COITUS INTERRUPTUS, 1981

A couple on an autumn break – and the brink of commitment …

High above a Yorkshire dale, a man and woman lie side by side in the heather. It is late autumn, but the afternoon sun still warms and they are weary from the climb. Far below, they see the grey stone farmhouse where they spent the previous night, smoke curling from one of its two chimneys. In the distance, they hear the sound of a power saw revving, its harsh thrum cutting through the silence.

The woman speaks.

“I do want a baby.”

“I know.”

“So, why won’t you…?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Not sure of what? It’s me who has it, not you.”

“I know. That’s my problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“I couldn’t compete.”

“With a baby?” she laughed.

“With having one.”

The woman sits up, puts her arms around her knees; the man buries his face in the heather.

He said something similar the night before, adding that he could understand her wanting a baby, because, apart from anything else, it was something her body could do that she hadn’t yet tried. He would want to try, too, if he was a woman. It wasn’t a matter of trying something, she said, like S&M or anal sex, but a way of developing her capacity for love, of increasing her ability to feel and express emotion, a way of reducing her narcissistic self-obsession, of having someone who was unequivocally dependant on her and to whom she could wholeheartedly give without being rejected.

“That’s a bit optimistic,” the man chuckled. “Children are often ungrateful. Anyway, you’ve got me.”

“You!”

The woman looked round. Her partner lay on one side, his penis still inside her. She’d come under his fingers, but then let go of him and whispered, ‘In me, please!’ He’d entered from behind and she’d squeezed and rotated, keeping her fingers crossed that he was too far-gone to worry about the time of month. But no such luck. ‘Contraception!’ he’d hissed. ‘Doesn’t matter!’ she’d cried. But after a final arching of buttocks and a half-hearted pelvic probe all creative motion had ceased.

“You!” she repeated, sinking back onto the pillow.

“I’m dependent and don’t reject you that often.”

The woman laughed. His penis slipped out and lay pointing at the moon.

“Will you live with me?” she said, turning over and playing with a hair on his chest.

“We’d get on each others nerves.”

“How do you know? You’ve never tried.”

She tweaked his nipple, sat up and rolled herself a cigarette. The man propped himself on an elbow.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Most men long for a wife and children.”

“Then why don’t you?”

She jumped out of bed to fetch matches, hoping to lead the discussion down a more productive path. But when she slipped back between the sheets he had turned away, breathing in the rhythm of sleep. She would tackle him again tomorrow, on the walk.

And now she has, without success.

On the far side of the dale, a curlew calls, a cloud moves in front of the sun. The woman stands. The wind has crept unseen over the horizon and the air is turning cold.

“Come on,” she says. “Let’s go home.”

The man jumps his feet forward and tries to flip upright, but loses his balance and falls back into the heather. The woman walks on.

They branch down off the ridge, through a rocky outcropping and over a stream that drops to the valley. The sun sinks, touching the hills opposite. Below, woods turn gold, presaging the advent of winter, the coming of death and a time before birth. Sheep move off moor tops, cows huddle in the comfort of stalls; dogs bark, keen to get duties done and food before them. The air smells of wood smoke and approaching night.

The woman reaches a stile that leads to the farm. She waits for the man, who is some distance behind, walking slowly, hands in pockets. She shivers and feels a pang of love for her friend. They will forget about babies and have tea with toast in front of the fire, go upstairs and make love anyway they like. She holds up her arms as he approaches and they hug. She pulls his face off her shoulder to kiss his lips, but they are shut, numb with cold – or thought. She breaks loose and climbs on to the stile.

“Hurry up!” she says. “I’m hungry.”

“Wait for me.”

He follows her over the stonewall and arm in arm they walk back, their boots swishing through the dead leaves, their breath visible in the cold air. The sun falls behind the valley wall and lights appear – dots of life in the gathering gloom.