Read Iris Online

Authors: John Bayley



John Bayley is the author of
The Queer Captain
George’s Lair
The Red Hat
. His trilogy of nonfiction works
Iris: A
Iris and the Friends: A Year of Memories and Widower’s House: A Study in Bereavement
became international bestsellers. He is also the author of the acclaimed study
The Power of Delight: A Lifetime in Literature
. He was Warton Professor of English at the University of Oxford.

Also by John Bayley


A Year of Memories


A Study in Bereavement


A Lifetime in Literature

This edition 2012
First published in 1998 by
Duckworth Overlook
90-93 Cowcross Screet
London EC1B 6BF
[email protected]

© 1998 by John Bayley

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may by reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Paperback: 9780715643259
Mobipocket: 9780715644287
ePub: 9780715644270
Library PDF: 9780715644263

For Peter Conradi and James O’Neill


Part I




— 1 —

A hot day. Stagnant, humid. By normal English standards really hot, insufferably hot. Not that England has standards about such things any more. Global warming no doubt. But
it’s a commonplace about growing old that there seem to be no standards any more. The Dog Days. With everything gone to the dogs.

Cheerless thoughts to be having on a pleasure jaunt, or what used to be one. For years now we’ve usually managed a treat for ourselves on really hot days, at home in the summer. We take
the car along the bypass road from Oxford, for a mile or two, and twist abruptly off on to the verge – quite a tricky feat with fast moving traffic just behind. Sometimes there are hoots and
shouts from passing cars who have had to brake at speed, but by that time we have jolted to a stop on the tussocky grass, locked the car, and crept through a gap in the hedge.

I remember the first time we did it, nearly forty-five years ago. We were on bicycles then, and there was little traffic on the unimproved road. Nor did we know where the river was exactly: we
just thought it must be somewhere there. And with the ardour of comparative youth we wormed our way through the rank grass and sedge until we almost fell into it, or at least a branch of it.
Crouching in the shelter of the reeds we tore our clothes off and slipped in like water-rats. A kingfisher flashed past our noses as we lay soundlessly in the dark sluggish current. A moment after
we had crawled out and were drying ourselves on Iris’s waist-slip a big pleasure boat chugged past within a few feet of the bank. The steersman, wearing a white cap, gazed intently ahead.
Tobacco smoke mingled with the watery smell at the roots of the tall reeds.

I still have the waist-slip, I rediscovered it the other day, bunched up at the back of a drawer, stiff with powdery traces of dry mud. It is faded to a yellowish colour, with a wrinkled ribbon,
once blue, decorating the hem. Could someone, later my wife, have indeed once worn such a garment? It looks like something preserved from the wardrobe of Marie Antoinette. I never gave it back to
Iris after that occasion, and I think she forgot all about it.

In any case we were having a busy day, that day. We had a lunch-time engagement to get back to. By the time we had cycled back into Oxford, and down the Woodstock Road, we were as hot as we had
been earlier that morning, before we had crawled through the dense green undergrowth and discovered the river. Still dripping with sweat, and making vague efforts to tidy our hair and clothes, we
rang the bell of a flat in Belsyre Court. As we waited we looked at each other expressionlessly, then burst at the same moment into a soundless fit of giggles.

Our host, who had been getting lunch, was quite a time coming to the door. He was a brilliant young doctor with green eyes called Maurice Charlton. When even younger he had been a classics don
at Hertford College, and considered one of the best in the university. So good indeed that he gave it up after three years and turned to medicine. He now held a research appointment at the
Radcliffe Hospital. He was supposedly rather in love with Iris. That was why he had asked her to lunch. She had told him she was spending the morning with me – we were going to cycle out
together to see Cassington Church – and so could I come too?

He took it like a man. He had prepared a delicious lunch. The flat was not his own but belonged to a rich older don at Balliol, with whom he may or may not have had an ambiguous relationship. He
seemed to able to borrow the flat any time, for his friend lived mostly in college when he wasn’t away in Italy or Greece.

Fifty or so years ago life in the university was more constricted and formal, but at the same time more comfortable and relaxed. For us, in those days, there was no paradox involved. We
maintained public standards and conventions almost without being conscious of them, while leading our own private lives. We worked very hard, at least Iris did: I was more naturally indolent.

Maurice Charlton probably worked harder than both of us together. But he was totally relaxed, his green eyes sparkling, and with a delightful air – as soon as he saw us – of
collusion in something or other: what he had been doing, what we had been doing. This intimate feel, as if we could become naughty children together any moment, was enhanced by the sombre dignity
of the flat: full of rare books, good furniture, glass. I still remember the longstemmed green and white wineglasses, out of which we drank a great deal of very cold hock. I think it was the white
wine people usually drank in those days.

I feel admiration now for the way Charlton must have apprehended that we had been up to something together, and not only took it in his stride but encouraged us in some way to enjoy it with him.
We had never got to Cassington Church, we said. It had been far too hot. We had cycled back in an exhausted state, and it was wonderful to be here in the cool, drinking the wine. We both said
something like this without looking at each other. Iris jumped to her feet to go over and kiss Maurice Charlton, and it seemed just the right and spontaneous act, making us all three laugh: we two
men laughing both at and with Iris as she gazed delightedly round the dark and as it seemed rather mysteriously grand flat, as if she were Alice in Wonderland on the threshold of a new series of

As we sat laughing and eating – I remember lobster and the delicious garlic mayonnaise our host had made – I was conscious of my soaking trouser-pocket, where Iris’s
undergarment reposed, rolled up. I hoped the wet wouldn’t get on the dining-room chair, which was covered in some sort of damask. As lunch went hilariously on we seemed more and more like a
family. Through a bewitching miasma of hock I was conscious of Iris as a kind sister, fond of both her brothers, equally close to them. Maurice had the air of a brother, but also looked like a sort
of patriarch as he sat grinning benignly at the top of the table.

Maurice Charlton died young, of cancer I believe, more than twenty years ago. My impression is that he never married, but I may be wrong about that. He certainly looked at Iris with his green
eyes as if he liked her very much. It was possible he had borrowed the flat and prepared the lunch with a purpose, and that my presence had thwarted his plans for the afternoon. In that case I
admire his behaviour all the more, at this distance in time. He carried off perfectly what might well have been for him a frustrating situation.

I mention the lunch with Maurice Charlton, and that enchanted Sunday morning when Iris and I had our first swim together, because I remember it all very vividly, not because it had any great
importance in itself. Although I had met Charlton a few times, and admired him, that lunch was probably our only social occasion together. He continued to work in Oxford but we lost touch, which is
why I don’t know what happened to him later, except that he was a distinguished man when he died. It was typical of my relations with Iris at that time that I had very little idea of the
other people in her life, or what they might mean to her. That was probably due to the ecstatic egoism of falling in love for the first time. For me it was the first time, though I was not exactly
young. Iris was thirty-four, Maurice Charlton about the same age. I was twenty-eight. Difference in age, which means a good deal at school and not much in later years, was only a part of the
atmosphere of that lunch party, because we seemed for the moment like a family. And a family takes such differences in age for granted.

But, as I say, I still had very little idea of the other people in Iris’s life, or what they meant to her. That was instinctive on her part, I think, rather than deliberate. There was a
lot of privacy about in those days. An ‘open’ society is what we aim for now, or say we aim for, as an enhancement of our all being more classless and democratic. We were not
consciously undemocratic, I think, in the fifties, but we took private life for granted. That was particularly true in Oxford, still a scholastic society in which one could be on good terms with a
large number of people, meeting them most days in college, at dinner in hall or in lecture rooms and laboratories, without having any idea of how they were situated domestically, or socially, or
sexually. Other peoples’ lives might seem intriguing, which was part of the fun of privacy, but they remained what was on the whole an accepted and comfortable blank.

By some emotional paradox being in love made me, at least at first, not less but more incurious about this. Iris existed for me as a wonderful and solitary being, first seen about six months
before, bicycling slowly and rather laboriously past the window in St Antony’s College, where I was living. Trying to work, and gazing idly out at the passing scene on the Woodstock Road, now
intolerably full of traffic but then a comparatively quiet thoroughfare, I noted the lady on the bicycle (she seemed at once to me more of a lady than a girl) and wondered who she was and whether I
would ever meet her. Perhaps I fell in love. Certainly it was in the innocence of love that I indulged the momentary fantasy that nothing had ever happened to her: that she was simply bicycling
about, waiting for me to arrive. She was not a woman with a past, and an unknown present.

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