Read an Excerpt from Jeanette Winterson’s New Novel ‘The Gap of Time’
Author: William Johnson
November 1, 2015
From the Lambda Literary Review:
[…] The Gap of Time takes full advantage of the fact that it is a novel. The book’s primary bond is the difficult friendship of hedge-fund head Leo and Xeno, a dreamy videogame designer. They first meet as boys at an English boarding school, where they become lovers for a time. (To a modern reader this hardly seems to stray from the play, in which King Leontes is curiously desperate for his boyhood friend to remain at his side even after a nine-month visit.) As adults, they’ve drifted apart, to the point where Xeno seems much closer to Leo’s pregnant wife, MiMi.
Too close, Leo thinks. When he flies into the jealous rage that propels the book’s action, it is directed at his ex-lover and his wife in equal measure.
Xeno all my life.
They had met at boarding school at thirteen. Both boys had been sent away by fathers who had gained custody over unfit mothers. Leo’s mother had left his father for another woman. Xeno’s mother was alcoholic and mentally unstable. The boarding school was neither fashionable nor academic but it allowed their fathers to believe that they were bringing up their sons when in fact their sons were barely at home.
Weekends at the school were quiet because most of the boys went home. Leo and Xeno invented worlds where they could live.
“I’m in a forest,” said Xeno. “My own cabin. Rabbits come and I shoot them. Bang bang bang.”
“I’m on the moon,” said Leo. “And it’s made of mozzarella.”
“How are you gonna walk on a ball of mozzarella? ” asked Xeno.
“Don’t have to walk,” said Leo. “No gravity.”
They listened to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Xeno got into country and western. Sometimes he thought he was Emmylou Harris.
They didn’t want to be like the other boys and that was just as well because they weren’t like the other boys.
By fifteen they were inseparable. They joined the school shooting club and competed at the target range. Xeno was more accurate because he was calmer. Leo was faster and sometimes won because he fired more shots. They invented a game: GUN BULLET TARGET. Win two rounds and you were the gun. Lose one and you were the bullet. Lose two, and you were the target. Then Xeno added MOVING TARGET and said it made him feel free. Leo didn’t understand that. He just wanted to be the gun.
One night after target practice they had sex. It was a cliché. Shower. Hard-on. Three-minute handjob. No kissing. But the next day Leo kissed Xeno in the bike shed. He kissed him and he touched his face. He tried to say something but he didn’t know what it was. Xeno didn’t say anything. That was like him. Xeno was a bit of a girl anyway, Leo thought. He had grey eyes like a cat and soft, dark hair that fell over his eyes.
Leo was bulkier, tougher, taller, stronger. Built like a rugby player, he moved with confidence but without grace. He liked the watery quality Xeno had.
They went swimming, the sky low, the water warm, gulls patrolling the shoals. Leo was showy and noisy and fast and got tired before Xeno and his long, methodical distance swimming.
Leo waded out of the water, his feet making deep prints on the wet sand. He turned back, hands on his hips, to shout something to Xeno. The sun was in his eyes. He couldn’t see his friend and for a second he felt fear.
But there he was, his head and shoulders graceful as a dolphin, swimming back to shore. The image was blurred but it seemed to Leo that Xeno moved like a wave over the water.
Xeno splashed onto the shore. Leo put his arms round him and pulled him down on the sand.
“Do you think about girls when we do it? ” said Xeno.
“Yes,” lied Leo.
And then Xeno worried about being gay.
Later, in the dorm room they shared, they lay with their legs wrapped round each other watching Rebel Without a Cause. They both wanted to be James Dean but Xeno wanted to sleep with James Dean too.
“James Dean was gay,” said Xeno. “Was Elvis gay? ”
“No, he fucked cheeseburgers.”
“I wouldn’t want mayonnaise on my dick.”
“Not even if I sucked it off ?”
Leo was instantly hard. He undid his trousers. Xeno knelt down and licked his balls. Leo stroked Xeno’s head. Then he started laughing. Xeno looked up.
Leo said, “I did it with a watermelon when I was a kid. Knifed a hole in the side and fucked it. It was amazing. I was always asking my mum to buy watermelons after that and never eating them. Then one day my mum came in the kitchen and I was standing there with my pants down and this fucking green watermelon stuck on my dick.”
“You twat! Did she kill you? ”
“Yeah! She got my dad to give me a lecture on inappropriate objects of desire.”
“Is that me? ” said Xeno.
“Don’t stop,” said Leo.
Their school was near the coast, and on Saturday afternoons when the other boys had gone home Leo and Xeno took their bikes and cycled down to the cliffs.
One Saturday Leo said, “Let’s see who can cycle the fastest nearest to the edge. Like the car chase in Rebel.”
Xeno didn’t want to. But Leo was taunting him.
They set off racing. They were both standing on the pedals, pumping as fast as they could go. Leo was on the outside. He hit a rut and slowed. Xeno surged ahead of him. Leo threw himself low over the bike and pushed forward with all his strength. He came level, pulled past, and then cut in. His back wheel grazed Xeno’s front tyre.
Xeno fell. The bike separated from his body, turning and turning in slow motion down the cliff.
There was no reply. Leo saw the bike hit the water. He remembered the out-of-time feeling of the moment. His heart rate slowing after the race. The sweat on his chest. A gull circling, its lonely cry like his own cry, high-pitched and long.
Leo cycled back to the school, his strength done, pedaling on fear. He was sick over the caretaker’s boots. The caretaker called the police. Leo took them to the cliff path, the police Land Rover radio crackling. The helicopter circling overhead.
Xeno was unconscious on a ledge invisible from the top of the cliff. He had concussion and a broken pelvis but he had fallen into thick heather and by some miracle not rolled over the edge.
The air ambulance lifted him in a sling and took him to hospital, where he remained for the rest of the term.
Leo stopped going to lessons. He walked every day back to the spot on the cliffs.
His father came to talk to him. He made a speech that began, “I know we’ve never been close,” and ended with, “Try to get over it.”
Leo wanted to tell everyone that what had happened to Xeno was his fault. He went to the headmaster’s door. He stood outside. He went away again. This happened several times.
At last he was able to visit Xeno in hospital. Xeno looked thin and tired. His torso was in traction. His head was bandaged. He was on a drip. Leo sat in his school uniform by the bed. Xeno took his hand.
And then Leo cried. Silent tears like a close-up in a movie. It was unreal. That this should have happened was unreal. Someone else’s life, not his. He had almost killed his best friend.
Xeno came back to school the next year and sat his exams. He did well in maths, computing and English literature and badly in everything else. Leo did badly in everything. It didn’t matter. His father had got him an entry-level job with Barclays Wealth Management.
Xeno turned eighteen and bought a camper van with some of the insurance money his father had accepted as an out-of-court settlement from the local authority for failing to maintain safety standards on the cliff path.
Xeno had enough to live on now for a few years. He got a dog from a rescue home, grew a retro ponytail and hit the New Age hippie ’n’ rave trail, driving from festival to festival, no mobile phone, few possessions.
He was handsome with a certain vulnerability to him. He soon had more women than he needed. They liked his quiet, brooding face and that he read books and listened to off-grid music, like opera.
Leo, big boned and Valkyrie blond, with his thick, brushed-back hair and a way of talking, looked good in a suit and did well at the bank. He worked sixteen-hour days without complaining, went to the gym at six o’clock every morning and got drunk every night with no effect on his capacity to make a profit. Soon he was getting rich.