Sit down she says, and he does, distracted.
Are you paying attention? she asks.
He folds his paper, a vague annoyance crossing his face, placing it neatly on the table before them. Yes he says coldly.
Harvey, we’ve been married a long time.
Yes, he tells her, calculating; twenty-two years, I think.
Twenty-two years and seven months, she corrects him. Has it been good for you?
What do you mean? he says, wondering why she is asking at this particular time. Has she noticed?
It’s a long time. Are you satisfied, Harvey? Do you still wake up in the morning and look at me and get goose-bumps?
No, I mean it. Do you get excited when you see me in the street?
Harvey coughs self-consciously. Of course not. Not any more. He looks at her. What is she on about?
Quite, she says. Well, it’s not good enough. We need to do something about it.
He is paying very close attention now. What on earth could she mean? What do you mean? he asks.
I mean it’s time for a change. New relationships.
Sorry, he says. Did you say new relationships?
I did. Not just for me, but for you, too.
He sits back in his chair. She must know, he thinks. He starts to colour.
What he doesn’t know is that Celeste is standing behind the open door. She had been walking through the hall when she noticed the tone of her mother’s voice and stopped to listen. Celeste often listens behind doors. Open or shut. And not just doors, either: open windows, bedroom walls with the help of a glass, a cliché, perhaps but effective; even perched in the big apple tree in the garden, eavesdropping on her parents on the lawn below, or maybe one or other of them with their friends.
Celeste is eighteen. Beautiful. Auburn hair, worn long, almost to her waist. Wide eyes with that greenish tinge that sometimes occurs with auburn hair. Skin paleish, but now in summer glowing with a light tan. Today she is wearing a long dress of some thin, diaphanous material. It is a pale yellowy hue, with some light, almost indiscernible pattern. The neckline is cut low so that the swell of her breasts is more than obvious, at least when her hair is swept back from her shoulders. On her feet plain white rope-soled espadrilles. Her toes are long and slim. On the little toe of her right foot is a small golden ring. Her ankles are slim and well-defined.
The talk of new partnerships has caught her imagination, and she leans closer to the open door, keen to miss nothing.
Marissa, unlike her daughter, is not beautiful. Which isn’t to say ugly, far from it. Perhaps plain would describe her best.
She has the same auburn hair as Celeste, but it doesn’t gleam as her daughter’s does. It is cut short, too, not falling below her ear-lobes. Marissa has it cut that short because she can’t be bothered with long hair and the constant washing and combing that it requires. Practical clothes: jeans and men’s shirts. Sometimes a business suit, but not often. No earrings. Sensible shoes.
I’m not really painting a very attractive picture of Marissa, am I? What I’ve written about her is all true, but in its entirety it is a lie: Marissa is, despite all I have written, an attractive woman. To a certain type and age of men, I mean. And to a few women, too.
Why is that? Does beauty play a lesser part than the popular press would have us believe? Do we see through all that to dwell on the inner person? Do we look past the artificial to see the essential being beneath all that? Well yes, often we do.
This doesn’t mean that I think Celeste is less beautiful. Oh, she’s gorgeous. And Harvey thinks so to. That’s a bit of his problem.
What do you mean? What new relationships?
Are you sitting comfortably, Harvey? I wouldn’t want you to fall from your chair.
Harvey looks dazed. He has no idea what is coming.
I have met someone, Harvey. She says it in such a simple way, no inflection, no emphasis, just a straight, flat statement of fact.
You’ve met someone?
Yes, Harvey. A man. A man with whom I want to develop a relationship.
Of course a man.
Harvey wipes his hand over his face, and looks blankly at the wall in front of him. But what about us?
That’s exactly why we’re here talking about it, Harvey. How are we going to handle this?
But I had no idea. Who is he? As he starts to think about what she is telling him he feels the first stirring of anger. Anger and self-pity. How long has this been going on? How dare she? He half rises to his feet with no idea of what he might do.
Oh, spare me all that, Harvey. It hasn’t started yet. And of course I dare: we’ve been sliding into apathy for the last ten years, and neither of us has lifted a finger to deal with it. Now I am.
She stopped and looked at him quizzically: The question is, what are you going to do?
Yes. Are you going to look for a grown-up to have a relationship with, or are you going to carry on with Celeste?
Behind the door Celeste recoils. She had no idea her mother knew. How long has she known? Oh my God! Or OMG as she would normally say.
Harvey, bright red now, stands suddenly. What the hell do you mean?
Sit down love. No point pretending. I’ve known for a while.
He sits slowly, puts his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Oh my God!
Marissa, not wanting to inflame the situation, looks away and tries not to show her smile. Her smirk, I suppose you’d say. You’ve got to admit, it’s a laughable situation.
Harvey wipes his face with his hand, a sort of unmasking action; he is suddenly sweating, and is experiencing a strong urge to urinate.
How… he starts, trying to quickly calculate his best approach: should he admit everything, or try to deny it? How long have you known? he says.
Oh, I don’t know; six months? How long has it been going on?
Harvey ignores that. What are you going to do about it?
About you and Celeste? Nothing. She’s old enough to make up her own mind about it. None of my business, really.
Christ! he says.
Marissa looks towards the door. You might as well come in, Celeste, she says, and turns to Harvey again. She’ll have to break this habit of eavesdropping. So childish.
Celeste throws the door open. This is disgusting, she says. You can’t just plan to have an affair. Who is he? What about us?
Marissa sighs deeply. I knew it would be like this, she says. I don’t know what’s wrong with people. Look, if I choose to have it off with someone else, and as long as I’m not hurting anyone else, I don’t see it’s a problem. And let’s face it, you two have been carrying on without a thought for me, haven’t you?
Celeste stares at her father. Have you told her? she accuses.
Harvey shakes his head. No, he says, and his voice has a bit of whine in it. She found out by herself.
Celeste turns and confronts her mother. You sneaky thing. You’ve been spying on us.
Marissa smiles. Oh, for goodness sake, Celeste, give me a break. You’ve been carrying on like children. How many times have I caught you at it? Did you think your bedroom is sound-proof? And while I’m at it, I might suggest you turn down the vocals. It’s sort of, I don't know, bogan, I suppose. Like something out of Hollywood.
She turns back to her husband. Now I don’t really think it matters what you two are going to do. But here’s my plan. Are you both paying attention? Good.
They were, Harvey rigid with fear that everything was going to fall apart, Celeste unable to restrain an element of arousal… her own mother making these outrageous suggestions!
I’ve met a man, Marissa starts again. He’s quite young. Twenty-eight, actually. He has no idea about any of this, by the way. Not yet. My plan is to seduce him, and keep him interested in me for as long as possible. That may not be all that long in reality, because he’s quite a hunk. I don’t mind you two knowing about him, but I want no interference. None. Do you understand?
Do you mean you’re going to bring him here? Jesus, Harvey thought. That’s ridiculous.
Not at first, no. I thought neutral ground to start with. Perhaps later, when he’s got used to the idea. But we need to sort out the domestic organisation. Harvey, I want you to move out of our bedroom. There are currently two spare bedrooms, so you can take your pick.
As for you, Celeste, I’m putting you on warning: you come on to him in any way and I’ll make sure you regret it. Understood?
Celeste smiles that secret, girlish smile she keeps for special occasions. She knows she can attract most men with no trouble at all. She likes older men. A fleeting thought crosses her mind… a ménage à trois? With her father? With her mother? Oh, too exciting!
No mother, she says, but Marissa knows this only a qualified promise.
Harvey moves out of the parental bedroom and takes the bedroom furthest from what is now Marissa’s bedroom. It is, of course, right next to Celeste’s but then so is the other spare bedroom. As he moves his things into his new bedroom it slowly dawns on him that this really is a first-class situation. All he has lost is half a bedroom, and now he has a whole one. He and Marissa haven’t been intimate for over ten years anyway, and she has, of late, begun to snore.
Celeste, of course, now has the freedom to carry on her affair with her father without, she thinks, hindrance from her mother. She sits on her bed combing her hair, and it slowly dawns on her that she doesn’t really find him attractive, now that the thrill of the illicit has been removed. Oh, of course it’s illicit in a general, legalistic sort of way; not that she’s ever heard of anyone being charged with incest.
Her mind naturally goes to this young hunk that Marissa is going to bring home. When is this going to happen? Oh, so exciting.
Marissa, characteristically, is very matter of fact about it all, though she is highly amused by the reactions of Harvey and Celeste. She wonders what Harvey will do now? He’s not exactly the most adventurous type.
As for Celeste, she thinks, she’s almost certain that now the secrecy has been taken away she’ll lose interest in her father. Poor old Harvey!
She re-arranges her room, piling stuff she no longer wants near the door. Then she lies down on the bed and looks at the ceiling, dreaming of the future. Step one, she thinks, now that she has cleared the decks, is to lose weight and go to the gym. She is forty-four years old. That’s nothing, and the sixteen year difference between herself and David, her target, is interesting but not impossible.
She’s no fool. She knows that at the moment she looks older than she really is, so there is a lot of work to be done. She gives herself two months to achieve a dramatic change. Until then, she swears to herself, she will leave David strictly alone. Once she has become slim and beautiful, she will commence the siege. She compares herself to Celeste for the first time, and realises that she could look like her daughter’s older sister, if she put the effort in.
David’s work station is four desks away from Marissa's. He is shy, but is indeed the ‘hunk’ that Marissa described. He keeps to himself in the office, though most of the unattached women have, at one time or another, made a bit of a play for him. He has rejected them all. He is always polite and charming about it, but quite unassailable.
At the annual office functions he has met Harvey and Celeste along with most of the immediate families of his co-workers. Briefly, of course. He doesn’t actually know them. He remembers that Marissa has a rather beautiful daughter, and a stern-looking husband, but doesn’t remember their names. He tells himself that he isn’t interested.
But he is. At the Christmas party last December, pretending to be taking a call on his mobile, he surreptitiously snapped a series of photos of Marissa’s family group, and has edited them, keeping the images in a folder locked with a passcode. He tries not to look at them too often. He fights against it, knowing that it is wrong.
It gradually dawns on him, and everyone else in the office, that Marissa is gradually changing, becoming slimmer and dressing better, too, and the gossips have started already, casting about to discover the reason for these dramatic changes.
When Marissa deliberately lets slip that she and her husband Harvey (Oh, that’s his name, thinks David) have separated but still live in the same house, David can’t help becoming interested. From time to time, when he is alone, he enters the passcode and looks at the photos, and dreams. Harvey, he thinks. Oh, Harvey!