Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Heathcliff - Jeanette Winterson

The car. Radio on. ‘How could you leave me when I needed you? I hated you. I loved you too…’
   My boyfriend joins in falsetto. ‘It’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home, let me in at your window.’
   ‘We’re going to have a great time!’ he says. He promised me a romantic weekend for my birthday. I thought Paris but we’re going to Yorkshire.
   It’s a special offer my boyfriend found. My boyfriend is obsessed with special offers. He prints out coupons for 2-4-1 meals and buys books on 3-4-2. This hire car is on special offer from Weekend Away – Special Cars for Special Occasions. It is half price as long as we return it by midnight on Sunday otherwise his credit card will turn into a pumpkin. ‘Suppose we get stuck in traffic?’ I say. He says we’ll leave nice and early. I say what’s the point of a romantic weekend away if we’re leaving nice and early? He says we’ve got a great deal!
   But not a great deal in common. He’s handsome though, even if he looks like a goldfish when he opens his mouth for too long.

 The hotel. The owner comes out to meet us and offers us a glass of English champagne in the Lover’s Bar. I know I should be patriotic but English champagne is like French fish and chips. I have a local beer instead. The owner shows us the rooms.
   ‘Chatterley and Romeo are taken. I can offer you The Rochester or The Heathcliff?
   The hotel specialises in romantic weekends.
I wonder what has happened to Madame Bovary. ‘She’s French,’ says the owner. ‘We’re English Romantics.’ That explains the champagne then.
   Rochester has a gentlemen’s club feel – wood veneer and velvet curtains. The bathroom is black marble. The view is over the carpark. I suppose Rochester wouldn’t notice after being blinded by the fire that helpfully kills his wife.
   Heathcliff is dark and masculine, faux-sexy like a shaving advert. There’s a silver iPod dock, and a four-poster bed in maroon. His minikitchen has an ice machine and a microwave. His fridge has asted sandwiches to go in the microwave. He comes with a supplement.
   My boyfriend is struggling. He doesn’t like Rochester but he doesn’t want to pay extra for Heathcliff. I can see his agony. I want us to have a nice time and so I offer to pay the difference. ‘But this is my treat!’ he says. ‘We’re a couple,’ I reply, wondering what that phrase really means when the noun is missing [?]. A couple of what?
He accepts.
 The room. There’s a view of the moor. Bleak and craggy. There’s a copy of Wuthering Heights. I haven’t read it for years. Have I ever read it? I know the story; everybody does: Heathcliff loves Cathy, Cathy loves Heathcliff. Cathy marries Edgar Linton. Cathy dies in childbirth. Heathcliff marries Linton’s sister and later forces his son and Cathy’s daughter to marry. Linton dies. Son dies. Heathcliff dies. Wuthering Heights haunted forever. It’s a love story.
   ‘Have you read Wuthering Heights?’ I ask my boyfriend. He doesn’t read books by dead women. ‘It’s a classic.’ I say. ‘So is the hire car, ’he says.
    ‘A ray fell on his features; the cheeks were sallow, and half covered with black whiskers; the brows lowering, the eyes deep-set and singular.
I remembered the eyes.’ 

   I was alone in The Heathcliff. I sat on the window-seat and started to read the book. I had forgotten – had I known? – that the story is related by the housekeeper Nelly Dean to Heathcliff ’s tenant Mr Lockwood.
   What we read is Mr Lockwood’s account of Mrs Dean’s account. Except that Heathcliff is still alive when the novel opens, so we meet him in real time. But Heathcliff doesn’t live in real time: Heathcliff lives in the past.
   ‘In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day – I am surrounded by her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women – my own features – mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of
memoranda that she did exist and that I have lost her!’ 
   Heathcliff needs to get over it. He could have cognitive. He could speed-date. He could work abroad. He could break into someone else’s romance. He could elope with Juliet, murder Clifford Chatterley, marry Jane Eyre at gunpoint, live happily ever after with Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
   Why would anyone love the way he loves?
   I put down the book. It’s making me uncomfortable. I don’t know why.
   My boyfriend has left his iPhone. I want to distract myself so I use it to get an aerial view of our hotel. He has a new email. Kathy. Who’s Kathy? Why do I open it? I open it. ‘I miss you Snapper. Come back early on Sunday and I’ll cook dinner in my underwear.
    Kiss Kiss Kathy.’
   Snapper? I hear him outside. He’s laughing with someone. ‘Have a great time!’ he says. I delete the message and throw the phone back on top of his open suitcase. He comes in talking about the 2-4-1 evening meal if we eat both nights in the restaurant. He puts his arms round me. Kiss Kiss. He wants sex.
   He can put his dick in the microwave. 
 The story spins on a misunderstanding. Heathcliff is unseen in the kitchen when Cathy comes in and starts complaining about him. She says it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff. That’s the word
she uses and that is the word he hears before he slinks away. He doesn’t hear the rest of what she says.
   And then he disappears. And then she marries Edgar. And when Heathcliff returns, rich and educated, it is too late.
   Do I misunderstand? 
 At dinner. Candle-lit. We are sharing our table with Peter and Paul. My boyfriend met them earlier. He thinks we will have a great time together. They are enjoying looking through the list of rooms: Romeo and Juliet: under-age sex and murder. Cathy and Heathcliff: violence, death and destruction.
 Lancelot and Guinevere: infidelity, death, destruction.
   ‘We’re staying in Oscar,’ says Peter. ‘The décor is very Barbra Streisand. It’s kind of LA meets Golders Green, but with a Yorkshire touch.’ What kind of Yorkshire touch? ‘Oh, biscuits and slippers.’
   They admire my boyfriend’s blazer. I am thinking about Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas: financial ruin, prison, death. Being a great lover is not a passport to happiness.
   I wonder if the iPhone message is so bad? We’re not ruining each other’s lives. We don’t have kids. We don’t even live together. Why do I care if she is cooking his sausages wearing only her knickers?
   ‘Let’s drink to love,’ says Paul.
   We raise our glasses to love. Some mysterious force takes hold of my glass and it hovers spookily in front of my eyes before it dashes its pinot gris into my boyfriend’s face. ‘What was that for?’ he says, bewildered, mopping his T-Rex T-shirt under his white blazer.
   I tell him I’m not a 2-4-1 special offer. He grabs his pocket for his iPhone. He opens his mouth. Bubbles come out. He looks at me like a sick goldfish.

 I go upstairs. I microwave a toasted sandwich. I lock him out. I want to be alone in The Heathcliff.
   ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but as my own being.’
   It’s dark outside. The moon is over the moor. The moon as white and strange as a desert rock. It is a rock. A part of earth violently forced off in the struggling evolution of our solar system. And now earth and the moon work as an earth-moon pair; moon holds earth gravitationally, keeping us stable, controlling our tides. Earthmoon; the original love affair.
   I have never known that kind of love affair. I am a modern woman. I have work I enjoy. I want kids. I want a quiet life. I don’t want a Wuthering world.
   ‘If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.’   There is nothing romantic about that. No candles. No roses. No love songs. Love like that will kill you. I don’t want that but what does it feel like?
   My instinct is to call a friend and get someone to sympathise.The bastard! I must do something to kill the feeling that I feel. I realise that I don’t like feeling and neither does he. He avoids intimacy
like he avoids fights. I avoid feeling the fact that we have nothing to say to each other. We work hard, we go out, we sleep together, and that way there is too little time to say too much. We are lukewarm. We are like pub beer and hotel tea.
   Question: What is the most effective way to avoid the feelings that you feel? – by that I mean the feelings that you don’t want to feel – Answer: Have an affair. The cheap excitement is like going for a spray-tan when your pale body craves full sun.
   He’s having an affair so that he doesn’t have to confront our failure. The story of our break-up will be about the two of them, and not the two of us. We will have avoided the real problem by creating a pretend problem.
   Heathcliff hates Edgar. Cathy marries Edgar the way you might marry a goldfish. Cathy and Heathcliff both avoid the love they feel for each other until it is too late to feel it. Heathcliff knows how to hate. Cathy knows how to die. Dying and hating are substitutes for love. That is what Wuthering Heights is really about. 
    ‘Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy?’
   Yet, it would be something to have a heart to betray.
   My boyfriend tries shouting at the window. ‘Let me in!’ He says he can explain. But I don’t want him to explain; I want him to drop dead. Then it starts to rain and as he is no Romeo and no Cathy either, he doesn’t want to get wet, so he goes back inside to the Lover’s Bar.
   We are a modern couple.
   It occurs to me that I could drop the key at Reception, take the car, and go home.
   As soon as I have made this plan I feel better. Next I take his iPhone and email Kathy-she-of-the-underwear. I tell her that she will soon be as bored as I am, but that if she is as boring as I am, she probably won’t notice.
   What is the matter with me? I am living my life like an upload on YouTube. I am a human Frappuccino.
   I don’t even like sex. But then, I have been bedding a goldfish.
   Did Heathcliff and Cathy have sex? Probably not but not certainly not. Heathcliff rips the side off her coffin and has himself buried next to her, side open, so that their bodies will rot down together.
   Yes, it would be something to have a heart to betray. A heart worth betraying.
   I have my bag and the keys. As I walk past the Lover’s Bar, my has-been-boyfriend-ex-half-of-our-couple (of what?) is drinking with Peter and Paul.
   He sees me pulling my wheelie. Heathcliff would not be sitting in a Lover’s Bar. Cathy would not be exiting with a wheelie.
   He comes after me but he is drunk and I am quick. I throw the room key at him and that gives me enough time to reach the car. It’s a two-seater, fast and unfeminine. I roar out of the carpark and onto the winding road up to the moor.
   There’s nothing now between me and the moon.
   Park the car. Get out. The lights of the town are underneath me. The lights are like my life – the old life, the other life, the life I don’t want to live anymore.
   This love business is a theme hotel. It’s a weekend away. It’s a special offer. It has nothing to do with love like a planet. Love like home. Love like gravity holding me here.
   What does real feeling feel like?
   Not the tick-box. Not the look-good. Not the arm-candy. Not the good-guy. Not the bad-guy. Not the love-song. Not the soap-opera. Not the his-n-hers. Not the headline. Not the small print. Not the gossip. Not the way out of a lifetime’s consolations. I don’t want a way out: I want a way in.
   I want a way in to the feelings I can’t feel.
 The moor. Below me on the ridge are two figures. They are walking arm in arm. He is tall, big-boned and dark. She is slender and light. They are talking. They are dead.
   ‘“Heathcliff ”… If you enter the kirkyard, you’ ll read, on his headstone, only that, and the date of his death.’
   It’s nearly morning and I have spent the night in the car reading Wuthering Heights. I am stiff from sitting. Stiff from being cold. I need coffee and food.
   I feel happy. Is that the right feeling? Right or wrong,
   I feel it. I check my BlackBerry. There are twenty-seven messages from my ex-goldfish all headed ‘CAR ’. I delete them. I am not going home and I am going to keep the car for a week. His credit card will explode and he will have to find a balance transfer on special offer.
   In the next village there’s a caff that serves bacon and eggs and toast. The waitress smiles at me and looks at my book. ‘I love that song by Kate Bush.’ I ask her if she has read the novel. ‘No, but everybody knows it don’t they? It’s a love story.’
   I am not sure that it is. 

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