Last Saturday The Globe and Mail carried a story about Stephen Vizinczey, the author of In Praise of Older Women. He first published it himself in 1965, after its rejection by conventional publishers. It is now being re-issued as a Penguin Classic but will not yet be distributed in Canada and the United States. A couple of years ago Vizinczey allowed me to use one of the chapters as the basis of a short story. This is the second part.
The narrator is Andrew Moyne, a public-spirited young Torontonian. The scene of the action is the Couchiching Conference in August 1958.
On Wednesday evening there was another session about the Cold War, asking what strategies the West should pursue. In this session Fritz Erler spoke once again. But I learned far more on Thursday evening, even though the title “Propaganda and the Uncommitted Nations” struck me as not particularly promising.
I wondered why Andras missed it. Was he having better luck with another older woman? He had already mentioned to me that he found more and more couples, men and women not married to each other, holding hands during the discussions. How did I know they were not married, you ask? Because married people don’t hold hands anywhere, he explained to me.
He said he had also noticed that there was a distinct change of atmosphere, a general loosening of the tone, less formality altogether, a considerable improvement in fact. He had even seen a couple embracing in a boat, way out on the lake, before dinner, during the drinking hour. Could one of them have been Murray Ross, the Vice-President of the University of Toronto and President of the Canadian Institute on Public Affairs, which ran the Couchiching Conference? He wasn’t sure. Anyway, what was going on here? Love-making instead of drinking? Could it be, Andras asked, that for every world crisis under discussion there were three adulteries?
Two speakers on Thursday evening, Mr. Justice Chan Htoon, former attorney general of Burma and eminent Buddhist scholar, and Dr. Nasrollah Fatemi, who used to be an Iranian diplomat and who was now a professor of social science at the Farleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, gave us a lot to worry about. The Burmese judge said that in Southeast Asia the communists were winning the propaganda battle hands-down because they had an easy answer to every question. The progress Moscow was making in the Asian subcontinent was not clearly understood in the West, he said. “If Nehru fails in his bid to establish firmly a secular state with parliamentary institutions,” he pointed out, “then the whole of the Asiatic East will fall to the Communists.”
The Iranian speaker, too, pleaded for a greater understanding by the West of the situation in his part of the world. “We people of Asia,” he declared, “have given the world the Ten Commandments, the Sermon of the Mount, and the religions of Islam and Buddhism, and without these, what would the Western world have been?”
At the breakfast table on Friday morning, at which Andras sat opposite me, Claire Gorringe, an elderly lady-psychologist, said how clever that attractive Iranian speaker had been to ask that rhetorical question. She had never thought of Palestine being in Asia, she confessed.
“Asia Minor,” Andras corrected her. “The Turks also live in Asia Minor. They sat in Hungary for centuries,” He seemed to be in high spirits. Last night, I decided, he must have allowed an older woman to seduce him. “They wanted to turn Hungary into a part of Asia Minor. But we wouldn’t let them.”
“Good for you,” Claire Gorringe patted his hand maternally and then poured maple syrup on her porridge. “The Greeks threw them out, too, as I seem to remember. The Greeks and the Jews, these were the people who made us what we are today.”
“Not the Hungarians?” Andras asked with a smile.
Everybody, including Andras, laughed.
“Speaking of origins,” Claire Gorringe asked the CBC producer Arthur Stinson, “do you remember when the late Provost Seeley called Dick Davis the father of Couchiching?”
The YMCA Secretary, R.E.G. Davis, was one of the founders of the Institute on Public Affairs.
“I most certainly do,” Stinson chuckled. “That was six years ago, in 1952, the first time we carried the conference on the air. I don’t think Neil Morrison has ever forgiven him for what he said in reply to Provost Seeley. He was horrified.”
Neil Morrison was the supervisor who had persuaded the CBC brass to carry the conference on the radio network.
“He said that Provost Seeley reminded him of the story about the woman who was suing for divorce and told the judge she was sure her husband was unfaithful to her. When the judge asked her what was her evidence? she said, ‘Well, I don’t think he’s the father of my child.’”
Everyone was duly amused.
“Neil blanched with horror that this story went out on the CBC’s national network,” Stinson reminisced. “Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was vice president of the Institute at the time. He told me that he kept wondering how the farmers in his constituency in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, would react to this story. But apparently no one complained.”
“Why should they?” Andras asked. He seemed to be genuinely perplexed. “What’s the problem?”
“Mr. Diefenbakes’s farmers are puritans,” I explained.
“And they only sleep with their own wives?” Andras asked, opening his mouth wide in disbelief.
“Yes,” I teased him. “According to the latest polls. Only two point three percent do not.”
Claire Gorringe thought it was time to change the subject.
“Has there always been so much drinking here?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” Stinson replied. “That is so because the YMCA does not allow drinking in public. That is why everybody brings a bottle. To be consumed in private in their rooms.”
“But so far there seems to be very little love-making,” Andras observed with a frown.
“Wait,” Arthur Stinson replied. “The week is still young. It’s only Sunday. People have to get to know one another before they jump into bed.”
“Why?” Andras opened his eyes wide. “I don’t understand that at all. At home they first sleep together and then, if they have had fun, then they become acquainted.”
I was known for giving my friends constructive advice in times of need.
“Why don’t you try that out on this nice lady at the beach this afternoon?” I said.
“I certainly will. Since she thinks I am so foreign,” he replied thoughtfully, “she probably expects it.”
I did not have a chance to speak to Andras until after the evening session. In the meantime I had found out that the name of the lavender beauty was Ann and that her husband was the reporter Guy MacDonald. Andras and I sat together as we listened to Fritz Erler paint a grim picture of the tense situation in Europe. Erler wondered what would happen if, once West Germany had tactical nuclear weapons, the oppressed population in Soviet-occupied Germany would rise again, as it had in June, 1953, and as the Hungarians had last October. He warned that continuing the atomic arms race and maintaining the explosive status quo in Europe was no substitute for a constructive policy of disengagement. In his talk, Mr. Bowie, however, did not think the time for disengagement had as yet come. If both sides were merely concerned with security, no doubt some sort of accommodation could be worked out. But, as far as he could see, the Soviet empire had only one fundamental purpose, and that was to expand its control. Between that purpose and western interests there was no common ground for genuine negotiation.
At the short non-alcoholic reception following the session I reminded Andras that he had told Erler he would think of something to ask him. I said I was disappointed that he had not done so.
“Oh, I could not concentrate,” he replied. “I kept thinking of Ann. I have decided I don’t really want her. Even though she’s just the right age for me. Older women know what’s important and what isn’t. I don’t like young girls.”
“You mean,” I smiled, “you don’t want to tell me that she rejected you.”
“No, not at all. She did not reject me. Not at first, anyway. I was quite surprised, considering that she is Canadian. Of course we only talked. I did not touch her. Even though we were lying quite close to each other on the grass, a little out of the way, almost naked, and there was nobody in sight. Her two boys were out on their bicycles. I think she wanted me to kiss her. Nobody would have noticed. I did not.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because she had already turned me down. What would have been the point? We would have got all excited for nothing. I did what you suggested. I asked her politely if we could be together tomorrow afternoon while her husband was taking notes at one of the discussion groups. She said no.”
“Naturally,” I observed. “this is not Hungary.”
“I know, I know,” he said sadly. “But she had already told me she liked me and that she did not love her husband.”
“She told you that?”
“Not exactly. She said she only loved him in a way. I think that meant she would welcome a change. But she also said she had never slept with any one else.”
“And what did you say to that?”
“I said, ‘God forbid that I spoil a good marriage.’ She was quite upset when I said that. She said ‘That’s not the way you’re supposed to talk. You’re supposed to seduce me!’ So I told her I was sorry I was such a disappointment to her.”
“This is getting a little too complicated for me,” I said. “What did you call us Canadians? Puritanical? Because she would not cheat on her husband but still wanted you to kiss her?”
“I suppose so. Well, anyway,” Andras declared firmly, “I have made up my mind. I don’t need her.”
Three days passed. Both Andras and I skipped the Monday session on “The U.S.A. and the World Economy.”
At the last session on Friday evening the question was whether Canada could affect Western strategies. Four journalists spoke under the chairmanship of the historian William Kilbourn, of McMaster University. I was there but Andras skipped the session.
On the three-hour train-journey from nearby Longford to Union Station in Toronto, Andras told me what happened to him on his last night.
Let me tell you in his own words.
On Thursday evening I met a lovely divorced schoolteacher. She is forty-one and has two married children. On Friday we were to meet again, after the last session, in her cabin near the tennis courts. She would be alone. On my way, I passed Ann’s cabin. It was dark. She was sitting on the doorstep. She called out like a sentry. “Who goes there?”
“Hi,” I said. “It’s Andras Vajda.”
“Where are you off to?” she asked.
“I’m going to meet somebody.”
“Good for you,” she said, full of resentment. “I’m not meeting anybody. The boys are asleep. Guy is playing bridge somewhere. When he does that he usually comes home late. I haven’t a thing to do but sit here and count the stars.”
“This is the last night,” I said. “The lights are still on everywhere. There’s a party in every cabin. Why don’t you join one of them?”
“I don’t feel like it,” she said. “I’m glad to be alone for a change.”
Her voice was hostile, as though she wanted to get rid of me. But consistency was not her strong point. “Why don’t you sit down? We could count the stars together.”
I have never known a woman whose moods changed so abruptly. She used to talk with drastically different intonations within the same sentence. But hardly had I sat down when she said, “I don’t invite men further than my doorstep. So don’t you get any ideas.”
“That’s fine,” I said and rose. “I am already late.’
“Oh well, then…I’d better get up, too. Help me up though, will you? I’ve been sitting here so long, my leg has gone to sleep.”
I took Ann’s hands and raised her to her feet. She pulled up her skirt – she wore nothing underneath – placed my two hands firmly against her buttocks. She pulled me against her. I suddenly wanted her desperately, so desperately as if I had never had another woman in my life. I dragged her away from the cabin in search of a soft patch of grass. She stopped short and began to pull in the opposite direction.
“Wait, Andy,” she said unhappily.
Nobody had ever called me Andy before.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I told you I’ve never been unfaithful to my husband.”
“Then don’t start now.” I turned around abruptly. I made it clear I was ready to leave.
She was not prepared for that and pulled me back. We lay down on the grass, kissed each other for several minutes, more and more passionately. I had hardly entered her….”
Oh, I don’t know what you call it in English. We had hardly started when we heard Guy MacDonald’s voice in the distance.
“Ann, Ann. Are you around? Ann?”
I tried to continue, certain that he would not find us. But Ann pulled herself away from me with the strength of a tigress. She stood up, brushed off her skirt and blouse and called out “I’m coming, dear. I just went for a walk.”
I ran away and made my way to my original destination, hoping that my divorced schoolteacher was still alone, waiting for me in her cottage. But as I approached I heard voices. So I did not even bother to knock at her door.
This morning, Ann was waiting for me before breakfast.
“I must talk to you,” she said. “I feel so guilty.”
“What on earth for?” I asked.
“What we did was wrong,” she said.
“Nonsense,” I said. “We didn’t really make love. We’d hardly got started when your husband called.”
Ann brightened up immediately.
“You’re quite right, Andy. It isn’t as though we got to the point of anything serious.”
This was the first time a woman I had – now what is the puritanical word for it? – oh yes, a woman I had embraced decided I hadn’t and was happy about it.
Her eyes began to shine with innocence.
She was beautiful.