Elizabeth Buchan

Domestic Autonomy

Kitty regarded Jack with a pair of enormous, luminous eyes which threatened to spill over. ‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘We must not renege on our philosophies …’ These being those which, separately and together as philosophy students and lovers, they had thrashed out in public and private. Yet, as they searched for the way to a meaningful existence, it was to Jean Paul Sartre’s rejection of ‘oppressive, spiritually repressive conformity’, his support of ‘personal autonomy’, ‘the authentic way of being’, ‘the nothingness of bourgeois domesticity’ and his bleak analysis of ‘the condition of existential loneliness’ and equally bleak conclusion ‘we are condemned to be free’, to which they returned again and again.  Now, at the end of university and the beginning of the rest of life, there was nothing for it but to practice the authentic way of being.

Jack’s fingers twined through Kitty’s. ‘Anyway, twenty and twenty- one is far too young.’

‘We have a duty to ourselves …’ declared Kitty, whose lip was now trembling. ‘ …to live with intensity. We must be bold and brave. Anyway,’ her voice dropped to the almost inaudible, ‘isn’t it better to journey than to arrive?’

‘Something like that,’ said Jack.

‘If you leave me now, you will always remember me as young. I will never age.’

‘No.’ Jack swallowed hard.

‘There’s one condition.’ Kitty nudged Jack’s beloved rucksack which had done gap- year duty all around the world with her foot.

Jack’s grip on her hands tightened painfully. ‘What’s that?’

The tears were now streaming down Kitty’s lovely cheeks. ‘Could you go away now please because I can’t bear it.’

But Jack, having made the mistake of looking deep into those drowned eyes, snatched Kitty up into his arms and kissed her.

The rucksack remained where it was.


The day after Kitty’s thirty- fifth birthday, she and Jack held a major life- discussion, also known at a row.

‘I never said you were tied to me.’ Kitty hissed at him. ‘I believe absolutely in personal autonomy. Go and do your travelling.’ She added with an almost imperceptible hint of bitterness. ‘There’s nothing to keep you here. No…’ She bit her lip. ‘No children.’

‘But you won’t let me go,’ said Jack.

‘Won’t I?’ Kitty sent him a look to fell an ox. ‘Egg or cucumber sandwiches?’

‘You know I hate cucumber.’

Kitty wrenched open the bread tin. ‘We don’t own each other. I don’t belong to you, nor you to me. No one should belong to anyone.’

‘Brown bread, if you wouldn’t mind,’ interposed Jack.

For a minute or two, nothing could be heard except sawing of the breadknife against the loaf. Then Kitty said: ‘I’ll send your things on wherever…’

‘Repressive conformity  …’ Jack was still clear on the point even if he was having trouble recollecting what he had actually felt all those years ago. ‘Monogamy and human beings… they are contra- nature.’

Kitty gazed past him into the middle distance. ‘We are condemned to be free, Jack.’  She brushed a finger across one cheek, then the other. ‘I’m happy for you to go.’

There was a long, long silence broken eventually by Jack repeating himself. ‘But I bet you won’t let me.’

Kitty seized a slice of bread and viciously slapped on the butter. ‘We can keep in touch… if you like.’

‘That reminds me,’ said Jack, ‘I must find my rucksack.’

He disappeared upstairs and, after much bumping and thumping in the spare- room cupboard, reappeared with the rucksack.

‘Actually,’ cried Kitty who was making a royal mess of mashing up the egg with the mayonnaise. ‘You can’t take it. It’s mine just as much as yours. I’ll need when I, too, search for the authentic way of being. Possibly in Thailand. Or, perhaps Australia?’

Was there a note of relief in Jack’s voice? ‘I couldn’t go without it.’

‘Isn’t clinging to the rucksack just an expression of your bourgeois values?’


Sandwich in hand, Kitty swung round. ‘I’m not letting you take it, Jack.’

A dollop of egg fell onto the rucksack – but neither of them noticed and the rucksack remained where it was.


On Jack’s fiftieth birthday, Kitty held a party for twenty of their closest friends. She had planned the menu down to the last curl of parsley and spent two days cleaning the house and cooking. If she reflected at all on the nothingness of bourgeois domesticity she said nothing.

After the excellent raspberry Pavlova had been devoured in the candle- lit dining room, Jack rose to his feet.

‘Tom, Anna, Sara, Ned… all of you. I can’t thank you enough for being here tonight, particularly as I have something special to say. …’

Kitty adjusted the spaghetti straps of her dress and thought: this is probably the last time I should wear a dress like this.

‘Kitty and I have always tried never to be hidebound…’ continued Jack and Kitty’s famously luminous eyes widened in startled inquiry.

‘What I mean is… we vowed never to become stuck in our ways… Early on, we agreed that to conformity is destructive.’

Kitty’s gaze drifted around the well- appointed dining room, the expensively dressed guests and the remnants of the good food.

‘We also agreed that we are condemned to be free …’ continued Jack.

There was a subdued murmur from the guests. Kitty’s hand flew to her mouth and under the table her knees trembled as if she was to face a firing squad.

‘… and tonight the time has come to assert this liberty.’

Out of the corner of her eye, Kitty caught sight of the rucksack which was reposing in the hall. It looked a little battered, (as well it might) and Jack was welcome to it.

She roused herself. ‘Jack, nobody wants to hear this.’

Jack continued as if he had not heard the interruption. ‘And what I wish to say is this: will you my sweet and lovely Kitty leap out of the box?’

Speechless, Kitty stared at him and cursed her treacherous knees.

Jack raised his glass. ‘Kitty you fool. I’m asking you to marry me.

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