Story: Principles

By: Cynthia Lloyd

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When Arthur fell in love with the farmhouse in Brittany, Jenny was too much in love with Arthur to care where they lived. “I’ll be fine,” she had said, “I’ve loads to do.” Jenny illustrated children’s books. “And I love France.”

But she hadn’t allowed for the difference between Brittany and the Dordogne. To her France had meant sunlit holidays, but now she found the north of France felt further north than the south of England. And quite soon after they’d moved in Arthur had left for Afghanistan, quite soon indeed after they’d married, though she’d known he was a soldier and she had to expect it. “Why do you go for these establishment types?” her friend Matty had complained. “Sure he’s attractive in his stiff-upper-lip way, but look at the things they like. Farms in Brittany!” Matty was no francophile, but she’d come out to visit Jenny the moment she knew she’d been left on her own. Soon Matty knew everyone in the village, had rented a house there and came over with her partner Harold most weekends. It was they who had discovered the Rock and taken Jenny to see it, one of many failed attempts to cheer her up in Arthur’s absence.

“You’ve got a stunning natural feature right on your own land,” said Harold. “Do you mean to say you haven’t seen it yet?” It was in fact two miles away, no longer adjoining the farm land, but still part of the property as no one had ever wanted to buy it. When Jenny saw it she understood that very well.

They told her it was a curiosity, an outcrop of black basalt in that landscape of grey stone. They climbed an escarpment almost to the clifftop, rounded a grey boulder and there, where the sea and sky should have been, was a sheer black wall, rearing out of a dense black floor that reflected no light, and cutting off the sky. The space was shut in, enclosed by fangs of the same black. And as they stared at it, the noise began.

It was low at first, as if the rock itself were groaning, then filling their ears, then crashing off the rock face and the boulders that surrounded them, hammering their heads until Jenny wrapped hers in her arms and keened with terror, too frozen to run. Matty gently tapped her arm, and when she slanted her eye round the other two were doubled up too, but with laughter. Harold pointed upwards, and she saw the helicopter flying overhead.

“It’s on the flight path,” said Harold.

“On the flight path! You mean commercial flights come this way? Arthur will fly over it when he comes home? But it’s got to be dangerous!” She learned soon afterwards that there had indeed been the occasional crash when the sea fog rose, and this became the focus of her horror of the Rock.

“Oh well done,” said Matty to Harold. “That really took her mind off Arthur.”

Jenny inquired among contractors, and they told her what it would cost to dismantle a ton of black basalt and break up the cliff floor. Then they laughed when they saw her face. She went to see the mayor, but the Mayor wanted to be re-elected and had no intention of using tax-payers’ money on something that would only benefit an English resident. Besides, the Council funds were in trouble. He had in fact been negotiating for months with the airport authorities, hiking up his price to get rid of this hazard, and they weren’t ready yet to play ball. So he told Jenny it was a local feature and brought in tourist revenue, and the village was proud of it.

It was at one of Matty’s dinner parties that Jenny met Jean-Pierre Aurélius, a young television architect and local celebrity. It so happened that Jenny’s opulent pre-Raphaelite build and red hair were the stuff of his particular fantasies, and combined with her quietly spoken, well-bred style they were also new in his experience. At first she enjoyed flirting with him, until she realised that she had become the object of obsession. He had just told a story to amuse her when she caught the slightly febrile look in his eye and said, with no warning, “I think we’d better cool it for a while, hadn’t we, Jean-Pierre?”

At first he took this as encouragement, a recognition that their interest in each other was more than social. When he understood that she meant it, his face twisted, and he left the room. Matty said, “You’re bonkers. Every woman wants a piece of Jean-Pierre, well the same piece actually. You mean to say you don’t?”

“I’m only just married. I know you can’t see it but I’m crazy about Arthur. I want him back every moment. It just – cuts everything else out, that’s all.”

But Jean-Pierre did not give up. When subtle presents didn’t work, such as a moody photograph of her farmhouse and an early edition of Le Petit Prince, he had a message projected on the village cinema screen on a night he knew she would be there. The words were from a current unexpected ballad-style hit called Jenny Have Pity. It worked, in that she felt she had to go and see him to tell him to stop.

“Oh, I’ll stop,” he said, “if you’ll move in with me.”

“My God, you’re cynical!” she said.

“No, Jenny, no! I do not mean that I will stop loving you. I’d do anything for you. Tell me anything – whatever it is you most want.”

“All right,” she said. “Get rid of that horrible Rock for me. It gives me nightmares having it on my land.”

“And then you will live with me?”

She laughed. “I’d even live with you, if you could do it.”

Her birthday came, a cool grey day in May. Matty and Harold were there, and they took her out in their four wheel drive.

“Look over there,” said Harold.

Jenny looked, but there was nothing to see. A landscape of moors, under one of those steely skies which made the weave of the heather stand out like wire wool. While she looked, the off-roader took a right and began to climb. Her head whipped round.

“We’re not going to the Rock, are we?”

Matty laughed. “No.”

But they were, Jenny knew. They had come at it from a different direction, driving from Matty’s place, but she knew this path. Why? It was her birthday and a treat had been promised. Everyone knew she hated the Rock.

Bushes and shrubs closed in on the twisting path. The four-wheel drive rounded the last turn, almost catching on a tuft of something growing out of the boulder that blocked the view ahead. If you could call it a view. She knew what was on the other side of that boulder. It was like the gateway to hell.

They stopped. Matty jumped down and ran round to help her with the heavy door. She stumbled out, drew a deep breath and marched round the boulder. Onto the grass.

The grass was smooth. All round it were flowering bushes, blooming lavishly against the cool grey early summer sky. They led the eye up the green slope to a little airy belvedere, standing where she had thought the Rock would be, looking out over the sea.

And in front of the bushes, framing the lawn but leaving a space at the head so that she could see the belvedere, were the people: Matty’s Harry, the Glaswegians Linda and Johnny, the American Rob, the Telliers, Jean-Pierre Aurélius and the television crew.

Jean-Pierre came forward, his long narrow face flooded with smiles under the tangle of dark hair. He took her hand. “Jenny.” Then he turned with her towards the belvedere, towards a camera, and went on in French. “Welcome to Paysages Magiques, the programme which remakes your environment. You, Jenny Franklin, hated the Rock that was on your land. Today you have instead a garden and a belvedere.” He switched to English, looking down at her and smiling into her eyes. “Do you like it better now?”

The belvedere was of some kind of translucent material, worked like wrought iron but in airy, abstract shapes like spun glass. As she looked, a faint sun came out and lit it. The colour of the clouds had softened to blue touched with rose, in long streaks winging away to the horizon. The skyscape beyond was clear for miles.

Jean-Pierre was not smiling now. He could see she was appalled.

She turned from Jean-Pierre and ran out of the clearing. Not the way they had come but to the right, where there was another path down to the rest of her own land. No one followed; there was a television programme to salvage. She ran till she had a stitch, across the two fields she and Arthur didn’t need and didn’t know what to do with, until she came to the walled garden she had filled with herbs. She wished now she had put in flowers instead, something vulgar and suburban with bright colours. Herbs sounded romantic, but even in spring they looked dim and puny. But in the grey stone living room there were flowers all round the walls, flowers in every vase and bowl Arthur had been able to find, and there with his arms outstretched was Arthur, home on unexpected leave. She fell into his arms and burst into tears.

He listened in silence. He was a good listener. Then he said, “Jen, is this all?”

“Isn’t it enough?”

“So you got rid of the Rock. Why are you so upset?”

“Well, because – because I said – I just told you what I said!” She looked away. “I said I’d sleep with him. Weren’t you listening?”

“Exactly,” said Arthur seriously. “You said it. Jenny, this is the last thing I want to say to you.” Her heart went cold. Was he going to leave her? But he said, “I think you have to do it.”

“What?”

“I was talking to my son last night.” This was his student son from his first marriage.

“He’d promised me he’d work this term, keep off the hard drugs. He’s done neither. He didn’t seem to think I should even have expected it. He laughed.”

“I’m sorry. But he’ll grow out of it.”

“I shouldn’t have to wait for that! This is what I mean, there are no rules any more. No principles. You say whatever will keep people happy and then you do as you like. But promises are important, Jenny.”

“But I do have principles! My principle is to be faithful to you.”

He frowned. “I thought you said you didn’t want him.”

“Because I love you!”

“So it wasn’t principle.”

“He didn’t take it seriously! He knew I didn’t mean it!”

“He did take it seriously. He did what you asked.”

“Oh, Jenny, that is so naive,” said Matty. “Of course he didn’t take you seriously. It was an idea for a TV show, that was all. Why didn’t you snap him up when you had the chance?”

“Come on Matty, you’re faithful when you’re with someone”. Matty was like a chain smoker where men were concerned, but she stuck to one at a time. “You met Harry at Mike’s funeral, but you didn’t play around while you were with Mike. Not even when he was ill.”

“What do you mean, when he was ill? Of course I didn’t play around when he was ill. God, Jenny!” Matty stared at her indignantly. “I’ve got some principles.”

“Well,” Jenny said, “it seems I haven’t. Anyway, I’m leaving Arthur.”

Matty hugged her friend. “You may not have principles, but there’s nothing wrong with your instincts. Arthur’s the pits.”

Jean-Pierre Aurélius put down the phone and put his head in his hands. His bosses at the television centre had been threatening not to renew the series if ratings didn’t improve, and yesterday’s fiasco had decided them. In addition, this programme had cost him personally, and not only in emotion. It had needed well over the budget level to do the job, and the Mayor had insisted on a hefty donation to the Council funds as well, to compensate for loss of tourist revenue in the future. He wondered if he would have to sell the cottage. He was doing sums on the back of an envelope when the telephone rang again..

The Mayor at least was having a good day. The airport authorities had offered a sum that morning for the demolition of the Rock which would take the Council funds out of the red, and he had his own ideas on what to do with the sweetener he had demanded from Aurélius. The problem was to conceal the fact that the demolition had already been done. So he telephoned Jean-Pierre and asked him to come and see him in his office.

Jean-Pierre said, “I can’t pay what you asked. My film is ruined, they can’t show it, and they won’t renew my contract for the series. You will have to wait for your money, perhaps for a long time.” And he told him the whole story.

The Mayor said nothing for a moment. With Jean-Pierre’s kick-back he would be able to fund the new youth centre which everyone wanted and his re-election would be a matter of course. It was a blow that the money would not be forthcoming right away, but perhaps after the airport payment he could borrow again from the existing funds …

Jean-Pierre waited, his face tight with strain. The Mayor reflected that love and money troubles were bad enough apart, and together they could destroy you. Now that the programme was to be axed he could accept the airport’s offer and they would be none the wiser. But this could be the end of the young man’s career. He spread his hands and laughed.

“It does not matter, my friend. I think you were a little crazy when you did this, and it would be unjust to make you pay. Besides, I was not telling the truth. No one ever came to see the Rock. It was an eyesore.”

A kickback is always useful, but bof! He had been at University with the man’s brother.
Even Mayors had principles.

“Jean-Pierre,” Jenny said. “I’m sorry.”

He didn’t say anything, or ask her in. He stood there in a baggy expensive sweater, looking slightly older and more blurred than usual, as people do when called on unexpectedly. She started to babble.

“It’s just that it was such a shock. But thank you, thank you. I’m sorry if I messed up your programme.” He shrugged politely. He wouldn’t help her. “But Jean-Pierre -” She looked up at him, and was suddenly flooded with pity, just as the song said. Pity and desire, as the song meant. “Here I am now,” she said.

The lines on his face suited him, he looked distinguished already. How old was he? Thirty? Younger than she was. And Arthur of course was a few years older, and she never wanted to live with him again. She put out a hand and touched the well-worn sweater, which felt soft and warm.

He stepped back and laughed. “You English! You are incredible! Always the principle!”

“No! No, it’s not for that, it’s not because I promised, I was joking when I said that -”

“Oh, you meant you would live with me if, what is it, pigs would dance? Thank you.” This was just what she had meant, but she lied eagerly. “I knew you could do it! It’s what your programme does. Only,” she added honestly, “I’d been to see the Mayor and he wouldn’t even consider it. How did you get permission?”

“The Mayor is an old friend of mine. He was at University with my brother. And,” he lied with pure malice in his voice, “he owes me some money. I had a bet with him. About the English and their principles. And now, if you will excuse me, I am tired.” And he shut the door.

####

Food for Thought

This story is based on Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, which sets out a moral problem of the kind debated in the so-called Courts of Love. In Chaucer’s Tale, the knight Arvigerus takes his bride Dorigen to his castle in Brittany. They are very much in love, but he soon goes away to do knightly deeds across the sea. In her depression Dorigen becomes obsessed with the rocks along the coast, fearing that her husband’s ship will be wrecked on them when he comes home. The young squire Aurelius falls in love with her and tries to seduce her, but she is faithful to her absent husband.and says she will only return Aurelius’ love if he can remove the rocks that worry her so much. To her dismay he pays a magician to make the rocks disappear, and when her husband returns she confesses the obligation she is now under. He tells her she must keep her promise, even though it was not meant literally, but when she presents herself to Aurelius he is so impressed by her distress on her husband’s behalf that he excuses her. He has paid the magician a thousand pounds and is now ruined, but the magician in turn is impressed by Aurelius’ devotion and writes off the debt. Chaucer ends by asking his audience which of the three male characters behaved most nobly. (Their replies, if any, are not recorded).

My version is retold according to a more modern sexual morality, in which personal loyalties come before abstract obligations. Jenny is outraged by her husband’s insistence on the letter of her promise, and only offers herself to Aurélius when she decides she can do it with emotional honesty. He, on his part, only carried out his own promise because he believed she had feelings for him already. After her initial reaction to what he has done for her, he cannot believe she is acting out of anything but ‘principle’ in coming to him, and he finds this abhorrent. For both of them feeling is paramount; as it also is for the Mayor, who excuses Aurélius the kickback due to him because he is a friend of Aurélius’ brother.

 

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