VARIOUS TEXTS: 'ROMANCE 1988' by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Two young women sat on opposite sides of a table in the cafeteria in Terminal Three, Heathrow airport. They were in the raised part, which is like a little stage. Sybil had gone straight to this area though there were places empty in the lower, less emphasised, part of the room.

They were sisters, both large-boned. stocky, with broad sensible faces. But Sybil refused to be ordinary, wore dramatic makeup, short yellow hair, clothes you had to look at. She was a dazzler1, like a pop star. No one would particularly notice Joan, and she sat admiring Sybil and giving London full credit, at least for this: they were from northern England, and they valued this sound inheritance, so much better than anything the frivolous and spoiled south could produce. They were in the old tradition of two sisters, the pretty one and the clever one, and so they had been cast in their childhoods - Joan, clever, and Sybil, pretty. But they were both clever attractive hard-working girls who pursued their chances with skill.

Joan was saying, 'But you're only twenty-two. I thought you were going to take your time? She was the older sister, twenty-four.

Sybil said in her loud careless voice that everyone had to listen to, always, 'But my dear, I'll never find anyone like Oliver, I know that.'

Joan smiled. Deliberately. She raised her brows.
Sybil grinned at her, acknowledging the older sister act.
They did not need to hurry this conversation. Joan was on her way to Bahrain where she had got herself a job as secretary in a part-American, part-English firm. She had just flown in from Yorkshire, and there were three hours before her flight out. Sybil had said that of course she would come out to Heathrow to be with her sister, no, it didn't matter, she just wouldn't go to work that day. She had arrived in London two years before and had at once taken possession of it, getting herself - God only knew how - a secondhand car, and she thought nothing of driving out to the airport at six in the morning or eleven at night to have a chat with friends who were always on their way through, or of dropping in on several parties in one night, in places as far apart as Greenwich and Chiswick. She had come to London as a secretary, but had decided that 'temping'2 was a better bet. Thus one sampled all kinds of different work, met a lot of different men, and when she was offered a job that suited her she would stay put. At least, that was what she had said until recently.

'You said all that about Geoff, remember,' said Joan, not unpleasantly, but putting the case.
'Oh God,' said Sybil, 'but I was only an infant then.'
'Eighteen, 'said Joan.
'All right! Granted! And I know it doesn't sound likely, but we are made for each other, Oliver and I.'
'Has he said so?'
'I think we're in for it - marriage, kids, a mortgage, the lot.' The loud confident voice was attracting attention, and Joan was embarrassed. As she had been, all her life, by her sister.

She said in a pointedly low voice, 'Sybil, you told me it was all off with Oliver.'
'Yes, I know I did,' said Sybil loudly. 'He said he didn't want to marry again. He liked being free. And off he went. I didn't see him for months. He broke my heart. When he came after me again I said to him, You've broken my heart once, so this time you're going to have to make the running, I'm not coming after you. Not the way I did when I first met him,' she explained. And she cast a glance around to make sure her audience was still rapt3.

Joan considered all this. Then she asked, 'When you're married, are you going to travel abroad with him when he's on his trips?'

Oliver travelled a great deal for his firm, was more often away than in London.
'No. Oh well, I'll go with him sometimes, if it's somewhere interesting, but I'll make a home for him in London. No, I'm going to be a real wife,' she insisted, to her sister's quizzical smile.

'You always have to go to extremes.'
'What's extreme about that?'
'If you cant see it's over the top! Anyway, last time you said whenever he went abroad he took a different girl.'

'Yes, I know. He was in Rome last week and I knew he had slept with someone though he didn't say and I didn't ask. Because it was not my business . . .' Joan was looking so humorous that it was with an effect of shouting against noise that Sybil went on, 'Yes. But then he confessed he had slept with someone and he felt guilty about it. Because of me. And I've been feeling guilty if I slept with anyone but him right from the very first time I slept with him.'

'Well,' sighed Joan,I suppose that's pretty conclusive.'
'Yes, I think it is. And what about you and Derek? Is he going to wait until you get back from Bahrain?'
'He says he will, but I have my doubts.'
They smiled at each other.
'Plenty of fish in the sea,' said Sybil.
'He's all right. But I reckon I'll have saved up thirty thousand out there, that is if I stick it out. There's nothing to spend anything on.'

'And then you'll be independent.'
'Yes. I'll buy a house the moment I get back.'
'Makes sense. And Oliver and I are looking for a house. We were looking last Sunday. It's fun looking at houses. There was one , I think he would settle for, but I said to him, No, if we are going to be Upwardly Mobile, then let's do it. That house isn't good enough. You're doing better and better all the time, I said to him. Because he is. He's shooting up in his firm, and he gets more and more eligible every day.'

'You always did say you would marry for money.'
'Yes, I did. And I am. But I wouldn't marry him if I didn't feel like this about him.'
'But do you feel like this about him because he is so eligible?' enquired Joan, laughing.
'Probably. But what's the matter with that?'
'Would you marry him if he was poor?'
The sisters were now leaning forward, faces close, laughing and full of enjoyment.
'No, I wouldn't. I've got to have money. I know myself, don't I?'
'I hope you do,' said the older sister, suddenly sober.
Meanwhile people nearby were smiling at each other because of the two young adventurers, probably feeling that they ought to be shocked or something.

There was a pause, while they attended to coffee, croissants, fruitjuice.
And then, suddenly, Sybil announced, 'And we are both going to have an AIDS test.' Now the people listening stopped smiling, though they were certainly attending. 'We both decided, at the same time. I mentioned it first, and found he had thought of it too. He slept around a lot after his divorce, and I have too, since I came to London. And you never know. But the trouble is, I'm going to have it done privately, because if it's on the National Health then it's in the records for everyone to see. Because then it would look as if you were worried.'

'And it's expensive.'
'Yes. Well, I can't afford it, I don't have the money, but Oliver can and he'll pay for me.'
Joan smiled. 'Certainly one way of making him responsible for you.'
'Yes, it is.'
'What will you do if either of you is positive?'
'Oh, I'm sure we won't be! We're both as hetero as they come. But you never know. We want to be on the safe side. No, we'll have the tests done and then we'II give each other our certificates.' Her face was soft and dreamy, full of love. For the first time she had forgotten her audience.

'Well.' said Joan, taking neat little sips of coffee, I suppose that's one way of doing it.'
'It means much more than an engagement ring, I mean, it's a real commitment.'
'And he is going to have to be faithful to you now, isn't he?'
'But I'll have to be faithful to him!'
Joan's face was suggesting this was not the same thing. Then she asked, teasing, 'Faithful for ever?'
'Yes ... well ... for as long as we can, anyway. We don't want to sleep with anyone else, not the way we feel now. What's the point of risking it, anyway?'

She glanced around, but her audience no longer attended to her. They were talking to each other. If this was their way of showing disapproval, then ...

Two and a half hours to go.
Sybil raised her voice. 'We tried condoms, too, but God knows how people get them to work. We laughed so much that in the end we simply had to settle for going to sleep.'

'Shhhhh,' said Joan, in agony. 'Shhhhhh.'
'Why? What's the matter, no, let me tell you, if the safety of the nation is going to depend on condoms, then . . .'

At this point a young man who had been sitting near them, listening, got up because it was time for him to be off on his way to somewhere or other in the world. He tapped Sybil on the shoulder and said, 'If you can't get the hang of condoms, then just get in touch with me ... no, no, any time, a pleasure!'

His words were far from an invitation, were more of a public rebuke, and on his face was the look that goes with someone taking it on himself to keep things in order. But from the door he sent them a glance and a grin and disappeared for ever with a wave. As for Joan and Sybil, they sat half turned to watch him go. They looked like a couple of teenagers, their hands halfcovering scandalised4 and delighted smiles.
1700 words

Source: A La Carte and 15 Other Famous Stories by Jeffrey Archer, Chancellor Press (1995), pp. 78-82

1. dazzler - Angeber, Blender
2. temping - zeitarbeiten, vorübergehend arbeiten
3. rapt - gespannt, hingerissen sein
4. to be scandalised - empört sein

1. Summarize the conversation between Sybil and Joan in c. 200 words.
2. Characterize the two women and name their differences.
3. What are their views on friends and prospective husbands?
4. Would you be embarrassed to overhear such a conversation as Sybil and Joan have?
5. In view of people using their mobile phones: when would you be bothered?

amazon.de A La Carte and 15 Other Famous Stories
Jeffrey Archer

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