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The Lock by Frank Egerton

Gerald, an Oxford don, is having an affair with one of his graduate students. No one could be more surprised by this turn of events than Gerald himself. But to begin with it is a welcome distraction from the things that have been lowering his self-esteem. His career has levelled off, his wife Elizabeth has established herself as a successful charity administrator, and his favourite daughter Alison has given up a place at Cambridge to live in a truck with her boyfriend.

 

The novel explores the ways in which Elizabeth and their two daughters are affected by the affair, both before and after they have found out. At first they blame his secretive, odd behaviour on themselves (Elizabeth for neglecting him, Alison for leaving home). Subsequently, they are left to deal with the consequences of his betrayal of trust.

 

The novel also examines Gerald's relationship with his oldest friend, Jonathan, and how they cope with their mixed feelings once Jonathan has discovered the affair.

 

In the second part of the book, Elizabeth learns how to resolve her emotional conflicts and unexpectedly begins to fall in love with someone new.

 

Partly a satire of a closed society, partly a morality tale, The Lock is also a sympathetic psychological portrait of a family caught up in a highly contemporary crisis.

 

"Original, illuminating and absorbing." John Bayley, author of Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch

 

"The Lock blends a love story with philosophical drama to produce an intriguing debut...Egerton writes well about infidelity, ignorance and rivalries that can threaten family life...He is equally good when it comes to describing place...a vivid impression of contemporary Oxford. Some fine and sensuous writing, meanwhile, makes it all nicely diverting." Sophie Ratcliffe, The Times

 

"The Lock is a classic Oxford novel getting its feet wet in the mainstream of campus fiction, tiptoeing through dirty realism wearing some very traditional wellies. This is campus drama reinvented as soap opera, with a soap's eye for detail and a realist's relish in the naming of everyday things...Egerton builds betrayal carefully, the characters, like real people, contemplate fallback positions even as they present each other with emotional absolutes." Michael Carlson, The Spectator

 

"Impressive in its sensitive analysis...[Egerton] brings to life that fundamental trade-off between selfish forbidden pleasure and its painful repercussions to others." Kimberley Tan, Cherwell

 

The Lock reached the finals of the Independent e-Book Awards at the Santa Barbara Digital Literature Festival in November 2002

 

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From the First Chapter

 

DREAMING


You are lying beside Gerald. You cannot see him because it is dark but you know who he is.

 

You are pressing yourself against him but you do not yet feel the individuality of his body, simply the pressure of him against you. Even when you are further away, so that it is as if you are several feet distant from the bed and studying him, you are nevertheless still lying there. And oddly enough it is only then that you can actually connect with Gerald’s reality – your soft thigh over his hips, abdomen and the taught bow of his leg, your breasts tight against the softness of his upper arm, your arm banded over his chest.

 

But how can you see him, it is so dark?

 

When you are far off, can you see yourself between you and him? There is nothing in between and yet it is also as if you ought to be obscuring at the very least part of him. Where is the curve of your arm, or the crook of your leg?

 

It is as if he were lying on a slab with the sheet turned back so that someone can identify him. You can now tell more clearly that it is him and that he is lying thus because there is occasionally a faint glow over the ridges of the cotton, the body it is covering, and the outline of his face. The light is like a pale nimbus – not uniformly bright but fading here and there, extinguished, then suddenly renewing itself, spreading, joining up.

 

You are enraptured, but no longer pressed against him. You are limp, as if your limbs were like rags draped over him. You are cold and there is damp chill space between you.

 

You look on enraptured and in horror. You can sense the change long before it happens. You are frozen in blackness. You are empty. There is nothing besides the darkness, the cold and your raw unnameable fear.

 

ONE


Gerald was standing by the back door of his wife's cottage opposite old Mr Davidge with a large vegetable marrow tucked under one arm.

 

He was a tall man, a fact accentuated on this occasion by his being rooted to the stone step, not so he could tower over Mr Davidge but because of suddenly finding himself nearly paralysed. He had dressed hastily, pulling on his jeans and yesterday's crumpled T-shirt in such a haphazard manner that they retained the look of belonging to someone else -- an effect which these holiday clothes, such unusual garments for him, would barely lose with wearing. His black, rather flat head of hair, which normally would have been swept back from his large forehead seemed to be in a state of rebellion, the front half springing forward and dangling into his grey eyes. No amount of nervous attempts to rectify this had proved effective.

 

The moment he opened the door the folly of his situation had struck him as sickeningly as if Mr Davidge had whacked him in the stomach with the marrow. In fact Mr Davidge had been reluctant to part with the thing, fearing perhaps that by doing so the conversation would have to be brought to an end.

 

How could I have been so stupid! Gerald kept saying to himself. If only they had stuck to their agreement none of this would have happened. It was going too fast, getting out of hand... Sometimes a ditherer in a crisis -- and this was the worst moment of his life -- his thoughts were butting and jostling behind his grinning gaze like a pen full of terrified sheep.

 

Mr Davidge jabbed his forefinger at Gerald's chest, stopping just short of actually prodding him. "Ah," he sighed. "An' it'll soon be autumn, boy." A big beaming smile suddenly appeared on his leathery face. His black eyes twinkled. "You can feel it in the air."

 

Gerald, who was fifty-two, nodded in agreement as he always did with Mr Davidge, but this time the old man had struck a chord and for a moment his leaping mind was stilled.

 

Yes, he thought to himself, as Mr Davidge surveyed his garden -- the garden he was supposed to be leaving alone for a day or two so Gerald could concentrate on his writing -- autumn was in the air. The light too, so ripe and perishable at this time of the morning, told of change. A shiver of sadness passed through his body.

 

"Anyway, mustn't keep you," said Mr Davidge for the dozenth time since his arrival and brought an end to Gerald's rapture.

 

"Yes, well I've got one or two things to do."

 

"Should've seen it at six o'clock this morning," said Mr Davidge, looking as if he was about to strike up again. "Beautiful -- could've already bin September." His head dropped forward so that his chin was resting on his great barrel of a chest and he shot a mischievous glance up at Gerald. "Get you out of bed, did I?" He gave Gerald a knowing wink before turning round, much to Gerald's surprise as well as relief, and heading off down the gravel drive towards the gate.

 

"Oh, and thanks for the marrow," called Gerald.

 

Mr Davidge acknowledged this by brandishing his walking stick, but without looking back.

Gerald closed his eyes. All he could see was that great knobbly stick. He was normally insensible to metaphorical nudges and winks but given the heightened state of his conscience Mr Davidge's behaviour seemed monstrous. My God, he thought, he knows!

 

He shut the back door, too quickly so it slammed, then he cursed, fearing Mr Davidge might have heard the bang and taken offence. He turned the key in the lock, fumbling about with his large fingers. When the operation was at last completed he let go and stepped back as if he had just succeeded in accomplishing something of the utmost foulness.

 

"That was a surprise," said Alexandra once he had returned along the flagstoned passage to the kitchen. Her green eyes widened then she bent her head forward, her wild red hair settling about her face, pursed her lips, raised her eyebrows and stared at the marrow. She was leaning against the jamb of the hall door, dressed only in one of Gerald's blue cotton shirts, her legs crossed.

 

"What-are-you-doing?" stammered Gerald in disbelief as she started walking towards him. He motioned with his free hand for her to get back, dropped to his knees and peeped out of the window above the sink.

 

"It's all right -- he's gone. You know he has. I'm not that stupid." Alexandra was standing beside him now stroking the back of his neck. He looked up at her. She was smiling at him over her large breasts, as if she wasn't quite sure what to make of him.

 

Gerald reached behind her leg and gripped her calf. "Are you sure?"

 

"Positive." She put her index finger to her lips, kissed it and laid it on his. "Relax, my darling."

 

The touch of her finger seemed to drain him of all energy. He closed his eyes and pushed his face against the hollow at the top of her thighs, nuzzling the tails of the shirt apart and kissing the soft white flesh.

 

He was aware of her leaning down and felt the marrow being pulled from his other hand. There was a dull thud as she dropped it into the sink. With that sound the image of Mr Davidge returned to his consciousness but in this new state of reverie, so safe and reassuring, all he could think of was the approach of autumn and the inevitable passing of time and this made him very sad, his whole chest tingling with self-pity and pleasure as he hugged Alexandra's legs.

 

Copyright © Francis Egerton 2001