When I think of the story ‘Hygiene’, by Julian Barnes, I think of the image of the aged, feeble major, stuck up a ladder during his yearly gutter-cleaning task. Suddenly, unpredictably, he is terrified that he will fall. The major is frozen on his rung, unable to go up or down, he is “Scared fartless. Of the whole damn thing.” ‘Hygiene’ is a story, carried by the Major’s perfectly honed voice, about aging and sexuality, detailing his long-term relationship with a London prostitute called Bab. Yet, ‘Hygiene’ is not so much about sex, as it is about change, the loss of landmarks and moments in life when you realize you are no longer the person you used to be.
First published in the New Yorker, September 1999. Collected in The Lemon Table, Picador, 2004. Also available as a Storycuts digital single