Ten seconds passed in silence. Fifteen. It took all of my concentration to breathe without gulping, but I knew I had to say something.
“That’s a lot of money”, was the best I could manage. I mentally kicked myself. But M. Legrand just smiled.
“You’d be expected to earn it, naturally.”
“That’s one of the things that worries me.” I wondered if it was a mistake to admit to some worries, but then I caught myself on. I hadn’t applied for this job. I hadn’t known it existed, or that I’d been in the running for it, until just under two hours ago. If they kicked me out on my arse I’d be no worse off than I had been the previous evening. At least, I seemed to have my breathing under control at last.
Usually, at job interviews, the candidate is asked if she has any questions for the prospective employer. I decided to treat the question as implied.
“Your proven intelligence and track record, obviously. Those, combined with your truly remarkable good looks, your health and strength.” He was starting to sound like a surrogate for natural selection, which was ironic in the circumstances.
“You’re not an equal opportunity employer, then.” I didn’t inflect that as a question. M. Legrand emitted a brief wheeze which I interpreted as a laugh.
“There were seven young women on our shortlist. None of them has any more idea than you had when you woke up this morning that they have been under consideration for this position, or even that there is a position. An anti-discrimination lawsuit is the last thing I need to worry about.”
“And I’m your first choice?”
“Indeed you are. That makes you a very exceptional and special young woman. Of course, you understand that, even if you hadn’t been our first choice, I’d feel free to lie to you about it and you wouldn’t have any way of checking what I told you. I try to make it a practice to lie only when there’s no possibility of my being caught out. Of course, it isn’t always possible to stick to that rigidly. But in this case I don’t have to lie because you are, in fact, the first person to whom I’ve made this offer. And will remain the only one, I hope.”
He backed his wheelchair out from behind the desk and manoeuvered it in front of the big window. I had the impression that he barely took in the view of a wooded hillside running down to the Bay of Biscay, though he seemed to be studying it minutely.
“Since the other candidates are unaware of their candidature, there is no external pressure for a decision. On the other hand, rapidity of response to an unforeseen situation is one of the qualities that I’m looking for. That being so, I shall require your answer by 6 pm on Saturday.”
“I’d expect to be able to let you have it by the end of this meeting, but I’ve one or two more questions.”
“About the technology, naturally.”
“It’s new, it sounds like science fiction, and you’ve managed to stop any hint of it from leaking. I’m guessing that it can’t have been tested adequately.”
Legrand nodded, but not in confirmation. More an acknowledgement to himself that he’s correctly predicted my objection.
“We have satisfied ourselves that it works as intended. On human subjects who have been very well compensated for their participation and who will adhere to the obligation of confidentiality that they undertook as an integral part of the arrangement. You will be given access to the test results. Anonymized, of necessity.”
I thought this over, while I tried to remain impassive. The remuneration package that Legrand had outlined to me was pitched at a level calculated to overcome any mistrust that I might be feeling. That in itself was sufficient indication that mistrust was warranted. As against that, I’ve always been a sucker for new technology.
“Of course, as you’re perfectly aware, faked test results are well within our capability, so I don’t expect the tests to carry much weight with you”, Legrand continued. “Well, here’s something that should: I’m prepared to take the risk, which is real. So, if you’re tempted by our modest offer, you can feel secure in the knowledge that I’m not asking you to do anything that I’m not happy to do myself.”
“Forgive me, but I suspect that the risk to the, um, host, perhaps I should say ‘employee’, is rather greater than that to the employer. And even if the risks are identical, I have more to lose.”
This time, the sound that emanated from Legrand was clearly a laugh. He was evidently not amused, however.
“Because I’m elderly and immobilized. I should have expected as much from someone of your age. Let me tell you something. My greatly reduced life expectancy is of far greater — I almost said ‘infinitely’ greater — value than yours, which you certainly think is better than normal. Of far greater value to me, that is.”
I didn’t have a ready answer to that, though it seemed clear to me that he was using feigned anger to put me off balance.
“I think I’ve heard enough to be able to make a decision. I’m very gratified that you’ve selected me, and I wish you well with your project, but I’ve decided, for better or worse, to decline your very generous offer. But thank you. I’m flattered.”
Legrand didn’t look either disappointed or surprised.
“I said I’d wait until 6 pm Saturday for an answer. As you’ve made it clear that that answer is ‘No’, the offer is now withdrawn. Nevertheless, if you change your mind before the deadline, please be good enough to let me know. I do not promise that the offer will be renewed but I can assure you that I shall not appoint anyone else to the position in the meantime. In case we don’t meet again, you have my best wishes for your future career.”
Legrand turned to face the set of double doors that formed the main entrance to the room, and pressed a button on the right arm of the wheelchair, which responded by accelerating towards the doors. They opened just as he reached them and he continued through without a pause. Immediately, a well-groomed Irishman in his late 20s entered the room and, firmly but with perfect courtesy, escorted me to my car.
Turning down Legrand’s proposal had been surprisingly difficult. Naturally, I’m a risk taker but (as I sometimes tell people whose opinion of me is of no consequence) that does not mean that I’m suicidally reckless. Or non-suicidally so, for that matter. One thing that all successful risk takers have in common is an acute capacity for risk assessment. The risks attendant on Legrand’s scheme were simply unquantifiable — and potentially enormous. So, walking away was a no-brainer and I was more than a little disturbed that it had taken real effort on my part. Still, I had walked away and without, I thought, showing any hesitation, so all was well. All was well, but I felt uneasy.
I’ve always found it an interesting paradox, as well as a bloody nuisance, that my keen ability to quantify risks and to act on them decisively, is accompanied by a tendency to worry which seems to serve no useful purpose. I suspect that there are evolutionary reasons why the two seemingly incompatible characteristics should go together but I haven’t managed to work out what those reasons might be. The point is that my worrying sometimes gets so bad that it interferes with my sleep. At least, it helps me to stay thin.
Worrier that I am, instead of promptly forgetting about Legrand and his project, or mentally filing it under “Interesting Near Misses”, I ran over it in my mind almost obsessively on the drive back to Saint Nazaire. Could I have handled it better? What would I do differently next time? For God’s sake, woman, I mentally scolded myself, it’s over. Let it drop.
I got home just before 9 pm, exhausted but not sleepy, not hungry but in need of sustenance. There was some of that morning’s bread, still edible, so I made myself a sandwich of Brie and cherry tomatoes, poured a glass of Bordeaux and settled down in front of the computer.
The first question, inevitably, was whether I could turn any of what Legrand had shown or told me to the advantage of the company. The answer, equally inevitably, was probably not. Legrand had gone into some detail — if he’d hoped to engage my interest, he couldn’t afford to be vague — so I felt that I had a thorough grasp of the big picture. As against that, I had signed a confidentiality agreement with a penalty clause providing for substantial liquidated damages. The courts are wary of liquidated damages provisions in penalty clauses but this was one that I thought might well stand up in the circumstances. And the technology at the heart of his proposal was so off the wall and had so successfully been kept under wraps that he’d have no problem in tracing any breach of confidentiality back to me. Legrand, it seemed, had quite a talent for presenting risks that I wasn’t willing to take.
I yawned, stretched and drained my wine glass, then put the computer to sleep. It didn’t seem that there was anything for us in Legrand’s operations. That was nothing new. I seemed to spend most of my time recently looking for new angles and failing to come up with them. That’s a necessary part of this business but I won’t claim that it doesn’t become frustrating. The company was not quite profitable, a situation that was sustainable in the medium term. I was bothered by the feeling that, unless we ultimately came up with another money-spinner, our present efforts would turn out to have been a waste of time. At what point would it become sensible to shut down the drain on our resources?
At the start, the company consisted of just me and Jacob, who had been my boyfriend in college. After we’d graduated (he in History, I in PPE) we’d decided that we wanted to capitalize on the as yet putative recovery from the dot com bust. To both of us, the single most remarkable fact about the internet was that news reporting and journalism seemed to be free and that competition and oversupply were likely to stymie any attempts to increase the price. We started off by looking at ways of automating the brokerage of ads to online news outlets. It was a difficult problem, but one the solution to which was obviously going to make someone rich. Even then, there was no real doubt that the someone in question would be Google, but we were hopeful that there might be the odd niche where somebody else, somebody like us, would be able to make a comfortable living.
We never solved that problem. Instead, we got distracted by a technological niggle that was quite peripheral to the internet. Jacob hated to use a computer keyboard but it was his habit to take detailed and surprisingly neat, well organized handwritten notes. Naturally, he started to look at handwriting recognition systems but he couldn’t come up with one that he found usable. They all required you to write either on a graphics tablet or on some kind of touch screen. Writing on a hard surface was, he said, quite a different experience from using a paper pad, which had some “give”. It was no wonder the computer had trouble recognizing his handwriting. He hardly recognized it himself. Besides, he wasn’t able to use his favourite pen.
After listening to this complaint for the fourth or fifth time, I found myself asking why it was necessary to input the handwriting in such an awkward way. Why not write whatever it was on a paper pad as normal, then either scan or photograph the results, to apply handwriting recognition to them after the event? I assumed that the reason was that it was easier for the software to interpret one’s squiggles if it “knew” the direction and order in which the strokes had been made. This, I supposed, more than compensated for the unevenness caused by the hard writing surface. On the other hand, “after the fact” recognition was clearly possible in principle: that’s what happened in OCR of printed text. So, I wondered, why shouldn’t it be possible to combine the algorithms of OCR and handwriting recognition? In particular, I wondered if the improved legibility of pen on paper would go some way to compensate for the fact that the software wouldn’t “see” the characters being formed.
We both agreed that, if my idea could be realized, it would have definite advantages. You wouldn’t need any special hardware. The user could go to a lecture or a meeting with a familiar notepad and pen rather than with an obtrusive box. Note-taking would be less disruptive and you wouldn’t have to remember to carry an additional piece of hardware. As I thought through the implications, I got quite excited, something that signally failed to happen when I applied my intelligence to the questions of internet advertising.
There were, of course, problems. Neither of us was a programmer and all that we knew about either HWR or OCR was the result of barely educated guesswork. I had a keen suspicion that there weren’t any open source HWR engines and twenty minutes with Google seemed to confirm this. Even to produce a proof of concept, we needed at least one programmer with experience in the field. I wasn’t averse to seeking venture capital for the right idea and I had quickly come to think that this was the best idea I was likely to have. One possibility I considered was filing a patent application, then making an approach to one of the established OCR developers to suggest a joint venture. The thought of drafting a patent application brought me up short. Surely an idea this obvious must have been tried before? If the application wasn’t already on the market, it could only be because it had been found not to work.
But even as I considered this objection, I felt sure that the developers were so invested in “live” handwriting recognition that they hadn’t even looked at the alternative approach. It seemed probable that most of the push for HWR was coming from hardware manufacturers who were interested in selling touch screen devices, not cameras, which were increasingly coming built into phones.
Well, it took a couple of years, but we developed the software. We got to the final beta: it was still quite buggy but it was more than enough to prove that the idea was a good one. At that point, in March 2004, our company was bought out. The buyer talked about offering our software as a service over the web. Even now, I’m prevented by contractual considerations from going into detail about the deal, or about the subsequent development history of the software, even though, by the time of my meeting with Legrand, it was already very old news about which nobody except me and Jacob still cared. And I’m not sure about me. Still less about Jacob, in fact. He got a working prototype which, nearly four years later, was sufficiently full featured and reliable to be useful to him in his everyday work.
We were both taken on by the buyer to participate in the development team. A substantial proportion of the purchase price was paid in shares in the parent company which we were prevented from selling for two years or until we left the company’s employment, whichever was longer. Two years later, we resigned and netted just under 1.2 million pounds sterling apiece, which I still maintain is nothing to sneeze at. Sure, it’s not remotely in the same league as Skype or Friends Reunited but the timing wasn’t ideal.
We used most of the money as working capital for the company, and waited for the next big idea to strike us. In the meantime, we decided to keep things ticking over by offering our services as consultants. Roughly forty percent of our business consisted of a cluster of activities which our customers thought of, and insisted on referring to, as “web design”, though neither of us was a designer or had much time for anyone we knew who was.
Jacob and I were not in complete agreement about the future of the business. We had enough capital to carry on comfortably for at least two or three years. I didn’t want to get to the end of that period and find that we’d effectively wasted it, because no other profitable lines of business had developed in the meantime. If we were going to end up by cutting our losses, then we couldn’t cut them too soon for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t find our current work congenial; on the contrary, it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that I loved it. That was a large part of the problem: I’d got comfortable, and we had to think about the future. In contrast, Jacob was fond of pointing out that we couldn’t treat our careers as a simple linear progression. In the end, nothing was wasted and, even if our current activities turned out to be a dead end, we’d have learned all sorts of intangible skills and practices, and gained many insights, all of which would be useful to us in whatever it was that we ended up doing.
This tension rarely came to the surface. It was several years since we’d been lovers. We’d drifted out of a sexual relationship during the hectic activity that surrounded the setting up of our first business. We’d got back together “for old times’ sake” initially at intervals of about six months, and never for longer than a single night. To be precise, never for longer than the five-and-a-half hours between 9.30 pm and 3 am, and never when we were completely sober. The intervals between those momentary rapprochements gradually lengthened. The last time we had slept together was August 2007. It sometimes seemed to me that each of us was, for the other, rather like a healed-over scar: no longer painful but still there to be felt, in a dull sort of a way.
The day after my visit to M. Legrand was one of the rare occasions when the tension between us broke out into an open argument. I was feeling annoyed at having had to decline Legrand’s offer and was thinking, not for the first time, that it seemed as if the only opportunities that were going to present themselves to us would be ones that we’d have to pass up. It was obvious to Jacob that I was worked up about something but I wasn’t able to do more than hint at what it was. Even at that, I was flirting with breach of the confidentiality agreement. It was never easy to make Jacob angry but, if you really wanted to do it, giving him the impression that he was being kept in the dark about something important was definitely the way to go. We soon found ourselves bickering, on the face of it about whether the RSS feed from the blog of our largest client should include whole entries or just the first paragraphs. The spat ended with my announcement that I was thinking of taking six to eight months’ leave of absence from the company. Jacob pointed out, very reasonably in the circumstances, that our service agreements didn’t have any provision for leave of absence. There was a perfectly good reason for this. There was no reason to think that the business could survive for any extended period without the full participation of both of us.
“We are the company”, I said, falling back on the obvious. “We can renegotiate our service agreements.”
“We could. If we thought it was a good idea. Frankly, I don’t.”
“I’m feeling stale. I need a complete change of scene for a while.”
“So, take a holiday. That’s what people do. Some people even do it every year. They don’t disappear for half a year or more. At least take a holiday first. Then, if you still feel that you need to get away — ”
“This could be good for the business,” I told him in my most reassuring tone. “I could explore some new ideas — ”
“Which you are obviously not prepared to share with me.”
“You know how these things work. Confidentiality agreements — ”
“What I’d like to know is how you got to the point of signing a confidentiality agreement without even mentioning it to me first.”
“I had an approach from out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting it to lead to anything. As a matter of fact, I still don’t. Rather, I’m now quite sure that it won’t. That isn’t what this is about.”
“That’s such shit, Andrea.”
We went around that track a few more times, each time Jacob getting a little closer to telling me that he couldn’t be expected to trust me, if I wouldn’t tell him what I’d been doing. I could see where it was all going but I wasn’t in any mood to apply the brakes.
“How can we work together if you won’t trust me?” I finally demanded in exasperation.
“That’s exactly what I’m asking myself.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“I want to, obviously. But for that, I need to know what you’ve been up to behind my back.”
“If I’ve been up to anything behind your back, it’s only because you can’t face in all directions at once.”
“I’m beginning to think I need to.”
I hate to be predictable, but there are situations in which it’s virtually impossible to do anything other than follow the script. This was one of them. I quit.
Jacob didn’t try to stop me from taking my notebook and a few other things from the office, so I guess his trust in me hadn’t completely evaporated. I got home about 2.30 on Friday afternoon and decided to go for a long walk. I was in the mood for the sea, so I headed out towards Pornichet and tried to prevent myself from dwelling on the question of my future. I felt sure that Jacob and I could become sufficiently reconciled for me to get my job back. I had stormed out in a temper tantrum, Jacob and I had proven over several years that we could work well together, and even though I might no longer work for the company, I couldn’t extract my capital without forcing it into liquidation, which I wasn’t prepared to do. In short, the rational and sensible thing to do would be to make up my quarrel with Jacob and turn up for work as usual on Monday morning. But, even after I’d cooled down, I had a strong feeling that I’d made the right decision. Rational and sensible though it might have been to go back, I felt certain that I wasn’t going to do so. And, having reached that conclusion, I felt something unfamiliar and surprisingly pleasant. Relief.
While this was going through my mind, I was naturally aware of Legrand’s proposal, the original deadline for which had been the following evening, but I deliberately chose not to think about it. If the decision to quit had been the right one, there was a natural tendency to assume that the obvious alternative was the inevitable choice. I wanted to avoid that. I could hardly avoid being aware of the Legrand situation, looming at the edge of my consciousness, but I wasn’t yet prepared to look at it head on. If I could put off dealing with it until after 6 pm the following day, the issue would be resolved without any decision on my part. I ate a Vietnamese take-away that I’d picked up on my way back to the apartment, watched the last half-hour of one episode of NCIS (VF only) and the first twenty minutes of another, wondered what Cote de Pablo’s real voice sounds like, then got an early night.
On Saturday morning, I woke feeling fresh and relaxed but, around about my mid-morning cup of coffee, I started to panic a bit. All my business experience had been in new tech, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that the skills I’d developed were fast becoming devalued. I needed to find another string for my bow and had to forcefully remind myself that 31 wasn’t all that old to be thinking about a change of career. The job that Legrand had offered me would almost inevitably lead to the development of new skills but I couldn’t for the life of me see any way they could be turned into marketable ones. No, if Legrand’s position had any attraction, it was its capacity to enable me to replenish my capital. The potential risks still didn’t seem any more justifiable than they had two days earlier.
So, what were the less obvious alternatives? I needed to enumerate them but, in my present mood, I risked putting myself off. Rather than continue to go fruitlessly over and over the same ground, I telephoned my friend Caroline and arranged to meet her in a bar not far from the office. I’d make sure that, by 6 pm, I’d be in no condition to speak to M. Legrand.
The following morning, I woke late and went for a fast, hard swim to try to work off my hangover, then masturbated quickly before my shower with much the same aim. Feeling better, I ate a light snack and drank a glass of white wine. When I phoned Legrand, I apologized for having missed his deadline, acknowledged that it would be pointless to deny my misgivings about the scheme and asked if he was still interested.
Can you hear my thoughts?
It isn’t exactly hearing, but I’m aware of them. Are you getting my answer?
Loud and clear. All my thoughts, or just the ones I address to you?
Sorry if it’s too loud. I can’t control the volume. At least I think I can’t. I expect that the tech people could adjust it but it would probably involve going into your head again.
It was just a manner of speaking. It’s not uncomfortable. Are you receiving all my thoughts? Or —
Not just the ones you address to me. Probably not all of them, either. My guess would be only the ones that you’re fully conscious of.
It’s not the same for me. I can only “hear” your answers.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Yours is the host consciousness. It’s all about what’s going on in your head. I, unfortunately, am just an observer.
A bit more than that. You’re along for the ride.
But you’re in the driving seat.
I hope so. That was an understatement. If it turned out that I wasn’t in control, I could end up … where exactly could I end up?
I have no more idea than you have. It will certainly be interesting to see.
That last question wasn’t meant for you. I was thinking to myself.
Sorry. Do you think we should try to establish a kind of protocol? Like “Roger” and “Over”, callsigns and all that?
No, you just chip in whenever you have something to say that you think is relevant. I don’t want to be lulled into forgetting that you’re there.
Whereas I might well want that, and so be inclined to keep my interjections to a minimum. Clever.
You read my mind.
You like coffee, don’t you?
Love it. Why?
Why don’t you go and get a cup?
You’d like me to?
You understand that this experiment isn’t about my being able to read your thoughts, except incidentally. What I want is to experience your consciousness, in particular sensations, emotions, and all of that. I was forced to give up coffee twelve years ago, because of the danger to my heart. The tech team tell me that I should be able to taste the flavour and feel the stimulant effect of your cup of coffee, without its having any physiological effect on my cardiovascular or nervous systems.
Is that why I came out at the top of your shortlist? Because I drink coffee?
It was by no means a negligible factor.
I’m lucky you didn’t smoke.
I did, but I gave up a very long time ago. What I miss now is coffee. Not the only thing, of course, but one of the main ones.
Sex would be another, I take it?
I’m glad you brought that up. I must apologize for the indelicacy but I find it amusing and, er, perhaps significant that you, um, pleasured yourself shortly before you called me.
I’m sure I wasn’t consciously thinking about that. How did you know?
You’ve been alluding to it fleetingly ever since I, eh, joined you. When I say fleetingly, I mean literally for a microfraction of a second at a time. But you keep coming back to it. I’ve only just put all the pieces together.
You have? I can see I’m not going to have many secrets from you.
You’ve seen the steps we’ve taken to ensure, insofar as we can, that I’ll never use them against you. You have to try and remember that, from my point of view, your conscience is merely instrumental, not central. But, to answer your question, no and yes.
No and yes?
No, I don’t miss sex all that much and yes, I do fully intend to experience it, though the medium of your body.
It’s just as well that I —
Yes, indeed. That’s something we couldn’t have known in advance, of course. Serendipity. We’re already ahead of the game. I think we should celebrate with a coffee.
I had felt a surge of blood to my cheeks and a wave of excruciating embarrassment when I realized that I had unwittingly “told” my new employer about what I’d been doing just before my shower. He must have felt it too but, as he was gentlemanly enough not to advert to it, I don’t know whether or not he enjoyed the sensations. I hoped so. Embarrassment, from which I occasionally suffer acutely, has generally struck me as a useless emotion (or, if not entirely useless, at least one having a deleterious impact entirely out of proportion to its usefulness). Somebody might as well be getting something out of it. And it was beginning to look as if I’d have plenty more occasions to feel embarrassed in the months to come.
We found a coffee shop, or rather I did, where I sat just inside the entrance and ordered a grand café. I took an English language paperback from my handbag, not because I was intending to read but because I didn’t wish to appear too obviously to be enjoying my own company and internal conversation.
I hope you don’t take sugar, I silently addressed the internal presence. He confirmed that he did not. It had been his habit to take a biscuit or a pastry with his coffee, when he drank it himself, but he was more than happy to forego that: what he craved now was the taste and effect of the coffee. We established that the latter was completely satisfactory. My employer could experience my elevated heart rate and lightly sharpened senses without, as far as he or his medical attendants could tell, any adverse effect on his blood pressure or the heart rate of his own body, at that moment reclining on a couch some 200 Km away.
The taste of the coffee, on the other hand, was at best acceptable. My inside man wasn’t terribly disappointed — that cup of coffee would, if all went well, be the first of several hundred — but he lamented the fact that his countrymen, with notable exceptions, were not able to serve a cup of coffee comparable to that available in the typical Italian caffè. The Italians understand that strength doesn’t have to mean harshness. I readily agreed. Some months before, I’d bought myself a De Longhi espresso maker and it had become my practice to alternate between drinking coffee at home and in a café: at home I could have the taste, elsewhere I could have the café atmosphere (these days much improved, since cigarette smoke had been banished outside). I remained hopeful of finding a café that combined both halves of the experience. Legrand remarked that it might make sense to drink coffee only at home and to have wine when I went to a café; I responded that I had indeed begun to do exactly that, but that it was still one of life’s pleasures to sit at a café table with a coffee and something engrossing to read.
It had been agreed that, for the period of my contract with Entreprises Legrand SA, I’d live in an apartment in Bordeaux that they kept for the use of their executives and consultants. My new employer hadn’t wanted me to live at home because he’d been afraid that I’d see that as too great an invasion, and I’d been inclined to agree. I’d packed my clothes and all the books I thought I’d need and they were waiting for collection. Most of my music had already been ripped, so I’d finished the job and copied the whole thing on to an old notebook whose battery was dead, and which I’d use as a music server in Bordeaux. I mentally enquired of Legrand if I should go home and add the De Longhi coffee-maker to my packed belongings. He replied that I shouldn’t bother. We could buy a similar machine in Bordeaux and leave it behind in the apartment when my contract was finished. It would always come in handy.
“You’re quite ambivalent about me.”
I stared at her, taken aback not by the fact that this young airhead was familiar with a concept like ambivalence but rather that she was capable of grasping that it might apply to herself. She gave off an air of preternatural (and, to my mind, clearly unjustified) self-assurance.
“Why do you say that?” I asked, wondering whether I should have denied it.
In fact, it was quite sharp of her to sense ambivalence in me, though what I felt was something rather different. I had hated her at first sight. M. Legrand, in contrast, would have been quite unable to take my eyes off her if he’d been controlling the direction of my gaze. But the combination of his frank interest and my reluctantly fascinated antipathy meant that I’d found it easier to look at her than elsewhere. Naturally, she’d noticed.
“It’s unusual. I mean for somebody to be ambivalent about me personally. A lot of women are curious, but also frightened or cautious. In effect, they’re ambivalent about themselves, or about their desires. It doesn’t bother me. I try not to be prescriptive about other people’s sexuality.”
“That’s generous of you.”
“You’ll meet no shortage of lesbians who get quite enraged because they think that other women should be as sure about what they want as they are themselves. I’m not like that. I was once curious and frightened myself and I remember what it was like.”
She made it sound like a long time ago. She must have been all of 23. In the bar, she’d seemed to be wearing hardly anything at all. Here, where she really wasn’t wearing anything, it was clear that those skimpy scraps of fabric had performed a function out of all proportion to the area they covered. She was long and lean, with hips and backside that could have belonged to a boy, if the boy had been unusually tall and thin. Her crotch was utterly hairless, in which respect it was no different from any other part of her body except her head. I had a hunch that she was a natural blonde but it was impossible to be sure because, whatever her natural colour had been, it hadn’t been blonde enough. The real curiosities were her breasts: globes that, notwithstanding their apparent weight, seemed to float in front of her. While not enormous, they sat very strangely on that slender chest. If they were real, they amounted to a thorough debunking of the notion of intelligent design. But if they weren’t real, why hadn’t I noticed that they didn’t feel real?
Did we … did I touch her boobs?
Boobs? How quaint. I’m the one who’s supposed to be the octogenarian. I don’t remember your doing so. But surely we must have?
Did you notice anything odd about the way they felt?
No, I didn’t notice anything at all. I couldn’t swear that we touched them. If we didn’t, it’s rather a missed opportunity, from my point of view. But why does it matter to you?
Look at them. They’ve got to be implants, don’t they?
I’ve seen ones just as large or larger, and they were certainly natural. Mind you, the average female body shape was so different in those days. Maybe waists, hips and all that have got narrower and breasts have remained the same size. I just don’t know. If you want to have a quick squeeze, I’d be all for it.
The last thing I want to do is start fondling her boobs. I want her out of here as soon as possible.
“You’re going to have to go now,” I told her, in what I hoped was a firm tone.
“Can I take a shower, first?”
“Of course. The bathroom’s in there.”
You didn’t enjoy the experience, then? Legrand asked as she left the room.
You can’t separate the experience from the person. I don’t like her.
That much I can tell. “Airhead” is one of the more polite terms I’ve been hearing from your stream of consciousness. But why do you dislike her so much? Nobody’s asking you to marry her. You’ve had an intense orgasm with her and she’s just about to get out of your life for good. Why should this be a problem?
It isn’t. As I said, I just don’t like her. So, your first experience of female orgasm. Did it live up to expectations?
It’s been several … um, decades since I’ve had the male kind, so my memory might be playing tricks on me. But I don’t remember it being anything like as intense as that. Tiresias was right … as far as I can judge.
Decades? Wow, I didn’t realize. You don’t have to talk about this.
You get to a stage where it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. Viagra arrived on the scene a little too late for me. And anyway I was a bit wary of it, because of my heart and blood pressure.
It’s kind of weird to be sitting here discussing orgasms with an 80-year-old man.
Yes. Even weirder is that I can feel how weird it feels to you.
And while all this is going on there’s a naked lesbian bimbo in the bathroom.
Who has no idea that the 80-year-old man is even present.
Oh shit. Shit! I didn’t even think about that aspect of it. She’s under the impression that she went to bed with me and only me, and all the time I was helping you to spy on her.
My attention was entirely directed towards what you were feeling. I was interested in what she was doing only insofar as I was experiencing the effect it had on you. I don’t think of that as spying on her.
Well I bet she would.
Anyway, it’s done now, for better or worse. You can’t tell her the truth. In the first place, it’s highly confidential and, in the second, you’d never be able to persuade her that it was anything other than a paranoid fantasy. We made a mistake. She’ll never know about it. We should keep it that way. Unfair to her, I admit, but undoubtedly the least of several possible evils.
How do we avoid making the same mistake again?
Amber emerged from the bathroom. She’d wrapped a towel around her, knotting it just above her breasts. With those freakish protuberances and her bald genitals hidden from view (the towel just about reached the top of her thighs) and her wet hair falling around her shoulders she looked decidedly fetching. Legrand certainly thought so and I didn’t feel like arguing. She picked her discarded clothing off a chair and shrugged ruefully. It wasn’t entirely suitable as daywear, even in this neighbourhood.
“I don’t suppose you could lend me — ”
“Of course.” I raised myself off the bed and moved past her to the wardrobe, feeling her gaze behind me. I found a thick t-shirt and a denim mini-skirt, which I handed to her. She dropped the towel, returning us for the moment to a state of nude equality. I went into the bathroom, where I put on a robe. When I came back, Amber was wearing my t-shirt and skirt. If the latter had not been a bit too wide for her, it would certainly have been too short. As it was, it hung precariously from her hips. I’m quite daring, but I didn’t envy her going out in daylight dressed like that. I offered her a pair of knickers.
“Pantihose would be better, if it’s not a lot of trouble. Tights, I mean. You’re English, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I only have stay-ups, I’m afraid. À bas les collants.” She smiled at that and accepted a pair of knickers, blue cotton and almost a match for the skirt.
“We can arrange to meet so that I can give these back.”
“Keep them. That skirt fits me perfectly, but it’s never looked as good as it does hanging off you.”
“You’re sweet. Well, that was fun.”
She kissed me, not on the cheeks as a Frenchwoman would have done, but full on the mouth, for several seconds. Her tongue flicked over my lips and briefly passed between them. I resisted the temptation to squeeze her boobs. Legrand didn’t help.
Less so, to my chagrin. I didn’t want to like this freakish doll. Instead of answering, I asked a question of my own.
“May I ask you something personal?”
“Sure. You can always ask.” But not insist on an answer.
“Are those implants?”
“Oh, yeah. A bit much, aren’t they? Sooner or later, I’m going to have them taken out. I did some modelling to pay for college and they were more or less required.”
I wondered what she did now. Her height and leanness suggested that she could still be a model but the hair struck me as a bit too trashy. I restrained myself from wondering aloud, not wanting to delay her departure. Instead, I said something along the lines of “I bet they were”.
“The thing is, they look pretty good when they’re covered up. I’ve thought about only undressing from the waist down, when I’m with somebody. Do you think that would seem really weird?”
“Not necessarily.” Certainly not to anybody who’d already seen you naked from the waist up. “I’ll see if I can find a bag for your um …”. I indicated last night’s discarded clothes.
“Oh, really, don’t worry about it. Fair exchange? You might get some use out of them.”
“Maybe I’ll see you. I’m in that bar a couple of times a week.”
“Yeah. I’ll look out for you.” Though I wasn’t planning to be back in Saint Nazaire for a few months.
And she was gone. Not from Legrand’s discourse, however.
Not just my first experience of female orgasm, but your first experience of orgasm brought on by a female. I can’t believe you’re not in a better mood about it. Remember, I felt how it made you feel. You can’t persuade me that any man is better than that!
You’re right, I can’t. She knew what to do and, I admit it, she was almost perfect at sensing when to be gentle and when to push hard. But there’s more to sex than almost perfect orgasms.
I don’t feel like discussing it. I think I’ll have a shower. Are you hungry?
My body isn’t, but you are and I don’t like how it feels. Why don’t you nip out and get yourself a couple of croissants?
I’m going to shower first. Then breakfast.
I still want to know what you mean by saying there’s more to sex than orgasms.
Maybe you’ll find out, if I get lucky.
With a man? Have you anybody in particular in mind?
Not at the moment.
Well, just so long as you get him to go down on you.
I might find it appropriate to reciprocate. Did that occur to you?
It did, and you can safely leave it to me to worry about that eventuality.
Well, worry about this, too. We still haven’t solved the problem of the hidden third party. Amber didn’t know that she was going to bed with two people, one of them a man she’d never met. Much as I disliked the girl, I wouldn’t have played a trick like that on her if I’d been in full command of my faculties. And now that I’m aware of the problem, I’m not going to be playing a similar trick on anybody else. And, as you astutely pointed out, I can’t tell any potential sexual partners what they’d be getting themselves into. So —
You’re swearing off sex for the length of our contract?
I have no choice, unless you can think of an alternative.
Thinking of alternatives is what’s made me rich. Leave it with me.
Legrand drifted into a dream state (whether waking or not I couldn’t tell) during the drive down to Bordeaux, with the result that our respective moods were somewhat at odds when I arrived there. He was relaxed and alert, I was tired from the drive, with the beginning of a headache. He didn’t object when I decided that what I needed was a hot, relaxing bath. There was a bottle of Bordeaux in the kitchen. I poured a glass and set it down on the side of the tub.
After soaking in the bath for at least forty minutes, I wrapped myself in a towelling bathrobe, poured a second large glass of wine and turned on the tv. I had decided that I wasn’t hungry and, if Legrand’s body required feeding, that would have to be done elsewhere. The apartment had a cable subscription, and my first thought was to watch an American movie on CanalPlus until I felt I couldn’t keep my eyes open, then go to sleep.
Have you ever found that too much choice can be a nuisance? The film was available in VOST (the original language — in this case American English — with subtitles in French) or VF (dubbed into French). Even where the original language is one I don’t speak — and that’s all of them apart from English, French and a smattering of Italian — I’ll nearly always opt for French subtitles rather than dubbing. In the case of an English language film, the choice is clear. M. Legrand was not in agreement. Though I knew that his English was more than adequate to follow the plot of a Hollywood crime drama, he refused to concede that there was any good reason why one would choose not to watch in VF, where VF was available. The only compromise acceptable to both of us was to watch a programme that had actually been made in French, so I switched over to France 2, which was showing the second episode of a mini-series, the first part of which neither of us had seen.
My attention drifting from the tale of a young woman returning from Paris to the Alpes Maretimes for the funeral of her father, a local lawyer and politician who had been undergoing investigation for corruption, I apologized inwardly for my fatigue and assured the internal lodger that I didn’t intend to spend every evening slumped in front of the television.
I didn’t suppose for a moment that that was your intention.
What would you like me to do?
Just what we agreed. I’d like you to live the normal life of a fit, healthy woman in her early thirties who doesn’t have any particular financial worries.
I hope you won’t be bored.
That’s very unlikely. And, if I am, it will be nothing I haven’t become used to. Please try not to worry. It’s not your responsibility to try to keep me entertained. It would be better if you could, so far as possible, forget that I’m there.
I think I’m going to have to, if I’m going to live anything like a normal life. There are a couple of things I still haven’t got the hang of.
On the way down in the car, you seemed to drift off a bit. Was that the real you, you know, in your body or was it just the consciousness in my head?
It was the real me. I had a nap but the stimulus for that came from what I was seeing through your eyes and feeling through your nervous system.
I get that you’re separate from the thing that I can feel in my head —
In fact, there are two separate things related to me going on in your head. What you’re hearing now is a form of communication. It’s me, in my grand house up near Rochefort, sending you a message over the radio waves, as if by walkie-talkie. But that’s just the secondary process. It’s there as a support system for the real magic: a little module implanted in your brain which gathers all your sensory data, everything you feel, smell, taste, see and —
Yes, think. And transmits them over the same radio waves to Rochefort where I can feel, smell, taste and see exactly what you do.
But not think my thoughts?
The aim is that I should be conscious of your experiences, but not that your consciousness should replace mine. So, your thoughts are relayed to me as a communication, kind of the counterpart to my communications to you. I assume that’s why I can’t “hear” your every thought. There’d have to be some kind of filter. But my people could certainly explain that better than I can.
So it would be possible to have the second module, the magic one, without the communication?
For me to feel your experiences and sensations without there being any feedback to let you know it was happening? Yes, of course it would. Obviously, you’d know the module was there because we’d have had to open up your skull to insert it and connect it up, and we wouldn’t dare to do that without your informed consent. But there’s no functional need for you to be constantly aware of it. We thought it would be better if you were, so that I could, for example, offer suggestions and information, or try to guide you.
Does that mean that you could turn it off, this communication layer?
In theory, yes, but we decided not to include that capability. It seemed better to leave that channel open at all times, for a variety of reasons.
But I’ve noticed, for example, that when I have a … when I go to the bathroom, you kind of fade out.
That’s automatic. Actually, we’re quite proud of that feature; we spent a disproportionate amount of time developing it.
How does it work?
Naturally, I don’t know the details. But certain nervous system activity related to the bowel causes both the primary module and the communication layer to shut down until certain other activity is detected. The shutdown of the primary module is intended to protect my sensibilities, that of the communications layer is to protect your sense of privacy.
How thoughtful. So, if I ever need to contact someone without your overhearing, I should take the telephone into the bog.
I’d still hear enough of the preparation and the aftermath to know who you were calling and to have a good idea why. But you know this isn’t about eavedropping on your personal life.
I’m going to turn in. As I’m sure you can feel, I’m exhausted. I promise that we’ll do something a bit more exciting tomorrow.
Wondering whether my guest consciousness might enjoy a swim, and my tentative notions evoking no internal objections, I drove down the N10 to Hossegor. As it turned out, the Atlantic breakers were wild enough and strong enough to make actual swimming an impossibility and, instead, I got tossed around in the surf to the point where, once or twice, I was actually afraid that I might break a bone. Much of the time, I literally didn’t know which way was up. I was slightly annoyed at having driven so far and not been able to swim, but Legrand was ecstatic. As a child, he’d adored playing in the surf and he told me that at least 60 years must have passed since he’d last done so. The upshot was that I spent more than an hour in the water — almost as long as if I’d done a 2 kilometre swim — then went for a long walk on the sand, which was in places dry and soft and very heavy going. I was very nearly exhausted by the time I got back to the car and, whether because he was in a similar state or because he could tell that it would be better not to distract me, Legrand was mute throughout the drive back to Bordeaux.
I didn’t have any particular structure to my days. My “job” now was to enable my guest to experience the France of the early twenty-first century through the eyes and other sense-organs of a woman fifty years younger than he was. The fact that the woman was not herself French was probably an advantage, though it hadn’t been essential to his original plan. He hadn’t wanted to give me too much guidance, partly because my own spontaneous inclinations and indeed whims were a part of what he wanted to experience. He wanted to be surprised, and to avoid having our joint activities directed by his own preconceptions. That, naturally, put a considerable amount of pressure on me; more than once I felt like a parent making vain attempts to keep a child occupied during the school holidays.
Legrand, of course, could feel my frustration, and tried to reassure me that I was not required to be an impresario coming up with ever more dazzling entertainments. He got quite good at just sitting back so that, though I never quite forgot that he was there, I relaxed and became less guarded. More than once, he told me that, if I was feeling the pressure to find something to do for his benefit, I should just go for a long walk. Apart from sex (which was on hold pending a resolution of what I’d termed the “hidden watcher” problem) and food and drink (about which Legrand was enthusiastic but which I felt obliged to keep under control, so as not to lose the fitness and health that had recommended me to him in the first place) most of what I’d been able to offer him so far had been physical activity in the nature of exercise. We’d been swimming, we’d walked a lot and gone for several long bike rides. I’d been thinking about taking up either tennis or squash but neither of us was overwhelmingly keen on that idea. A memory that I’d once, years ago, intended to try hang-gliding somehow surfaced, and caught the attention of my lodger.
I found that the idea still interested me, but I was at best ambivalent. Once or twice in my life, I have suffered from vertigo. Each time, it’s taken me by surprise: I’d failed to foresee both that it would happen and that the panic it induced would be so overwhelming. So you see the problem. I was afraid that I’d find myself at the top of a very steep hill, fastened to a hang-glider and suddenly overcome with panic. The last time I’d had an attack of vertigo had been during a hike in the Pyrenées, when I’d suddenly found myself at the edge of a descent steep enough to be described, at least to my mind, as a cliff. I hadn’t even been all that near the edge and I certainly hadn’t been in any danger of falling. I had been completely unable to go on and had had no choice but to retrace my steps, luckily adding no more than a couple of kilometres to the length of the hike. The thing is, I’d been in very similar situations where I might have expected to feel the same panic, but it hadn’t happened. It seemed to come only when unexpected. That being the case, I wondered whether I might forestall it by expecting it. Clearly, hang-gliding was a situation in which an attack of vertigo was to be expected. Did that mean it was precisely the kind of situation in which I was immune from the risk of panic?
The idea seemed absurd, yet something like that had happened in the case of another of my little phobias. All the nightmares that I can remember from when I was a girl had to do with being trapped in a narrow, enclosed space. For example, I dreamt that I was stuck up the chimney, unable to move, or that I’d crawled into a space between two large rocks, where there wasn’t room enough for me to turn around and yet I wasn’t able to back out the way I had come because I couldn’t see the curves and protuberances of the rocks. Knowing this about me, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that, as a nervous first-year student, I’d never have gone to see George Sluizer’s film The Vanishing, if I’d known how it ends. But nobody had warned me. I think that may be one of the reasons that I get so angry about those idiots who roam the internet, loudly complaining about what they call “spoilers”, and inhibiting most intelligent discussion of films and television programmes. Are they really such dolts that they don’t see that you can spoil a film for somebody by not telling them what it’s about?
I saw The Vanishing among a group of fellow-students at the university film club, and was quite unable to stop myself from shouting “You cunt!” at Lemorne when I realized what he’d done. I was perfectly certain that I’d have nightmares as a result of having watched the film and, frankly, I dreaded the prospect. In the 9 years since, I have never once dreamt of being buried alive, or stuck up a chimney, or trapped in a narrow cave.
So, while it might sound a bit like magical thinking, I felt there was a good chance of insulating myself from panic by expecting it. Obviously, if this were to work, it would involve a bit of quasi-religious self-deception, similar to the idea of sincere repentance: you cannot avoid knowing that, if you can manage to be sorry for your sins, not for your own sake but for God’s, you will be spared punishment for them, and this knowledge makes it all the harder to make sure that the repentance isn’t for your own sake! That’s typical of the mind games that religion plays with you, and one of the reasons I won’t have anything to do with it. My dilemma involving panic and expectation suggests that that kind of thinking isn’t confined to religion, more’s the pity.
If there had been time, I’d have undergone basic training in hang-gliding before having the technology (and Legrand’s consciousness) installed in my head. Better to have him leap into the pure experience than make him sit through the tedium of the training when he had no need for it. Better, too, I thought, to make sure that I could actually go through with it before attempting it with a passenger on board. There hadn’t been time, though, so Legrand and I were about to share the experience of learning to hang-glide, right from the very start. In view of what happened, I think it’s better that we did it that way. I’d booked lessons in a school in the Gers. As we drove there on a Tuesday morning in April, I believed that there was a very real possibility that I’d reach the top of the hill and find that I just couldn’t take the next step. I couldn’t help feeling that the awareness of that potential humiliation would leave me even more vulnerable to the risk of panic. Legrand, of course, was fully conscious of the turmoil in my emotions surrounding the twin dangers of panic and humiliation. That is one good reason why I found it hard to make allowances for his own silence on the topic, once the debacle had unfolded.
I had found out that you could start basic hang-gliding training in one of two ways: either launching off a gentle slope with the glider attached to guy-ropes or, in effect, being pulled behind what the French call a ULM and I believe is elsewhere termed a micro-light aircraft. I opted for the former. As it turned out, even with guy-ropes, the slope was nowhere near gentle enough for Legrand. Even as I shook hands with the instructor, Legrand’s voice in my head began to plead with me to turn around and call the training off. His pleas had a rising tone that verged on hysteria. As I was being strapped into the harness, he literally started to scream. I had no choice but to cry off. The instructor was a lot more understanding towards me than I was towards Legrand, attempting to assure me that vertigo is not a character defect but merely a condition that affects some people more severely than others, and often without warning.
On the drive back to Bordeaux, I made no attempt to hide my feelings from Legrand, but did not initially address any of them directly to him. I left it to him to initiate the conversation.
I can feel that you’re angry.
Then you haven’t a fucking clue. I’m not “angry”. I’m furious, livid, incandescent with rage, apoplectic and then some. You made me look like a fucking wimp. That was beyond humiliating.
My anger was, of course, exacerbated by the strong suspicion that I might easily have wimped out all by myself, without any help, external or otherwise. But I was 85% certain that I wouldn’t have done so. I’d been about to triumph over my fears, only to have been laid flat on the canvas by somebody else’s.
Why didn’t you warn me? Even a hint of what to expect?
I had no idea what to expect. I’d hoped that the knowledge — the certainty — that I wasn’t present, that I wasn’t in the slightest physical danger, would make it possible for me to control the terror, to ride it. Obviously, I got that wrong, as you saw.