for various teaching jobs, including one here.”
“We’d like to make it possible for you to stay out of a job. In return you’d concentrate on your writing, including journalism if you want.”
He asked me how much money was on offer and I told him. He asked for how long and I said, “Let’s say two or three years.”
“And if I produce nothing?”
“We’d be disappointed and we’d move on. We won’t be asking for our money back.”
He took this in and then said, “And you’d want the rights in what I do?”
“No. And we don’t ask you to show us your work. You don’t even have to acknowledge us. The Foundation thinks you’re a unique and extraordinary talent. If your fiction and journalism get written, published and read, then we’ll be happy. When your career is launched and you can support yourself we’ll fade out of your life. We’ll have met the terms of our remit.”
He stood up and went round the far side of his desk and stood at the window with his back to me. He ran his hand through his hair and muttered something sibilant under his breath that may have been “Ridiculous”, or perhaps, “Enough of this”. He was looking into the same room across the lawn. Now the bearded boy was reading his essay while his tutorial partner stared ahead of her without expression. Oddly, the tutor was speaking on the phone.
Tom returned to his chair and crossed his arms. His gaze was directed across my shoulder and his lips were pressed shut. I sensed he was about to make a serious objection.
I said, “Think it over for a day or two, talk to a friend … Think it through.”
He said, “The thing is …” and he trailed away. He looked down at his lap and he continued. “It’s this. Every day I think about this problem. I don’t have anything bigger to think about. It keeps me awake at night. Always the same four steps. One, I want to write a novel. Two, I’m broke. Three, I’ve got to get a job. Four, the job will kill the writing. I can’t see a way round it. There isn’t one. Then a nice young woman knocks on my door and offers me a fat pension for nothing. It’s too good to be true. I’m suspicious.”
“Tom, you make it sound simpler than it is. You’re not passive in this affair. The first move was yours. You wrote these brilliant stories. In London people are beginning to talk about you. How else do you think we found you? You’ve made your own luck with talent and hard work.”
The ironic smile, the cocked head – progress.
He said, “I like it when you say brilliant.”
“Good. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.” I reached into my bag on the floor and took out the Foundation’s brochure. “This is the work we do. You can come to the office in Upper Regent Street and talk to the people there. You’ll like them.”
“You’ll be there too?”
“My immediate employer is Word Unpenned. We work closely with Freedom International and are putting money their way. They help us find the artists. I travel a lot or work from home. But messages to the Foundation office will find me.”
He glanced at his watch and stood, so I did too. I was a dutiful young woman, determined to achieve what was expected of me. I wanted Haley to agree now, before lunch, to be kept by us. I would break the news by phone to Max in the afternoon and by tomorrow morning I hoped to have a routine note of congratulation from Peter Nutting, unemphatic, unsigned, typed by someone else, but important to me.
“I’m not asking you to commit to anything now,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound like I was pleading. “You’re not bound to anything at all. Just give me the say-so and I’ll arrange a monthly payment. All I need is your bank details.”
The say-so? I’d never used that word in my life. He blinked in assent, but not to the money so much as to my general drift. We were standing less than six feet apart. His waist was slender and through some disorder in his shirt I caught a glimpse below a button of skin and downy hair above his navel.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll think about it very carefully. I’ve got to be in London on Friday. I could look in at your office.”
“Well then,” I said and put out my hand. He took it, but it wasn’t a handshake. He took my fingers in his palm and stroked them with his thumb, just one slow pass. Exactly that, a pass, and he was looking at me steadily. As I took my hand away, I let my own thumb brush along the length of his forefinger. I think we may have been about to move closer when there was a hearty, ridiculously loud knock on the door. He stepped back from me as he called, “Come in.” The door swung open and there stood two girls, centre-parted blonde hair, fading suntans, sandals and painted toenails, bare arms, sweet expectant smiles, unbearably pretty. The books and papers under their arms didn’t look at all plausible to me.
“Aha,” Tom said. “Our Faerie Queene tutorial.”
I was edging round him towards the door. “I haven’t read that one,” I said.
He laughed, and the two girls joined in, as if I’d made a wonderful joke. They probably didn’t believe me.