One afternoon, in the centre of Delhi, I was booking my return flight and
gazing in the heat out the door of the little ticket shop when Agnes walked in. I
was staring at her and she smiled back and we entered into easy conversation,
the way lone travellers do. Agnes and I would become friends. We would not
be lovers. We would live out something like the reverse of the relationship I
had just had in which I had been resisting the attention of Gerlinde from Linz. I
had rebuffed her and frustrated her. Agnes would similarly seek to have a
friendship with me despite regarding my sexual interest in her as a nuisance.
We fell into something that was between plain asexual friendship and an
actual relationship. The best part of it was the conversation. I had missed
talking naturally in English to other young Westerners more than I had missed
sex. We were maybe too frank with each other to be lovers. Once she said to
me, ‘do you ever wonder what is the normal number of sex partners to have
had?’ She blushed and said, ‘I have a friend who told me that she had over 300
lovers.’ I felt she was talking about herself.
‘How would you feel if your girlfriend vomited when she sucked you off?’
she said one day. ‘That happened to me; I was so embarrassed.’
I was thinking it would be worth the risk anyway.
She was Australian of Irish extraction, probably the descendant of convicts.
She’d been travelling for a couple of years, mostly in Afghanistan. What she
didn’t know right then was that she was pregnant by an Italian UN worker. She
had come to Delhi to prepare for a trip home, but she couldn’t make up her
mind whether to go to this man in Milan or return to Australia.
On the first day we spent together in Delhi she took me to the tourist camp
she was staying in. I had been in Delhi for four years and had not been in one
of these camps before. They were like gated communities for hippies and
layabouts. In the evening, Agnes and I lay down on a bed, side by side, on the
verandah of her cabin. Other couples, many naked, lay on the grass around us.
As she dozed off I kissed her neck and squeezed her breast. She brushed my
One day we sat outside and watched a couple massaging each other. I had
had a head massage at a barber’s and I often saw the street hawkers selling
massages to tourists, but here the young hippies were practising on each other.
‘You should try it’, said Agnes. ‘I’ll teach you.’
‘Take your clothes off.’
She lay me down on a mat and talked me through the actions, like the
kneading of flesh between finger and thumb, a bit like rolling a pencil under a
table cloth, and the more rigorous work on the spine and small of the back.
Then I practised on her. She expected me to be entirely indifferent to her huge
brown nipples, with aureoles like saucers, and how her crotch was wet against
my knuckles. It seemed all right to brush the vagina while working on the
thighs but was a betrayal of sexual interest to dally there. The fine wet black
hairs around her crumpled anus were pasted to the skin by sweat or love-juice;
she seemed to trust I would be wholly incurious about which.
I was the hungry one and Agnes was defining the strict parameters.
There were other women around me at that time who enjoyed that halfway
stage intimacy. They were travellers, perhaps committed to a man at home, but
they would share a bed, or get me to teach them massage, which might end
with me bringing them to orgasm with my finger, but they would not have
intercourse or share a wet kiss. This leads me to wonder if the tongue, not the
genitals, is the real boundary between play and deep intimacy.
There is a strand of sexual dabbling that is not about pairing, but may be
about exploring possibilities. It includes antics like skinny dipping. It is about
showing off that you are totally cool about the body or it is an opportunity to
learn indifference to it, or to affect such indifference while enjoying the view.
There are even exercises in yoga that attempt this sort of thing; in Tantra the
yogi needs a naked woman at hand if he is to achieve the power to ignore her. I
think we can safely doubt the yogi’s assertion that this is anything but lechery
inside a framework of pretence.
One of my best skinny dipping adventures was with two women and a man
in Bangor. One of the women is now a senior television correspondent. I see
her fine flesh in my mind every time she appears on television.
Agnes’s massage game may have been a way of reassuring herself that she
was in control of her sexual notions. If she really had shagged 300 men she had
been through one a fortnight since the age of 16. The payoff now was in not
having sex, that was what was different and novel; for me, after years in rigid
India, the reward was in the looking and the touching and the hoping.
These games are also devices for indulging limited intimacy on the
understanding that they end and do not bind. They are a partial giving. They
are similar in that to prostitution, which dilutes sexual intimacy with two
conditions; that you pay and that you then go home. It is also risk-taking;
daring yourself not to be wholly absorbed in the naked other, not to be
overtaken by arousal or to fall in love. It is practically a condition of the game
that you don’t.
A man skinny-dipping has as little right to fondle a woman in his company
as when she is dressed.
But I don’t really believe that Agnes and the others massaging on the grass
had achieved total forensic detachment, that when she was pressing her thumbs
into my spread buttocks she was, in her own mind, transgressing no further
than if she was looking into my ear.
One night she and I slept on the grass in the park by the river and when we
woke in the morning I turned to kiss her and she fully accepted me this time.
Maybe she had been having a horny dream. I helped her off with her knickers
and nosed in there and licked her. I had forgotten the taste. A Iittle acrid, a little
salty like sweat and even a hint of old leather. She arched and gasped and
slumped with a sigh.
Then: ‘OK, I’ll do you now.’ Which was only fair.
‘Too late’, I said. I had spilt my prospects of a great blow job on the grass.
I met Agnes briefly in London a few months later and put my hand on her
big bare belly to feel the child’s heartbeat. Had we had sex in Delhi, we both
might have wondered if the child was mine. She wrote to me later, when I was
living in Ireland again, to tell me that she’d married the Italian guy, that she
was a mother of a little girl and I had been named at the christening as the
I Was A Teenage Catholic,
The Telling Year and Under His Roof.