What Does a Woman Want?

This is a story Leonard Cohen told me, late one night over drinks on the island of Hydra. (See Leonard: A Memoir.) I have preserved his unique phrasing as well as I can. Chaucerians will recognize it as the tale  the Wife of Bath tells on her way to Canterbury

King Arthur was out hunting in the forest. He rode into a clearing and there before him was a knight in black armor, on a black horse, his lance at the ready.

He accosted Arthur saying, "Well, Arthur, Fate has delivered you into my hands. Prepare to do battle."

Arthur said, "I'll gladly fight you. Let me ride back to Camelot and put on my armour."

"No, Arthur, Fate has decreed it thus."

"But I'm in hunting greens! Let me don my armour and we'll do battle evenly matched."

"No," said the Black Knight.

"But this is not chivalry! These are not the rules!"

They argued and argued, and finally the Black Knight threw up his hand and said, "All right, Arthur, ride back to Camelot. But you must meet me here in a year and a day with the answer to a riddle. And if you don't have the right answer you must do battle dressed as you are now."

"All right. Tell me riddle."

And the Black Knight said, "What does a woman want?"

So Arthur rode back to Camelot, called his knights to the Round Table and told them what had happened. "Don't worry, Arthur," they said, "we'll find out." 

And they mounted their horses and rode off in all directions, some to Ireland, some to Sweden, some to Italy, some to North Africa. They interviewed queens and princesses, merchants' wives, fish wives and peasant women, and they compiled scrolls upon scrolls of answers: "Eternal love," "Great prowess in bed," "Riches," "Three chickens and a goat"—every possible answer was there, and by the end of the year the scrolls were piled high on the Round Table. 

Arthur read it all, studied it all, contemplated it all—but somehow he sensed the answer wasn't there.

Nevertheless, trusting to the spontaneity of the moment, he mounted his palfrey and set off to keep his appointment. And as he was riding along the forest trail he saw before him a woman—though she was scarcely a woman any more—a hag, ancient and bent and wearing a black cowl, and from the cowl protruded a nose that bent in two places, and on the end of the nose a wart, and from the wart, hairs.

So ugly was she that he steered his horse to the far side of the path, but as he was passing she looked up and caught his eye and raised a long bony finger. "You don't know the answer, do you," she cackled.

He stopped his horse. "No," he said. "Do you?"

"Of course I do!"

"Then tell me!"

"Ah," she said, raising the long bony finger, "if you wish me to do that for you, you must do something for me."

"What?" he said.

"You must wed me to Sir Gawain."

Now Sir Gawain was the youngest, the handsomest, the most eligible of all the knights, and Arthur said, "The thought of his beautiful young body wrapped in yours in the marriage bed is grotesque! I won't do it!" There was a silence. "Besides, I couldn't possibly give Sir Gawain in marriage without his permission."

"Then ride back to Camelot and get permission."

So Arthur went back and called his knights around the Round Table and told them what had happened. "Of course it's impossible," he said.

But Sir Gawain came to him, put his hands on Arthur's shoulders and said, "My Liege, my life is pledged to you. If this can help you, I will do it."

Arthur sighed. "Well, we'll have a small wedding."

He rode back into the forest and found the hag. "It is done. You shall wed Sir Gawain. What does a woman want?"

"Her will in all things," she said.

Now Arthur was a man of the world and knew the right answer when he heard it. He spurred on into the forest and found the Black Knight. "Well, Arthur, a year and a day have elapsed. What does a woman want?"

"Her will in all things," said Arthur.

The Black Knight threw up his hand. "Bah!" he said, "my sister told you," and rode off into the forest.

Came the day of the wedding, and the hag arrived at Camelot. 

There was a small ceremony, and afterward a modest feast. The tumblers tumbled, the jugglers juggled, the fools fooled, the fiddlers fiddled, and each knight danced once around with the hag. 

Then Sir Gawain took a candle, gave her his arm and escorted her up the stone stairs to the bridal chamber. When they arrived before a tall oaken door he handed her the candle and said, "So, we are wed. the bargain is fulfilled. Now you go your way, and I mine."

She raised the long bony finger. "Ah," she said, "but the marriage is not yet consummated. Come in with me."

Sore reluctant, Sir Gawain followed the hag into the bridal chamber. She closed the door, placed the candle on the table and took off her robe. She looked—as we would expect her to look.

Then she lay on the bed. "Undress," she said, "and lie here beside me."

Much loath, Sir Gawain disrobed and got onto the bed on the bed.

"Embrace me," she said.

Trembling at the task he fitted his hands around her waist.

"Kiss me," she said.

He squeezed his eyes shut and, puckering his lips so as to extend them as far as he could, bent towards her—

And the moment his lips touched hers she turned into a Princess more beautiful than his most extravagant fantasies. They made fabulous love, and afterwards lay together in a profound peace.

She got up on her elbow and looked at him. "Now you must choose," she said. "I can be the Princess you see before you by day, and the hag you knew me as by night, or I can be the hag by day and the Princess by night. "Which shall it be?" she twinkled.

Sir Gawain was cast into a brown study. He couldn't acquit his husbandly duties with the hag at night, but neither did he wish to come from a hard day's jousting and find her waiting at his board.

Suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he got up on his elbow and said, "Your will in all things."

"Ah," she said, "I wish to be as I am now, always."

Also by Robert MacLean:
Mortal Coil: A Comedy of Corpses at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE; 
The President's Palm Reader: A Washington Comedy at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE;
and the Toby books: 
Foreign Matter at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE and Smashwords; 
Total Moisture at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE and Smashwords; 
The Cad at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE and Smashwords; and  
Will You Please Fuck Off? at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE and Smashwords.
And they're all at Apple, iTunes, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel—the whole street.

They Call Me Mr Love

A Comedy of the Ant and the Grasshopper
Reg’d © Library of Congress

A serious woman falls in love with a frivolous man and tries against all odds to hang on to her Greek-island hotel.

Proposed cast: Jean Dujardin (Toby)
Colorful carefree gigolo Toby—the grasshopper—comes to a holiday island with elderly but attractive Beverly—and the owner of their little hotel, Friederiki, the ant, sees immediately what he is. 

Proposed cast: Kristin Scott Thomas (Friederiki)
Friederiki, the ant, is serious, struggling, still in black a year after her husband’s death.  She doesn’t approve of Toby—especially when Beverly dies in her sleep and he leaves the arrangements to her

No mourning for him—he takes nothing seriously, not even death.  With Beverly’s cards he cleans out her cash accounts—and what the hell writes himself a check in her name.  He’s got to eat!  But he can’t leave the island till the check clears so he parks his money in the hotel safe and lingers. 

We’ll have to count it, says Friederiki.  So they count it together and come up with different sums.  Let’s split the difference, he says.  He takes nothing seriously, not even money.

Proposed cast: Alan Rickman (Alden)
Alden, a developer who has acquired Friederiki's mortgage and is buying up the island,  arrives at the hotel and threatens to foreclose on her unless she makes good her arrears. 

Proposed cast: Silvana Maimone (Marie)
With him is his wife Marie, patient and dutiful but she wants something better out of life, and soon realizes it’s Toby. 

Proposed cast: Catherine Tate (Claudia)
Also with Alden are his niece and her lover Claudia.  (He’ll put a stop to that.)  Claudia, butch and abrasive, is the co-mother of his niece’s daughter Lisa, and snarls at Toby whenever his gaze wanders to one of the women in the party.

Proposed cast: Eve Newton (Lisa)
When Alden tells fourteen-year-old Lisa he wants to take her away from her lesbian parents she accidentally knocks him off a cliff and kills him.
At the desk Toby overhears Alden threaten Friederiki with foreclosure and simply slides him over a stack of cash.  Keep the change.  At this she weeps—and, well, it happens.  Her mourning is over.

But not her problems.  She must go to Athens and get a loan to cover the mortgage, and leaves Toby in charge of the hotel—a risky thing to do but who else is there?

Bad enough the humiliation she suffers trying to get a loan: the only creditor she can find requires that she sleep with him—and then dies in her arms!  Big help.  

But while she’s gone the worst that could happen happens: a family feud, the hotel catches fire, a bulldozer knocks some of it down—and Lisa accidentally kills Alden, which Toby, her family and the villagers conspire to cover up.  (Alden held several mortgages.)

Friederiki comes back to a half-demolished hotel and police all over the place.   Where’s the body?  Well—don’t order the mousaka.

And a seventh character is the tiny no-car island of Hydra. 

The Worst That Could Happen is part of the Toby series:

Pretentious Pictures presents a romantic comedy.
Reg’d © Library of Congress

Short poems


It’s allergy season and the nose is always something of an issue,
So instead of rubbing it between your breasts I thrust it into a tissue.
But I miss you.

That which sees but is not seen
And puts on flesh to feel,
Immerses itself in the carnal dream
And bobs to the surface for meals.

Etre né,
C’est oublier.

Breeds caress.

Hollow distance,
Strange persistence.

A beautiful place,
Its own time and pace.

Put it in the drawer.
Never touch it more.

The mother country’s not easy to love.
It’s just full of mothers and fuckers thereof.

In the winter I’m a Buddhist,
In the summer I’m a nudist,
And when happiness is mootest
That’s just when I’m at my cutest.

The perspiration on your anal pucker,
Oh, sweetest distillation of your shit!—
Emboldens me to fix thereto my sucker
So I can work my tongue around in it.

A pleasure almost too intense to mention,
The perspiration glistening on your toes,
Lubricates my sordidest attentions,
To try to force each digit up my nose.

Also by Robert MacLean:

The President's Palm Reader: A Washington Comedy at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Smashwords, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel—the whole street.

Foreign Matter: In Trouble with My Fantasies at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Smashwords and the others.

My Husband Suspects

A 24-minute romantic comedy with lots of class and not much dialogue, set in Athens, for Cannes and TV.

A woman in love, frustrated by every circumstance, stops at nothing to achieve her desire. 

   A bedroom.  Michaela, middle-aged, in a black slip, makes herself up in the mirror.  Her husband, fifty, already in his shirt, says, “Look especially beautiful tonight.  This deal decides everything.”

   She studies herself sadly, touches the skin under an eye, moves it.  “Especially beautiful?” she says.
   A restaurant.  The patrons are in evening clothes, the waiters formal.  There is no music, only the soft sound of voices in conversation.  Michaela, elegant in a black dress, participates in one such conversation.  

   We can't hear what's being said but the atmosphere is happy, polite.  Her husband presides with an easy charm.  Over her shoulder we see the couple they are dining with, Philip and his wife, in their early thirties.

   Michaela's shoulders are bare, we cannot but notice, but Philip's eyes are toward the other two, perhaps carefully so.  

   Michaela is absorbed in the general conversation, self-forgetful, but after watching her for a moment we feel that she too is restraining her gaze.  When it does rest on him it is with a gaiety that seems a touch contrived.  

   She gets up and walks away, pausing to greet friends at another table.  As her husband and the younger woman continue chatting Philip permits himself a discreet but lingering glance at Michaela.  She is several yards away in profile, smiling, nodding.
   Suddenly, absurdly, she is naked.  She stands there talking with someone, in heels and necklace, tiny purse in hand, oblivious to her nudity, as are those around her.  This is Philip's fantasy.  

  But now, even more absurdly, she does notice!  She looks down at herself, shocked. The others don't see.  

   She does not convulse and cover herself but stands her ground, purse lifted in her hand, and glances at Philip—too briefly to be eloquent, but sharply: he looks away mortified.  

   Instantly she is dressed again and, taking leave of her friends, she proceeds to the bathroom....

Attached: Vanna Barba (Michaela)
MICHAELA has reached a certain age, and though graceful and refined, worries about her beauty—

Attached: Kimon Fioretos (Philip)
—but PHILIP, her husband’s younger American business associate, is mad about her.  And she about him: lightening has struck.
They do everything they can to meet but are constantly frustrated—each episode an assault on her dignity.

Attached: Anthony Burk (her husband)
He's not a bad HUSBAND; in truth she loves him.  And his passion for her is keen, so keen that he can tell something, or someone, is on her mind, and he watches even as the lovers try to elude his eye.

Proposed cast: Pepi Moschovakou (Philip's wife)
So does Philip's young WIFE.  Philip is starting to disappear at odd times.  In fact she's sure there was a stranger in their bedroom while she was asleep.  Did someone reach the balcony from the street outside and—?

Proposed cast: Pamela Shaw (Michaela's friend)
As she climbs a steep street past Philip's apartment, where the balconies hover near the steps, her FRIEND hails her from up high—from where she spies down at the younger couple.  That night she steals down and steps over onto the balcony—

And the co-star is Athens, the only place this story could happen.
Every opportunity, every chance meeting, every frustration is a piece of Athenian realty.
Always elegant, always in a little black dress and heels, she hangs from balconies, climbs cliffs, crosses deserts, clings between moving taxis—
—but her dignity prevails, and the sound of her steps as she threads the Athens labyrinth is the music of the film.
Pretentious Pictures presents a 24-minute romantic comedy with lots of class and not much dialogue, set in Athens, for Cannes and TV.

CHOCOLATE AND CHAMPAGNE, a comedy in the spirit of Lubitsch

Reg’d © Library of Congress
A Beverly Hills woman wakes up middle-aged and finds her life with a younger man undignified.

The stage version was performed in New York at the Creative Place Theatre.  Think of...

...only this is her movie, and she gets the younger guy.

Diana, a woman of a certain age, deals with a birthday by throwing out her younger live-in Jim.

They're right for each other, and she regrets it immediately, but she can't take him back: her daughter Jackie, who idolizes and competes with her, tells her Jim has seduced her, and Diana believes it.

So she makes do with the respectable but empty new life she'd thought she needed—with older lawyer Griff.

Jim gives a driving lesson to frantic neurotic Betsy, who almost shoots them off a cliff.  He calms her down and she takes him home. But he can't forget Diana.

Proposed cast: Kristin Scott Thomas (Diana)

DIANA, the Hamlet at the heart of this comedy, is a clothes designer with a boutique on Rodeo Drive, a house in Beverly Hills, and a younger lover, Jim, her kept man for two years now. There’s nothing she can’t handle—except getting older.

Proposed cast: Gael García Bernal (Jim)

JIM is happy with a champagne-and-sports-car life, but he’s also a talented script-writer who’s postponing seriousness into a future that never comes.  Together they’re fast company.  They must have been brilliant at her birthday party last night.

This morning, though, even while he’s making love to her, she’s spooked.  She tells him he has to go.  She wants something more presentable, more—respectable—before it’s too late.

Which shocks him.  He takes life as it comes, but this is a bit violent.

Proposed cast: Kathy Bates (Betsy)
BETSY, the suicidal widow of a husband she drove to suicide, is too scattered to pass a driving test, takes a lesson with Jim, spins the    car onto a Mulholland Drive cliff and is ready to gun it and take him with her.

Proposed cast: John Goodman (Griff)
Diana's lawyer GRIFF, more her age and on her success level, has been in love with her for years.  Now’s his chance.  When Jackie tells Diana the lie that Jim has seduced her Diana gives up on Jim and tries to make a go of it with Griff.

Proposed cast: Adelaide Clemens (Jackie)
JACKIE, Diana’s daughter, idolizes her and so misses no chance to pick at and defy her.  Inwardly shaky, she is outwardly impish and sexy.  She thinks she’s in love with Jim; in fact what she needs is a father.

Proposed cast: Jack Roth (Dylan)
Betsy's son DYLAN—eccentric hair, psychotic eyes, twitches constantly and rhythmically as if keeping time to music he doesn’t much enjoy—is in the same class at UCLA with Jackie, over whom he moans uncontrollably.  He disgusts her.

Proposed cast: Rosie Perez (Maria)
MARIA, Diana's housekeeper, is the deadpan foil to Diana's Hamlet, secret ally to Jim, and the one person Diana doesn't dare defy.

Proposed cast: Stockard Channing (Gwen)
GWEN is Diana's mischievous best friend and alter-ego.  She'll take Jim if Diana doesn't want him!  Just kidding.  In an attempt to bring them back together she throws a party and invites both of them, but it turns into a confrontation....

And the final character is Beverly Hills—
—the tone, the climate, the village size and ambiance that make it inevitable for these people to collide.

The stage version of Chocolate and Champagne was produced by Love Creek  at the Creative Place Theatre in New York.

Pretentious Pictures presents a comedy with a dark center.

Reg’d © Library of Congress

Casanova, Come Back!

Reg’d © Library of Congress

The modern Casanova longs to settle down with one woman, but she resists him.

He’s coming to Oxbridge to give a poetry reading and speak to a few classes…

…and the girls are sort of interested!

The great lover's great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson—
(You didn’t know he was secretly married?  It happened in England—a nun who had already taken her vows, the Mother Superior outraged, powerful people to please…)
—has the same name, the same weakness for women (and they for him, or at least for his reputation), sports the same drag and is a so-so poet on the campus circuit.
How can he get steady work as a teacher when trouble dogs him everywhere!  No one takes him seriously except as a—Except as a—
So when he arrives in Oxbridge he announces that he’s impotent.
Ah, but he’s played here before, and now his past rises up to confront him.

Proposed cast: Steve Coogan (Casanova)
GIACOMO CASANOVA (“Just make it Jack”) takes advantage of his ancestor’s reputation to spice up his act as a performing poet with eighteenth-century costume, and it works on the ladies.  But what he needs is a steady job, and a life.

Proposed cast: Anna Friel (Henrietta)
He doesn’t remember her but some years earlier he had played Oxbridge and it had worked on HENRIETTA PASTORLY, now a lecturer here with a young son who speaks a private language—one that only Casanova can speak with him. Could it be…

Proposed cast: Donald Sutherland (the ghost)
The GHOST of the original Casanova haunts his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson, criticizes his choices and kibitzes the action. No one else can see him and sometimes Casanova almost thinks he’s real.

Proposed cast: Emma Thompson (Deborah)
Chairwoman DEBORAH BLAKE, the no-nonsense head of the Oxbridge English Department, can’t help but be intrigued by Casanova’s reputation.  Or is it excited?  Or is it, as her husband suspects, in love?

Proposed cast: Dianna Rigg (Cissy)
LADY CISSY SNABE, a benefactress of the University, falls from a dangerous height into Casanova’s gallant arms, much to everyone’s relief. She’s beyond suspicion in such matters, but who is that mysterious visitor at her bedroom window?

Proposed cast: Alan Rickman (Rafe)
DEAN RAFE HARWICK’s wife and underage daughter are both in erotic trances over the arrival on campus of Casanova–and so, it turns out, is the Dean!

And the seventh character is Oxford.  Or rather Cambridge.  Let’s call it Oxbridge, as so many do.  Hell for some; heaven for others—like Jack, who could live happily ever after here as a simple lecturer.

Pretentious Pictures presents an elegant comedy.
Reg’d © Library of Congress