“It was not so much my sight, my sight is excellent,” Edward insists to a matchseller in Harold Pinter’s “A Slight Ache.” The man waits before the gate, and Edward, stoic, aging, is disturbed by his indifference to dress, to age, to a summer storm, to the house, the lonely road, to selling his matches. Edward’s wife Flora begs him not to harass the “poor, harmless old man,” inviting him into the house at Edward’s request and confronting him later in the study. Both characters monologue at length to the matchseller, who says nothing, becoming a sign, a symbol, the forgotten ache of what Edward and Flora desire.
Which in Edward’s case is youth. “I could stand… well aware of my sinews, their suppleness, my arms lifted holding the telescope, steady, easily, no trembling,” he recalls to the matchseller. “[In disgust.] Good Christ, is that a grin on your face?” He is disgusted because he is afraid. Everything he ignores – his growing weakness, his apathy, Flora’s unsatisfied body – everything that clouds his sight manifests in the matchseller. “Yesterday… was clear, clearly defined, so clearly…. The garden, too, was sharp, lucid, in the sun,” whereas now “[his] eyes are bloodshot,” plagued by “a slight ache.” He avoids regarding the matchseller openly, urging him to “get into the shade of the corner,” asserting, “I did not find you at all alarming… you disgusted me. Why did you disgust me to that extent?” The answer comes in the form of Fanny, a beautiful girl from his past: “In appearance you differ, but not in essence. There’s the same…” unknown desire.
Edward has sheltered himself from all life, and it is this isolation that makes true fear: “Nothing outside this room has ever alarmed me,” he says, suggesting that the room itself is cause for alarm, a trap akin to that which he sets for a wasp in the marmalade. He traps it in the pot, talking over Flora, entirely estranged from her as she tells him to “kill it, please, please,” wondering idly about idle things; he is estranged from her vulnerability, her need. He calls the insect a “vicious creature” he cannot hear buzzing. The wasp is something he wants. He wants to scald it but cannot. “It’ll drown where it is, in the marmalade,” he says, which he deems a good death: choking in sweet, lethal comfort “if we wait long enough.” This is the death for which Edward waits in his canopy, where he would, he says, “take shelter to compose myself… and then I no longer heard the wind or saw the sun. I remarked nothing, things happened upon me… and nothing entered my nook, nothing left it.” In his age, he views the matchseller – his desire – from faraway shelter, “through dark glasses, and sometimes light glasses, on occasion bare eyed, through the bars of the scullery window, or from the roof, the roof.” If he were young, “[he] could pour hot water down the spoon-hole,” he could scald the wasp, escape the world around him.
Flora does not escape. At first content with the matchseller at a distance, wanting only to preserve him, she quickly becomes an active agent once he is inside. Edward rejects her care, her sensuality, refuses to believe that she can understand the matchseller, whom he considers an “imposter,” an unwelcome addition. He refuses because she is female. In return she opens in full power to the matchseller; she chooses him; she and her whole sex are displayed. She takes control of her body and snakes it around him. It is not the matchseller who desires her, but the opposite, and she desires not him – he is hideous, distorted – but rather what he represents. By making this one strong-willed decision, she leaves behind a sexless life, trading Edward for the matchseller, who takes on Edward’s strength and shape and gives to him his matches.
Like Edward, Flora finds the old man familiar: “I’ve got a feeling I’ve seen you before somewhere…. Were you ever a poacher?” She recounts being raped by a poacher: where once in her youth sex was out of her power, now in her age she takes over it, asserting her femininity on the matchseller – a symbol of traumatic desire. “You’re a solid old boy… all you need is a bath,” a cleansing of memories; “I’m going to keep you, you dreadful chap, call you Barnabas.” Barnabas is the Biblical “son of exhortation.” She delights in his sight: “Isn’t it dark, Barnabas? Your eyes, your eyes, your great big eyes,” so different from her husband, who, she asserts, “would never have guessed your name.” He would never have known Barnabas for desire, and indeed seems only to project his shame, his sorrow on the man who is faceless, whose face keeps changing, whose laughter and weeping is Edward’s. Stoic, frightened and blind, Edward loses his self and stature to his fear of the past, of weakness, and as his wife reaches for real knowledge of her body, he is left with only the ache in his eyes – a wet, unbearable tray of matches.