Sally Long bends over the CD player and places in a disc with the
seriousness and dedication of one performing a very technical and
highly delicate operation. That done she presses gently the play
button and stands back a few paces to see if her operation has
been a success. Music filters into the room and a woman's voice
follows singing in a plaintive mode, which has the effect of
making Sally sway gently back and forth. - Do you know what
someone said about me last night? Sally says in song-like voice.
Her guest, Tessa Underbridge, who is sitting in an old brown
armchair by Sally's bed, looks up from a magazine she is reading
and studies her friend carefully.
- I've no idea, Sally, Tessa says, I wasn't with you last night.
Sally swaying across the room finally does a twirl and stops in front of Tessa. - Of course not, Sally acknowledges in a sing song voice. There were so many there at the party that I have no idea quite who was there and who wasn't. Anyway, Sally goes on, moving to the window and glancing out on to the campus of the university, I was told that I was tall, slim, bright and beautiful. And with this she leans forward and scans the campus grass beneath.
Tessa watches her with interest as if studying the first performance of a new ballet. - And modest too, Tessa says.
Sally shakes her head but does not look away from the scene or window. - Modesty, my dear Tessa, is nothing more than hypocrisy or honesty. If one possesses certain talents or the gift of beauty and one denies this under the cover of so called modesty then one is a fraud and a hypocrite. And if one does not possess such talents or beauty, then to deny it is not modesty but honesty. Modesty serves no purpose other than that of dishonesty.
Tessa raises her eyebrows at her friend's back, which is still leaning forward over the window, and puts down the magazine on the bed. - Modesty is a form of humility and humbleness, Tessa informs, standing up from the old brown armchair and moving across the floor almost slipping on an age-old piece of carpet. And they are virtues, she adds gaining her balance and walking on. I'm not saying you're not tall, slim and bright or beautiful, but one should not wallow in such comments as if in a mud bath.
Sally looks round from the window and stares at Tessa who has just reached the CD player and who stands over it as if it were an offending article. - You make me sound like a hippopotamus, Sally moans. Anyway, I was only commenting on what another person said, not what I thought. I don't wallow, Sally adds. I am the last person to wallow.
Tessa says nothing for a few seconds but scans the CD player and shakes her head at the music floating about her. - Yes, it is hard to imagine one so slim and tall like you wallowing in mud, Tessa concedes, feeling tempted inside to press the stop button and end the torment on her ears. But modesty has its purpose as does chastity, virginity and purity, Tessa pleads putting her hands behind her back out of reach of the CD player.
Sally studies Tessa and the words falling from her lips. She likes the lips and the eyes of Tessa but does not say so. - They have their place and purpose if you're under sixteen I suppose; Sally says unconvincingly moving away from the window and slowly sitting on her bed. But for those above that age they are remnants of a bygone era. She watches Tessa turn round and scans her face for signs of what she might say. But Tessa says nothing momentarily her eyes glance quickly about the room as if looking for something to catch her eye or please her mind. A print of Picasso's Demoiselles d' Avignon on the wall to her right holds her attention and Sally's words fade away for a few minutes of silent study. Then she looks away and focuses her eyes on Sally sitting on her bed.
- Don't you believe in any of the virtues? Tessa finally asks.
- One person's virtues are another person's vices; Sally informs lowering her head and gazing at her bare feet on the cold floor.
Tessa shakes her head, brings her hands in front of her, and places them over her groin as if they were guardians of the Holy Grail. - Virtues are virtues, Tessa says. They're not interchangeable. Vices are vices. Sins are sins. Tessa pauses and Sally sighs.
- Are you still a virgin? Are you pure? Are you chaste? Sally asks loudly as if wanting the whole campus to know the awaited reply.
Tessa blushes and looks away and back at the Picasso. - That is my business, Tessa mutters in a soft voice which barely reaches Sally's ears. I am speaking of virtues themselves, not my possessing them. One does not disprove virtues simply by not possessing them. Some people seem to think that because they do not possess the virtues that they cease to exist...Like God, Tessa says suddenly louder. People who don't believe in God think that because they don't believe, that God is thereby disproved. God does not depend on us to believe in Him to exist. He exists whether we have faith or not. There is a pause of silence. Neither woman says a word nor looks the other in the face. After a few minutes of this, Sally taps the space on the bed beside her.
- Come and sit down. How did we get on to God and such things on a fine morning like this? Sally says lifting her eyes from her feet and looking at Tessa. I invited you here for a chat and a cup of coffee, not to solve the problems of the universe. Tessa smiles a faint smile that lingers on the lips for a second or so before dissolving into the air about them. She walks over to the bed and sits down.
- My fault, Tessa confesses, I get too uptight about such things. My boyfriend, Julian, is always mocking me about it. Sally senses a twinge of disappointment on hearing the word boyfriend but brushes it off and smiles.
- You have a boyfriend? Sally asks.
- Yes, Julian, Tessa informs, bringing into her own mind his face as she last saw it two weeks before. He's a student in London, she adds, wondering secretly to herself what he was doing now and whom he was with on the long nights away from her. Sally pretends interest and for a few minutes Tessa proclaims his virtues and vices and inwardly blushes at the vices of them both on their last weekend. Tessa has done talking about Julian and his vices and such and Sally rises from the bed and walks over to the table by the sink and with a spoonful of coffee puts some in each mug. Tessa picks up the magazine again and reads where she left off. Sally waits for the kettle to boil.
The woman's voice from the CD player proclaims words which causes Sally to say, - You tell them, Billie, you tell them. Tessa lifts her eyes from the magazine thinking another person has entered the room, only to find Sally swaying once again to the music and the voice bemoaning around the room.
- Who's Billie? Tessa asks a swaying Sally.
- Billie Holiday, jazz and blues singer, Sally almost sings. It's her singing on the cd. Tessa nods her head slightly in acknowledgement.
- Not my kind of music, Tessa informs. Sally sways back to the table by the sink and attends to the boiling kettle.
- I like most music, Sally says pouring hot water into the two mugs. It is the food of my soul; she adds pouring milk in little splashes. It doesn't matter to me if it's Billie Holiday or Haydn, Miles Davis or Debussy. Tessa listens and smiles. She watches as Sally sways with two mugs towards her as if performing a new art form.
- Mozart is my real true love, Tessa says as if confessing to a dark deed. But jazz is not something I can say I like much... She stops and takes the mug from Sally who then sits down on the bed again beside her.
- So Mozart's the love of your life, Sally says. We all wondered who the love of your life was. Tessa smiles but does not comment. Molly Mulligan said you were a Mozart freak, but we thought no, it must be someone more livelily. Sally stops and breaks into laughter. Tessa blushes and stares at her mug of coffee. Sorry, Sally says after a few more laughs, shouldn't be so with a friend. But you must like more than Mozart. Tessa nods her head and looks from her mug into the face of Sally.
- I do. Wagner, Mahler, Schubert and so on... Tessa stops. She sips from her mug. She senses Sally's eyes on her as she looks away and stares at the floor.
- You're quaint when you blush, Sally says after a few seconds of silence between them. She places her right hand on Tessa's arm and smiles. There is something closed up in you, she adds searching Tessa's face and eyes. Relax more. Unwind, Sally says, softly as if talking to a young child.
Tessa breathes in deeply as if her lungs were without air. - I am relaxed. I am not wound up to need unwinding, she informs calmly. I live within the limits I have set myself not those set by the world and its standards or fashions. Sally raises her eyebrows and nods her head. Tessa turns away from Sally and looks up at the Picasso on the wall. People would debate if that was art or not, she says nodding towards the Picasso. But I love his work. It is liberating and allows us a freedom other painters don't. Tessa pauses and studies the print from where she sits.
- I read somewhere he was described as a Catalan wizard who fools with shapes; Sally says moving her hand along Tessa's arm. Tessa sips and thinks. Sally reaches Tessa's hand, which is free and runs her fingers over it as if it were a sacred object.
- It has been said that nothing unites the English like war and nothing divides them like Picasso, Tessa informs between sips of coffee. Sally nods but says nothing. She feels the soft flesh of Tessa against her own. My father hates his works, Tessa says suddenly, feeling Sally's fingers on her left hand. He thinks him a fraud. But I have always defended him, she adds emotionally, moving her left hand slightly and feeling Sally's fingers still there.
- What do parents know of art and such? Sally says removing her fingers reluctantly and placing them in her lap. They are too bound up in their little circles of money and chitchat. Tessa drains her mug and holds it in her two hands as if it were the Holy Chalice. Sally moves her right hand, takes Tessa's mug, and rises from the bed. I have grown tired of my parent's philosophy of life. It leaves little space for the real aspects of living. Sally becomes silent and moves to the sink where she puts the two mugs down. Turning round she looks at Tessa and smiles. If only she knew, Sally thinks, if only she knew. And deep inside she senses a deep urge to go and kiss Tessa, but doesn't. She stands and stares.
- We are each of us different, Tessa states. Our parents have a right to their opinions and philosophy, even if we don't agree with them, she adds, aware that Sally is staring at her intently.
- Yes, but their opinions kill the life in us, Sally says emotionally, looking away from Tessa and at the Picasso on the wall. Bertrand Russell said that because an opinion has been widely held does not prove that it isn't absurd, Sally informs. Tessa watches her friend with interest and notices that Sally's feet are bare which makes her want to somehow comfort her as if she were an orphan. Sally looks away from the Picasso, and moving towards the bed, gazes silently at Tessa. My parent's opinions are absurd and life draining, Sally adds sitting on the bed next to Tessa.
- Parents teach us what they know, it isn't their fault if they know so little, Tessa says in deep thought looking down at her hands resting in her lap. Sally wants to touch the hands but doesn't. Tessa watches her hands, but says no more. The eyes watch the hands. The hands rest unaware of the eyes that gaze, one pair in idle speculation, the other in search of love.