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Authors: Ian McEwan

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In Between the Sheets

BOOK: In Between the Sheets
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In Between the Sheets

and Other Stories

Ian McEwan


In Between the Sheets

Copyright © 1978 by Ian McEwan
Cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2009 by RosettaBooks, LLC

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover by Simon and Schuster, New York, in 1978, and subsequently published in trade paperback by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York in 1994.

First Anchor Books Edition, March 2003

First electronic edition published 2009 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.

ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795301698


The author and publishers wish to thank the following for permission to reproduce copyright material:
The New Review
for “Pornography,” “Reflections of a Kept Ape” and “In Between the Sheets”;
for “Saturday, March 199-” (published as “Without Blood”);
for “Sunday, March 199—”;
for “Dead as They Come” and “To and Fro”;
American Review
for “Psychopolis”; and ABKCO Music, Inc. for excerpts from “Live with Me” written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, © 1969 ABKCO Music, Inc., reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.


O’Byrne walked through Soho market to his brother’s shop in Brewer Street A handful of customers leafing through the magazines and Harold watching them through pebble-thick lenses from his raised platform in the corner. Harold was barely five foot and wore built-up shoes. Before becoming his employee O’Byrne used to call him Little Runt. At Harold’s elbow a miniature radio rasped details of race meetings for the afternoon. “So,” said Harold with thin contempt, “the prodigal brother…” His magnified eyes fluttered at every consonant. He looked past O’Byrne’s shoulder. “All the magazines are for sale, gentlemen.” The readers stirred uneasily like troubled dreamers. One replaced a magazine and walked quickly from the shop. “Where d’you get to?” Harold said in a quieter voice. He stepped from the dais, put on his coat and glared up at O’Byrne, waiting for an answer. Little Runt. O’Byrne was ten years younger than his brother, detested him and
his success but now, strangely, wanted his approbation. “I had an appointment, didn’t I,” he said quietly. “I got the clap.” Harold was pleased. He reached up and punched O’Byrne’s shoulder playfully. “Serves you,” he said and cackled theatrically. Another customer edged out of the shop. From the doorway Harold called, “I’ll be back at five.” O’Byrne smiled as his brother left. He hooked his thumbs into his jeans and sauntered towards the tight knot of customers. “Can I help you gentlemen, the magazines are all for sale.” They scattered before him like frightened fowl, and suddenly he was alone in the shop.

A plump woman of fifty or more stood in front of a plastic shower curtain, naked but for panties and gas mask. Her hands hung limply at her sides and in one of them a cigarette smoldered. Wife of the Month. Since gas masks and a thick rubber sheet on the bed, wrote J.N. of Andover, we’ve never looked back. O’Byrne played with the radio for a while then switched it off. Rhythmically he turned the pages of the magazine, and stopped to read the letters. An uncircumcised male virgin, without hygiene, forty-two next May, dared not peel back his foreskin now for fear of what he might see. I get these nightmares of worms. O’Byrne laughed and crossed his legs. He replaced the magazine, returned to the radio, switched it on and off rapidly and caught the unintelligible middle of a word. He walked about the shop straightening the magazines in the racks. He stood by the door and stared at the wet street intersected by the colored strips of the plastic walk-through. He whistled over and over a tune whose end immediately suggested its beginning. Then he returned to Harold’s raised platform and made two telephone calls, both to the hospital,
the first to Lucy. But Sister Drew was busy in the ward and could not come to the phone. O’Byrne left a message that he would not be able to see her that evening after all and would phone again tomorrow. He dialed the hospital switchboard and this time asked for Trainee Nurse Shepherd in the children’s ward. “Hi,” O’Byrne said when Pauline picked up the phone. “It’s me.” And he stretched and leaned against the wall. Pauline was a silent girl who once wept at a film about the effects of pesticides on butterflies, who wanted to redeem O’Byrne with her love. Now she laughed, “I’ve been phoning you all morning,” she said. “Didn’t your brother tell you?”

“Listen,” said O’Byrne, “I’ll be at your place about eight,” and replaced the receiver.

Harold did not return till after six, and O’Byrne was almost asleep, his head pillowed on his forearm. There were no customers. O’Byrne’s only sale was
American Bitch
. “Those American mags,” said Harold as he emptied the till of £15 and a handful of silver, “are
.” Harold’s new leather jacket. O’Byrne fingered it appreciatively. “Seventy-eight quid,” said Harold and braced himself in front of the fish-eye minor. His glasses flashed. “It’s all right,” said O’Byrne. “Fucking right it is,” said Harold, and began to close up shop. “Never take much on Wednesdays,” he said wistfully as he reached up and switched on the burglar alarm. “Wednesday’s a cunt of a day.” Now O’Byrne was in front of the mirror, examining a small trail of acne that led from the corner of his mouth. “You’re not fucking kidding,” he agreed.

Harold’s house lay at the foot of the Post Office Tower and O’Byrne rented a room from him. They
walked along together without speaking. From time to time Harold glanced sideways into a dark shop window to catch the reflection of himself and his new leather jacket. Little Runt. O’Byrne said, “Cold, innit?” and Harold said nothing. Minutes later, when they were passing a pub, Harold steered O’Byrne into the dank, deserted public house saying, “Since you got the clap I’ll buy you a drink.” The publican heard the remark and regarded O’Byrne with interest. They drank three scotches apiece, and as O’Byrne was paying for the fourth round Harold said, “Oh yeah, one of those two nurses you’ve been knocking around with phoned.” O’Byrne nodded and wiped his lips. After a pause Harold said, “You’re well in there…” O’Byrne nodded again. “Yep.” Harold’s jacket shone. When he reached for his drink it creaked. O’Byrne was not going to tell him anything. He banged his hands together. “Yep,” he said once more, and stared over his brother’s head at the empty bar. Harold tried again. “She wanted to know where you’d been…” “I bet she did,” O’Byrne muttered, and then smiled.

Pauline, short and untalkative, her face bloodlessly pale, intersected by a heavy black fringe, her eyes large, green and watchful, her flat small, damp and shared with a secretary who was never there. O’Byrne arrived after ten, a little drunk and in need of a bath to purge the faint purulent scent that lately had hung about his fingers. She sat on a small wooden stool to watch him luxuriate. Once she leaned forwards and touched his body where it broke the surface. O’Byrne’s eyes were closed, his hands floating at his sides, the only sound the diminishing hiss of the cistern. Pauline rose quietly to
bring a clean white towel from her bedroom, and O’Byrne did not hear her leave or return. She sat down again and ruffled, as far as it was possible, O’Byrne’s damp, matted hair. “The food is ruined,” she said without accusation. Beads of perspiration collected in the corners of O’Byrne’s eyes and rolled down the line of his nose like tears. Pauline rested her hand on O’Byrne’s knee where it jutted through the gray water. Steam turned to water on the cold walls, senseless minutes passed. “Never mind, love,” said O’Byrne, and stood up.

Pauline went out to buy beer and pizzas, and O’Byrne lay down in her tiny bedroom to wait. Ten minutes passed. He dressed after cursory examination of his clean but swelling meatus, and wandered listlessly about the sitting room. Nothing interested him in Pauline’s small collection of books. There were no magazines. He entered the kitchen in search of a drink. There was nothing but an overcooked meat pie. He picked around the burned bits and as he ate turned the pages of a picture calendar. When he finished he remembered again he was waiting for Pauline. He looked at his watch. She had been gone now almost half an hour. He stood up quickly, tipping the kitchen chair behind him to the floor. He paused in the sitting room and then walked decisively out of the flat and slammed the front door on his way. He hurried down the stairs, anxious not to meet her now he had decided to get out. But she was there. Halfway up the second flight, a little out of breath, her arms full of bottles and tinfoil parcels. “Where d’you get to?” said O’Byrne. Pauline stopped several steps down from him, her face tilted up awkwardly over her purchases, the whites of her eyes and the tinfoil vivid in the dark. “The usual place was closed. I had to walk miles …
sorry.” They stood. O’Byrne was not hungry. He wanted to go. He hitched his thumbs into the waist of his jeans and cocked his head towards the invisible ceiling, then he looked down at Pauline who waited. “Well,” he said at last, “I was thinking of going.” Pauline came up, and as she pushed past whispered, “Silly.” O’Byrne turned and followed her, obscurely cheated.

He leaned in the doorway, she righted the chair. With a movement of his head O’Byrne indicated that he wanted none of the food Pauline was setting out on plates. She poured him a beer and knelt to gather a few black pastry droppings from the floor. They sat in the sitting room. O’Byrne drank, Pauline ate slowly, neither spoke. O’Byrne finished all the beer and placed his hand on Pauline’s knee. She did not turn. He said cheerily, “What’s wrong with you?” and she said, “Nothing.” Alive with irritation O’Byrne moved closer and placed his arm protectively across her shoulders. “Tell you what,” he half whispered. “Let’s go to bed.” Suddenly Pauline rose and went into the bedroom. O’Byrne sat with his hands clasped behind his head. He listened to Pauline undress, and he heard the creak of the bed. He got to his feet and, still without desire, entered the bedroom.

Pauline lay on her back and O’Byrne, having undressed quickly, lay beside her. She did not acknowledge him in her usual way, she did not move. O’Byrne raised his arm to stroke her shoulder, but instead let his hand fall back heavily against the sheet. They both lay on their backs in mounting silence, until O’Byrne decided to give her one last chance and with naked grunts hauled himself onto his elbow and arranged his face over hers. Her eyes, thick with tears, stared past him. “What’s
the matter?” he said in resignatory sing-song. The eyes budged a fraction and fixed into his own. “You,” she said simply. O’Byrne returned to his side of the bed, and after a moment said threateningly, “I see.” Then he was up, and on top of her, and then past her and on the far side of the room. “All right then …” he said. He wrenched his laces into a knot, and searched for his shirt. Pauline’s back was to him. But as he crossed the sitting room her rising, accelerating wail of denial made him stop and turn. All white, in a cotton nightdress, she was there in the bedroom doorway and in the air, simultaneously at every point of arc in the intervening space, like the trick photographer’s diver, she was on the far side of the room and she was at his lapels, knuckles in her mouth and shaking her head. O’Byrne smiled and put his arms around her shoulders. Forgiveness swept through him. Clinging to each other they returned to the bedroom. O’Byrne undressed and they lay down again, O’Byrne on his back, Pauline with her head pillowed on his shoulder.

O’Byrne said, “I never know what’s going on in your mind,” and deeply comforted by this thought, he fell asleep. Half an hour later he woke. Pauline, exhausted by a week of twelve-hour shifts, slept deeply on his arm. He shook her gently. “Hey,” he said. He shook her firmly, and as the rhythm of her breathing broke and she began to stir, he said in a laconic parody of some unremembered film, “Hey, there’s something we ain’t done yet…”

Harold was excited. When O’Byrne walked into the shop towards noon the following day Harold took hold of his arm and waved in the air a sheet of paper. He was
almost shouting. “I’ve worked it all out. I know what I want to do with the shop.” “Oh, yeah,” said O’Byrne dully, and put his fingers in his eyes and scratched till the intolerable itch there became a bearable pain. Harold rubbed his small pink hands together and explained rapidly. “I’m going All American. I spoke to their rep on the phone this morning and he’ll be here in half an hour. I’m getting rid of all the quid a time piss-in-her-cunt letters. I’m gonna carry the whole of the House of Florence range at £4.50 a time.”

O’Byrne walked across the shop to where Harold’s jacket was spread across a chair. He tried it on. It was of course too small. “And I’m going to call it Transatlantic Books,” Harold was saying. O’Byrne tossed the jacket onto the chair. It slid to the floor and deflated there like some reptilian air sac. Harold picked it up, and did not cease talking. “If I carry Florence exclusive I get a special discount
”—he giggled—“they pay for the fucking neon sign.”

BOOK: In Between the Sheets
9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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