Our friends’ lives often turn out quite differently from our expectations, as Ian Inglis’s narrator finds in this short story. Illustration by Junghyeon Kwon
When my wife handed me the telephone, saying there was a strange woman wanting to speak to me, I experienced one of those inexplicable insights that occur to all of us from time to time, and which have no satisfactory explanation.
‘Is her name Jude?’ I asked, already knowing the answer.
‘Something like that.’
‘Jude? Jude Tatton?’ I said, taking the telephone. ‘This is a surprise.’
‘Oh, I’m full of surprises. Are you free for lunch?’
‘I’m just here for one day, staying at The Marlborough Hotel. Can you get here around twelvish?’
‘Yes, I can.’
‘I’ll see you at twelve then.’
I put the phone down and stood awkwardly, at something of a loss.
‘Jude?’ asked my wife. ‘Do I know her?’
‘I hardly know her myself,’ I began to explain. ‘I knew her for a while when we were at university together. We were never what you’d call close, and I haven’t seen her or heard from her since we left. I can’t imagine why she would want to see me.’
And yet here she was, six years later, casually inviting me to lunch as if we were old friends confirming a regular appointment.
Unlike many of our fellow students, I never felt that Jude was a little crazy. She was rude, frustrating and difficult to talk to for very long, but not crazy. I first noticed her at the back of the lecture theatre where she sat, arms folded, wearing an expression of exaggerated boredom. She was a few years older than most of us on the History degree, and a week or two into our studies I asked her what she’d been doing before coming to university.
‘Why do you need to know?’ she snapped.
I was startled by the sharpness of her reply, and explained that I had no motive other than a mild curiosity.
‘Well, if you must know, I went to the moon. Does that satisfy you? Then I became a nun, gave it up after a month and sailed around the world.’
‘East to west, or west to east?’ I asked, in a weak attempt to reciprocate her humour.
‘That’s none of your business,’ she replied, and walked quickly away.
It wasn’t just me. Some weeks after that, I overheard Liz or Lisa – I forget her name – ask Jude if she could borrow her notes from a lecture she had missed.
‘You’ve got a nerve. You think I’m your amanuensis? Do you even know what the word means?’
‘You can borrow mine,’ I said, interrupting what I knew from experience would turn into an increasingly scornful tirade.
‘Oh, here he is again,’ Jude sneered. ‘Everybody’s friend.’
But at other times, she could be polite and charming. Up to a point. My parents drove up to visit me on one occasion and Jude happened to be among the people they met. She listened attentively while they reminisced about their own student days, asked all the right questions and laughed convincingly at all their jokes. Then she asked them their star signs and proceeded to give them a detailed, wholly erroneous and increasingly sarcastic account of their past, present and future lives.
‘I do like your new friends,’ my mother said, as they were leaving. ‘That Jude girl is quite unusual, isn’t she?’
Unusual was the right word. Her long auburn hair was often braided into pigtails, and while she typically wore the preferred student uniform of jeans, T-shirt, loose jacket, and trainers, she would occasionally jettison that in favour of an extravagant floral frock or workman’s overalls. She was attractive in a conventional way, but her physical appearance was of no significance to her. At parties, she sat cross-legged in a corner, cigarette in hand, challenging people to seek her out. In conversation, she would make outrageous assertions and then calmly wait, daring people to assess, judge or contradict her. And although Jude had no close friends or romantic attachments, she seemed to have no need of any.
The attractions of what I had taken to be her radical bohemianism became wearisome. She soon became a minor figure in my brave new world
My initial intrigue – after all, I’d come to university as a naive eighteen-year-old in search of the unfamiliar and unexpected – quickly disappeared, and I devoted the next three years to pursuing the pleasures of student life. The superficial attractions of what I had taken to be her radical bohemianism became repetitive and wearisome, and I dismissed her style as hollow, her behaviour as stilted, her feigned indifference to others as unnecessary, and she soon became a minor figure in my brave new world. I never actively avoided her as some did, but on the rare occasions when we did talk to each other I was careful to keep to neutral topics and to ask no questions that could give her a chance to delve into her store of cynical and derisive retorts. By our third and final year, our interaction was largely limited to nods of acknowledgement as we passed in the corridor.
When we graduated, I did not bother to seek her out to congratulate her and to wish her well; by that time, I had largely fallen into line with the commonly-held perception of her as a loner or a misfit. But not crazy. Never crazy.
I failed to spot her as I walked into the hotel’s restaurant, and only the intervention of a waiter who had been briefed to bring me to her prevented an embarrassing search. Her hair was shorter, she was wearing glasses, and her clothes were fashionably restrained: if I had to guess, I might have said she was a primary school teacher or civil servant.
‘Michael. How good of you to come.’
She kissed me lightly on each cheek, and motioned me to sit down at her table, where an open bottle of Chablis sat in its ice bucket. For a few seconds, I had no idea what I was supposed to say or what she expected me to do; as I’d reminded myself on my way to meet her, she was a slight acquaintance from several years ago, and we had little common ground.
‘Jude,’ I began, as she filled my glass, ‘this is all very unexpected. How on earth did you know I’d moved here?’
‘I didn’t, until last week. Then I ran into a couple of people from university and they told me. And I thought it would be fun to see you again. So when I arrived here last night, I looked you up in the phone book. There are several M. Woods, but only one M. Woode. So, here we are.’
‘Here we are,’ I repeated. ‘Who was it you ran into?’
‘Goodness, you do sound suspicious. Anyone would think you don’t believe me! A tall chap, glasses, brown hair, Yorkshire accent.’
‘Dave Cummings?’ I made up a name.
She shook her head in disappointment.
‘Michael, you know as well as I do there was no Dave Cummings at university with us. I think his name was Brian… Mellor, Miller?’
‘Brian Mills.’ I supplied the right name, with an odd sense of relief. ‘Where did you come across him?’
‘I’ll tell you later. First, tell me about yourself.’
So I told her. I told her that after leaving university, I started working as an administrative assistant with the National Trust. I met Sally, who was doing the same kind of work for English Heritage, at a cultural tourism conference and we married two years later. I told her that I was no longer in regular contact with any of our fellow students, and that while I had enjoyed those years, the degree in history had been useful rather than essential for my career. She listened thoughtfully, and maintained a concentrated, and rather intimidating, eye contact throughout. I was about to ask her for the details of her own life when the waiter asked us if we were ready to order.
Over lunch, she volunteered little information about herself, answering some of my questions and ignoring others. No, she wasn’t married. Yes, she’d gone back to live in London – a flat in Clapham – but recently she’d been away from home a lot. Did she miss our student days? Not at all. When I asked if she was working, she smiled. I asked her how she’d run into Brian Mills.
‘At a book signing in Manchester.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘You were both standing in the same queue?’
‘No, no,’ she corrected me. ‘He was in the queue. I was behind the desk. It was my book signing.’
‘Your book signing?’ I tried to disguise my amazement. ‘You’re an author?’
‘Yes, I am. The Opposite of Cat.’
This time, I failed to conceal my astonishment.
‘The Opposite of Cat? But that’s… I have it myself… I mean, I’ve read it.’
I stared at her across the table, unable to connect the student I had known at university with the writer of the most incisive story I had read in years
So had everyone else. The Opposite of Cat had been published earlier in the year to huge critical acclaim and had already won several of the major literary awards for fiction. Its 400 pages begin with the unexplained disappearance of the Prime Minister’s wife, but as police investigations fail to provide any explanation, a tide of accusations and allegations reflects the divisions and hostilities within the country at large. Gradually, the novel evolves from a thriller about a missing person to an analysis of the state of Britain today. The book had been at the top of the hardback bestseller list for six months and showed no signs of being dislodged.
‘Did you enjoy it?’
‘Did I enjoy it? Yes… yes. Of course I did. It’s… brilliant. But the author – Judith P. Meriwether? That’s you?’
‘Meriwether is my mother’s maiden name. And we invented the P to make it sound more distinguished. Didn’t you recognise my photograph on the cover?’
I stared at her across the table, still unable to connect the belligerent student I had known at university with the writer of the most incisive, entertaining and compelling story I had read in years.
‘I always intended to write,’ she continued. ‘And when I left university, I realised there was nothing to stop me. I sent it off to publishers and agents. It was picked up, I was asked to make a number of small changes, and hey presto, I was a novelist!’
‘I’m stunned,’ I admitted. ‘What you’ve done, what you’ve created, is… wonderful.’
‘Ah, but I didn’t do it all by myself.’
‘I don’t believe in ghosts.’
‘You’re going to have to explain.’
She leaned back and waited until our plates had been cleared away.
‘You’ve read the book. What did you think of Nicholas Harris, the Prime Minister?’
I collected my thoughts. I wanted to give an honest answer, and one that demonstrated my attention to literary description. I was by no means knowledgeable about the ins and outs of contemporary fiction, and my reading choices were usually guided by recommendations from others.
‘Decent enough. Weak in a crisis, rather indecisive – doesn’t quite know how to react when his wife goes missing. As a prime minister, he tries to be all things to all men… lacks the ruthlessness of his colleagues. In a little over his head, I suppose.’
‘I based him on you. Not completely, but to a degree. I started with General Haig’s comment about Lord Derby in the First World War that like a feather pillow he bore the imprint of whoever had last sat on him – you see, I did pick up something from our studies! But I wanted to mould his personality around a real person, not a historical anecdote. And of all the people I knew, you came closest. Always keen to please. Never a bad word to say about anyone. Everybody’s friend.’
She smiled at me and when she offered to refill my glass, I placed my hand over it. Was I being insulted or complimented? Harris (who eventually resigns) was for me the most sympathetic character in the book. Struggling to hold both his family and the nation together, he fails in both tasks. When his wife does eventually reappear, it is too late for him: his children have turned against him, blaming him for their mother’s absence, and the country is gearing up for a bitterly-fought general election. Was I really like that? A procrastinator? Hesitant, diffident, incapable of action? Is that how she saw me?
‘I’m glad I was able to help,’ I said, cautiously. ‘I have to say, I didn’t see the similarities when I was reading the book.’
‘Didn’t you? Do you see them now? Now that I’ve told you?’
I wondered if she was goading me or testing me. I also wondered if she’d said the same thing to others – Brian Mills, for example – for her own amusement. Her ability to derive pleasure from another person’s discomfort was something I remembered well.
‘If this is true, Jude,’ I asked, ‘why are you telling me? Do you expect me to be grateful? Or do you expect me to be hurt?’
‘I don’t expect anything,’ she replied. ‘I’ve written a very successful book, and you helped me to create one of the main characters. I thought you might be interested to know. That’s all. I’ve not done anything wrong, have I? Aren’t you proud? It’s something to tell your children, your grandchildren. Your family and friends. Imagine how they’ll hang on your every word at the next dinner party you give!’
She went on in the same mocking vein for several minutes. She delivered her observations without pausing, or appearing to reflect on what she was saying, or considering what their impact might be on me – as though they were lines she had rehearsed and was now mechanically reciting. As I listened to her, I was suddenly struck not by the likeness between myself and Nicholas Harris, but between her and Emily Harris, the Prime Minister’s wife – a selfish and unrepentant woman who engineers her own disappearance in order to taunt and humiliate her husband, and who refuses to accept any responsibility for her actions. I realised, with something of a shock, that the physical image I had conjured up of Emily Harris while reading the book was not too different from the woman sitting opposite me.
I folded my napkin and laid it on the table. There were many things I could have said to her, but I had no wish to prolong our meeting.
‘You’re not leaving, are you, Michael?’ she asked.
‘I’m sorry, Jude,’ I said, gently. ‘You’re unhappy and you’re lonely, and I’m sorry for that. You’ve written a fine book. Good luck with your career.’
As I was walking away, she called to me.
‘Michael, wait. I have something for you.’
I stood with my back to her. ‘Let me guess,’ I said. ‘A signed copy of The Opposite of Cat, with a handwritten inscription. Something along the lines of “To Michael. My unwitting inspiration”.’
‘How did you – ’
‘You’re very predictable, Jude,’ I said, turning to look at her startled face. ‘You always were.’
Jude is from The Truth Issue – Issue 20. Order your copy here
To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £20 for 4 issues.