Uncertain drizzle turned without warning to torrential rain and the Big Issue seller hoisted his dog, complete with box and blanket, into the shelter of the doorway where I’d already taken cover. He stood, stroking the dog’s silky fur, peering hopefully upwards for a gap in the clouds as the wind blew the rain in visible and drenching gusts and Saturday shoppers, huddled under inadequate umbrellas or with jackets over their heads, hurried for shelter, mostly into the bow-fronted cafe next door.
I bought a damp Big Issue and decided to follow them, hoping the place wasn’t already full…
Which was when I saw my husband, holding hands across a table with a young woman with sleek, black hair.
Actually they weren’t really holding hands. She was holding a glass of wine and he was stroking the back of her hand. Very gently, from the knuckles to the wrist. And they were gazing into each other’s eyes, the way lovers are meant to do, oblivious to the commotion of wet arrivals removing jackets, shaking umbrellas or trying to do something about dripping hair.
There was a space at their table, I noticed, and, just for a second, I saw myself walking across, putting a hand on the back of the spare chair and saying ‘Is this seat taken? Oh hello Alan. I thought you were in Oxford…’
‘Here, watch it!’ I heard, but dimly, through a whirring of sound that had nothing to do with the rain that was still flinging itself in fistfuls against the steamed-up windows. ‘Mind where you’re…’
I suppose I pushed. I know – because the sensation came vividly back to me later – that I trod, hard, on a foot. I don’t think I cried out.
And then I was outside where the rain was rushing so fast down the pipe on the wall behind me that it was pouring over the pavement.
Over my feet, I realised. My shoes were drenched and my feet were freezing.
Although all of me was freezing and it may have been nothing to do with the rain.
I stood in the middle of the pavement, cold water dripping down the inside of my jacket so that the back of my blouse was soaked too, and just… stood. I couldn’t think what else to do.
No-one said anything. Asked ‘Are you all right love?’ as they do in films. I imagine they simply gave me a wide berth. I must have looked crazy, after all. A middle-aged woman, hair and face running with water, standing in the overflow from a drain.
Why, I kept thinking – as if this were all that mattered – had he come to Cambridge? Which was less than ten miles from home and where half our friends came to do their shopping.
He was taking a risk, I thought.
And then I thought perhaps he didn’t mind and that made it even worse.
We were supposed to be having a weekend away. Now our sons have grown and flown we can afford such things and we’d planned to go to York, see the Minster, walk round the walls, enjoy some nice meals… Then, at the last minute, Alan had to stand in for a colleague at this conference.
Perhaps that was what had made me think of Cambridge. Ancient colleges, secluded gardens glimpsed through archways, willows overhanging a sun-dappled river, young men punting decoratively between low bridges… Faced with the disappointment of an empty weekend, I might as well have a day out anyway. Wander around the market. Visit KingsCollege Chapel. Treat myself to a nice lunch – by the river perhaps.
And now… it wasn’t just the dappled sunlight that was missing.
I slunk off down the street, furtively, close to walls, as if I were the one who mustn’t be seen doing wrong and caught the bus back to the station.
In the train on the way home a couple were quarrelling.
‘It’s the same old story’ the woman hissed, her mouth bunched into ugly lines like a drawstring bag. ‘You act as if I simply wasn’t there.’
The man stared straight ahead and said nothing. Acting, I suppose, as if she wasn’t there.
I mustn’t, I told myself, get like that. Angry… Bitter…Ugly.
And then the train went into a tunnel and I saw myself reflected in the evil yellow light of the carriage against the blackened walls. Hair flattened by rain, no make-up, eyes swollen, as if I’d been crying – although I was sure I hadn’t – I looked like a candidate for care in the community.
I remembered the story of the betrayed wife who cut her husband’s designer suits into shreds. And another who just cut out the flies. Another had ruined the bodywork of his brand new Porsche by scraping her keys along it but I couldn’t see myself doing anything like that. I don’t like inflicting damage.
I certainly – even in my numbed state – couldn’t think of attacking Alan himself.
I didn’t even want to harm the sleek-headed woman. I’d only end up in prison, after all.
And I didn’t want Alan dead – or even injured.
I loved him. I wanted him back.
‘How was it?’ I asked as he came in on Sunday evening. Very cheerful for a man who had spent his entire weekend at a conference.
I tried to sound normal. Whatever normal was. It was hard to remember.
‘Brilliant. Really good weekend. Some excellent speakers,’ he added, quickly.
‘That’s good. What was it about?’
‘Contaminated land,’ he said. Which was quite likely as he’s a planning officer and that’s the kind of thing they talk about.
And he bounded upstairs with his bags.
‘What about your weekend?’ he asked later. ‘Do anything interesting?’
‘Not really,’ I said as he picked up the paper and scanned the tv guide.
So who was she, I wondered, the woman with the sleek, black hair? No-one I knew but then Alan knew plenty of people I’d never met.
‘How’s that new woman in your department getting on?’ I asked. Suddenly remembering. ‘The traffic expert.’
‘Oh her.’ He didn’t look up. ‘All right – I think. I don’t really come in contact with her. She’s not in my section… I don’t have anything to do with traffic these days. They’re way down at the far end of the room. Why?’ This time he did look at me and I could see I’d hit the target. He had the look of a man who was about to go on saying how little he knows someone but has just realised how suspicious he sounds.
‘I just wondered,’ I said. ‘What’s her name?’
‘Celine,’ he said. ‘I think.’
‘Pretty name,’ I said.
Which it was. And it was helpful, for some reason, to know it.
Alan turned back to the paper, reading, apparently, with great concentration and turning over a lot of pages. He was looking good, I thought, watching. His dark hair had hardly any grey, apart from a couple of rather distinguished streaks above the ears. His bony nose and tough jaw line had become more, rather than less, attractive as he aged and, for a man about to hit fifty, he looked pretty fit and lacking in paunch.
Then I wondered if I was seeing him differently because I was jealous.
And that, I thought, was the answer.
I would have to make him jealous.
I would have to find myself a lover.
I started by looking round the office, which is where most affairs are supposed to start. Alan’s included – or so it seemed.
I work for a housing association where there are plenty of men – three managers, a chief executive, an entire board of trustees and any number of housing officers, builders and craftsmen coming in and out.
I saw immediately why I’d never been tempted.
The managers are nice enough but devotedly married – and extremely dull. The chief executive has a bald crown, long, straggling locks around its edges and dandruff. And the trustees are all over seventy.
One by one, I ticked off the rest. Too sweaty. Too loud. Too fat. Too young. Too dull. Too dull…
I went home feeling depressed.
As I heard Alan’s car in the drive, the phone rang. Peak time for cold callers and I wasn’t surprised when a young woman asked if I was Mrs. Sarah Roberts and could I spare a minute to answer a few questions?
‘No thank you,’ I said, replacing the receiver.
‘Who was that?’ Alan asked, coming through the door.
‘No-one,’ I said and carried on preparing salad.
Which was when, as I was tearing basil leaves, it occurred to me…
Perhaps I didn’t need a real lover at all.
‘You’re very quiet,’ Alan commented as we ate our quiche and salad. ‘Busy day?’
‘Mm.’ I tried to look secretive.
‘Talking of busy,’ he went on, ‘I’ll be late tomorrow. There’s a full council meeting and I may be needed. God knows what time it’ll finish.’
Wednesday evening he was home on time. The phone rang as he was opening the wine and I hurried to answer it.
‘Could I speak to Mrs. S Roberts?’ the voice asked.
I glanced back to where Alan was struggling with the corkscrew.
‘It’s not a good time,’ I whispered into the receiver. ‘He’s just come in..’
‘Just a courtesy call, Mrs. Roberts.’ The caller sounded puzzled. ‘From Home and Commercial Insurers. I wondered if I could ask some questions about your insurance needs.’
I giggled. Sexily, I hoped.
‘Are you a home owner, Mrs. Roberts?’ He plunged on with his script. ‘Either solely or jointly with a partner?’
‘Don’t be silly,’ I giggled again. ‘You must go,’ I hissed. ‘He’ll hear us!’
‘Er, does that mean, you have a joint mortgage?’
‘I told you,’ I whispered again. ‘It’s not a good time.’
‘If it’s not convenient now, perhaps I could phone some time tomorrow? Or perhaps I could speak to your husband? We have some exciting introductory benefits for new customers…’
‘Tomorrow then,’ I hissed. ‘But you must go now. I’ll ring you. Bye,’ I tried to sound flustered and bungled replacing the receiver.
‘Wine?’ Alan asked. Having apparently noticed nothing.
I felt better though.
I had started my campaign.
I thought a lot over the next few days about what magazines call ‘those tell-tale signs’ and the following Saturday I had my hair cut into what the stylist assured me was a ‘younger, feathery look’. Then I went shopping for new undies. I bought new shoes too – much daintier than the type I normally wore, with a delicate little heel.
Alan went into work on Sunday afternoon – something to do with a presentation he had to make on Monday morning, he said – and, bored on my own, I drove to the garden centre to buy fuchsias for the hanging baskets.
‘What wonderfully blowsy blooms,’ this man said, pointing to a plant dripping with bright scarlet and deep purple. ‘Like having a can-can girl on your patio!’
We laughed and he wandered off towards the camellias.
But it could happen…
It would be quite possible to meet a man in a garden centre. The place was full of them, after all. Mostly with wives but this wasn’t real. I could invent what I liked.
And so we met beside the roses.
I was leaning forward to read the label on a Princess Alexandra and my sleeve caught on a thorn.
‘Hang on a moment. Let me help,’ this man said. ‘You don’t want to tear that pretty blouse.’
When I’d chosen my fuchsias, I went into the cafe for a cappuccino and a piece of carrot cake.
It was as good a place as any to meet him again.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’ he said, pausing by my table. ‘Did you choose a rose successfully?’
‘Oh yes. Thank you. It’s for my sister. It’s her birthday next week.’
And we started to talk.
He would be called David. It was a name I’d always liked. He would be tall – over six foot – and well built – not fat, but broad-shouldered. And he would have green eyes. Green eyes are mysterious, somehow. Mysterious and romantic.
Alan didn’t get home until gone seven, his shoes quite muddy, for someone who’d spent all afternoon at his computer.
‘Did you get it done?’ I asked. ‘The presentation,’ I added helpfully, when he looked startled. ‘For tomorrow.’
‘Oh yes. Thanks. All done and dusted,’ he said and asked what we were having for supper.
I spent most of the evening thinking about David.
If I was going to be convincing, I had to believe in him and, while Alan watched a murder mystery full of twists and sudden reappearances of minor, forgotten characters, I worked on my lover.
I was surprised to discover that he had red hair, which I’ve never really liked because it so often goes with freckles and, in older men, a florid complexion, but perhaps that’s how love works. Even invented love. You have an ideal in mind and then fall head over heels for someone who doesn’t conform at all.
It was rather pleasing.
I was acting out of character – as lovers do.
‘You’re very quiet tonight,’ Alan commented, during the ads.
‘Me?’ I tried to reproduce his startled look from earlier that evening. ‘Am I?’
David was a landscape designer, I decided. We’d met in a garden centre, after all. He could be working on a local property for some wealthy businessman. A millionaire businessman, even. His services might be very expensive.
I liked the idea of a lover who wore jeans and casual shirts but had a veneer of sophistication.
I decided we would meet for lunch on Thursday. Outside town. To avoid meeting anyone I knew.
Alan had been shopping in his lunch hour, he said next evening. He’d bought three new shirts and a new tie with rather dashing mauve circles on it.
‘I’ll have to go into work on Saturday,’ he said, looking a bit sheepish. ‘Will and I need to work on the figures for the new project. It’s the only time we can get it done in peace.’
‘That’s all right,’ I said. And then I remembered something. ‘You’ll be fed up with Will won’t you? Aren’t we lunching with them on Sunday?’
I watched his expression. His eyes widened and he bit his lower lip. Then he recovered.
‘Oh no, I forgot to tell you. That’s off.’ He scratched the side of his cheek. ‘Mary’s not well.’
‘Oh that’s a shame.’ I hoped I didn’t meet Mary any time soon. No doubt Alan would tell them I wasn’t well and just for a moment I felt tears sting behind my eyes at the thought of the risks he was taking.
Then I told myself I must take risks too.
I went to lunch early on Thursday.
I was meeting an old friend, I told Karen in the office and drove to the Old Coach House because I’d always thought it looked nice – red brick with glorious white roses growing across the front.
It seemed suitable. David and I had met among the roses, after all.
I felt quite nervous as I walked across the car park. I was wearing my best summer suit – pale cream with a fitted jacket and above-the-knee skirt – and my dainty, new shoes.
I was also wearing my new bra and panties and, as I passed two men in suits getting out of a Mondeo, I realised it was true that what you wear underneath makes you feel more confident. The bra was particularly effective – very lacy and provocatively low-cut. It made all the difference to my rather ordinary blouse.
It seemed dark inside after the bright sunshine but there were red-shaded lights over the bar that made the horse-brasses gleam and gave the room an unreal glow.
I ordered a tomato juice and studied the menu.
‘Lovely day.’ One of the men from the car park arrived beside me.
‘Yes, very,’ I said politely, turning slightly away.
I was meeting David. I had no need of men in suits.
He took the hint and ordered lagers.
I would try baked goat’s cheese with cranberry sauce and rocket salad, I decided. I’d never eaten goat’s cheese, since I’ve never been fond of goats, but this was a new experience; I should eat differently too.
‘You funny girl,’ David smiled as we went to our table.’Fancy disliking goats!’
He had a slight Irish brogue, I’d decided. It went with the red hair and green eyes.
He’d grown up in Bantry, he told me. A beautiful little town tucked in between the hills and the sea in County Cork.
I ‘d love it.
I chose a table at the far end of the room, half hidden by an oak sideboard. Sitting there, it would appear, from the bar, as if I was with a friend.
I looked out of the window as golden sunlight filtered through white roses and it felt like a wonderful day to be in love.
‘I’ll take you there and we’ll walk for miles in the hills.’ David reached his fingers towards my hand as it rested on my glass. He stroked very gently, from the knuckle to the inside of my wrist, and I felt desire seep through me as I drowned in the sea green of his eyes. I reached out to touch the golden hairs on his deep-tanned arm and imagined the feel of it around my body.
When I got back into the car I felt quite drunk, although I’d only had tomato juice.
‘Are you OK?’ Karen asked, halfway through the afternoon. ‘ You look a bit odd.’
The phone rang that evening as I was cooking the pasta and I hurried to get there before Alan, who was upstairs changing.
‘Mrs Roberts?’ It was a brisk young woman. ‘My name’s Catherine and I’m calling from Exotic Locations UK to see if you’re interested in the idea of a free holiday.’
‘Hi,’ I said, not too loudly but in an excited tone of voice. ‘How are you?’
This obviously wasn’t in the script but she said she was fine.
‘You’ll be glad to know I’m not trying to sell anything,’ she went on. ‘This is a genuine, free offer open to a select few people, phoned at random. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions, Mrs. Roberts?’
I could hear Alan on the landing.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘That’s fine.’
‘OK, so do you own or rent the property you live in Mrs. Roberts?’
‘Yes, that’s fine’. I tried to sound guarded.
‘Own or rent?’ She articulated more clearly.
Alan was on the stairs.
‘Of course,’ I said, with a suggestive giggle.
‘You own the property?’ the woman asked.
‘OK,’ I said quietly into receiver as Alan passed. ‘Must go now. Sorry. Bye.’
‘Who was that?’ He gave me an odd look as I came into the kitchen.
‘Er, some woman asking if we wanted a free holiday,’ I said.
It was obvious he didn’t believe me.
On Saturday I drove to the coast.
I parked the car and walked through fields of tall grasses with waving seed-heads, where golden buttercups, pink clover and blue scabious reached for the sunshine. The air was thick with the scent of wild thyme and there were skylarks singing, high-pitched, in a blue sky that went on for ever.
We held hands, David and I, and I felt the roughness of his strong fingers enclosing mine as we walked towards the cliffs, where we sat in warm grass, staring out across wrinkled waves that sparkled in the sunlight. Tiny blue butterflies flitted around us and minute insects clambered up the grasses, bending them under their gentle weight.
I felt the strength of David’s arms around my shoulders and then he pulled me towards him, his lips were against mine, his tongue was inside my mouth and our bodies pressed longingly against each other.
’Not here,’ I whispered against his ear.’Not now.’
Afterwards I drove towards Blakeney and stopped at a roadside hotel where I ordered two full Norfolk teas. My husband was bird-watching, I said. He’d be joining me in a few minutes. I sat looking out over the salt-marshes and ate two rounds of crab sandwiches, two scones with jam and cream and a piece of fruit cake.
I’d missed lunch and was hungry after my walk.
My husband had rung my mobile, I explained to the waiter. He’d caught a glimpse of what might have been a bearded tit and couldn’t tear himself away.
I kept the bill, which had a drawing of the hotel and charged for two teas.
It was after six when I got home and Alan was already back.
‘Where on earth have you been?’ he asked. ‘I was beginning to worry.’
I looked flustered.
‘Nowhere,’ I said. ‘I dropped in on Brenda.’
Brenda was someone I used to work with. I hadn’t seen her for years.
‘You’re looking very healthy,’ he said. ‘Quite tanned.’
I could feel my face burning, I realised, after all that fresh air.
‘Er… We sat out in her garden,’ I said, biting my lower lip.
I went to bed early that night, too tired to keep my eyes open and leaving the hotel bill downstairs in my shoulder bag.
There was a stem of dried grass caught in the strap I noticed.
On Sunday Alan suggested we eat out – feeling guilty, perhaps, about missing lunch with Will and Mary.
I wore my new bra and the low cut blouse I’d bought during the week.
‘That’s nice,’ he said as we got into the car. ‘Is it new?’
Then he told me he had to go away the weekend after next. Another conference, apparently.
‘More contaminated land?’ I asked and he said yes.
‘It’s a big issue at the moment,’ he said. ‘With all this brown field site development,’ and lectured me on the government’s housing policy for most of the meal.
He was late twice that week and on the Wednesday I went to the cinema, buying two tickets on my credit card.
It was a foreign film – Mexican, I think but it didn’t really matter. It was pleasant enough, sitting in the warm darkness, allowing incomprehensible words to sweep over me, imagining David’s still presence in the seat beside me.
‘Beautiful scent’, he whispered, leaning closer and touching my arm.
‘I bought it for you,’ I told him and felt his fingers interweave themselves with mine, knowing we weren’t, either of us, going to be able to wait much longer.
‘Alan’s going away the weekend after next,’ I told him.
I left the credit card slip on the kitchen dresser, where Alan found it the following day.
‘What on earth did you go to see that for?’ he asked, looking puzzled.
‘What? Oh that film! It was Karen’s idea,’ I said. Gabbling. ‘She wanted to see it and no-one else at work was interested so I said I’d go with her. Just for a laugh really. Not that it was funny, exactly.’
He gave me a strange look and started to stack the dish washer. I was wearing my new perfume and I could see his nostrils moving but he didn’t comment.
That weekend I bought a new dress.
It had a plunge neckline, a line of little buttons to the waist and a skirt cut on the bias so that it swirled out as I walked. It was in a light silk mix in a deep pink shade that I’d never worn before. It was the sort of thing David liked.
He loved me to look dainty and fragile – in contrast to his husky toughness, I supposed.
‘You’re buying a lot of clothes lately,’Alan commented.
He was at home all weekend and I found it quite oppressive. Every time I tried to get away on my own to think about David he seemed to be there. Almost as if he were following me. He mowed the lawn, which he hadn’t done for weeks, hosed down the patio and fixed new runners on the chest of drawers. He made the place so noisy I began to wish Celine would ring and ask him to meet her.
He worked late the following Thursday so I met David straight after work and we drove to the Old Coach House – ‘our place’, as I was starting to think of it. Most people were outside as it was such a warm evening and we sat in a far corner of the bar where it was almost dark.
David’s beautiful, strong hands were ingrained with the earth he’d been working all day and he smelt of roots and warm soil and the scent of lilies.
‘I love you so much, my darling,’ he told me, stroking my forearm. ‘I have to have you or I’ll go crazy’.
‘This weekend,’ I promised, pushing my hand through his glossy, red hair.
I was in bed when Alan got in. He switched on the light in the bedroom as if he wanted to talk but I didn’t open my eyes.
He was very quiet on Thursday evening and ate hardly any supper. Not that it was very nice – pizza from the freezer because, although I’d gone shopping in my lunch hour, I’d forgotten to buy food.
I hardly ate anything either. I was too excited.
This time tomorrow we’d be together.
I was meeting David at five. He’d rented a cottage for the weekend – in the middle of nowhere, he said. We’d be on our own, completely undisturbed.
‘ I was thinking,’ Alan said as I loaded the dishwasher. ‘We don’t seem to have seen much of each other lately. What with… me being so busy at work and so on.’
A sort of dull, red flush, I noticed as I turned to look at him, was creeping from his neck up to the base of his ears and he stared away from me out of the window and went on talking.
‘I was thinking,’ he said again, ‘I’ve been rather neglecting you. Why don’t we do that trip to York this weekend?’
‘I thought you had a conference?’
‘Oh they can manage without me this time,’ he said, turning back. ‘This is more important.’ He leaned over and kissed me on the tip of my nose. ‘I’ll book us a top-notch hotel,’ he said. ‘You can wear that sexy new dress…’
It’s five o’clock on Friday and here I am, waiting outside the Old Coach House, wearing my sexy dress with the tiny buttons down the front. David’s bringing champagne – and smoked salmon and quails eggs – although I don’t suppose either of us will feel like eating.
It’s an hour’s drive, he says, to the cottage. Then we’ll open the champagne, and David will undo my tiny buttons and cup his hands under my breasts in their lacy bra. I’ll push my fingers through his fox-like hair and we’ll press our lips and bodies against each other and the waiting will be over at last.
I didn’t answer Alan last night.
I let him think we’d be going away together this weekend.
I didn’t tell him it was much, much, too late. That I didn’t want him any more. He won’t know that until he gets home from work and finds I’m not there. Until he finds my letter propped against the mirror on his chest of drawers…
It’s almost six o’clock now and David must have been delayed but I don’t care. The next car that comes round the corner could be his and I’m happy to go on standing here, waiting for him.
I can wait for ever.
If I have to.