by James Wall
You wait outside the front door with Will. He looks lovely standing next to you in his suit and open necked shirt, a hint of stubble on his jaw line. You’ve told him this already this evening, before you left the house, and you’re about to tell him again when the hall light inside comes on, leaking out to you, and you hear the jangle of keys as they’re placed in the lock.
‘Hi!’ says Bev.
Her arms are open, and Will steps forward and kisses her. On the lips. They hug.
‘You look great,’ he says to her, stepping back, still holding her hands.
You feel a jolt. She does look good. Really she does. That dress suits her.
‘Ah, thank you,’ she says, stroking his arm. ‘Can you give compliment lessons to Julian? He needs educating.’
Then she turns and kisses you on each cheek.
Inside, she takes your coats. You don’t know why you brought them. You only got out of the car in the driveway, and you’ll be driving back home later. Will is the one who usually drinks. You don’t mind; you know how it affects you.
Julian is in the kitchen. He’s wearing the red Keep Calm and Get Drunk apron, and is holding a glass of red wine. His cheeks are ruddy. He always drinks as he cooks. Drunk in charge of an oven, he often says. Puccini is playing in the background, mingling with the steam from the pans on the stove. There’s a round table in the centre; four places are set.
‘Anita!’ Julian says. ‘Looking lovely as usual.’
You love it when he says that. He puts down his wine and kisses you on your lips. Then he hugs you, and over your shoulder says to Will, ‘You don’t mind if I borrow your wife for a while, do you?’
Will raises his hands and smiles. ‘You carry on.’
You giggle. Part of you wants Will to say yes he does mind, but that would be silly after fifteen years of marriage. Julian keeps holding you, and you wait for him to let go. He squeezes a little tighter; you’re sure you can feel him against you, but then at last, he releases you, and gives a quick look as you separate. He always flirts with you, and you feel confident, as much as you can without truly knowing, that he would like to sleep with you. Maybe have an affair? But you don’t want to.
You can’t help but instinctively worry what Will thinks, but when you turn to him, he’s not even looking. Julian’s an old friend after all. There’s no reason to be worried.
Bev offers you a glass of white wine. It’s cool and refreshing, and tingles your lips. Will already has a glass of red; he doesn’t drink white. He follows Bev to the living room and you turn to go too but Julian gently steers you towards the oven by your elbow.
‘See what you think of this,’ he says, and lifts the wooden spoon from a pan to your mouth, his hand underneath it to catch any drips.
You hesitate but he gestures for you to taste it.
You’re wary of the heat, and gently blow on it first.
‘Lovely,’ you say, and then the sweet tomato and basil rise up and swirl around your mouth, enveloping your taste buds. ‘God, that’s really good.’ You raise your hand to his to draw the spoon back to your mouth. ‘That’s gorgeous.’
Julian shrugs, and in an overdone French accent says, ‘Just a little zumssing ah put togezer.’ He smiles and it lingers like the aroma of the food in the air.
You hear Bev’s laughter followed by Will’s voice, and you turn towards the living room, and then back to Julian.
‘They’re having a good time,’ you say.
‘Better ask them to come in,’ he says. ‘It’s ready now.’
You wonder, again, whether it’s Bev with whom Will is having an affair. You know he’s having one, but have found no concrete evidence as yet. It’s intuition, backed up by his lack of attention towards you in the bedroom, and in any other room as well. Yes, there are the occasional moments when he ‘climbs on board’ but they’re quick and perfunctory activities. You know you should stop him, it’s not making love, but it is a chance for some intimacy at least. And then you feel awful afterwards.
You miss him. You find yourself waiting for him to involve you after he’s smiled at something in the paper, or on the TV. But he doesn’t even turn to you, not unless you say something first.
You told yourself at first that you were being over sensitive. You have been together for a long time, after all. Maybe that’s how it goes after a while? Doesn’t mean anything bad. Just different.
You mentioned it one night at home, after Will had had a bottle of red to himself. You were sitting on the sofa together, the TV on but you weren’t really watching it. He said things change, and he laid his warm hand on your arm.
‘We’ve become more…settled,’ he said.
You remember that long pause, as he searched for the right word. Very careful he was. And the word he chose was ‘settled’. An odd word. You couldn’t make up your mind whether he was being derogatory.
You all sit down, the steaming food in front of you.
‘This is lovely,’ says Will after taking a bite. ‘Another fantastic creation from our great chef.’
He raises his glass to Julian and finishes off his drink. Bev fills it back up.
You carry on eating. Julian puts on another CD. Miles Davis. There’s a pile of CDs by the player but you can’t read what they are. The music swirls around the room like a breeze.
You glance over to Bev. She’s leaning in, listening to something Will is telling her. Looks very private, that closeness. You wonder what they’re talking about. About you? You’re just being paranoid now.
You confided in her about Will’s lack of attention six months or so ago, before you thought she might be the other woman. How you wish you hadn’t. She suggested you needed to ‘spice things up a bit,’ as she put it. A basque, stockings, suspenders. ‘You’ve still got the figure for it,’ she said.
You giggled nervously at the thought of it. But you were excited too.
You greeted him from work, and stood in the kitchen, with your cream coloured dressing gown over the ‘uniform’, as you’d come to call it.
‘Is the kettle on?’ he said. He hadn’t looked at you, hadn’t noticed you wearing the tights under the dressing gown. ‘No, a whisky,’ he said. ‘I’ve had a pig of a day.’
Looking back on it now, you should have stopped then, but your mind was already made up. It had taken so long to build up the courage to do it. He’d soon forget the awful day.
You brought him the whisky. The click of your heels on the wooden floor seemed so loud that you were sure he’d say something, but he didn’t.
You bit your lip, and your fingers trembled as you grappled with the knot you’d made with the belt. It wouldn’t come undone at first. Then he opened his mouth to speak just as you opened your dressing gown. A mixture of excitement and fear passed through you in waves, as you let him examine your body, your alluring body in that unfamiliar uniform, desperately hoping you’d drawn him back in.
‘Christ,’ he said, his hand gripping the tumbler.
You were about to slip the gown from your shoulders and let it fall to the floor when he stepped over and gently, oh so gently, kissed your forehead. Just like your father used to do.
He apologised, saying he was shattered and stressed from work. He kept saying he was sorry as you quickly pulled the gown around you and tied the belt before brushing past him and on up the stairs. You paused at the top and looked back in case he’d run after you and was there looking up with sorrowful eyes. But he wasn’t.
It was then, as you sat on the bed, hugging your knees, that you first wondered whether it was Bev that Will was seeing. She was the one who put you up to this after all. Would they laugh at this together?
You dipped your head further. You couldn’t keep thinking like this, you told yourself. You had no evidence. You were making yourself ill.
After the main course, Julian clears the plates away and when you rise to help him, he tells you to sit down and have some more wine. You pour yourself a glass, take a sip, but then excuse yourself and head for the bathroom upstairs.
In the mirror, you try to do something with your hair but it won’t join in. Earlier, Julian said how nice you looked. You don’t feel it but you enjoyed the compliment, like the hit from a drag on a cigarette. You could do with one now but after a year giving up, it would be stupid to go back to it. And all those arguments with Will about the smell.
You’re about to open the door, your hand resting on the handle, when you hear Pink Floyd drifting up from downstairs. Wish You Were Here, isn’t it? You sit back on the toilet, hunched forward a little, holding yourself, and listen to the guitar’s hypnotic crying swirl around you. You and Will used to listen to this album continually in the early days, when you couldn’t get enough of one another. He used to call you his crazy diamond. You loved that. You remember his soft lips, the way he used to stroke your hair, and clear away stray strands from your eyes.
He would take his time then, like a delicious meal that he wanted to last forever, lingering to ensure that he made you happy. You would often go on top, and be lost in the moment as you led the dance. The rhythm was all yours for a while.
Yes, you remember that. Your stomach feels light, and you smile.
There are footsteps coming up the stairs. They stop and you hear Julian calling out, ‘Anita? You OK?’
You stand up and instinctively flush the toilet. ‘Coming!’ you call back.
Your face feels hot and you splash water on your cheeks and dry them on the hand towel.
‘There she is,’ says Julian as you enter the kitchen. ‘We thought we’d lost you.’
You smile nervously and sit down. It doesn’t seem like you’ve been away that long. You watch Bev sip her wine, and she catches your gaze and smiles.
Julian offers you a fresh glass, but Will interrupts saying, ‘She’s driving.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ you say. ‘I’m sure I didn’t drink all of the other one.’
Will looks annoyed as you take a sip of the wine Julian has poured.
It tastes wonderful, and you have more. Soon the glass is empty and you hold it out for Julian to fill, which he does and twists the bottle at the end like a waiter. You take another large sip and it’s half empty again. You sway in your seat to the music.
‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough,’ Will says. You look at him, at his slightly offset image, like a 3-D film without the glasses. ‘You’re meant to be driving. That’s what we agreed. You were driving so I could have a drink.’ His voice is hard.
He reaches out for your glass but you’re too quick for him. ‘I’m enjoying this.’
You take another sip and realise that the second part of Shine on You Crazy Diamond is playing. You hold Will’s gaze as you wonder whether he even remembers the name he used to call you.
You finish your drink and Julian pours you more.
‘Christ,’ says Will, his arms across his chest now.
You look at Bev opposite. She shifts uneasily in her seat, her eyes darting between you and Will. He doesn’t return the glance and instead focuses on a point beyond you.
You slowly pick up your glass. It feels beautifully cool in your fingers. Pearls of moisture sit on the sides; the occasional one slips down, leaving a thin trace, like silk stockings along a smooth leg.
You reach for the bottle on the table, and Will grabs it at the same time. You’re both holding it now: you by its body, he by its neck. His knuckles are white. There’s a pause when no one moves or speaks, a silence in which you are both refusing to be the first to let go.
‘Come on, Will,’ says Julian with a half-hearted laugh. ‘There’s only a tiny bit left. Let her finish it.’ You stay focussed on the bottle. ‘You can always get a taxi home.’
You raise your eyes to Will, and through your wine haze, you smile, and feel his grip loosen.
James Wall’s writing has been published in the Best British Short Stories 2013 anthology, Tears in the Fence, Unthology 6, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, The Nottingham Review, Prole, The View from Here, Long Story, Short Journal, and in Matter Magazine. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2010, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University.