I didn't see Jessica after that until the New Year's Eve party at the Bayley's. No obvious sign of Edward, but she had male company all the same; which wasn't surprising, since her outfit was more or less Official Spice Girl.
I levered her out of the jaws of the predators, and suggested that a married woman should dress more conservatively.
"They're only separates," she murmured guiltily.
I said that everyone could tell they were separates, from them being about a foot apart.
"Yes, well.... I'm trying to lure Edward back. That's what."
Back? Edward and Jessica haven't been married a year. I sent the wolves packing again, reversed Icky into a corner, and asked her bluntly what was up. Had there been... trouble over Christmas?
"Not to begin with. Actually, it was lovely. Our first tree...." she cooed.
Soppy. But I could (just about) remember what it had been like with bright new ornaments, instead of the same tired ones year after year, which you can't throw away because they're 'traditional'. I started to tell her how lucky she was.
"No new ones," Icky interrupted. "Edward's mother gave us a job lot that she had, er, spare."
Perhaps that had been the trouble?
"Oh no. I didn't mind that. Saved money. And it was so nice to be at home with Edward, with a whole week to look forward to...."
I tried another tack. Perhaps Edward's present had been unsuitable? I started to review some of the less useful offerings that I'd collected over the years, but Icky interrupted me again.
"Oh no. I hinted for a long winter coat: and got it. Aquascutum."
I could see that a long woolly coat would be useful if you wore virtually nothing underneath... but then I rebuked myself for being jealous.
"Actually, it was what I gave Edward that... made things go wrong."
Oh. What could that possibly have been?
"Well, I got him quite a few things. But the nigger in the woodpile...." That was a solecism and a half, and Icky looked round nervously. But no one had heard, and she continued. "I mean, the, er, problem item... was some poetry."
I expressed surprise. Had it been very shocking poetry? Even, perhaps, racist poetry? This was a new and very sinister side to Jessica.
"No, silly: ordinary poetry. For children, in fact."
And Edward had been insulted by this?
"No. Now look, if you want to hear about it, perhaps you could stop interrupting... for a while?"
I shut up. For a while.
"Yes, well, anyway.... A few days before the, er, Day, I was buying some - ahem - seasonal music..."
I wanted to express surprise that Edward's mother hadn't had a line in recycled carols, but I bit my lip instead.
"...and in the CD shop there were some of these, er ROM, things. My eye was taken by one called 'Introduction to Poetry'. Yes, I could tell it was for children. But you know Edward's not too interested in... cultural stuff. I just had this wild thought that if - you know - some verses popped up on his screen, he might, well, discover that they weren't so different from the other things he stares at so intently - whatever they are - and then, just perhaps, he might decide that he liked it... that is, er, them."
There was a pause while Icky sorted out her grammar. Unusually, I stayed shut up; but I made my face say that, while I'd understood so far, I couldn't quite see where all this was leading.
"Well, anyway, to cut a long story short, I gave this damn thing to Edward after lunch on Christmas Day.... Well, it was evening, actually, by the time we'd got straight."
Typical newlyweds. All devotion, no duty. And?
"Well. He opened it, looked at it in a strange way, looked at me in a strange way... as though it was the last thing he'd expected. Then he said - yes, I'm sure this is what it was - 'A compiler. What for?'"
A compiler what for? What had Edward been drinking?
"Not all that much. And, you see, the box did say 'Compiler, So-and-So': you know, the person who had selected the poetry. And Edward had seen that first and thought... well, what had he thought? I'm not sure. Then, of course, a second later, he read the proper title. Then he looked surprised, and then he put on a sort of calculating look he has."
"Yes. Not plotting. Sums. Very dull sums. Anyway, he said thank-you very nicely for the diskette-ROM-thing, but after that...."
Well, he wasn't really concentrating. There was something I wanted to watch on television, and when I looked round, Edward had gone.
"No further than his computer. The one he keeps in the spare bedroom."
A spare bedroom. What's that? Typical newlyweds.
And he was looking at the poetry? On the screen? I still didn't understand the problem. Icky's hi-tech present seemed to have been a startling success.
"Yes, he'd put the ROM-thing in the... thing. Absolutely. And the poems came up on the screen. Wonderful.
"He started doing things...."
"He went on doing them."
"I don't know. He was certainly in the same place when I got up on Boxing Day. But perhaps he had been asleep... somewhere."
Sleeping around. I see. So what did you do?
"Well, I took him some breakfast. Then I asked if he wanted to take me for a walk... or anything."
And did he?
"No. Nor the next day. But I didn't nag. I sort of happened to put on a shorter skirt... and hung around a bit.... But he didn't notice me at all. Then about tea time, the day after Boxing Day, he finally appeared waving a piece of paper. Excitedly."
"I've got it here, actually."
I could see there'd been some dramatic proceedings, if she was still carrying the evidence on her person.... And on her person was exactly where it was: Icky delved into her two-piece outfit in a very startling way, and produced a scrap of paper. It said:
There was more, but I'll spare you.
"You know what it is?" Icky asked.
I admitted that I hadn't a clue.
"It's poetry. From the RAM, er, ROM. After Edward had got at it... for two days. Before he got at it, it went like this:
"I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he..."
Oh yes, I'd learned that at school. So I added the second line, to show I wasn't totally uneducated.
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three....
"Well done. That's the one. Anyway, after some, er, awkwardness, I found out that Edward had got the idea that - since poetry is so long and boring - he'd make a program that sort of extracted the essence. 'A compiler', he called it. That was his idea of a compiler, not a man on the front of a CD box."
I indicated that I now had some notion of the sadness in his madness. But Edward hadn't done all that well, had he? The 'compiled' version didn't even rhyme.
"I said that too. That was my second mistake. He went all huffy again, and back to his screen."
So what did you do?
"It was getting late. So I put on my nightie.... The one from my trousseau."
At this Icky blushed: which was right, because I'd been so taken up with this tale of Christmas Past that I'd neglected to warn off the wildlife. So now, mysteriously, it was I who was backed into the corner, while a couple of presentable blokes - one on her left, one on her right - were kindly protecting Icky from agoraphobia, and nodding sympathetically in all the right places: that is when they weren't stealing glances at the place where the separates were separated.
Icky recovered and went on. "But... the nightie had no effect," she added glumly. The men looked surprised, and I was too. "So next day I tried the sophisticated approach - all silk and stilettos - but absolutely no dice... until teatime again, when Edward surfaced like Archimedes - although with his clothes still on, unfortunately - crying eureka and waving this."
She pulled out another scrap of paper from that surprising place, and we passed it round. The men treated the paper with the respect normally reserved for Dead Sea Scrolls, but I think that was because of where it had been (somewhere dark, just like the Scrolls) rather than what was on it. Which was:
"It rhymes," Icky said simply. And so it did.
Brilliant. Just brilliant. I could see why things hadn't been too great. Did you have a row?
"Oh yes. But not just then. You see, he was so pleased with progress so far that he went back for another go, muttering that all he needed now was 'to link in some real-world knowledge'."
Edward's behaviour seemed to me to prove that 'real-world knowledge' was a concept totally beyond him, but I waited to hear what had happened next. By this stage, Icky's animation, and the mysterious pieces of paper that she kept producing from confidential places in her outfit had done great things for our audience ratings; even the Official Spice Girls had never pulled this stunt
There were four or five men watching her now. One of them had a woman of his own in tow - who was giving Icky very disapproving looks - and another was black: a scholarly-looking gent who was muttering something about "signifiers" and "paraphrasable content" to his neighbour, and had probably forgotten more poetry than Icky had ever known. In any case, I hoped that she'd keep her metaphors under control.
On she went. "I was very brave. I didn't break down. All I said was that I supposed that, sometime in the New Year - when things were back to normal - we might go on holiday, to get away from work; and so I thought I'd see which of my swimming costumes still fitted."
All the men looked as though they'd very much like a swimsuit issue there and then. And at the back of the little group I now - at last - spotted Edward himself, looking alarmed: as well he might.
So what happened next?
"Well, for a start, Edward changed poem. Started on this one:
"In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree..."
Coleridge has had a bit of a revival in the newspapers recently, while 'dome' seems to have become a rude word... so there were a few sniggers at this. I helped Icky out:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Where did 'real-world knowledge' come into that lot, for heaven's sake? Icky said nothing, but produced another sacred relic, which the men started to pass round reverently. It said:
Customer: Mr K. Khan
Note: Investigate groundwater problems
Reverence turned to ribaldry.
Everyone assumed that this was the final act - and I think the men were wondering how to get an encore - but Icky started up again of her own accord, telling us that the farce had not yet been played out. Instead of giving up - and growing up - Edward had returned yet again to his keyboard, causing yet another face-off between newlywed husband and newlywed wife. But Icky didn't say how she tried to distract Edward this time, so one of the men asked her, as I suppose was inevitable.
"No, I didn't wear anything, er, distracting." The men looked a bit disappointed, until Icky carried on. "Actually, I didn't wear anything." She giggled. "You've seen Playmate of the Month...."
She looked at the men - who obviously had - and blushed.
"I should say, Playmate of the Millennium," her questioner announced gallantly. Well, it was New Year's Eve; but the word 'millennium' coming up so soon after 'dome' produced more sniggers, and that relieved Icky's embarrassment.
And - in a way - you had to admire Edward's dedication: he must be made of iron.
Anyway, Icky explained that her husband hadn't been entirely happy with the extent to which he'd managed to distil the essence of Browning and Coleridge. So he'd gone on - again - this time transferring his attention to one of the rather more modern poems on the CD: which turned out to be Belloc's Matilda. Icky was going to tell us about it, in case we'd never read it or forgotten, but the black man kindly volunteered to do that for her: and much better too.
"Matilda," he said, in a voice which might have been Magdalen but was probably Christ Church, "is a little girl who is deplorably frugal with the facts. She resides with her aunt, and one day she pretends that there is a conflagration, and causes the Fire Brigade to be called, resulting in a certain amount of water-damage. A little later, when said aunt has gone out for the evening, there really is a fire. Naturally, no one believes Matilda's calls for help, and the house burns down: with Matilda in it."
Splendidly succinct. Now, that was the sort of summary which might be useful, if Edward's program could produce it. So what had it produced?
The men had been looking forward to the appearance of another token of passion: but none came. Icky said that there'd been no print-out this time. Instead, Edward had dragged her somehow into the presence of his wretched computer and made her wait - grinding her teeth the while - for the result of his brilliance to appear.
And some words had come up on the screen, sure enough; but they'd not satisfied Edward, apparently. Icky said that he'd started pressing keys wildly, trying to make them disappear. Which they did... but not quckly enough.
So what was this latest gem? Icky whispered into the ear of the black man. He roared with laughter. What? Everyone wanted to know. But, playing Icky's game, the black man whispered it to his neighbour. He collapsed with the hiccups, but then recovered enough to whisper it on.
Slowly, it went round.
Everyone was laughing at Edward: or 'Ednerd', as I heard someone call him rather uncharitably. But his wife embraced him loyally and - what with the Spice Girl outfit and everything - that made the men feel jealous, which improved matters for hubby. And then someone announced that midnight was coming up, and I could see that the newlyweds were negotiating some New Year resolutions....
I wanted to get the facts from the black man, but by then he was playing a leading role in the hokey-cokey, so instead I had to rely on the Chinese whisper that reached me via about a dozen rather drunken, loves-icky men.
It sounded as though the words on Edward's screen had been:
And I had to agree that even our literary friend couldn't have
summarized Matilda more succinctly than that.
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