A Falling Body

by Art Kavanagh

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Chapter 3 — Eros and others

During my few days in the Pyrenées, Legrand remained in the background. I walked a lot and my walks inevitably brought me close to steep drops which made me feel giddily nervous and which, I felt sure, must have made Legrand gibber with terror. He gave me no hint of his reaction. I suppose he focused his attention elsewhere, tuned me out, in so far as he could, but I had trouble imagining how his attention could avoid being drawn, however reluctantly, to the breathtaking panorama of snow, sky and rock.

There was no internet connection so, as expected, I was out of touch with the world. There was a radio in the cabin but the only station it could pick up with any clarity was devoted to inane pop music and excited chatter about local events in which I had no interest. As well as a shop, the village some 12Km away had a bar and a restaurant but I preferred to cook and eat in the cabin. I’d even brought the de Longhi with me in the car, having considered and rejected the alternative of a three-cup stainless steel moka maker. I was afraid that to have done without both the internet and proper coffee would have risked demolishing my sense of who I am. The bread from the village’s only bakery was not to my taste so I found myself attempting to eat soft cheese (Roquefort again, and a plain chèvre, which I’d brought with me) by the slice. It was messy, but delicious.

I was about 6 weeks into my arrangement with Legrand. We’d agreed that it would last initially for 6 months, with the possibility of extending it if that seemed necessary or desirable at the time. We’d considered a shorter initial period — 3 months — but both agreed that the longer time-frame was the minimum required to justify the trouble and expense of installing the feed in my head. Now, with about 20 weeks to go, I foresaw the prospect of relations becoming very strained, unless we could find a way to allay my mistrust of his intentions. Looked at objectively, the basis of that mistrust was flimsy enough. I’d come around to the view that there was little reason to think that he’d been responsible for the attempted rape. His argument that the correspondence between my nightmare and actual events required no better explanation than coincidence was, to my mind, just about persuasive. Anyway, I’d been acting on the spur of the moment when I’d decided to get off the tram a few stops early, so he couldn’t possibly have had time to ensure that my attacker would be in the right place.

The removal of the knife was also open to an innocent explanation, and Legrand’s failure or refusal to offer one was not in itself suspicious, as it was obvious to him that I was capable of working out the possibilities for myself. The most likely was that he didn’t want me to concentrate too closely on the knife because my distraction was inevitably also his. In short, Legrand’s actions were not clearly suspicious in any way.

And, if he had not had direct access to my consciousness, that would have been that. Dealing with him would have been no different from dealing with any employer, colleague or customer whose motives and desires are, naturally, opaque to oneself. The difference was that mine weren’t opaque to him, and events of the last few days had made me acutely conscious that that could put me at a disadvantage.

Surely you can understand that? I challenged him directly.

Of course.

So why can’t you do something to reassure me?

I fully intend to, when the opportunity presents itself. My problem is, how can I be sure that you’ll trust that?

Your technology is capable of more than you’ve told me. For example, you seem to know everything I’m thinking and feeling all the time, which isn’t what you said at the beginning. You told me that you could receive more than the thoughts I deliberately directed at you, but not everything. Probably just the thoughts that I was fully conscious of, that’s what you said. But it’s obviously more than that. You knew how I felt about that street fight, even though I didn’t know it myself. Just for example. And you were right.

It’s true that, as the weeks have gone by, I’ve been getting more and more from you. Much more than I’d been led to expect. But that’s not anything I’m doing — it’s you.

It’s me? What do you mean, it’s me?

You’re not holding anything back — at least, if you are, I can’t imagine what it could be. At first, I thought that you just weren’t bothering to censor things because you assumed that it was pointless, that I could overhear everything in spite of your efforts. But that’s not it. You want me to see everything. You want to be fully known.

Crap! Nobody wants that.

Ah, but they do. It’s just that they always want the opposite rather more. What I’ve come to see — and I promise you this wasn’t planned, it came as a complete surprise to me — is that I’m something of a godsend to you. An old, wheelchair-bound man who’ll soon be dead, a consciousness that will soon no longer exist, and to whom you can in the meantime expose your whole internal life.


Indeed, but true nonetheless. Take the example of your fantasies. You said yourself that you never paid much attention to them. Recently, you’ve been turning them into sustained, well formed narratives. You asked me about your dreams. It’s as if you’re willing to look closely at not-quite-conscious aspects of your life only when I’m there to look at them with you. And then you have the chutzpah to accuse me of harbouring rape fantasies.

The accusation wasn’t that you have them. Acting on them is a different matter.

I’m not responsible for that attack. And I can tell that, on a certain level, you believe me.

Well I certainly didn’t set it up! Or unconsciously invite it —

Of course you didn’t. And, just to be clear, I’m not saying that you entertain rape fantasies, consciously or otherwise. It’s just something that happened, contingently. There are would-be rapists — and actual rapists — out there and you ran into one, by simple bad luck. It happened. Trying to impose a narrative of cause and effect won’t change that. At best, it will leave you with an implausible and precarious scenario describing how the crisis might have been avoided, if everything had unfolded just so.

I was going around in mental circles. Again, I found myself asking how much I could trust Legrand. If he was to be believed, I could withhold certain parts of my mental and emotional activity from him, just as (presumably) I normally hid them from my own consciousness. But I chose not to, because I could show them to him. Perhaps, somehow, his “presence” constituted a safety valve, so that I could look at the hidden parts of myself without the fear that I’d drive myself mad. If what he said was true, I was using him as a therapist. And he was paying me for the privilege. Proper order, too. Why shouldn’t all therapists pay their patients for the insight they gained into human behaviour?

If I could take at face value what Legrand had just told me, it seemed that I could control what I showed him by being careful about what I allowed into my conscious mind. Easy, like deliberately not thinking about an elephant! And that seemed to make sense. The presence of an observer makes it more likely that one will look, to see what the observer is likely to see. And that in turn widens the area open to the observer’s scrutiny. Did Legrand expect that to happen, from the start? He claimed that it came as a surprise to him. Curiously, that claim sounded plausible to me. But, I reminded myself, plausibility is a trap. While it makes us more inclined to believe something, it does not make the thing itself more likely. It should never be confused with probability. We find things plausible for a variety of reasons, such as correspondence with our own experience or with what we’re capable of imagining.

I could see that this line of thought wasn’t bringing me to any firm conclusions, yet I couldn’t help worrying at it. One thing was becoming clearer. If I accepted Legrand’s assurance that the impulse to open up my internal life to his examination was coming from me rather than from him and his technology, it almost certainly wouldn’t change how I behaved. I wasn’t about to limit my own awareness of my motives, beliefs, assumptions and desires, assuming that that was possible, simply in order to limit his. After all, what harm could it do me for him to know who I am?

I had to be careful thinking about this. Legrand was correct in his claim that his restricted mobility and life-expectancy were among the main reasons I was willing to allow him such unlimited access. But when I’d thoughtlessly assumed, at our first meeting, that my remaining lifespan was in a sense more covetable than his, he’d permitted himself to become very angry. It was certainly true that the idea of a younger, more active man — or woman — being allowed to rummage around freely in my consciousness would have creeped me out hugely. If Legrand didn’t make me feel the same way, it was surely because I believed that he wasn’t going to be around for all that much longer; but I was wary of focusing directly on this difference, for fear of provoking him.

Legrand, however, remained in good humour and, now that relations between us had warmed a bit, he was clearly happy to continue our dialogue. The next day, on my walk, I told him that he shouldn’t hesitate to complain if I seemed to get too near the edge of a precipice or (because my own milder vertigo would have kept me away from any very steep drop) if the sheer sense of height suggested by the view became too much for him. I could sense that he was making a brave effort to avoid disrupting my walk. For the remaining day of the visit, I allowed myself to relax and to act as if I were alone.

My state of mind as I stood on Édith’s and Georges’s doorstep on Thursday evening could best be described as nervous amusement. I was there, I reminded myself, primarily as an observer, and as Legrand’s bodily representative in Pessac. I had not committed myself to anything. In truth, I wasn’t very worried about any physical activity that might take place. I’d had sex with men and (so far) one woman but never more than one at a time. This would certainly be different but in degree, not in kind. Small-group sex, I told myself, on the basis of no experience whatever, was just like software development: linear progress, one thing at a time, but presenting the impression of a tangle of complex possibilities. At least that was how I was going to treat it. If my prospective partners had been a bit more physically prepossessing than Georges and Édith, I’ve no doubt that the excitement of anticipation would have easily cancelled out any nervousness.

As it was, the nervousness I felt had less to do with any physical contact than with the likely effect on my social relations with the couple. Why that should concern me wasn’t at all obvious — certainly they weren’t my intimate friends and, if we couldn’t bear to look at each other after tonight, nothing very valuable would have been lost.

I’d reached a compromise with Legrand about the problem posed by his hidden voyeuristic presence. I was going to assume that, if Georges and Édith were regular échangistes, they were used to and comfortable with at least the possibility of being watched while they had sex. I was going to put this hypothesis to the test before anything happened. I couldn’t simply tell them that I was carrying around a male observer in my head. Apart from being a breach of my contract with Legrand, it would make me sound incurably paranoid.

Édith handed me a glass of Bordeaux Blanc and asked if I was hungry. When I said I wasn’t, she smiled and nodded. They too preferred to eat afterwards. A full meal was liable to make one lethargic and sluggish, which wasn’t at all what we wanted. She brought me into a room I hadn’t previously seen. At first glance, it seemed to be decorated identically with the séjour, except that there were plenty of towels everywhere. She placed me on a couch and sat beside me, but not too close. Georges stood in front of us, apparently waiting for an instruction. I thought that this was probably my last chance to deal with the preliminaries.

“May I ask you something before we start?”

“Of course you may,” Édith smiled, ready to assuage the anxieties of the inexperienced foreigner.

“How would you feel if there were an unknown man watching everything we do through a hidden camera, and hearing it all through a hidden microphone?”

“There isn’t. I can assure you that everything will be very private and discreet, nothing recorded, or alluded to outside this room.”

“Of course. I understand that. But would you mind if I ask you to behave as if you were being observed in that way?”

“I don’t understand. Why would you want us to do that?” This was Édith again. Georges still hadn’t spoken.

I tried to look apologetic but guess that I just managed to look embarrassed, which was close enough.

“It’s, I suppose, a fantasy. I haven’t done this kind of thing before and I thought it would be easier if I made believe that I was being extorted into it. The details aren’t clear, but I’m pretending that there’s this old man who’s threatening to torture a close member of my family — a child, bizarrely, though of course I don’t have any children — unless I do what he wants. He has an unspecified way of monitoring what I hear and see, and can pass instructions to me by way of a concealed earphone. It’s silly, I know, but fantasies usually are, in my experience.”

“We’re not ones to criticize other people’s fantasies, but I don’t see why you need to tell us about this.”

“I know it’s a lot to ask, but I wondered if you’d mind behaving as if it were true, as if we were being monitored, as a way of making the fantasy seem more real? I mean, not do anything you wouldn’t do if you were being watched?”

This was hopeless! I was trying to manipulate them into the kind of behaviour that might result if they had been warned that they were being watched, but without actually issuing any meaningful warning. Form without substance; what was the point of that? I was expecting Édith at least, and probably also Georges, to balk at my suggestion. I was asking them to accept restraints on what they were about to do, to limit their pleasures simply in order to accommodate my silly pretence. In fact — and I was surprised to find that I was so cold-blooded about their privacy, their sensibilities — it didn’t really bother me if they flatly refused: I was simply making a gesture towards warning them of the presence of an unseen observer at our proceedings. But, to my surprise, Édith merely laughed.

“Ah, I believe I understand. You are worried about what might happen, that things might get out of control, so you’ve introduced this imaginary, all-seeing extortionist to set the limits. Of course, Georges and I have no problem with that, but it would be more practical to agree in advance on a safeword, which is something I had been about to suggest in any case. In the circumstances, might I suggest observateur? You understand the principle of a safeword?”

I confirmed that I did, though I’d never previously had occasion to use one. However, since we were all speaking French, I suggested that the English “watcher” as an alternative to observateur.

“‘Watcher’ is good. Georges, why don’t you take your clothes off?”

She and I watched from the couch as George undressed. He did so unhurriedly, though without any attempt to draw the process out, as in a striptease. He’d been wearing shoes and socks, which he removed first, then continued methodically, draping each garment over the back of a chair without folding it and ending with his briefs, which at first he couldn’t get clear of his left foot and which nearly tripped him up. He was in better shape than I’d have expected; in fact, I thought he might be one of those men who, even at his age, looked better out of his clothes than he did in them. He had hair — not an excessive amount — on his chest, groin and legs, all of it noticeably less grey than that on his head. His thighs were muscled and when he turned, at his wife’s instruction, to get the wine bottle and top up our glasses, I noted that his backside was shapely and didn’t sag.

Feel free to chip in with suggestions, even instructions. Like where you want me to direct my gaze.

Just do what takes your fancy, Legrand replied. You’re in the driving seat.

I kicked my shoes to one side and rolled my stay-ups off. I’d already taken out my earrings without noticing and placed them on a small table to the side of the couch. I’d wait for Édith’s lead before taking off any more clothes.

“Good idea, the stockings,” she said. “I don’t have the confidence — or the thighs — to wear stockings without a suspender belt and I dislike those contraptions even more than I do tights.”

She placed her hand on my thigh and pushed my skirt up, nodding her approval at my lack of knickers. I’d probably have worn a pair for the occasion but for the fact that I hadn’t brought any to Bordeaux, and I couldn’t see the point of buying some specially. Georges was back with the bottle and filling my glass. The sight of his wife’s hand high up on my thigh, partly exposing my crotch, seems to have had an instant effect on his penis, which had up to now been at best semi-erect. I leant forward and touched his frenulum with the tip of my tongue. Georges emitted a sound somewhere between a gasp and a moan, and quickly put the bottle down on the table. Édith uttered a non-verbal expression of curiosity and interest mixed with caution. Legrand kept his reaction to himself.

I slid off the couch onto my knees, grasped Georges by the back of his thighs and pulled him towards me. Jacob always used to maintain that I’m useless at giving head (his terminology). According to him, the whole point was to use one’s tongue to stimulate the very sensitive patch at the front of the shaft, just below the glans. For this, the woman had to be directly in front of the man; no other position would work. Right, I’d respond. In other words, on her knees. Whether he’s upright or lying flat on his back, her position is very definition of submission, even of subjection. No thanks. Instead, it had been my habit to approach him from the side as he lay in bed, resting my head on his stomach. Jacob claimed repeatedly, and with hypocrisy that I could taste, that that just didn’t do it for him. Why was it OK, he wanted to know, for him to position himself between my legs to get his tongue in contact with my clitoris but not for me to do the equivalent? If it would be unacceptably submissive for me, why wasn’t it for him? What was the fucking difference? At least a thousand years of patriarchy, I’d answered. “You only believe in that patriarchy bollocks when it suits you!” was Jacob’s routine answer, before he lapsed into a sulk.

The truth was that Jacob never felt he was abasing himself when he put his mouth between my legs because it fed his sense of power and accomplishment. And I was fine with all of that. He was skilled with his tongue and fingers, why shouldn’t he take pride in his skills? But it simply doesn’t take very much skill or proficiency to get a man off, so why would anybody want to make a big deal of her accomplishment in that area? The equivalence that Jacob claimed to see between his “position” and the one he wanted me in was completely illusory.

The fact is that Jacob didn’t enjoy having oral sex done to him nearly as much as he enjoyed doing it to a woman — particularly one who responded like I did. That would have made us an ideally suited couple, if only he’d acknowledged the fact. But, seeing how much it did for me, Jacob felt that he ought to be enjoying the same kind of pleasure and, since he wasn’t, he concluded that I must be doing it wrong, and therefore depriving him of something he had a right to expect.

Increasingly often, when I’d got my breath back after an orgasm, I’d raise my head from the bed and move it towards his crotch, only to have him pull me back down beside him, muttering something placatory or simply that he was tired. After a time, I began to deflect his descending head too, resenting the silent implication that my pleasure was the only thing that mattered in our bedroom. And so our sex-life wasted away. For a time, we still sometimes masturbated each other but we soon accepted that it was more satisfactory (easier, for example, for him to anticipate his ejaculation than it was for me) if we each did ourself, lying side by side. This state of simultaneous connection and disconnection — each moving in parallel but independently towards a similar but separate goal — was at once excitingly transgressive, pleasurable and profoundly sad.

With this history, I was a little bemused and surprised to find myself kneeling in front of a naked man, someone I knew slightly but not well, stimulating him with hard little flicks of my tongue, while his wife leant forward so as not to miss anything. Knowing that Legrand was sharing in my experience made this acceptable, even enjoyable, not because I wanted to force him into a submissive role (he had, after all, been conciliatory and reassuring in the mountains) but because this no longer felt like it was nothing more than the woman’s subordinate position.

You can use the same safeword: watcher.

Legrand confirmed that this was acceptable and told me to ignore him unless he intervened directly.

And so I find myself with a dilemma. I don’t want to describe what happened between Édith, Georges and me but equally I don’t want to appear coy or prudish. I am neither, and to present the impression of being one or the other is to risk misleading you gravely. The fact is, I detest the words we use to describe sex and the body parts which engage in it. An important fact that you ought to know about me is that I don’t have any religious beliefs. There is no god, there are no angels or devils, no spiritual dimension. No heaven or hell. Nothing exists which does not comply with the laws of physics — which may, however, be much more wonderfully strange than we can easily imagine. Good and evil are not forces or qualities. They’re nothing more than categories which we use to classify what we do, depending on whether it increases or decreases the amount of suffering in the world. Above all, I don’t believe in sin — but with, I’ve just realized, one significant exception: original sin is either real or it is a perfectly apt metaphor for a state of being which certainly exists.

One of the consequences of original sin is that we, humans, have irrecoverably forgotten the true words for sexual activity and — what an exquisite punishment! — for some of the most important organs of our own bodies. When we try to talk about it we typically find ourselves falling back on words that are short, hard, aggressive and nasty: prick, dick, cock, screw — make your own list. Could this terminology have been adopted by people who actually liked, enjoyed or approved of sex, who weren’t repelled by their own desires? The example par excellence is the word “tit”: a tiny, unyielding pellet which one can utter only by spitting it out, and the very antithesis of the thing to which it applies. Simply to say the word, in any context, is to perform an aggressively misogynistic speech-act, irrespective of the intention (or, indeed, the sex) of the speaker.

On the other hand, if we eschew the short, hard words, we sound as if we’re being euphemistic, avoiding direct expression out of embarrassment, attempting to prettify the act and minimize its significance. Even the anatomic terms sound evasive, which shows how twisted our ideas about sex are.

Then there are the words and expressions — “cum”, “go down on” — which contrive to seem evasive without being coy: they’re nasty and belittling, yet not expressive of anything but distaste and discomfort. And anyone who would enunciate “vajayay” or any of its cognates, even “ironically”, is in my firm opinion a cunt.

I love sex, but I hate to speak or write about it, still more to hear or read what others have said or written. That it should be so seems to me a fundamental contradiction in human nature, or at least in mine. But perhaps there’s an evolutionary imperative to this. Maybe if we could speak about sex, accurately and acceptably, we wouldn’t feel quite so urgently the need to do it.

While I was busy with Georges, Édith had unzipped my skirt and let it fall to the ground around my knees. She’d also pushed up the back of my top and unfastened my bra. Finished with him, I stood up, picked up my skirt and put it on the chair which held Georges’s clothes. I pulled the bra straps down through the armholes in my top and over my hands, so that I could get the bra out without taking off the top, which was now the only thing I was wearing. Édith was still fully dressed except her jacket and shoes. I caught Georges’s eye and we wordlessly agreed that neither of us would start to undress her, but we’d wait to see how long it was before she took her own clothes off.

Édith put her arms around Georges and kissed him. I was reminded of something I’d seen on the beach at Hossegor not long before: a naked man walking with a woman who wore a t-shirt and bikini bottoms. Some of the time they held hands, letting go when one of them stumbled in the soft sand. At one point they stopped, the woman turned towards the man and kissed him, much as Édith had just done to Georges. I’d found the tableau curiously arousing. The juxtaposition of nakedness and (admittedly minimal) clothing suggested that some kind of power relation was in operation but it seemed impossible to be sure what it was. Did the naked person have more power in the relationship than the clothed one, or less? And would it have made a difference if the woman had been the naked one and the man dressed? There were clear and obvious answers to these questions but I was delighted to discover that they were mutually contradictory. Perhaps the power relation shifted from moment to moment.

That this was happening on a public, relatively busy beach had added a further imponderable. The French have a curious (and inevitably rulebound) approach to naturism, seeming for the most part to regard it as a subcategory of tanning. A significant minority of the people on the beach were practising naturism but, with the exception of the young, buff and presumably gay males, they mostly just lay on their towels and got browner. I even saw one man put on his swimsuit before going into the sea to swim, which seemed to me to miss most of the point of being on a beach without any clothes on; as if he expected the sensation of his body gliding through sun-warmed, moon-drawn water to be enhanced by a scrap of wet polyamide which clung to his middle.

Families were particularly intriguing. I noticed at least two where the father was completely naked and the mother wore only a minuscule string, while the teenage daughters kept both parts of their bikinis firmly in place, even when tanning their backs. The sons, if there were any, were not present. I imagined that they were off surfing, most likely dressed in dragging, bulky, below-the-knee board shorts.

Georges and Édith were older and less physically impressive than the couple on the beach but the imbalance in their state of dress was having its effect on my state of arousal. Édith eventually pulled away and turned towards me.

“Is your extortionate voyeur happy so far?”

“I’ll ask him,” I said, and mentally interrogated Legrand. “He’d like to watch you get undressed,” I told Édith. ”Of course, he doesn’t have any hold over you, so he can’t force you to comply.”

“But he does have a hold over you, so you’ll have to persuade me.”

“How can I do that?”

“I have an idea about that. But it’s a two-part process. First, tell Georges and me your favourite fantasy.”

So I told them the one about the two men, one fucking me from behind while the other licks me. “I don’t think it would be very practical in real life.”

“We could have fun finding out. That’s the second part of the deal I was about to propose. We’ll act out your fantasy. If you agree to that, I’ll strip for the delectation of M. le Voyeur.”

I agreed, but suggested that Édith should be the woman in the middle and I should adopt the role of the man with the tongue. Since the extortionist was, according to the fantasy, looking at things from my point of view, it surely made sense for me to take one of the male roles, leaving the female one to Édith. This agreed, Édith stood directly in front of me at a distance of barely 2 metres, and performed a skilled and provocative striptease which appeared to last many times longer than it could possibly have taken to remove six garments. Legrand left me in no doubt of his approval.

Georges’s approval was evident without having to be spoken. He had spread a large towel on the floor and taken a cushion off one of the chairs to use as a pillow. He lay flat on the towel and his wife straddled him, facing towards his feet. With a lot of awkwardness and obvious difficulty, they arranged themselves so that Edith was leaning back against Georges as far as she could, supporting herself with her arms stretched out behind her. In this position, nearly half of Georges’s shaft was outside her vagina. I crouched on top of Georges’s feet, my knees outside his legs and inside Édith’s, and licked my way along the length of these precariously united genitals, from balls to clitoris. I repeated this action a couple of times but soon, unable to overlook Édith’s physical instability, I was concentrating my attention at the top end, barely conscious of the proximity of a male crotch. I wondered how it appeared to Legrand.

Describe what you’re experiencing, now.

I don’t have the words. Nobody does: you said so yourself.

I don’t mean give me an account of what’s happening physically. I’m seeing, tasting and smelling that for myself. I want you to tell me what you’re feeling.

I don’t have the words for that, either.

In truth, as far as I could tell, it wasn’t very satisfactory. Édith obviously found it difficult to maintain her position and I guessed that her inability to relax was making orgasm unlikely. Soon, and apparently spontaneously, we had shifted our bodies into a different arrangement. And then, by turns, several others.

Needing to recover, we sprawled languorously on the couches, the Rohans in coordinated silk peignoirs, me with a towel loosely tied around my waist. I apologized for the disappointing realization of my fantasy.

“All’s well that ends well,” Édith smiled. “Anyway, it was obviously worth a try and, if it wasn’t a total success, that was hardly your fault. I was the one who suggested putting a fantasy into practice.”

“I’m more interested in your other fantasy,” Georges interjected. “The one with the extortionate voyeur. Was that suggested by anything in particular?”

I don’t like being called the extortionate voyeur, Legrand told me. For one thing, I’m paying you, not extorting you.

They’re not talking about you. He’s just a fantasy figure I invented to see how they felt about performing in front of a clandestine observer.

“Nothing in particular that I can think of,” I answered Georges’s question. “I haven’t been involved in a threesome before. I was a bit afraid that I might panic and not be able to go through with it. He was just a way of making myself feel as if I had no choice.”

This was mostly lies, of course. It was true that I’d never been part of a threesome, but I’d had absolutely no fear that I might run away in a panic. To my own ears, my story sounded utterly unconvincing. It turned out that Édith didn’t buy it either, but that didn’t lead her to suspect my actual motives.

“I don’t see how that would work. You couldn’t avoid knowing that the extortionist was nothing more than your own fantasy, so the awareness that you needed to be pressured (if, indeed, you did) would make you more likely to give in to any fear you might have, not less. At least that is how it would work with me. No, I think you were afraid that a few hours of sex with such a bourgeois couple would become unbearably dull, and you invented the invisible malevolent presence merely to spice things up a little.”

I laughed at her astuteness.

“I wasn’t afraid of being bored, and I assure you that I haven’t been — but otherwise you’re right. A little added piquancy rarely goes amiss.”

Georges had the impression that the fantasy hadn’t crystallized into a definite story. At first, I’d spoken of a hidden camera and microphone but later I’d given the impression that I was thinking in terms of somebody who could see things from my point of view and perhaps even feel the same sensations as I did. The fantasy was developing even as I acted it out. He was curious as to why this should be. If I had been going to end up with the all-knowing, coercive mind-reader, why not go for that right from the start?

Again, I laughed. “It’s my work. I have to try, at least, to make use of technology that already exists, before falling back on wishful thinking.”

“Even in a fantasy? Surely that’s exactly the right place for wishful thinking?”

“Of course, and I always seem to end up there eventually, but I have to start with something closer to stark realism. It’s just a rule I make myself observe. A kind of superstition, I suppose.”

“The thing about realism is that, while the camera and microphone might be technologically or materially more realistic, the all-knowing mind-reader is psychologically more so. Can’t you see that? The first merely gets to see what’s in front of the camera and to hear what the microphone picks up. What’s his motive, and why would he be happy with that? Whereas the other guy gets to see what you see, share your experiences, everything. No mystery as to his motives.”

“What does he want, then?” Édith asked the question I didn’t dare ask while Legrand could overhear.

“What does he want? Let’s work it out. You said he’s old. How old?”

“I don’t think I’ve thought about the exact age. Late 90s maybe.”

You see? It’s not you we’re talking about.

“Ah, right. So not mobile. Maybe confined to bed?”

“Eh, yeah.”

Or a wheelchair.

“Then it’s obvious. He wants to experience being young again. Young and active. Ah!”

“Yes?” This was Édith, recognizing the symptoms of her husband being struck by a good idea.

“This is a fantasy, of course. It doesn’t have to have a plot arc, as a scenario would; it doesn’t even need to have a plot. But it’s clear that it’s a fantasy which is evolving, turning into something more like a real story.”

“Go on.”

“Well, it’s just that a fantasy can be — usually is — fragmented. There’s no need for it to be coherent, no pressure on it to take shape. That’s not what it’s for. A story needs more. It needs to develop.”

“And how would Andrea’s story develop? What would be its shape?”

“Think about it. Our old man — let’s call him Levieux to make it easier — wants to experience activity, movement, youth — ”

“Beauty,” added Édith, smiling at me.

“Indeed, and from the perspective of someone of the other sex. What does all that add up to?”

“From his point of view, everything, I’d have thought.” Édith was clearly excited by the idea.

“Everything! That’s right. That’s it exactly! And what does the experience of everything culminate with?”

I immediately knew the answer, but didn’t want to say it.

“Come on, it’s obvious. What comes at the end of everything?”

“Death,” I whispered.

“Exactly! You said that he’s a very old man. He can’t have much longer to live. Maybe he’s afraid of death; he certainly wouldn’t be the first. So maybe he wants a dress rehearsal. A not-so-dry run. He wants to know what it feels like. To discover and remember, while he’s still alive, what it’s like to die. And for that he’ll have to have his target — I mean you, the fantasy you — killed.”

“So he’ll know what to expect when his own time comes.”

“He’d be the first person in history to do so. It might even have practical benefits. It might help him to decide whether to commit suicide or to wait it out, hang on for as long as possible.”

Édith shuddered. “Creepy.”

“Very. I feel relieved that the technology that would make this possible doesn’t exist and, in all likelihood, never will. But that’s where the arc of your fantasy-story is leading, Andrea. Are you all right?”

As Georges had elaborated on my story’s “arc”, I hadn’t bothered to ask Legrand to deny it, and he hadn’t done so. I wouldn’t have believed him if he had.