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The Joys of Reading in Bed

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It’s late at night, in a small cottage in the South Downs where the pair of you are taking a much-needed holiday lying low until the heat dies down, and you are in your pyjamas.

You don’t sleep. Good is Eternally Vigilant, something of that kidney. However, you do have three sets of pyjamas: a nice creamy-browny tartan in brushed flannel, a ridiculously shiny set in midnight blue silk (which was a gift and of course you couldn’t turn it down) and one set of light cotton, for the occasional bout of muggy weather.

Tartan tonight. You are indulging, as you often do, in one of the practiced luxuries of the twentieth century: reading in bed. You wore your velveteen slippers beforehand, puttering around for a comfortable half hour making cocoa and filling a hot water bottle, and turning on the bedside light with a darling little dangly chain hanging from its side. But a little later you turned that off, for you see well enough in the dark and you had company: the Great Tempter, Lord of the Reptiles, the First Fruit Vendor, slithering into your bed for company and Crowley needs his beauty sleep.

It is Persuasion that you are reading tonight, in Bulgarian. (The ‘92 Rankova translation, that is. You went through the ‘96 Elchinova last night.) As you turn a sepia-weathered page the demon turns slightly, burrowing his cold nose further into your hip, and flings a wire-bone arm over your thighs. It’s quite comfortable. Crowley had surprised you, when the Arrangement had evolved gently into… whatever this is… with the sweetness of his embrace. He certainly doesn’t look it. Knife-edge cheekbones. Hips that jut. Sharp tailoring and a determined aura of spikiness . (On occasion the spikes are material and not just implied: you rather miss the proudly flaunted mohawk of his brief, joyous foray into punk culture. And of course, his woad-painted days driving a chariot for Boudicca were not to be missed.) 

But there - once the demon has his hands on you he curls sweetly, warm and not too tight, protective - you might possibly hazard to describe it as ‘loving’ (you can say that now, you can say it to yourself) - the wire of him and the bones and the tension wound sinuously about you as easy as a fruit-bearing vine, a snake guarding a hatching of eggs.

You’ve never quite been good at hugs yourself, despite your plumpness, your worn velveteen, your sweet smiles. (Aren’t I soft?) But, you’re not ever quite sure what to do with your hands. You tend to stand there and flap them about like startled, useless birds until your huggee releases you. Young Newton confessed once, when you pressed him, that it’s like holding onto a pillow that’s waiting for it all to be over. Then the boy looked horrified and dived in for another go. (He knows you like them. He understands, you think, what it is to perpetually be just a little awkward, slightly out of the flow of things. And he is a sweet boy.)

You turn a page. Anne is about to meet Frederick again, all the passion of her feelings wound up in quietness as she perches awkwardly in a corner of the drawing room. We live, she will say later, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.

A pause. One of the songbirds of the region carols its little lungs out. The Demon Crowley, First Schoolmaster, Enemy of Ignorance, Author of Modesty (ahem) stirs, sneezes into your leg, then inches up slightly in the bed to press his face into your side, the softness of your belly. That done, you settle your book again and begin another chapter.

Rankova translates “persuasion” differently than her colleague Elchinova did. Influence, she wrote, not, the voice of reason. It changes things, changes who Anne Eliott is. You’re not sure how you feel about it, to alter someone’s nature simply by describing them. Messing about with the powers of creation, you think. Might not end well.

You have to be careful with Crowley. Don’t say kind, can’t say gentle:  he hates those words. (And you weren’t allowed, anyway; it was wrong. To love your adversary was to betray Heaven. Wasn’t it?) He likes wily and suave and you impossible creature what in Heaven’s name did you just do?? He likes to be cool. Some words frighten him, you think, and you try, oh yes, but you forget. Sometimes. Your words flutter like stray birds and stray hands and land places that they shouldn’t. (You’ve managed to sneak in my dear, but he thinks you say that to everybody.)

The sleep of demons produces… something, you suppose, but certainly a damp patch in the flannel of your pyjamas where he has been drooling. Tch. He whuffles gently against your side and clings a little tighter.

You have become a cataloguer of Crowley’s smiles. The I’m wearing sunglasses at night smirk, the you exasperate and delight me mouth tilt. Once you saw the coldly amused you don’t really think you have me trapped in this summoning circle, do you? pulled back lips, followed quickly by a jeering goblin grin when an accidental (not at all miraculous) breeze knocked over one of the candles in the circle and seven hapless occultists discovered why calling the Serpent of Eden to do their bidding was… unchancy. Less than wise. There’s a smile that’s mostly in the shoulders and the swagger, or a pointedly cool cleaning of glasses: the don’t mention it smile, the it was nothing smile. The I saved you to show how clever I am, you’re allowed to call me clever smile…

There’s only one of them which you dislike, and that’s mostly on you. It was the first, on the great stone wall of Eden with the sun shining upon you both, before the storm came. You don’t know how to describe it. His teeth were showing, very white, and his sun-topaz eyes were very wide. What was it, that smile - shy? Uncertain? Open? (That was when he still let you see his eyes, of course, before he hid them behind smoked glass and flickering eyelids, a curtain of drunkenness or a pretense of deceit. When someone looks you straight in the eye, he’d warned you once, they’re trying to sell you something.) But back then in Eden before the storm - if only he’d told you that that was it, the only time you’d see, that was the only one you’d get, glutton that you are you’d have memorised it, you’d have touched him with the tips of your greedy fingers to feel the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, gorged on the sun-brightness of his irises, drunk him down...

But you didn’t think. You have a fragment, a mere scrap of memory, that’s all. And so, cordially, you dislike it.

(It is the middle of the night. You don’t have to be reasonable about these things when the moon peeps through the window.)  

You let your hand drift gently down and stroke his fire-red hair, trace the curve of an ear bleached to ivory in the moonlight. Softly, silently, you let your hand settle on the point of his shoulder. He draws in a deep breath and you freeze, but the demon only sighs and melts even further into you as you rest your forearm across the yoke of his back.

Well then.

The sky is beginning to colour, from the inky flank of night to the precious lapis lazuli of early dawn. The demon beside you sleeps still, face buried in your side. You don’t know how he breathes like that, and yet, the damp whuffles tickling your skin through the flannel pyjamas continue. One-handed, manoeuvring, you prop Persuasion on your free hip and flick a page with your finger. You can do this. You’re allowed. And if you’re not allowed, well bloody well be damned to the lot of them.

You take a deep, steadying breath, loosen your neck, and then murmur, quite low, quite daring: “Beautiful creature. Darling. Wondrously made.”

You turn another page.

Crowley sleeps on.