Gail Godwin

Book Excerpt

PerfectionistsThe Perfectionists
A Novel

Published 1970


He had been sitting in an armchair, half in shadow, speaking to a group of intellectuals. They were Mensa people, the high-IQ society. Dane was doing clubs for the society magazine she worked for. A Mensa meeting was no news to such a magazine, but old Lady Jane Rotherhall, who happened to be a member, was. The meeting was being held at her Bloomsbury Square town house.

Dane arrived late, pleasantly high from her previous assignment at the Dorchester: an annual get-together of a horse breeders' society. Having dined and drunk with cheerful, ruddy outdoor types, she was not looking forward to a pallid, cerebral little gathering -- and a speech to listen to. Lady Jane, an elderly spinster in a drab hostess gown, met her at the door. "I'm afraid the speaker has begun," she said, leading her on tiptoe toward the drawing room, where a dozen or so middle-aged people sat in a circle around a man in an armchair, a dark-haired man in his thirties. "Dr. Empson is some sort of psychiatrist," Lady Jane whispered. "He is speaking about ESP. Fascinating. Oh dear, I'm afraid there are no chairs left."

"I don't mind sitting on the floor," said Dane.

 "You don't? Really? Well, go up front, at least." 

Dane, feeling rather bold in this drab group, slipped easily through the chairs and dropped to the rug at his feet. He looked down at her with mild curiosity just as he was saying, "Couldn't our memories be a form of telepathy -- with our selves of yesterday?"

He spoke in a low, persuasive voice, like a father or a teacher instructing children. His voice was years older than he was. There was something different about him. His craggy features, which could have been bucolic on another, were charged with a zealous, sensitive energy. His black hair had the carelessly combed look of a genius. His dark liquid eyes snapped and glistened from behind his glasses with the fire of one who has seen, and come back from, a vision.

For a long time, Dane had been on the lookout for, if not an actual vision, at least an event charged with meaning which would signal the turning point of her life. Not only would she recognize it intellectually, but her very guts should respond to it. Like Jacob's angel, it would jostle her to her core and she would be transformed. She had expected the loss of virginity to be such a thing; but it had carried no more "charge" than having her tooth filled, and was about as painful. She had hoped to feel it when she arrived in a foreign country, completely on her own -- except for a few of her father's connections left over from his London tour of duty during the war; nothing. During her year in this place, she had gone out with an assortment of men who had promised to be interesting, eccentric or exciting upon first acquaintance; they had all turned out to be disappointments. Where, then, did ecstasy hide? She read James's Varieties of Religious Experience, underlining as she went along. The heroines in her favorite novels all met their destinies face to face: Rochester galloping out of the fog knocked Jane Eyre down. The heroes had their epiphanies -- sometimes several: one for each stage along life's way. Mary Magdalene saw the risen Christ and even the working girls in ladies'-magazine fiction achieved their Great Event. When, when would she ever find the reality greater than the dream?

"There was a curious experiment done, recently in America," said Dr. Empson from his armchair, his British voice deferentially casing over the consonant in such a way that she felt he was paying her a compliment. "A pair of twins were separated. Each was placed a dark room. The light was turned on in one room. But the alpha waves of the twin in the dark responded to the light." He looked confidently about the room, sure of his effect. Members nodded to one another. As he surveyed his audience, his profile went suddenly sharp and shrewd. He was an innovator, running through an experiment. Dane thought of Mephistopheles. But then he turned and she saw his full face. His mouth curved gently, with the benevolence of an evening speaker who simply wished to share something with his listeners, something they might enjoy. Which was he? Maybe both. He wore a dark-blue polo-necked sweater. A doctor in a polo sweater. His hands were strong, expressive, with incredibly long fingers. No ring. He seemed to know much more than he was saying. She wondered what it would be like to marry such a man.

Afterward at the refreshment table, she approached him, still confident from horse breeders' whiskey. "Look," she said, touching his sleeve, then making him wait until she chewed and swallowed a ham biscuit and washed it down with sherry. "I don't know how to say this, exactly, but you have made me have some extraordinary thoughts this evening." Which was partially true. But it worked.

"Oh?" He looked down at her with real interest. "For example?"

"Oh, you make me feel that there is . . . another aristocracy in your country. An aristocracy of awareness. You're a member of it, of course -- "

"Well, thank you." He smiled at her as one would at a child who has delivered a pretty compliment.

"No, no, that's not all. God, it would take all night to say what I mean."

"That's fine," he said. "I'd like to take you home. But would you mind riding on the back of a Vespa? Have you ever done that?"

"No, but I adore doing things I've never done before."

"Good girl," said Dr. Empson.

That Vespa ride, on the evening of their meeting, had been the nearest she'd got to her Peak Experience. There was one pellucid moment -- she could still go back and recapture it. They had been careening just toward the first lion at the bottom of Trafalgar Square; she held tightly to the rough knit around his waist, a little frightened of the speed but loving its thrill. And she looked between the space where the wind had separated his hair into two blue-black wings and pressed her full face at the cold sky and felt she was at last aboard some terrible and wonderful machine driven by a dark angel who would take her, whether she balked or not, to her destiny. I made him ask me, she thought. They shot under the Admiralty Arch and roared down the deserted pink-cobbled Mall, straight toward where the flag announced the Queen was sleeping, and Dane, who now felt she could do anything, laid her cheek flat against this strange man's broad back, and at once his elbows closed down upon her arms in response. Possibly that was to be the best moment she would ever have with him.

At that time, Dane had just won an increase in salary and had moved to a spacious one-room flat on the upper floor of an old Cheyne Walk house. It was the sort of place she had always wanted: a large room, all her own, with upholstered window seats in the bay windows and a view to look at which would change from minute to minute. Now she had it. Her windows faced the bend in the river just below Albert Bridge where a dozen or so highly individualized houseboats clustered. At night, she loved to pull the heavy velvet curtains and then climb in beneath them, onto her window seat, and be able to watch the people in the houseboats and the boats going up and downriver, without their seeing her. The bay windows jutted out from the house, making it seem that she was floating through the black sky, watching the world from her warm, carpeted bubble, which also had a little kitchen (where she kept books on the shelves meant for cans) and even an American-style bathroom.

She had just moved in the week before and he was the first man to enter here. She was interested in his reactions to the luxurious gray-green carpet, the abundance of comfortable chairs and polished tables, the antique writing desk with pigeonholes, the framed hunting prints on the ivory-colored walls. It was not the sort of place many young single working girls usually lived in. But he went in, pleasantly enough, sat down in one of the comfortable chairs she offered, declined a whiskey, and made no comment at all on her lovely room. He didn't seem to notice it. She decided his own place must be a hundred times superior and he refrained from commenting on her modest quarters out of politeness.

"Won't you at least drink some coffee?" she urged. The Trafalgar Square mood was slipping away. She had trapped this rare creature and got him to her flat and now she had no idea what to do with him.

"If it's no trouble, I'd like some," he said. He seemed perfectly at his ease. She hurried to the little kitchen to put on some water. Just as she was filling the kettle, he appeared in the doorway. "What I like about you is, you haven't closed down," he said, out of the blue. "Most people, by the time they're twenty or so, have hardened into what they'll remain for the rest of their lives. But somehow it's missed you. You haven't given up."

"What makes you say that?" She was amazed. She turned to face him. They were very close in the little kitchen. "How can you tell that?" She wasn't sure what he meant, even.

He laughed. "It was easy. Seeing things like . . . what I saw in you is my business. Oh, you're a soul on the prowl, all right." But he was looking at her with a sort of amused affection. Her social flutterings were calmed.

She began to ask him questions, things she really cared about. They sat side by side in her window seat, above the dark river. Lights hung from the cables of the bridge; they glittered as the bridge swayed in the night wind. "Have you ever had a vision?" she asked. "Has there ever been a perfect illuminated moment in your life when you knew the universe was speaking personally, just to you?"

He laughed. "I have them every day."

"Oh, you're making fun of me."

"No. I'm serious. Visions have been there, will be there, for all times. What we're lacking in our time are men who can see. You can have them. It's simply a matter of recognizing what is already there."

"Could you help me to . . . recognize?"

He thought about this. "Perhaps I could," he said, pondering her with the great brown eyes. He didn't seem to see a girl, rather attractive, long-limbed, blue-eyed, with the latest fashion in shoes and a suit cut in Paris. He saw, she believed -- what was it he had said? -- "a soul on the prowl." He seemed to look straight into the vast secret core of her that contained all her best possibilities.

"You make everything -- but what matters -- seem so phony!" she cried. "You just bore into it with those X-ray eyes and show it for what it is. I'm a phony, in a lot of ways."

"You weren't phony when you approached me," he said. "You knew what you wanted to say, you came up and said it. I liked that. All you need is to sort out what you're for and what you're against. Then live by that. You seem to do it now, more than most." And he smiled at her again, approvingly.

After he'd gone, she remembered how she hadn't liked his teeth when he smiled. They were dusky and grew inward, like so many Britishers'; they were her first disappointment about him. But then a week passed and there was no word from him and first her pride was hurt and she focused on the teeth to assuage it. After that she began idealizing him, and the teeth, the slight limp she had noticed when he crossed her room, anything she could remember became a touchpoint over which she could linger nostalgically: the way he had of cradling his coffee cup, as though he needed to warm his hands; those airy gestures he made with his fingers, which seemed to accompany some inner vision. She pictured him dressed in a suit, sitting behind a large impressive desk, his hands folded attentively as he listened to a patient. And the picture hurt her -- in the same way it used to tear her heart out to watch her boyfriends play in a football game -- because there was this man, involved in something which had nothing to do with her. To torture herself, she looked up his name in the directory. He lived within fifteen minutes' walking distance! She imagined herself dialing his number, saying coyly, "Remember me?" and interrupting him at just the wrong time, and him saying, "I wonder, could I ring you back later? I'm in the midst of something rather urgent," and she cringed with humiliation, as though this had really happened. She imagined herself walking to his street, just to look at his house, and bumping into him coming out of it with another woman. "Um, were you, coming to see me?" he would ask politely, and the woman on his arm would smile aloofly, waiting for him to get done with this bothersome girl.

Another week passed. She began to lose the reality of him, of the evening altogether. She vacillated between thinking: He was too special, so of course he wouldn't have wanted me, and: What was so special about him, anyway? She gave a buffet dinner at her new place and invited some people from the magazine and a couple of young attachés from the American Embassy, who were square but who always brought her good whiskey from the PX. Back in the flurry of her schedule, she saw the rather cold oddity of him. An older couple, friends of her father, invited her for a weekend at their country house. She sat around the garden, commenting on their daffodils and drinking gin and tonics and entertaining them with highly exaggerated anecdotes about the odd birds she met during the course of her job.

"There was this mad doctor lecturing on ESP to the Mensas; he insisted on taking me home on the back of his scooter and told me he had a vision every day and, what was more, he could make me have them, too," she heard herself say gaily, and wondered why lightning didn't strike her.

"Better watch that sort," her host had cautioned, going on to talk of his own niece, how she'd been slipped LSD in a drink at a party. He was a military man, a career officer like her father, a little stodgy, but comforting. For all Dane knew, Dr. Empson might be a hophead.

On the following Saturday came his letter. It was written in black ink on gray paper in an irregular schoolboyish scrawl. It said, simply:

I've thought about this since I left you. I am quite sure, now. All the potential is there for us to create a shared universe greater than either of us could make (or explore) alone. I never had this certainty with anyone before.

It was signed John Empson, and that was all.

She went over and over those four sentences, her heart beating uncomfortably. So he hadn't forgotten her. Far from it, it seemed. But what was this formidable announcement? Was he asking her to marry him? He hadn't even addressed her by name in the letter. No "Dear . . ."; not even a date. The postmark said the letter had been mailed at 3 p.m. the day before. Maybe not marriage. Maybe this was his curious way to offer her a platonic friendship.They could go on field trips together in search of visions. Never had that certainty with anyone before, had he? What had she said to impress him so? She went back over their conversation. She had given him a rather agreeable fashion show of the many facets of her mind. He was probably attracted to her sexually as well, only didn't want to admit it. She imagined him making love to her. Except for those earnest brown eyes, it came across in the style of Bluebeard. She shivered with thrill and recoil, went and poured herself a drink, and walked up and down her big carpeted room. The gray sheet of paper fluttered in her hand like a bleak bird restless to return with her answer. What answer? The letter hadn't asked for one. If anything, it assumed the existence of an answer before the question was asked. God, it almost seemed as if she had asked the question and he had thought about it for three weeks and sent an answer. Damn him, how dare he assume! A dozen games clicked into her mind which could shatter him with uncertainty and make him reassess his facile assurance. If she let three weeks pass, say, then sent him a light little note, inviting him to tea, and invited some others to come as well! He would wonder: Does she want me? Did she want him? She wanted to be given the choice of wanting or not wanting him, to be handed in toto the bundle of his quirks and qualities and go leisurely through, sorting and sifting and deciding for herself while he waited for her verdict. But this: it was a bid to a secret, exclusive society to which you couldn't ask to know the special handshake, the private rituals before joining. He had put it on another level, where she didn't know her footing. She couldn't stand the possibility that she might forfeit perhaps her greatest opportunity by playing inferior games. She went out, got a taxi and gave his address, which of course she knew by heart. No longer in doubt of being welcomed, she would simply go and see what he had in mind. Nobody could make her do anything.

His house was, situated on a cheerful square, very much as she'd imagined it from the outside. It was a row house on a well-kept street in a fashionable part of town; exactly what a young doctor should have. She used the brass knocker, which could have used some polish. When no one responded, she rang the bell. Presently she heard steps muffled by carpet. The door heaved once, twice. A man, unshaven, stood before her in a woolen bathrobe. He squinted into the bright light.

"Oh, it is you!" she said, finally recognizing him. "You looked different without your glasses." But she felt wrong; he looked startled. She could see past him into the hall of the house. It was a brownish dark.

"Yes, I see," he said then. "You must have got my letter." His eyes were velvety soft, slightly unfocused without the glasses. He seemed to be trying hard to get himself together.

"Why don't I come back, when you're more awake?" she said, a bit irritated at the awkwardness of the situation.

"No, please. I've been awake. I've been sitting around playing chess by myself. Please come in. I had rather hoped you might ring up or come around." Now he looked as if he were afraid she'd go away.

"If you're sure . . ." She went ahead of him into the dark hall.

"Upstairs. The part down here is for patients." He indicated she should go up some carpeted stairs into an even gloomier part of the house.

The hall above had massive walnut bookcases on either side. The books didn't seem to be in any particular order. She saw medical books, novels, psychology, science fiction paperbacks, all mingled.

"In here,," he said, opening a door and going ahead of her into a room where everything seemed to be shades of brown. All the furniture looked like the sort which had once belonged in much bigger rooms -- except for a garish lime-green sofa, which was newer than anything in the room and made of some synthetic material. There was one enormous canvas hanging over a buffet. It was an abstract, done all in blacks and whites, rather sinister. It did nothing to warm the room. Dane took all this in instantly and was heavily disappointed. If this were her house, she would call the Salvation Army and say, "Come pick up all this furniture," then she would have men come and scrub the place from top to bottom and paint all the walls white. After that, she'd begin again. This room, for instance, looked out on a cheerful square, where beds of red tulips shimmered in the late May sunshine. Why not have curtains the color of the tulips? They would look perfect against the freshly painted white walls --

"Won't you sit down?" he said, calling her back to the room with yellow walls and dark-green curtains.

She sat down on the garish sofa, because it looked the most uncluttered place. There was a unique-looking chess set laid out beneath her on the floral carpet.

"What a lovely set!" she cried.

"Yes," he agreed. "I was just having a game when you arrived."

"With yourself! How can you play with yourself?"

"Easy. Pretend to be two people." He stood looking down at her calmly while she bent to finger the pieces, each of which was individually carved. In fact, it was not really a set at all. She couldn't understand how he played with them. Every piece was the same color. All the faces were rosy, flesh-toned, like little people. Where was the distinction between sides?

"I'll get you some coffee," he offered.

"No, don't bother -- "

"I was about to have some myself. It's made."

"Well, okay, I would like it, then."

He all but bolted from the room in the old woolen bathrobe. He came back dressed in a pair of old trousers and the same navy sweater, coffee sloshing from a mug held in each hand, his glasses on, his pale face bearing signs of a hasty shave. He sat down beside her on the sofa. "My letter made sense to you, then."

"It was a challenge," she said cautiously.

"You're a girl who likes challenges," he replied easily.

"I never thought I'd see you again,." she said, veering off.

"Didn't you really?"

"No. People like you happen only in novels."

"I see." He looked pleased. "How do you account for me now, then?"

"I'm not sure. But you make me want to read on."

"That's everything with a person like you," he said smiling.

"I love your chess set," she repeated.

"I do, too. A former patient of mine carved it. A young Yugoslav. We used to play. It's not an ordinary set, you see. It's a set consisting entirely of his own myths. He saw these myths as negative or positive, in terms of his own life. The interesting part was this: he never told me which piece was negative and which was positive. I, as the person who knew him best, had to guess which piece was which to him. If I failed, I was penalized at the beginning of the game by forfeiting the piece, since it was never mine in the first place."

"Wait, I don't understand," said Dane, becoming excited.

"Look: at the beginning of a chess game, each person sets up his pieces, right?"


Good. So say I decide to take the positive pieces. I'm pretty confident in reaching for his black-hooded queen with the snake coiled round her waist, because as his therapist I have come to know what that queen represents. And although a mysterious, sinister figure to some, this queen I know to be generative for him, therefore positive. So far, so good? Then, however, say I take this piece, the Green Knight -- you know him? -- for positive because I myself associate it with positive connotations: fertility, rebirth, so on. Well, when I did do this, I lost the Green Knight because it happened to be a negative myth for Pavel. He took it over to his side and removed the knight I should have chosen: this white crusader with his red cross. I was without one of my knights at the start of the game. Yet, a week later, these knights had reversed their roles in his life, and I ended up losing my knight again!"

"But that's so nebulous," protested Dane. "How can you play a game where the rules keep changing?"

"That's the most interesting kind," he said. "I'm sorry Pavel died. I've found no one since with such an exciting mind. I go on playing with his set, imagining he's sitting across the board, but it's not the same. I often beat this Pavel; the living one was always changing, one step ahead of me."

"But how did he die?"

"Shot himself one morning."

"But why?" She was incensed. Shouldn't the doctor save his patient?

"He had this theory about a time shield. He believed if one could manage to get behind it, one could join the world of spirit with the world of matter. That may sound deluded to you. But, in his own terms, I think he killed himself in a moment of profound joy."

"God." She shivered, close to tears. "Just hearing about him makes him seem so real -- almost as if I knew him. I can just see him: a thin, proud young man. Blond. His clothes don't fit properly. Very big eyes, rather haunted. He's holding himself in, squeezing tighter and tighter until he feels he's going to burst any moment. He squeezes behind this illusory golden shield and at that moment he does burst -- bang! -- into a million pieces which float off into the air like motes in a sunbeam. I can see it, I honestly can." This room, this strange talk, were having their effects on her. She did have a perfect picture of poor Pavel, as if he stood there before her.

"Of course you can," said John proudly. "That's because you haven't closed down. I saw this in you the other night. I want you permanently in my life. And you. How about you? Do you want it, too?"

"I think I do," she said. Her face felt numb. His compelling words held her in a sort of reckless bondage of her own making. She looked into his eyes and he looked back with such solemnness that she felt the beginnings of vertigo. She thought she might throw up or faint if she didn't get out of this house. "Why don't we go for a walk?" she said. "It's such a nice day."

They walked along the Embankment and crossed the bridge into Battersea Park. It was crammed with healthy families, having their Saturday outing. John's face took on color, he walked beside her smiling to himself and made small talk about the flowers and the animals in the little zoo. Dane began to feel better. And she had got him back, after all!

They stopped in front of a parrot cage. "Robin loves these parrots," he said.

"Who is Robin?"

"My son. He's two. He's illegitimate."

"Oh? What's he like?" She was not going to show the least bit of surprise.

John smiled to himself and went on watching the parrots. "Quite extraordinary, in his own little way. I like to think he's like me as a child. I want you to meet him. He boards at a foster home at the moment. According to law, I can adopt him when I marry. Oh, he's a species all by himself," and he chuckled quietly. "You are just the person who should be his mother."

She said nothing. Again, there was the funny numbness in her face. He took her silence as acquiescence. He knew what he wanted and assumed she did, too.

They recrossed the bridge. He stopped midway, at its highest point, and leaned over the railing, deep in thought. The wind separated his hair into the two blue-black wings and she wondered what he saw. Then, almost absently, he took her left hand in his, perused the fingers. A police boat purred efficiently through the nickel-colored Thames beneath.

"I shall have to get you a nice ring," he said. "I think we should have it made, something entirely your own."

And she said nothing. It was as eloquent and decisive as leaping over the bridge. She forced herself to look at him, rebounding a bit from that terrible brown intensity. All she wished for now was to complete her self-abnegation to the will of this determined man.

"I think I want to go to bed with you -- this afternoon," she mumbled through frozen lips.

"Darling," he said, holding her in the terrible gaze.

They went back to his dark house. He led her to his bedroom, filled with more brown furniture. The bedclothes were in a turmoil and there was a faint smell of unwashed socks about the place. As they undressed, he wouldn't let her look away from him. Repelled by the room, by his intensity, she nevertheless felt a perverse and heady passion rising in her body. She had often wondered how martyrs felt, the moment before they were devoured by fire; or nuns, when their hair is being cut off, just before taking the veil. It must be something like this. He took her rather quickly, but it didn't matter. She lay there afterward feeling totally obliterated by his will. She felt she had, at last, done something irrevocable.

Ballantine Books | Paperback| 220 pages