[This story is too long for a text analysis (as a 'Klausur'), but it would be worthwhile dealing with it in your course.]
A Terrible Story
By Hanif Kureishi
Driven to violence and near-suicide by his wife’s infidelity (Untreue), a man unburdens himself to an old friend. An intriguing (faszinierend) tale of a confessor, his confidante and mad love
When Eric slammed the front door it was cold outside and raining hard. With winter already coming, he was reluctant (nur widerwillig) to go out. But he’d said he’d meet Jake at seven and he couldn’t let him down. Not that he had far to go; it took Eric five minutes to get to his local place.
He hurried into the bright, warm and almost-empty cafe, hung up his coat and sat down. The waiters knew him and brought him the wine he liked without his having to ask. Eric went there most days, to read the paper, make phone calls and work on his computer.
He drank half a glass of wine straight off, to calm himself down after arguing with his wife a few minutes earlier. She and their nine-year-old son had been at the kitchen table doing the boy’s homework, but, having had a glass of wine, Eric had felt inspired to expatiate (sich in Einzelheiten ergehen; explizieren) on the current political situation. His wife told him to shut up, and he hadn’t wanted to; he had something pressing to say. His wife asserted he always had something important to say at the wrong time. Didn’t he want his son to succeed or would the boy be a cretin (Depp, Schwachkopf) like his father? The spat (Zank, Knatsch) accelerated. “You don’t listen to me!” “You don’t speak at the right time, when we want to hear you!” “You’re never receptive!” “You’re a fool!” Eric shuddered and giggled, as he thought of the two of them freely insulting (beleidigen) one another, and the boy looking on.
He missed them and, in truth, wasn’t excited about seeing Jake, whom he didn’t know well. They had met through a mutual acquaintance three years before at the Jazz Cafe in Camden, and found they both liked Miles Davis’s “electric” period, as well as Norwegian jazz of the last decade. They always discussed this with some pleasure, along with Liverpool Football Club, their enthusiasm for jukeboxes, stand-up comedians, and their families, and went home relatively contented. Jake had been generous; he worked in IT and although he travelled a lot, he still found time to “burn” obscure CDs for Eric and post them to him. Eric worked in film publicity and did what he could to obtain DVDs of the latest movies for Jake and his family.
As both their wives were interested in psychology, they had planned, last Christmas, to go to Jake’s flat for lunch to meet his wife and girls, but it fell through.
Now Eric glimpsed Jake scurrying (hasten, vorbeihuschen) towards the cafe. They shook hands and Jake sat down.
“How are you, sir? It’s been too long,” Jake said. “Was the last time at the beginning of the year? It was probably February. I remember I had the prawns. I need a beer badly. Will you join me or are you all right with that?”
“Yes, I’m on white wine now,” said Eric. “I consider it part of my new diet, which I’ve been enduring for three months.”
“I haven’t lost 1oz. I was always a thin kid. I took myself for granted.” He patted his stomach. “I’m complacent.”
Jake said: “It’s not going well?”
“Last night the wife and I had an orgy involving a packet of chocolate biscuits, so I’ve had a terrible day, the guilt like a dagger (Dolch). But I have started exercising. I run, or amble, rather, by the canal, listening to that great music you send me. And you? What’s your news?”
Jake had put on the glasses which hung around his neck from a string, and was looking eagerly at the menu. Eric guessed that Jake was a little older than him, about 45 probably. Jake had seemed stolid, large, but now looked somewhat scrawny (dürr, schlank), with the collar of his shirt too big for his neck. Had he shrunk in some way? Resembling an ageing professor, he had always been more earnest than Eric, with a more literal character. You’d have to be such a type to adore so much the icy longing and melancholy of Norwegian jazz.
“You have lost weight,” said Eric. “Much more than me. I envy you.”
“I’m glad. That’s good news at last.”
“What about you? What have you been listening to? Anything new?”
“I haven’t had any concentration recently,” said Jake. “It’s been crazy, tragic. I promise I’ll get some new stuff to you next month.”
“I’d love that. I get so bored, don’t you?”
“Do you want the menu?”
“I already know what I want,” said Eric.
“Okay. Can we order? I’m starving.”
Eric called the waiter over; they ordered a beer for Jake and food for both of them.
“Eric, why did you ask me if I get bored?”
“Perhaps because the last time we met you mentioned that things were not good between you and your wife, though they sounded normal to me. She refused to come across and you’d decided to become celibate (abstinent, keusch) for a while. A harsh deprivation (Entbehrung, Entzug), but not the most unusual suffering.”
“Yes, I remember telling you I was prepared to endure it until she recovered. She’d begun therapy with a Jungian (psych.: Jungianer), I think I said. Eccentric but not too weird.”
“It amuses me,” said Eric. “He slept with his patients.”
“What?” said Jake. “Why did you say that?”
“Jung, if I remember rightly, was different in that respect to Freud, who didn’t mess around. Yet Freud said sexuality was the main thing, and Jung insisted it wasn’t.”
Jake said: “My wife had always wanted to study so I agreed to support her while she had therapy and trained to be a psychologist — though such a wish is said to be in most cases a sure sign of mental instability — ”
“But not always?”
“Oh it is, always,” said Eric, calling for another glass of wine.
Jake went on: “My wife sneers (spöttisch belächeln) at Scandinavian jazz music, in particular the Lord of the Rings names — Frode, Arve, Arild, Siguard. But her weakness is for dresses, like my sweet girls. She claims what she wears makes her mood, so she has filled the flat with them.”
“With her moods?”
Jake laughed. “Unlike your wife, she is expensive.”
“Tell me,” said Eric. “I’ve been meaning to ask this. Do you organise your music in terms of the artist, the year, the country, or something else? Personally, I like to keep my artists together, it almost sexually excites me.”
Jake laughed. “I organise by artist, but in special cases by label. But there’s no doubt these are demanding and sometimes terrible decisions.” He went on: “Not that I’ve had time to do any filing.”
“Why is that — too much work?”
“My mother died.”
“I am sorry,” said Eric. “That’s tough.”
“Thanks. And a few days before she passed on, Julie decided to tell me she liked the therapist, she loved him. He was wise, intelligent and he understood everything about her.”
Their food came and they began to eat.
“Why is it I like the food so much in this mediocre place?” said Jake.
“Next time,” said Eric, “as you always come all the way to me, we should eat at your local.”
“Yes, we must do that,” Jake said. “Eric, I know little about therapy, but I had heard that affection for the quack (Quacksalber, Kurpfuscher) was part of the process. It was natural, if not normal. It was the cure.”
“Amazing,” said Eric. “I have always fancied being hypnotised. Have you tried it?”
“Are you saying you think I need it?”
“I have no idea if you do. I think I do!”
Jake said: “Julie was becoming impatient with my Jung jokes. She knew about the theory of idealising the therapist. She said it wasn’t just that. She was, in fact, actually sleeping with him.”
“You’re kidding? With the actual Jungian?”
“She said she wanted to be with him. He wanted to be with her. She said we all have an ideal, and at last she had found him.”
“Jake, are you only having a starter?” said Eric with concern. “Will it be enough for you?”
“I haven’t had an appetite lately, so this is welcome. I’m going to scoff all the bread too.” Jake went on: “I told Julie this was madness. I would have to report the therapist to the authorities for the sake of other patients. But the main thing was the cohesion of our family. The well-being of the girls at home with us. They’re young — nine and seven.”
“That was tolerant if not noble of you,” said Eric. “What did she say?”
“She told me I had to find my own place as soon as possible. Well, I was quite sick after hearing this.”
“Oh God, Jake.”
“The day after I had to leave town to be with Mother for the last week of her life. While I was down there with her, doing this awful duty at her bedside, I spoke to Julie and the girls on the phone. They were concerned about me. It was as if nothing had happened. I hoped nothing had happened. But it had, Eric. It had definitely happened. ‘Did you find somewhere to live?’ asked my wife. ‘You’re kidding, how can I right now,’ I said, ‘when Mother is taking her last breath?’
“Almost the moment Mother died I came back straight away. I had a feeling, you know. When I got home my wife had left, with the girls. She had gone to the small town in France where her mother and family live.”
Eric said: “I think women often prefer their mothers to their children.”
Jake pushed his plate away and said: “I need another drink. You?”
“When I dashed to this beautiful country place — where I’ve been often and which I like very much — Julie was hostile, almost insane with hatred. I said, the children barely speak French, they must come home, they need their school, their friends. This is all too sudden.”
“Has this ever happened to you — that someone you think you know intimately has changed beyond recognition? She was cold and formal, as if talking to someone she didn’t know. I’d always liked her, though she had her problems. I liked her voice. She was curious, and interested in gardens. I wanted to make one with her, helping her. But I realised she’d gone somewhere else. Her eyes were dead now, Eric.
“She said she wasn’t sure what they were going to do, but she thought she’d return to London with the girls as the grandparents were becoming irritable (gereizt, nervös). I was relieved until she said she was intending to set up home with the therapist. He was waiting for her — making his arrangements. I hated to think of it, Eric, this stranger making ‘arrangements’ to replace me in my family.”
“Christ, Jake, this is heavy. This is bad news, a punch in the gut (ein Schlag in die Magengrube). Don’t talk so fast, you’ll give yourself indigestion.”
“That’s the least of it,” he said. “Julie reassured me by saying this man got on well with children. But they couldn’t move in together until the house was sold, as the therapist didn’t have any money. His practice was small. He’s younger than her, just starting out.”
“You were going to be forced out of your own house?”
“Yes, can you believe it? Where would I put everything?”
“This conversation took place in France?”
“Didn’t I say? In an old house, a couple of hundred years at least. I was there to ask if the girls would be able to attend their grandmother’s funeral, but Julie refused, saying I might abduct them. She said she’d already informed the French and British police that I might attempt something with them! I was forbidden to be alone in their company as if I had suddenly become a monster. How did I become evil overnight? The girls kept asking when they were going home. But I couldn’t tell them the truth.
“And then there, with the bewildered maternal grandparents looking on, my previously silent youngest daughter took her violin from its little case and sawed out a squeaky tune for us. By the end tears were pouring down my face. When I left they watched me from the window, crying out ‘Daddy, Daddy!’
“I returned to England, saw Mother into her grave, and went back to work. I sold the Audi A5 and bought a second-hand Astra, hired lawyers and, to help pay them, took a lodger (Mieterin), a girl who would also clean the place because I had fears about neglect — of the place, and of myself. My wife had also emptied our joint bank account. Do you have one?”
“Now you mention it, I do. Thanks for bringing it up.”
“Julie came back to London — and to the house — to pick up some of her clothes. When she arrived she discovered the lodger, a young Czech girl. I said Julie’s personality has become strange and unnatural. That is madness, I guess. But to give you an illustration, in the house she begins to abuse this poor girl when she discovers a bed in her former study. She starts to cry out that I’m a scum (Dreckskerl) and an alcoholic and a paedophile — as well as a thief and the rest of it. She was loud. The girl is horrified and also looks at me with a very nervous curiosity.
“But what do you say — ‘I’m not a paedophile alcoholic’? It’s nuts for me to have to hear this, I can’t begin to defend myself except to say, ‘Please, please try to control yourself.’ ”
Jake was looking at Eric. “Are you thinking there must be something crazy about that Jake, he must have chosen badly? Are you? Are you? How come he didn’t notice he’d married a mad woman? How could anyone miss such a thing? But she has never behaved like this before! Perhaps it’s called regression. Anyway, she had hidden it well.
“Julie was horrified that the girl was in her room. I could tell she was going to spit on her! I asked the girl to get out, I would deal with it. Julie picked up handfuls of things at random and flew out of the house. I could see her from the window, scattering clothes in the street, trying to carry too much at once.” There was a silence. “Well, thank God,” said Eric. “You needed time to think.” Jake sighed.
Eric said: “Those prawns looked good. But I enjoyed my salad, oddly enough, and I’ve always considered eating salad to be a form of failure.”
“I know what you mean.”
Eric said: “What happened after, Jake?”
Jake wanted to smoke, so the two men put on their coats and stood outside under the cafe awning, watching people rush through the rain.
Jake said: “Obviously there was information I needed to have, so I sought out as many of her friends as I could find. It shook me, as some were violently rude. One said, ‘I hope the girls hate you when they’re older.’ What had she been telling them about me?
“But there was one friend of hers I was able to get through to. Let me add that having been made crazy and almost violent and suicidal, I had to make a huge effort to pretend to be sane. If I gave anyone the idea that circumstances had made me totally crazy, the whole catastrophe would appear to be down to my craziness. Crazy, eh? Julie’s friend admitted Julie was in London, spending time with the therapist, working out what to do. Apparently it had been going on for some time. Julie had said to me on a couple of occasions, ‘You’re having an affair,’ and wouldn’t tolerate my denials. The deeper truth became obvious.
“I rang Julie, hoping to contact the reasonable side of her, and delivered a monologue to the answering machine saying we should meet and talk honestly.
“That evening I came home and she was there, Julie, asleep in my — our — bed, can you believe it? My heart pounded. I thought, she’s back, her old self, the past eradicated (auslöschen).
“When I got closer I saw she was not asleep, but drugged, perhaps on tranqs or painkillers, I don’t know what, with an untreated cut on her forehead. She didn’t take illegal drugs. Did she want to kill herself, or did she want to sleep?
“I carried her to the toilet, made her sick and put her back to bed. I lay next to her. I took her in my arms and kissed and caressed her. I looked at her breasts and touched them, remembering how I loved them. The aureoles, is that how you say it? The aureoles were smiling at me.”
“Were they really?”
“I thought of how I had nursed Mum as she shrank to her bald head and bones in that hospital bed.
“I thought of the fine and funny times Julie and I and the girls had had as a family.
“When Julie woke up she tried to speak. Her voice was cracked, frail. ‘Things are not good, Jake,’ she said.
“‘Why aren’t you with your darling lover?’ I asked her.
“She turned her head away and wept. All I could do was guess the lover had kind of backed out (sich zurückziehen). Who wouldn’t have been delighted? Who wants a filthy corrupt therapist around his children? A man who can f*** his own patient can f*** anyone!”
“But I kept my mouth shut while she cried, the woman I still love and have wanted more than any other.”
Eric said: “Didn’t you think of asking her to go back to you?”
“I love and hate her, but I don’t know if she wants any more of me now. At last she confirmed the therapist had left her. But there was something else. She said that the therapist’s wife, who was pregnant — ”
“Did Julie know that?”
“I’m not sure. I tend to doubt it. Anyway, when the pregnant Jungian’s wife was told about the affair, she went to the balcony, threw herself over head first, and died.”
“Oh God,” said Eric, rubbing his eyes and forehead. “This is getting too much. I can hardly believe it.”
“You’re telling me. Yes, he had lost his child after depriving me of mine.” Jake began to laugh. “People keep telling me to have therapy,” he said. “That’s surely a joke!” Then he said: “After this, the man refused to see Julie, so she went and waited outside his door. She slept there all night on the step like a dog until she almost froze. In the morning, when he came out, she pursued him, he pushed her over and she tripped and hit her poor head. He tried to run away. She started to shout and he called the police.
“Before they came he said he would never see her again. It was her fault. He was inexperienced and she had seduced him when he was most vulnerable and open to female flattery. He had been a fool — he was human too — but she had been ruthlessly malevolent (bösartig), evil even, having destroyed his life and ruined the lives of several people.”
“She was broken by the accusation, having done nothing, she said, but fall passionately and irrevocably (unwiderruflich, unabänderlich) in love for the first time in her life. How could that be a crime?”
Jake and Eric returned to their table and Eric asked for the bill.
“I’ll get this,” he said.
Jake said: “In the morning Julie got on the train back to France.”
“Jake, what will you do now?”
“The lawyers have smelled blood, so I made the decision to write to my friends and ask them, outright, for money,” he said. “I’m still working, but I need funds for the train fare to France some weekends where I can stay in a little hotel and spend a few hours with my daughters, in order that they don’t forget me. While I try to get custody (Sorgerecht) I have to survive, otherwise I will be on the street.”
Eric paid the bill and they went outside. They shook hands, Eric put up his umbrella and Jake said: “Can we meet again next week, or if that’s too soon for you, the week after? Would that be okay? If I don’t talk there’ll be another death.”
“Yes, yes, call me any time,” said Eric.
“How is your family?” Jake said.
“All fine, thanks. My son is becoming rather a good footballer.”
“You are lucky. You are blessed.”
Eric noticed it was only around 10 o’clock when he got back to the house. He locked the door behind him, something he never usually did, and crept in, certain his wife and son would be asleep.
He took off his shoes and went upstairs. His wife was indeed asleep, wearing his new pullover, on the edge of the bed, with his son sprawled across the middle. The little space left was occupied by their two cats.
Eric perched on the edge of the bed, looking at them both. Then he opened the curtains so there was sufficient moonlight for him to see to kiss them.
He wondered what Jake would do when he got home — look at photographs of his lost family?
The boy was nine, and he was heavy, but Eric picked him up and carried him to his bed. Then he got into his own bed and stayed awake for as long as he could, listening to his wife’s breathing and waiting for the morning light.
From The Sunday Times of February 21, 2010 and Hanif Kureishi: Collected Stories (see below)
1. Characterize both Eric and Jake without going into detail what their relationships towards their wives are concerned.
2. Elaborate on Jake's state of mind and his fear of being considered insane by his environment.
3. Characterize Julie and say why she is attracted to the therapist?
4. Do you think Eric honestly listens to Jake's problems and takes him seriously?
5. A short story usually has a climax and a turning point. Determine them and substantiate your findings.
6. Do you think Jake will be able to restore his relationship with Julie and rescue his family?
This collection contains his controversial story 'Weddings and Beheadings', a well as his prophetic 'My Son the Fanatic', which exposes the religious tensions within the Muslim family unit. As with his novels and screenplays, Kureishi has his finger on the pulse of the political tensions in society and how they affect people's everyday lives.