She was sobbing as he drew up beside her, her long hair hanging in a curtain across her face. She didn’t look up as he slowed, just reached for the door handle, dragged it open as if it were a great effort and threw herself into the seat beside him, sobbing. He looked at her, wondering if he was was going to be strong enough. ‘Close the door,’ he said quietly, but she didn’t, just continued to sob piteously with her head nearly in her lap. It was raining. Her coat was slashed with rain though she must have been waiting only a few minutes.
He reached across her and dragged the door shut with difficulty. The bottom of her coat caught in the door, and he had to get out and walk around the front of the car to open it once more to make sure the coat was inside.
‘Do your belt up,’ he suggested before closing the door. Once again she ignored him, the sobbing rising to a wail. He had to stifle his irritation as he leaned into the car and got the belt buckled around her with a great deal of difficulty. Then he slammed the door and got back into the driver’s side.
The inside of the car was already misting up, but he thought that at least it would prevent people looking in to see her beside him. He sat there staring ahead until the wail subsided, watching droplets of condensation create small trails through the fine beading of mist that gave the impression of a heavy fog outside.
This wasn’t the first time he had seen her cry, but he was amazed at the way in which she was transformed this time, no longer the pretty, buoyant young woman he had met, no longer the confident young mother, no longer the happy and hopeful wife of a successful young businessman, with their new house, as yet unfinished, dominating the skyline above the village. In her devastation she was reduced to a pathetic, helpless person, no longer able to think for herself, no longer in control. He couldn’t help thinking it was all his fault.
We are strange animals. We don’t learn from history. We carry on in the same way, generation after generation, making the same mistakes, driven by the same ideas, the same appetites, the same stupidities. This time it will be different, we tell ourselves, despite the evidence all around us. At least, I thought, we are no longer chained together to suffer a lifetime for our errors of judgement.
When he met Josephine he really thought that he would love her forever. He had had lots of previous lovers, a couple of them quite long-lived relationships but most of them fairly short. He had managed to terminate each of them without too much heart-ache, certainly not on his part and hopefully not on his ex-lovers’ parts, either. At least, that’s what he tried to do.
But the moment he met Josephine he knew this was going to be different. It wasn’t quite the Hollywood moment, eyes meeting across a crowded room with instant connection; but it wasn’t that far from it, either. They had been set up, each told an improbable story by well-meaning friends that they had laughed at once they had worked out that they had been pawns in someone else’s romantic daydream. But they fitted together, and very soon each of them wanted it to stay that way.
As I stepped out of my car it began to rain, gently at first but quickly gathering pace. I had started crying the moment I had put down the phone, though I fought it with all the resources I could muster. Do not cry, I told myself. Do not cry.
It was no good. I could hardly see through the tears as I drove from the house. The children were with Josephine, thank goodness. Oh what a desperate lie I’ve been living, I told myself. ‘Meet me in the car-park,’ he had said. I knew which car-park he meant: we had met there before.
I parked at the back of the car-park, beside the steps that led to the river. I could hardly breathe in the car, I was unable to stop myself sobbing, saying to myself over and over in pointless repetition, Oh my God, Oh my God, my rag of a handkerchief pressed into my mouth as though to stifle my sobbing, knowing I looked frightful and would for hours, and knowing even then that I would have to go back to face Trevor still looking like death, yet hoping that I could change Paul’s mind, knowing at the same time that I wouldn’t be able to. The brain works so much faster than reality.
I dragged myself out of the car and leaned against the wing, my head down, shaking uncontrollably with the tears falling even faster, and almost immediately Paul drew up beside me.
I reached for the door handle and dragged the door open, almost falling into the seat. I wanted to hold him and beg him not to finish it, not to abandon me; but I couldn’t even look at him, just sat there pathetic and sobbing loudly, my shoulders heaving as I wailed and tried to breathe at the same time, knowing that none of this would persuade him.
‘Close the door,’ he said quietly, but I just sat there unresponsive. After a minute or so he sighed a great sigh and leaned across me, which was difficult for him because I was was curled forward over my knees. But he pulled the door closed, or closed as far as it could because my coat was hanging outside. He tried to lift it onto my knees and I remember thinking that I wasn’t going to make it easy for him, which is stupid because I would have done anything if I thought I could make him stay with me.
In the end he had to get out and lift the trailing edge of my coat inside the car. ‘Do your belt up,’ he told me, but again I thought about not making it easier for him, and he had to lean in across me and buckle me in like you’d have to with a child. I knew he was irritated, and that voice inside me said, give me another chance and I’ll do it up myself, I’m so sorry Paul. But it was too late for that.
He got back in on his side, and sat looking straight ahead. I could do nothing, just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
It wasn’t a large community, so it was inevitable that when we bought a cottage in the village we would meet sooner or later. It’s the children, of course. They mix with all the other children, and generally it is the mothers who meet and form relationships. The husbands eventually join in.
In our case it was I who got the children to pre-school while Josephine worked in the city. We hadn’t quite done a role-reversal thing, but it’s true that Jo is the main earner while I work from home, and handle the day-to-day running of the family... cooking, collecting the children, that sort of thing. It suits us both.
So it was I who met Sandra and all the other mums at the pre-
school. I was the only dad there, and at first I found it a bit awkward. The mums would all be chatting to each other, and I’d be stuck there by myself, nodding in recognition but obviously not accepted, an object of their curiosity. Was I a sole parent? A divorcee? Out of work?
But after a couple of weeks the curt nods had turned into Hellos, and bit by bit I got to know some of them, especially the mums of my daughter’s special friends.
It’s funny the way the world works, though. Jo rang me one afternoon, telling me we had been invited to dinner by one of her clients, Trevor Davies, who, by coincidence, lived in our village. ‘That big house on the side of the hill,’ she said, and though I couldn’t place it at the time, I realised later that it was the really big house, not yet finished, that was being built nearer to the centre of the village, but dominating it from the hillside that loomed over the valley, just along from the old railway station, long abandoned.
I guess I’m no different to most people, impressed by the size of the house and the obvious cost of the construction. My socialist roots, though, turned my envy into contempt. We had been battling to stay on top of the small mortgage on our little cottage, and this bloke was busy building a bloody mansion!
But I really liked Trevor when I met him at the weekend. We were about the same age, and even looked pretty much the same sort of build, though my beard contrasted with his well-groomed appearance. I liked him so much I didn’t even mind when it became obvious that Jo was all of a twitter over him, not exactly swooning in front of him but like a flower opening up before him... laughing too loudly, eyes glistening, talking too much, that sort of thing. With anyone else I would have been sulkily jealous, but with Trevor it was somehow alright.
Sandra was nice, nothing special but just nice. Dark and self-effacing, she was quiet but clearly intelligent. The breadth of her general knowledge was huge, and she could talk about history, literature, current affairs and all the rest of it, and make a great deal of sense.
Trevor, on the other hand, was the ultimate alpha male: dominant, argumentative, an ego a mile wide, talented in a very practical way, a head-turner. And so was I. Well, my talents weren’t all that practical, and I wasn’t as good looking as he was, but frankly, we could have been brothers. We should have become rivals, maybe even enemies. But we just took to each other and became friends very quickly. More than just friends, actually. Before too long, the four of us were spending most of our time together.
Trevor ran a marina just half an hour down the coast, but it wasn’t there he made his money. Within the marina was a specialist workshop where marine engines were re-designed and manufactured, the peripherals rather than the engines themselves... the pumps, the fuel systems, the magnetos and all the rest of it. He worked bloody hard at it, too, employing a team of designers that carried his ideas to the production stage. Everything he touched, it seemed, turned to gold. But he must have worked twelve hours a day at least, and even when he got home you might find him at his drawing board in the basement of his huge house.
And Jo was clearly captivated by him. Jo is a lawyer, and he was one of her biggest clients with patents and infringements of patents, lawsuits and legal jiggery-pokery going on in every direction.
This was clearly a situation fraught with domestic danger, and I kept a close eye on it. Underneath, though, I trusted Josephine, and I knew she wouldn’t do anything silly. Especially as she knew I was keeping my eye on it.
When trouble came, it wasn’t from that direction.
Paul had his studio in a large shed at the bottom of the garden. It had been built as a garage, but the previous owners of the cottage had converted it into a granny flat, re-roofed it and put power, water, gas and telephone down to it. As soon as he returned from taking Sally to pre-school, Paul went immediately to his studio. Sometimes he sat and did nothing, staring into space as though waiting for inspiration. Other times he wrote, or drew, or painted. Mostly, though, he carved. Stone or clay or timber, it didn’t matter. Some of it was good. Some of it was appalling, though often he didn’t realise it for some time. Lots of it was pretty mediocre, though it mostly sold well, through an agent that had been with him for some years.
Sandra wandered in one day. Paul liked it when people wandered in; he had a welcoming sign beside the side gate that led to the garden, and when that happened he would usually, but not always, stop what he was doing and show them around. On the days he didn’t stop he tended to sell more, as though his visitors didn’t want to appear time-wasters. But he enjoyed his visitors, mostly, and might make them tea or coffee, or in the summer might offer them a glass of white wine if the heat of the day was over.
Paul liked talking to people, liked the stimulation they offered. Without visitors, he recognised, his working day would be lonely.
So when Sandra came the first time, several months after the two couples had begun their four-sided relationship, he stopped work and welcomed her. She was on her way to the pre-school, so was alone. It was mid morning and they would have plenty of time before they each collected their child for lunch, so he offered tea and the two of them sat in the garden, which was more of a lawned orchard than just an open area of grass. The trees were in bloom, apple, plum, cherry.
‘You’re so lucky, working here like this,’ she began. He nodded, but added nothing, and they sipped on in silence for a while.
‘Are you interested in art?’ Paul asked her. Conversations over the previous months had told him she was, in a vague way. Now he wanted to pin her down.
‘I know a great deal about the classics,’ she answered. ‘The famous pieces. The van Eyckes, the Gauguins, the Rembrandts and all that. But I think that’s quite different to knowing about real art, the stuff that ordinary people do. Like you, for instance.’
‘Very sensible,’ he answered. ‘I’m not so sure you can know about ordinary stuff. Just, do you like it? Does it please you?’
She smiled, and put down her cup. ‘You’d better show me, then.’
And so he did. For nearly an hour he showed her his paintings and his sculptures, and she nodded and smiled a great deal. She didn’t, as most of his visitors did, exclaim ‘Oh, I do like that,’ from time to time, and he liked her more for that. Afterwards they sat once again in the garden.
‘What I like in paintings and sculpture,’ she began, ‘is the cleverness in making the art look real. Portraits that really look like real people, even if you don’t know what the real people looked like. The fineness of detail. The shade and the light.’ She chuckled self-consciously. ‘I know that’s a very old-fashioned view, but it’s how I react.’
Well, you can’t win them all, Paul thought.
But he liked her company, and from time to time through that summer she dropped in to visit him.
In the autumn, with the cold and damp approaching, he shut the doors and windows and lit the pot-belly, and the smells of the woodchips he burned, and the oils of his paintings became almost irresistible. And his studio far more intimate.
I always made sure I told Jo when Sandra visited, the value of transparency being self-evident. She would smile indulgently, as though recognising that I was pushing things a bit but ready to ignore it.
What I thought was that Jo thought if I was a bit free with Sandra, it would be okay for her to flirt a bit with Trevor. Even Stevens, fair shares for all, sauce for the goose and all that.
But there is a difference, you know, between a bit of flirting on the one hand, and beginning to get close to someone on the other. I didn’t flirt with Sandra, nor she with me. We just became friends. Quietly. Firmly.
While Jo and Trevor flirted madly with each other.
I had given Trevor a hand to build the steps that led from the parking spot outside the huge triple garage to the front door seven metres higher up the hillside. So far, the usual entry had been through the garage and up the internal stairs, but the design called for a dramatic, almost medieval, front door with a rather large portico. Frankly, I thought it pretentious, but I had to admit that the house as a whole demanded something like that. So we had spent most of the Saturday laying out the steps and setting concrete for their footings. I was interested to see how it was done, and Trevor was happy to have me as his gofer that afternoon. It was a clear day, but as cold as hell with a wicked breeze from the south trying to freeze our fingers. ‘Bosses’ weather,’ I said, and he raised an eyebrow. ‘Have to work hard just to stay warm,’ I explained. Trevor looked amused.
Jo was inside with Sandra and the kids, and we found when the light was fading and we packed up for the day that we were staying for dinner, as we often did.
It started just as so many of our dinners had, though Jo had a bit of a headache and was a little quieter than usual. Sally was in the kids’ bedroom, and we had heard nothing of them for some time. It was going to be a seafood pasta that evening, quick and easy to prepare.
I had opened a bottle of white and we worked our way through that during the course of the afternoon. As it grew a little darker we made our way to the sitting room and lit the fire I had laid earlier, and soon Trev and Paul looked in to say they had knocked off, and were going to have showers. Jo and I laid the table in the kitchen and opened a red, boiled the water for the pasta and got everything ready. Just a normal Saturday dinner with our friends. Everything calm, everything quiet.
Paul came up from the bathroom and put some music on, pouring a glass each for himself and Trevor. Trevor was in great form when he made his usual grand entrance, but one look at Jo made him pause. ‘You okay?’ he asked.
Jo was looking pale and drawn. ‘Just a bit of a headache,’ she said.
‘Taken anything for it?’
‘Yes; doesn’t seem to have made any difference, though.’
Trev looked at Paul, and I could tell what he was thinking... period, women’s problems. Paul clearly agreed, but the two of them quietened down a little, called the children up for dinner and we sat down to eat.
I had never noticed it before, but with Jo quiet and pale for once, both Paul and Trevor were paying attention to me. True, Jo and I had downed a bottle of chablis during the afternoon and I was on my second or third glass of red, and perhaps just a tad more talkative than usual. I told a couple of light-hearted stories about the children and about our courtship, Trevor’s and mine, and everyone laughed. We ate and drank some more and I told one of my rare jokes, and everything looked bright and clean and clever and we were having a great time. It struck me that usually Jo was the centre of the men’s attention, and, struck down as she seemed to be, now was my time to shine. I shone, and I loved it.
Suddenly Jo rose to her feet, knocking over the chair she had been sitting on. Her hand went to her mouth and she turned and rushed to the sink and vomited, loud and long with dreadful groans, her arms resting on the draining board, her whole body wracked into spasms as she vomited again and again. Charlie and Em started crying and Sally covered her face with her hands, turning to Paul and holding up her arms for him to cuddle her.
My first thought, I’m ashamed to say, was that she had done it on purpose to grab back the attention, and that, dammit, she had
ruined my moment in the spotlight. I was immediately covered in embarrassment, and hoped like hell that no-one had noticed my reaction. I jumped to my feet and went to her, holding her as the dear friend she really was.
The retching continued for some minutes, her whole body rigid with the effort, the sink half full of the revolting mess, the stench of it rising around us until I could hardly cope, my own stomach churning in sympathy. But I couldn’t turn away, no matter what happened, not after my moment of betrayal.
I leaned over her and held her head, holding her hair away from her face though splashed with vomit already. Gradually her body relaxed and she leaned exhausted against the sink, with me draped behind her, hoping that I was giving her the support she must have needed. The wracking tension gave way to shivering, and I turned her away from the sink and washed her face with the dish-cloth. Trevor was on his feet beside me, having shooed the children off to their bedroom and pulled a chair for Jo to sit in. He dried her face with a towel and made soft noises, ‘there, there,’ as he did so, and though she was deathly white and limp in the chair the shivering slowly receded. ‘I need to lie down,’ she said eventually.
Paul still held Sally, though they were beside Jo and watching keenly, Sally’s face a picture of fright and concern, Paul holding her tightly. Trevor leaned forward and picked Jo up, cradling her. I saw he looked big and strong and in command, and she looked small and weak and utterly dependent. One arm was around his neck, and her head was on his chest, his arms around her back and under her knees. ‘Spare bedroom, I think,’ Trevor said, and I went before them, opening doors as we went through the house.
That was the end of our dinner, of course. Trevor settled her into bed, gave her water, and found some anti-nausea pills and paracetamol. I returned to the kitchen and cleared up the revolting mess; Paul sat around with Sally, looking pretty useless, actually.
It was still only about eight o’clock. Trevor returned to the kitchen to report that Jo seemed to be okay, and had gone to sleep, and suggested that they bed Sally on the trundle bed in the kids’ room, and went off with Paul to organise everything. I cleared the table and put the kitchen to rights, and poured the last glass of red. I sat at the table and thought about my behaviour, and felt ashamed.
I was pretty proud of Sandra, actually. I saw how much she had been enjoying the limelight, which made me realise how mean I’ve been these last few months, flirting with Jo all the time. Sandra has always been the down-to-earth one, the practical manager of children and home affairs, while I’ve been the one who comes up with the clever ideas every now and again, and gets most of the attention. I had begun to wonder where the old Sandra had gone, the one I chased down and had so much fun with before we got married, the one who had us laughing through the early days of risk and money difficulties. That evening I saw in a flash that she was still there, underneath. Jo is good fun, but Sandra is rock solid beside me.
And Jo goes and spoils her moment; I could see pretty much the way she felt, even if it was only for a moment.
So after I had sorted Jo and Sally, I went back to the kitchen and opened another bottle and the three of us sat together to see if we could salvage something of the evening. And, slowly, we did. Paul went down to check on Jo and Sally every now and again, and between the three of us we re-kindled the spark.
By the time eleven o’clock came around we were pretty lit up, the three of us, talking nonsense and laughing over nothing. The fire had died down, so I went down to the garage for more wood, and as I did so I stopped and looked out at the night.
I have no idea what the temperature was, but it must have been well below freezing. The ground crackled and sparkled as I walked a little way from the house to get a better look at the sky. Over in the east the moon was just peeping over the horizon, getting bigger by the moment. The sky above was as black as hell, the stars so bright in the frozen air that they seemed brittle, and closer than I’ve ever seen them. I turned and looked back at the house and saw two shadows on the curtains, moving towards each other and melding into one. They stayed like that for a while, until at last I went in, got the logs and climbed the stairs.
Trevor dumped the wood beside the fire and laid a large log on the ashes, opening the damper to get more air under the feeble flames. He watched for a moment until the flames spread, then half-closed the damper once more. He took his time walking back to the kitchen. Sandra was facing him as he entered, leaning back against the sink and listening earnestly to Paul, who was telling a story that was making them both laugh. Paul leaned against the benchtop in the corner of the kitchen so that they were very close to each other.
‘You should see it outside,’ Trevor said. ‘It’s bloody freezing, but the stars are, well... just fabulous.’
‘We should go for a walk,’ Sandra suggested.
‘It’s close to bloody midnight,’ Paul protested.
Trevor tossed off the remains of the wine in his glass. ‘Good idea, Sandy.’ He went to the refrigerator. ‘Champers, I think, to toast the rising of the moon.’
They were all a little drunk, of course. ‘I’d better check on Jo, tell her what’s happening.’ Paul disappeared down stairs to the bedrooms.
Sandra and Trevor were well rugged up when he returned, hats and scarves, a handful of glasses and the bottle. ‘Quick, Paul, or we’ll miss the moon,’ giggled Sandra.
They went out through the back door, across the little bridge to the track leading up the hill. It was steep and frozen, the ground still in shadow though the moon was now fully above the horizon to their left. Their breath condensed and froze as they breathed, and with no breeze to disperse it, hung in the air behind them as they stumbled up the hillside. Sandra slipped and clung to Trevor’s arm, and though he held the glasses high with his other hand he fell heavily and there was a loud crash. When he had regained his feet he held up his hand, still clutching the stems of two glasses, together with one survivor. ‘Two down, one to go,’ he told them solemnly. It seemed hilarious.
From the top of the hill they could see the frozen land all around them. They stood together at the concrete trig point gazing around them. It seemed magical. It always does, of course, under those circumstances. It felt as though they were the only people in the world, looking over an alien landscape. It was close to full moon, so the brightness of the stars was greatly reduced. There was no colour to be seen, but the moon seemed so bright that it was almost as bright as day. Trevor placed the bottle of champagne on the bronze plate on the trig point, and looked ruefully at the single surviving glass. ‘Well,’ he said seriously, ‘Here’s to us.’ He opened the wine and filled the glass, offering it first to Sandra. ‘Here’s to us,’ she repeated, and drank, handing the glass to Paul.
‘To us, and Jo.’ He looked at the two of them and raised the glass in salute. ‘Friends forever.’
Sandra came closer and hugged his free arm and looked up at
him, her eyes glinting with pleasure. ‘Friends forever,’ she said.
Trevor lifted the bottle and drank from it with a loud, gurgling noise, then raised both his arms on high. ‘Friends forever,’ he shouted.
Sandra laughed and took the bottle from him, knocking the empty glass from the trig point so that it smashed on the rocks beneath. She looked down in surprise. ‘What a shame,’ she said, as though saddened. But when she looked up at the two men she was laughing loudly.
I guess it’s always better to be happy drunks than the other. Bad tempered, bitter drunks, I mean, aggressive and thoroughly unpleasant. And we were happy that night. We passed the bottle between us, giggling and laughing and struggling to get the words out clearly; but, as always happens, we gradually moved to a more mellow, reflective state. Maudlin, perhaps you’d call it. It was so cold that we clung to each other, not only for warmth, I suspect.
At some point Sandra reached up and kissed me. Trevor looked on with a fixed smile on his face, though I knew that there was more in the kiss than just friendship. She broke off and looked straight into my eyes for nearly a minute before Trevor gave a self-conscious cough. She gave me another kiss, no more, this time, than a peck on the cheek, before turning to Trevor and giving him a peck too.
We left the empty bottle on the top of the trig point, and started down, all of us, I think, reluctant to end the night. We held hands as we walked, Sandra in the middle, and now there was no more giggling. I looked around in wonder as we descended. ‘And still they gazed and still their wonder grew,’ I quoted.
‘What?’ Trevor said.
I was surprised that I had spoken aloud. ‘Poetry,’ I said.
‘And still they gazed and still the wonder grew,’ Sandra corrected.
‘What the hell are you two on about?’
‘Goldsmith,’ Sandra told him. ‘Beside the straggling fence that skirts the way...’ And between the two of us we recited the whole poem. By then we had reached the bridge that led into the house. Sandra stopped. ‘I don’t want to go in yet. What else do you know?’
Trevor had let go her hand not long after we started the poetry, and he crossed the bridge. ‘Too damned cold,’ he muttered. Sandra and I were left in the moonlight, still holding hands. ‘What else do you know?’ she said again.
‘Bugger all,’ I muttered.
Sandra leaned into me, and I kissed the top of her head, sure that she wouldn’t feel my lips through her woolen hat. She put both arms around me, holding me tight. She turned head to rest her cheek against my chest, and sighed a deep sigh of contentment.
‘This isn’t a very good idea,’ I said after a while.
Neither of us moved.
‘We should go in,’ I suggested.
‘Not yet.’ Her hands moved under the hem of my jacket, running over my back all the way up to my shoulders. Suddenly I wanted her very much.
I felt better in the morning, though I was very much aware that whatever had caused me to vomit was merely being masked by the anti-nausea pills and the painkillers, and I had a faint sense of blurriness. I rolled over and realised that we were in Trevor and Sandra’s spare bedroom. The curtains were wide open, and Paul was snoring gently beside me. I tried to remember the evening before, but I could get no further than the vomit, the dreadful acid taste in my mouth and the stinging in the nose; those and the awful smell.
Clearly, I had been put to bed, and I supposed that it was Paul. I ran my hand fondly over his thigh, and he stopped snoring. I left my hand there for a while, and slowly rolled towards him until I was spooned into his back, and gently moved my hand over his body until I was wrapped around him.
We stayed like that for an hour until I began to hear the small noises that children make in the morning, aware that their parents are asleep and wanting to get their own breakfasts and watch some television. As gently as I had wrapped myself around him I uncoiled myself and found yesterday’s shirt on the floor beside the bed, climbing the stairs to find the three children, as predicted, in front of the television, wrapped in blankets and eating cereal. I made coffee and sat in the kitchen by myself.
The great thing about having close friends like Sandra and Trevor was that we were free to treat their house as ours, and they ours. Of course, ours wasn’t, isn’t, anywhere near as grand as theirs. Nevertheless, we had spent many an evening together followed by nights in either their house or ours. It was... nice. Nice to have such friends, nice to have such a bond between us, nice that our children were such good playmates. Nice to share a trust.
I realised, of course, that I was very much attracted to Trevor. I knew, too, that he was attracted to me in much the same way. I had had the odd daydream about sneaking a night with him, and I had no doubt that if I had suggested it he would have been there in a shot. Nice daydream. But not at all what I really wanted. What I really wanted was our little foursome to continue for ever, flirting and all. Fun without being truly dangerous. And I was equally certain that Paul, Sandra and Trevor wanted that too.
Sandra appeared just before noon, tousled, bleary-eyed, clearly suffering. I had cleaned up the kitchen by then but she didn’t notice, just went straight to a cupboard and took a handful of pills, probably far more than she should have, and washed them down with a glass of cold milk. She sat at the table with her hands on her head. ‘Never again,’ she said, rocking from side to side.
‘Until the next time,’ I added, and she slowly lifted her head and smiled at me. ‘Big night?’
‘Mmmm,’ she muttered. ‘Went out for a walk. Toasted the moon.’
‘What time was that?’
‘You know when we were on the hill?’
Paul looked at her. He remembered, all right. ‘What hill?’
‘Behind our house.’
‘Oh.’ He was working on a carving, a great chunk of beech root fastened to a vertical piece of trunk that he used as a pedestal. He wasn’t at all sure how it would turn out, but he was working on it anyway, mostly so that he could claim to be distracted. He was using a large gouge, a curved chisel, with a big round-headed mallet in his other hand. He wondered why she had brought it up. He carried on carving for a while.
‘I can’t get it out of my mind.’
Shit, he thought. He was carving away some of the lumps in the root, hoping that something would emerge, some clue as to what shape he would find inside the timber.
‘Can you stop that, Paul?’
He dropped his arms to his side and turned to look at her. He had an idea it would be better not to talk about it. Sure, it might happen again; but perhaps not. Least said and all that.
She was sitting at his drawing board, coffee mug between her cupped hands, looking straight at him. Her hair was drawn back around her face, a blue knitted hat pulled down, a scarf around her neck. Beside her was her coat, thick and long. She wore a roll-necked sweater, and her jeans were tucked into her boots.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Can you stop avoiding it?’
Paul sighed and put down the gouge and the mallet on the bench beside him.
‘Come over here.’
He didn’t want this to go the way he thought it was going; he went to a wooden chair beside the wood-stove, and sat facing her.
She looked fondly at him for a while, saying nothing.
It was her turn to sigh. ‘We shouldn’t have done that on the hill. But I want to do it again.’
His worst fears. He had never imagined this. What he wanted to do was to never mention it, never to repeat it. But he knew that he also wanted to remember it, to bring it out and re-live it in quiet moments when he was alone. ‘We can’t,’ he said.
‘We didn’t do anything wrong.’
A log rolled over in the wood stove, a gentle, friendly sound. He wanted to think things through, but found himself thinking only of the flames and the burning timber in the stove.
‘We didn’t,’ she insisted.
‘I wanted to,’ he said quietly.
‘So did I.’
‘He’s got Jo.’
Paul was shocked. ‘Don’t be so fucking stupid,’ he said loudly, his anger flaring. ‘He hasn’t got Jo.’
‘You know what they’re like together.’
‘It’s not like that.’
‘As far as we know.’
Paul dropped his head. ‘As far as we know,’ he agreed.
I hadn’t thought he would be so angry. I’d only stated the obvious, what was staring us in the face. Trevor had Jo, and she had him. To flirt with.
Now I wanted my turn, to flirt with Paul. I wanted him to joke with me, little personal jokes that no-one else would understand. I wanted him to trail a hand over my shoulder sometimes, to touch my hand as I passed him a glass of wine, to look deeply into his eyes when the others were around.
I didn’t understand it, but that was what I wanted. Needed, perhaps.
‘It would ruin everything,’ he said.
‘They’ve been doing it for over a year,’ I said. ‘That hasn’t ruined anything. In fact, I think it has made things stronger, sort of cemented us all together.’
He looked at the floor in front of him. His curly hair, his beard, his corduroys, his scuffed work-boots, they all combined to give him a wild look; but he wasn’t wild at all. Probably just frightened at the moment, I realised.
But I remembered that night, and I knew he wanted me. Had then, would in the future.
Shit, I was frightened. Of course I wanted her, but not as much as I wanted Jo and me to last for ever, happily forever.
Is it possible? Can ordinary people have affairs without it affecting their marriages? How would I feel if I discovered that Jo and Trevor had been having it off behind my back? Even worse, how would I feel if they wanted it out in the open?
That wasn’t what Sandra was talking about, though. She wanted to flirt, just to flirt. Was that possible? I knew me well enough to know that if we started down that road I’d want to take it further.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘you know damn well I like you. A lot. A very lot.’
‘But not enough?’
I didn’t want to hurt her, didn’t want to spoil what we already had.
She didn’t look away, looked straight into my eyes as tears started, slowly at first, to roll down her cheeks. ‘Paul,’ she said hesitantly, ‘please.’
I went to her and she stood, and I took her in my arms and held her head against my shoulder, crying, her whole body shaking. I didn’t say anything, mostly because if I had I would have told her that I loved her and wanted her, I’d do anything for her but please stop crying. I would have said that because it was almost true.
Sandra rang two days later. I hadn’t seen her since then and I was relieved. Perhaps it was just a passing thing and we could just carry on as we all had before? Perhaps.
‘Hi, Sandra,’ I said, tense and wary as I realised who was calling.
‘I wanted to tell you that I’m not going to bother you any more.’
‘Oh.’ I felt a stab of disappointment, but I made myself answer in a even voice. ‘I think that’s for the best, Sandra.’
‘Yes,’ she said, and put the phone down.
But we’re contrary animals, aren’t we? I immediately regretted it. I couldn’t stop thinking of her, of how things could have been. Of having with her the sort of relationship Jo had with Trevor. So much fun, if you could keep it under control.
The other side of me was relieved, of course, relieved that I hadn’t let myself get sucked in, relieved that our marriage was safe, on my side at least. But d’you know what? I stopped trusting Jo.
Instead of looking on in amusement, I found myself becoming resentful. If Sandra and I could give it up and miss out on the fun, why wouldn’t they? Instead of leaving them to it and looking after the kids, I found myself making sure they were alone as rarely as possible. I found myself wanting us to stay away from Sandra and Trevor, instead of simply accepting that we would be together, making excuses so that Jo and I would be too tied up with our own life to share with them.
‘What the hell’s got into you?’ Jo asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘This is the third weekend in a row that you’ve organised us to be away.’
‘Oh, that’s just the way it’s turned out. Coincidence.’
Jo looked at him hard, scanning his face. ‘Coincidences don’t work like that, Paul. Two events, yes. Three, no.’
‘You don’t have to come,’ he said. ‘Nor does Sally. I can cancel the bookings and go by myself.’
‘What I want to know is why you have to go. You’ve never gone to one of these before. What’s so important this time?’
‘It’s the annual general,’ Paul said weakly, knowing that this was a pretty lame reason. Of course he belonged to the guild; you had to, really, if you wanted insurance and some support, and the regular
shows. But he had no interest at all in the politics or the running of the guild.
‘What’s the real reason?’ she asked.
‘There isn’t a ‘real reason’. I just felt I ought to go. And I thought you’d enjoy it, too. We could... well, take in a show, or do some shopping. You know.’
‘Have you had a fight with Trevor?’
He was shocked. ‘Trevor? What the hell do you mean?’
‘You know what I mean. You’re doing your damnedest to keep away from Trevor, and keep me and Sally away from him too.’
Too close for comfort. He sighed as though tired of the subject. ‘Don’t be silly, Jo. Trevor is my best friend.’
‘Our best friend,’ she corrected.
‘Look, leave it alone, Jo, okay? There’s nothing behind it. You and Sal stay home, and I’ll see you Sunday night.’
She looked at him suspiciously, unconvinced. Don’t let her guess, he thought.
It didn’t help. I had a lousy boring time at the annual. I made a few contacts, true, but most of the time I was bored out of my mind. If it hadn’t been for our argument I would have driven home on Saturday afternoon, smiled ruefully and admitted my mistake, and we’d have gone round to Trevor and Sandra’s. I couldn’t do that.
I did, however, get home early on the Sunday, keen to make it up with Jo if I could. But dinner was to be at Trevor’s anyway. Wouldn’t you know it?
Trevor and Jo carried on as usual, and I did my best. But Sandra was as cold as ice, and though I’m certain she tried to cover it up it was pretty obvious by half-way through dinner, and for once everyone made excuses and we wrapped it up as soon as we could. We carried Sally home in a blanket as we had done so many times, and opened the front door in silence. I carried the child up the stairs and got her into bed, and when I came down I found Jo at the bottom of the stairs, a whiskey in her hand and another for me.
‘It’s Sandra, isn’t it? What the hell’s been going on?’
I shrugged, took the glass and sat at the kitchen table. ‘Search me,’ I said. I wasn’t about to drop anyone in it.
Jo sat opposite me, swirling her drink around and avoiding my eyes. ‘I’m not stupid,’ she began. She took a quick slug of her whiskey, and put the glass down on the table, far too hard.
Here it comes, I thought.
‘We’ve had a good time this last year, haven’t we?’
I nodded, and she peered into my eyes as though boring into my brain. ‘Okay, yes.’ I said.
‘Since we met Trevor and Sandra we’ve had fun, haven’t we?’
Esperanza ‘But now something has gone wrong.’
‘Look, just because Sandra has been a bit off tonight doesn’t mean things have gone wrong. They’ve probably just had a row, and Sandra is sulking.’
‘Sandra doesn’t sulk. You know that.’
I nodded. It was true. ‘Well, something else, then.’
‘Yes, something else.’ There was a long silence, a minute or two. I guess Jo was going over the evidence, and I sat waiting for the accusations.
‘You’ve been pretty good about things, Paul.’
This was an unexpected approach. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked cautiously.
‘You know, running the house, doing most of the housework. While I get on with my career.’
‘Oh, that. Well frankly, it suits me down to the ground.’
‘Yes, I know. But Trev and me... that’s a bit of an ask, isn’t it?’
We had never talked about this before, never even hinted at it. I didn’t really even want to admit that I had noticed, though of course I’d have had to have been blind not to notice. Avoidance, I think it’s called. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Trevor and me carrying on like a pair of kids. Don’t pretend you don’t know.’
Oh my God, I thought, what’s she going to tell me? I looked blankly at her, and she lowered her eyes.
‘You know what we’ve been up to.’
I nearly choked. ‘You’d better tell me.’ Please, no, don’t tell me that, I wanted to say.
She picked up her glass and took another large slug, then put the glass down deliberately. She took a deep breath and began.
‘Let’s not beat about the bush, Paul. You mean too much to me for that. You know very well that Trev and I have been carrying on a bit.’ My eyes widened; how far had things gone between the two
‘Oh, don’t panic, Paul. We haven’t gone all that far. A few kisses, perhaps a caress or two. Nothing... desperate.’
‘Shit,’ I said, and swilled the rest of my whiskey. I was so relieved. I lowered my head, and almost smiled to myself. When I raised it I was looking serious again. ‘Shit. I didn’t know about the kisses.’ Then I realised what I was doing, deliberately trying to make her feel guilty.
‘Well,’ she said simply.
There was another long silence. Then I stood up and went round to her side of the table, and held out my hand. She stood and I wrapped my arms around her. I felt like crying with relief, but I didn’t. I took her hand and led her to the couch, and we sat together this time, instead of on opposite sides of the table. She leaned towards me and rested her head on my chest. I stroked her hair and thought about how lucky I was. ‘Do you want to carry on?’
She raised her head and looked at my face. ‘With Trevor,’ I said.
She lowered her head again and said quietly, ‘Yes.’
‘And do you want to go further with him?’
Another of those silences.
Then quietly, ‘Yes.’
‘Well,’ I told her eventually, ‘that’s alright then.’
You can pretend all you like, you can hope and pray that things will turn out okay; but despite everything, shit happens. I wouldn’t bother him any more, I had told him, but whatever I did he continued to bother me. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
Trevor? I’ve had a great time with him. He excites me, makes me laugh, makes me happy. Mostly. He’s the father of my two gorgeous children. He’s building this fabulous house. With Trevor, life is interesting. Always something new going on. Makes more money than we can think what to do with.
But Paul, gentle Paul, is who I have started dreaming of.
It doesn’t make sense. Let’s just think about it. Say I had an affair with Paul. Say it all turned out badly, say we were discovered and Trevor or Jo wanted a divorce. Why not, after all: that’s what people do, isn’t it?
So say that happened. Would Paul stay with me? Who would get
the children, both his and mine? Where would we live? How would we live? Paul wouldn’t make enough money for us to live on, and it’s a bloody long time since I had a job.
And what would Jo do, Jo who flirts with my husband? Would she and Trevor get together properly?
Actually, they’d both be okay, together or separate. They both have lives outside their marriages. But me? Everything I have, probably everything I am, is about me and Trevor.
So why am I thinking of Paul? Why does my body tingle when I am near him? Why do I long for him to slide his hand over my skin, to touch me, to kiss me? Is this love? Or is it simply infatuation, a whimsical idea grown out of all proportion because I am bored?
Jo said, ‘Perhaps we should cool it for a while?’
We were in the garden, or what would be a garden when I had finished it, sitting together on a bench beside a sapling that would eventually grow to be a weeping witch-elm; we had probably planted it a little close to the bench, but we could move the bench later if the tree grew as it should.
I had my arm along the back of the bench, not actually touching her but close, so that I could feel the warmth of her shoulders through the cotton of my sleeve. I looked at her and she turned her face towards me, serious and with a slight frown.
We had never actually discussed it, our friendship and the way we carried on. I had never thought we needed to. The whole thing started so slowly, so organically, if you like, that there had never seemed to be a point at which things changed. But I knew what she meant, of course.
She didn’t answer, not in words, just stared at me, then raised her hand and stoked mine, the one around her shoulder.
She sighed. ‘Because I think it’s beginning to cause trouble with Paul, and maybe Sandra, too.’
Despite myself I found myself smiling that nervous smile I do when I’ve been found out, suppressing a giggle that would be so... inappropriate.
‘Do you want to ‘cool it’ as you say?’
‘Not at all. But I don’t want to ruin everything, either.’
‘Well, how about going the other way and going all out?’
That surprised her. Well actually it surprised me too; it had never occurred to me that we could have what is popularly referred to as ‘an affair’, until the words slipped out.
She was clearly shocked. ‘Don’t be so stupid, Trevor. That’s the last thing I want.’
I withdrew my arm. ‘It never occurred to me, either. But now that I’ve thought about it, it does seem to be a reasonable alternative.’
‘So what, then?’
‘Look, Paul knows what’s going on. He doesn’t particularly like it, but he’s sort of okay with it. I don’t want to hurt him. I just think we should tone it down a little.’
‘You make it sound like something we can turn on and off. I’m just doing what comes naturally. I’m a very tactile person. I like touching you. I like you touching me. I like joking with you, and having fun. I thought you did too.’
‘Of course I do. You know it. But what about Sandra?’
‘She doesn’t mind. It’s what I’ve always done.’
‘She’s been very quiet lately.’
She had, hadn’t she? I hadn’t noticed. Well, I had really. I noticed particularly that night Jo had been sick all over the place, how Sandra was all lit up. And then after we came back from the hill? What was all that about?
‘Sandra loves the way we’ve all become such good friends. She’s always on about it.’
Jo frowned. ‘Not lately, she doesn’t.’
In the late spring there was a hammering on my door. It had been raining heavily for half an hour and I had all the windows and doors shut, a small fire going in the stove just to dry things out a little, and music on the radio. I had been miles away, concentrating on a drawing I was doing. A sketch, I suppose you’d call it. A woman bathing in a forest pool, sunlight filtering through the trees. A bit clichéd, I know, but I had been lost in it.
It was Sandra. ‘Oh, Paul,’ she said, ‘I’m soaked.’
She was, too, from head to foot. ‘What have you been up to? How the hell did you get so wet?’
‘I went down the river bank after dropping off Em, just going for a walk.’
The river passed behind our house, not immediately but beyond the paddock behind us. We have a little overgrown path that takes us there.
I looked at her and wondered what to do. ‘Why don’t you go up to the house and dry off?’
She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, and moved to the stove. ‘Couldn’t I just stay here by the stove?’
‘Well, I guess. But you really need to change into dry clothes.’
‘I’ll be alright.’ She sat in my chair, her clothes dripping.
‘Look, I’ll just nip up to the house and get some dry stuff,’ I suggested.
‘Perhaps a towel?’
I nodded, and left her at the stove.
As I walked back from the house, my arms full of a pair of Jo’s jeans, a sweater, some joggers and a couple of large towels, it suddenly occurred to me what could happen. It was a classic, I realised. Woman needs to strip off in friend’s studio, warm fire, soft music, no-one else around.
She looked up as I returned. I shoved the pile at her and turned away. ‘I’ve got a few things to do in the house,’ I said, and hurriedly escaped.
I let twenty minutes elapse before I returned to the studio, and I was relieved to see that she was dressed in Jo’s things and was drying her hair, letting it hang forward near the sides of the stove, gently drying it with a towel. She looked up as I entered. ‘All safe, now,’ she smiled. I returned her smile uncertainly.
But as I made the coffee she came and stood beside me, and very soon she was leaning against me looking strangely boyish in Jo’s clothes a size or two too big, and her hand came up to my shoulder and I turned and she lifted her face towards me and we were kissing and it felt... wonderful.
A kiss is not an affair. Not even a half-hour kiss that left me with bruised lips and a tingling body and a mind singing in something near ecstasy. I didn’t want it to end, but I had to collect the kids for
lunch, so eventually I bundled my wet clothes into a bag and went home to shower and change and wonder how I was going to handle it.
I had engineered it, of course. I knew Paul wasn’t going to start anything, so I deliberately went out in the rain. I was in the grip of a dream, a dream that was almost certainly going to end in tears, as my mother used to say, but was at the same time exciting.
If it had been just that it would have been fine. If I could have just had fun and think nothing of it, well, that would have added spice to my life and given me an adventure to look back on fondly. We don’t do that, though. People, I mean. We get these sudden urges that send us, like lemmings, over the brink: all or nothing. I suppose that’s what love is. If that was true, then I had fallen in love with Paul.
I stared at the door after she had left. For the last half hour I had been lifted to somewhere I had never reached before. My blood was fizzing in my veins, my mind was racing. Even with Jo I had never felt quite like this.
And yet... even then I hated myself.
It went the way these things usually seem to. I mean, I’m not an expert, but from what I’ve heard there was nothing unusual about our affair. At first we just allowed ourselves to flirt in a self-conscious manner, emulating Jo and Trevor. We kidded ourselves we could keep it at that.
Slowly, tension started to creep in to our foursome. Jo and Trevor began to look sideways at us, recognising that there was something forced about our relationship, while theirs was pretty much natural and light-hearted.
Jo became suspicious, of course. I suppose Trevor did, too, but nothing was said openly. Perhaps between Sandra and Trevor, I don’t know. So I knew that things weren’t going to go on like this for long.
And I was right. Sandra was phoning a couple of times a day, and dropping in to the studio more and more frequently. Very soon we dropped all pretense at just friendship, going straight into a clinch as soon as she arrived. Kissing became caressing, caressing became something more, and before we knew it we were making love. In the studio, in the house, in their house, in paddocks and forests and glens. Anywhere, in fact.
And while at first we were cautious, covering our tracks carefully
and laying the ground for our next meeting, we gradually got to the point where... well, perhaps not quite to the point where we didn’t care any more if we were caught, but definitely a bit rash. Our judgement had gone, see, blown away by passion.
‘Sit down, Paul,’ Jo said. It was after dinner, just the two of us. Jo looked tired and worried. Her firm was picking up a lot more work from the City these days, which meant more travelling and longer days, and I could tell she was feeling it. So I sat, expecting a resumé of the week’s work.
‘You’re having an affair,’ she said. I nearly fell off my chair. ‘With Sandra.’ I didn’t know what to say.
‘It’s my fault. It was me and Trevor that started it, and we both knew bloody well that the two of you might... well, follow in our footsteps.’
I was about to speak, but she held up her hand to stop me. ‘No, I’ve kept my promise. Just flirting, that’s all. Not that it’s has been easy to keep it at that, but anyway. So where do we go now?’
I could think of nothing to say. I found myself being pulled all over the place, desperate not to lose Jo, but wanting to keep Sandra too. Wasn’t that possible? ‘Look,’ I said eventually, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘A bit late for that,’ she said.
‘Yes. I know. I didn’t mean it to be like this. It just, well... happened. I can’t explain it.’
‘You don’t have to explain, Paul. I understand only too well. But the question is, what the hell are we going to do about it?’
I couldn’t bring myself to ask what she intended to do. ‘Don’t know,’ I said weakly.
‘I thought you wouldn’t. So here are the options. One, we split and you go off with Sandra, perhaps me with Trevor. Two, we stop behaving stupidly and get back to being a couple, you and me. Or three, we close our eyes and carry on as we have been.’
I couldn’t look her in the eye. I looked down at the floor. ‘Can I choose number three?’
She sighed. She’d been doing a lot of sighing lately. ‘Well, you could. But you know as well as I do that that would lead to numbers one or two in no time at all. Probably number one, and everyone will be hurt in the process.’
She was right of course.
Sandra has no idea where he is driving her. Neither does she really care. All she can think of is that he is going to end it. She has always known he would, right from the first when she held him in the frozen moonlight.
The wipers are thrashing backwards and forwards at full speed. The drumming of the rain on the roof is louder than the road noise. It is horrible, horrible. She can’t stop crying, even though she knows the lie is over and they can all now return to the way they used to be.
But what if she is wrong? What if he is going to tell her that he is through with Jo and wants me to run away with him and start afresh together. What about Trevor? What about Emma and Charlie? What about their wonderful house?
He stops the car and switches off the engine. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says eventually. ‘I’ve no idea why I’ve driven you here.’ He undoes his seat belt and turns towards her, taking her hand in his. ‘Sandra,’ he says quietly, ‘Jo knows.’
She had known that for ages, but poor silly Paul always takes ages to work anything out. One part of her mind smiles to herself, but only on the inside. On the outside it feels as though her world is being ripped apart. She clutches his hand desperately, snivelling piteously. ‘Paul,’ she tries to say, but all that comes out is a choking sound.
‘We’ve got to stop.’
Well, there it is. Baldly. Just like that. ‘We’ve got to stop.’
Stop what? Loving? Breathing? Living?
‘Please,’ she manages to say. ‘Oh Paul, please.’
But when she can finally look at his face, he is crying too, tears flooding down his face, catching in his beard and hanging there. He isn’t sobbing, isn’t out out of control, just sitting there with tears streaming, looking as miserable as a man can be. Like a man who is losing everything.
But he isn’t, of course. He is only losing me. Giving me up, like quitting smoking. ‘We’ve got to stop.’
‘Sandra has gone,’ Trevor says.
I nod. I knew that that was her plan.
‘Taken Em and Charlie and gone somewhere. I don’t know where.’
‘Her mother’s,’ I tell him. He sounds dreadful, bereft.
Trevor goes to shut the door, but I stop him, doing the foot in the door trick. ‘Trevor, stop. Please. Don’t shut me out.’
Trevor looks closely at me, his face ashen. He opens the door a little and kicks viciously at my leg, catching me full on the shin. I pull back, bend to hold my leg, looking up as the door slams in my face.
‘Trevor,’ I say loudly. ‘Trevor. Don’t do this.’
There is no answer.
‘Trevor.’ I leaned on the door, feeling exhausted.
‘This isn’t what was meant to happen,’ I whispered to myself.