The Hook

The Hook

He noticed her right away. There were quite a few people in the hotel restaurant but she caught his eye; a lone blonde, in her late forties perhaps, but well preserved. Gerald looked at her again. Was that a half-smile? She crossed her legs. His eyes followed the movement, noting how her calves curved down to slender ankles and high-heeled red shoes. Something, that blasted something, stirred. Not here, he thought, not with Maggie around. He looked across at his wife of twenty odd years who sat quietly preoccupied with one of her puzzle magazines. Maggie would never wear red shoes or paint her lips, and she would never know what was going on in his head, such as his fantasy about taking the blonde back to their room. He smiled wryly, soft bugger, hadn’t he resolved after Angela ‘never again’. How quickly his resolve was weakening. Poor, silly Angela, the blank eyes, the soft swollen triangle between her closed thighs. She was blonde. It was always blondes with him. Strange that he’d married a brunette. He looked at his wife again. Not as brunette as she had been, the odd silver streak here and there. She was saying something.
‘This pen’s dried up. Have you got one with you?’
‘In my jacket, I think.’
He felt in the pockets of his jacket hanging on the chair behind him. As his fingers touched the pen the blonde walked by their table, a hint of musky perfume in her wake.
‘No. Thought I had. I’ll just pop back to our room and get one. Order some coffee, will you?’
He paused in the hotel lobby as the blonde went towards the lift and pressed the button. His pulse quickened. He hadn’t intended this but he couldn’t stop now.

A woman with two squabbling children joined the blonde as the lift door opened and he slipped in behind them. He was close to her now, so close he could see the down at the base of her neck beneath her upswept hair. Without hesitation, he followed when she got out on the second floor. She had murmured ‘thank you’ in a voice as soft as melted butter as he stood aside. He followed for a few steps then, watching, paused to tie an imaginary loose shoe lace. Near the end of the corridor she paused and he saw her entering a room. The door closed quietly. Gerald stood up and walked by noting the number, 59, then ran down a flight of stairs.
The coffee had just been served when he returned to Maggie. She took the pen without looking up.
‘Thanks, dear. Pour me a coffee.’
He was calmer now. At this moment he would choose a world populated by women like Maggie; women who didn’t wear red shoes or silently taunt men. But even as he thought this he knew it wasn’t enough. His hand closed round the gold anklet in his pocket and he saw the face of Evie Tyler, blonde hair fanned across a pillow.

Maggie had planned the weekend. He saw no reason to demur. Weekends away, holidays, meant little to him. Unlike her, who enjoyed them, he had little desire to ‘go away’ as soon as days lengthened and temperatures rose. He preferred the familiarity of his city, and the towns and cities his job took him to, with their river banks, markets and alleyways to any so-called beauty spots or touristy places.

Sometimes he wondered how many more stately homes and gardens, such as the one they had just returned from visiting, awaited him. He had walked along on the guided tour of the gardens half-registering the sotto voce murmurings of delight from the others in the group over this shrub or that flower. His mind had been elsewhere. He liked to plan these things carefully.That was a part of what the satisfaction derived from. He had acted on impulse only once when, lowering his standards, he picked up Angela from under a bridge near Manchester’s Piccadilly Station. Not a wise move. One of the other girls had been nearby, might even have seen him. He was lucky to get away with that. No more, he had told himself, no more. Now here he was making plans, but this blonde was from another league, one he was used to. Maggie interrupted his thoughts.

‘Wasn’t that giant thistle magnificent? I’ve got a few seeds here. I’m going to try and grow one.’
‘Have we got space for any more plants?’ he said. ‘Every time I look something new seems to have popped up.’
They walked towards the restaurant as she carefully wrapped the seeds in a tissue. ‘I can always find room for one more.’
Lunch was followed by a tour of the house. Pausing in front of a painting he had gazed at a golden haired, Rubenesque woman, head thrown back, as a swarthy man bent over her.
One woman commented, ‘They liked well covered women then. None of this size zero nonsense.’
Someone else murmured agreement.
The guide continued with his explanation of what the painting depicted. Gerald looked at the plump, yielding flesh and hoped that the blonde was still at the hotel.She was more his type than this flabby woman. In between jotting down notes on the painting, Maggie was in deep conversation with a sturdier, younger woman. Perhaps she was another amateur artist. Painting was Maggie’s interest, or mid-life crisis as he termed it. She had even joined a course to improve her technique. He could think of a subject he’d like her to paint. He diverted himself with similar thoughts until the tour ended and they returned to the hotel.

Nearly 6.30. Gerald looked round the foyer scanning faces and the backs of heads. No sign. He had left Maggie in their first floor room showering and changing
for dinner.
‘What’s on the schedule for tomorrow? He had asked as she hummed and hawed over what to wear that evening.
‘There’s several places we could go,’ she said, ‘depending on the weather. Museums, castles, gardens, the usual sorts of things, and we’re not too far from the sea.’
Choking back cultural indigestion he feigned interest. ‘Hotels usually have leaflets of nearby places of interest. I’ll pop down and have a look.’
‘We could check when we go to dinner,’ she said, shaking out the skirt of a blue dress. ‘But if you want to …..’
‘Might as well do it now, while you’re showering.’
He flicked through the fistful of leaflets he’d gathered, looking at the mundane world around him, hoping to see her. Only those blondes had relieved the ennui of life, each day seeming like the one before or the one that followed. Hadn’t some poet, said, where can we live but days? As he was wondering if it was Larkin the day came alive again, delicately perfumed and golden haired. She was standing a few feet away, reading the evening menu displayed near the entrance to the restaurant. An elderly woman with a walking stick was talking to her. He caught snatches of their conversation. Evidently the older woman had left her glasses in her room and the blonde was reading some of the menu to her. He moved closer, so close, that he could almost count the honey coloured freckles on her exposed shoulders, sense her warmth. She turned to go.
‘Thank you, Stella,’ said the older woman.
Stella. He played with the name in his mind. Did she half smile at him as she walked away? He wanted to follow her, to enter room 59, instead he returned to his room and to Maggie. No more reckless moves, he told himself, enjoy the pleasure of anticipation.

‘Thought you’d got lost,’ she said as she walked from the bathroom in bra and knickers.
‘Got sidetracked looking at tonight’s menu. What happened to the blue dress?’
‘You know what we women are like. I changed my mind.’ She took a flower patterned dress from its hanger and eased it over her head.
He glanced at her body, still shapely and quite firm, but it did not arouse him. He looked on her as on those paintings earlier in the day and now, as then, felt little. Affection, yes, but not the fire he felt when he was near the blonde. Stella, he played with the name in his mind. Stella, star, a heavenly body, a fixed luminous point in the night.
Maggie held out a necklace. ‘Hurry up and have a shower, dear, and can you fasten this for me?’
He took the heavy beaded necklace and placed it around her neck, fastening the clasp. As he did so, the thought of pulling it tight around her throat flashed through his mind, as it did from time to time, and as quickly passed. He could never do that. What if we could all read one another’s minds, he thought, as he selected a shirt. He looked along the shelf, sometimes a tie was de rigeur. He found a suitable one and put it in a jacket pocket. He turned the shower on. How could he get into Stella’s room? It was unlikely she would invite him in, so how could he do it? He probably only had a day or two, most people seemed to leave after the weekend, and he had the added problem of Maggie being around. On those other occasions he had been on his own, working, using an hotel as a base. Perhaps it was too risky this time, too many complications.

Stella, his Stella, as he now thought of her, was already seated at a table in the restaurant when they went down. She was wearing a red dress and what he assumed to be patent black shoes decorated with a red bow. Her blonde hair was swept up and long gold earrings caught the light. He steered Maggie to a nearby table, one that gave him a good view.
‘What can I get you to drink, sir?’ a waiter asked, interrupting his thoughts.
Gerald gave the wine list a cursory glance. ‘A bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, please.’
There were voices at Stella’s table. As the waiter moved out of his line of vision he saw that the woman with the walking stick was talking to her.
‘No. Please …do join me,’ he heard Stella say, and the other woman sat down partly obscuring his view. He moved his chair slightly but it made little difference. Throughout the meal he had to content himself with glimpses of Stella and snatches of her soft-toned voice.
‘Where were you?’ Maggie said at one point. ‘I just asked you a question, but you were miles away.’
‘Sorry,’ he said, thinking, not miles away, only at a nearby table. ‘Just had one of those vacant moments. What did you say?’
‘Nothing important. I was just wondering if you’d like to go to this zoo tomorrow.’ She passed a leaflet across. ‘It’s years since I went to one. They’re better now, aren’t they?’
‘Yes. According to bits and pieces I’ve read,’ he said, aware now that Stella had risen from her table.
As she passed by he heard a faint clunk. Looking down he saw something bright near a leg of the table. It was a long gold earring: Stella’s. Maggie was still engrossed in the zoo leaflet. He quickly leant down and picked it up. What incredible luck. The perfect excuse to visit room 59 was now safe in his pocket.

He turned the TV off after the late evening news, little of which had registered with him. He had sat quietly for the last hour, outwardly composed but inwardly supercharged, electric, his mind racing. None of this was apparent to Maggie he was sure, nor must it be. The timing, the semblance of normality, were all important, even more so with her around. He was sure she’d follow her usual bedtime routine: a warm drink, half an hour’s reading. He just had to maintain his equilibrium. His fingers grazed the earring in his pocket.
‘I think I’ll make a drink. Do you want one?’ she said, plugging in the kettle.
‘No thanks. Perhaps later.’ He was keeping himself in check now though urgency pounded at his temples so hard he could almost believe it was apparent.
Maggie picked up a book and settled down.
‘I’ve got a bit of a headache,’ he said. ‘It was a bit stuffy in the restaurant. I think I’ll take a walk outside, get a bit of fresh air.’
He half expected her to mention paracetamol or something, but she didn’t. Merely looked up, half smiling, and said, ‘Ok.’

The restaurant was quiet now the guests had departed. Only a couple of staff remained, busily tidying up and preparing the tables for breakfast. In the reception area a few people loitered. He nodded at the sturdy woman from earlier in the day. At the desk some late arrivals were booking in. He walked outside and breathed in a large lungful of the cool evening air. Somewhere out in the inky hush an owl screeched. He thought of Evie and the others. Soon his blonde star would join them. He turned and went back into the hotel.
The corridor leading to room 59 was quiet. He had used the stairs to reach it avoiding the lift and anyone who might be using it. He checked around again then
moved quietly towards the door, his breath short and sharp tearing at his throat, then knocked. For a few seconds nothing then the door opened halfway. She was still wearing the dress but her hair, like a golden aureole, now hung loosely around her neck. His eyes fastened on a strand curling around her throat. He pictured his hands there.
‘Is there something I can do for you?’ she said
He took the earring from his pocket, dangling it in the crack of light from the room. ‘I found this in the restaurant. Thought it was yours.’
The door opened wider and she gazed at the earring. ‘It looks like mine. I’d only this second noticed it was missing.’
The adrenaline rush was levelling out and now he felt that familiar coolness of purpose. The fish was almost on the hook.
She reached out a long-fingered hand. ‘Thank you. That’s kind of you.’ In one movement he grabbed her hand and forced her back into the room as the door closed, covering her mouth with his free hand. Pushing her onto the bed, he reached for the tie in his pocket. Unlike most of the others, Stella was resisting. His excitement increased. He had almost covered her body with his when she gave a powerful twist and her elbow thrust into his diaphragm. Surprised, gasping for breath, he caught hold of her again and, as he did, she brought a knee up into his groin. Through the grip of searing pain he became aware of voices, the crackle of a radio and then, as the door burst open, pandemonium. Instinctively, he tried to rise, to escape, but found himself in the grasp of Stella and the sturdy woman.

There would be no more blondes; only walls, and guards, and keys jangling.
No more Maggie either. She had written to him before the divorce. Told him how she’d come across Evie Tyler’s anklet in his pocket when sorting laundry. Told him of her shock when she saw a picture of the missing anklet on a TV crime programme and then part of a car reg. which matched their own; a car which had been seen near the Manchester station when Angela Paton had disappeared. At first, she said, she had hoped against hope that she was wrong but common sense had told her that it was more than a matter of coincidence, so she had searched through his things and found the other trophies: the engraved bangle, the ruby ring, the art deco locket and the crucifix. The crucifix had upset her most of all. Going to the police was such a big thing but one of her art group, Stella, was a policewoman. There was no need to tell him any more, he knew the rest.
He knew the rest now, Gerald thought, folding the dog-eared letter. He had read it frequently during the past two years but he couldn’t say why, neither did he know why he kept it. He picked up the daily newspaper and turned again to the wedding photos on page 83 where, in the left-hand corner, a smiling Maggie and Stella gazed back at him.


A Happy Accident

A Happy Accident

A dark shape hurtled towards me. I heard someone shouting, running, the crackling of frosted grass, then I hit the ground. The sky, the blue of a china doll’s eyes, gazed quizzically down at me, and a dog’s sandpaper tongue grazed my cheek.

“Scamp! Here!” The voice, nearer now, repeated the words as I pulled myself up on one elbow, groping around for my stick. The dog moved away and the owner of the voice, a young woman with hair the colour of a bright new penny, bent down and helped me to my feet.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Scamp’s usually well behaved, he’s been to obedience classes, but when he sees a duck …” She gestured towards the nearby lake as she bent down again and picked up my battered old stick. “Are you hurt? I’m so sorry,” she repeated.
“No, only my pride,” I smiled, “though I may have the odd bruise.”
“Perhaps you should sit down for a while. There’s a tea room near the park gates, let me buy you a tea or coffee.”

To my surprise I found myself saying ‘yes’. Perhaps it was because something about her reminded me of Carol when we first met; maybe the bright copper hair, or her slightly lopsided smile. Maybe, though I rarely admitted it to myself, because I was lonely.
The café was fairly quiet; probably because it was Monday morning. The girl chose a table near the window so she could keep an eye on Scamp, tied to a post outside, looking somewhat crestfallen.

The steaming mugs of coffee sat between us on the table. As far as I could make out her eyes were green. She blushed under my gaze.
“It’s my turn to say sorry,” I said. “If I was staring it’s because my sight’s deteriorating. Let’s go back to the beginning. What’s the name of Scamp’s owner?”
For a moment she looked bemused, then laughed. “Ashley”, she said.
“Hello Ashley, I’m Andrew,” I replied. “Do you come here often?”
She laughed again. “I bring Scamp here most days, either before I go to work or, sometimes, after I finish.”
“Where do you work?” Her face seemed familiar.
“At the Stanhope Arms, pulling pints and serving food. Not very glamorous. Do you know it?”
“Yes, but I’ve never visited it. I used to pass it most days on my way to work at Woodthorpe Library.”
“You’re a librarian?”
“I used to be. I loved the job – the books, meeting people – but I had to retire when my sight began to deteriorate.”
“Is that why you use a stick?”
I nodded.
“I used to visit the library a lot three or four years ago, researching art history. I think I remember you.”
“And me you.”
We both laughed.
“I’d better go,” she said, “or I’ll be late for work.”
We walked together to the park gates, Scamp pulling ahead on his lead.
“Do you enjoy your job?” I asked as we reached the road.
“More than I thought I would, but I’m only doing it for a year or so then I’m going back to uni.”
“Are you on a gap year?”
“In a way. I’d completed two years of a Design and Craft Degree, things were going fine, then…” she faltered, looked away, “then my dad was killed in a car crash.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, “It must have been a shock.”
“Especially for my mum, she’s been very depressed. She didn’t want me to, but I took a year off uni to be with her.”

I watched them walk away, wishing we could have talked longer, before turning for home, occasionally practising as I went walking with my eyes shut, feeling the way with my stick.

Did I expect to see Ashley and Scamp again? I don’t know, but I hoped to. That brief interlude, apart from the bruises, had made me feel light-hearted, taken me out of myself. I began to walk in the park regularly and a few days later our paths crossed once more. I spotted Scamp first. This time he didn’t bowl me over, but came trotting towards me and greeted me like a long-lost friend, slapping his tail vigorously from side to side. I laid my stick and the flowers I was carrying on a bench and bent to stroke him.
“He never forgets someone he likes,” Ashley said as she joined us. “Pretty flowers, are they for your wife?
I nodded.
“That’s nice. You should bring her to the Stanhope for a meal sometime, her birthday or your anniversary. I’d make sure you got a good table.”
I was surprised to hear myself say, “Probably not. She’s in a care home – dementia.” Surprised because I didn’t talk about it much.
“Oh, that’s sad,” she said.
“She has good and bad days,” I said, trying to appear matter of fact. “The worst are those when she doesn’t know me at all, when I can’t reach her.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, the only noise the hissing of the coffee machine, then she said. “But you still go and see her, whether she knows you or not.”
“She’s still Carol, my wife. When we married I promised to always be there for her, nothing can change that,” I said.
“That’s the right answer,” she said with feeling then jumped up and grabbed Scamp’s lead. “See you soon, Andrew.”
I sat there for a little longer, puzzling over that last remark, the tone of her voice.
Sunday, in particular, when you live alone can be dreary. If the sun shines inviting you outdoors it’s not so bad, although seeing passing couples and families emphasizes your solitude. But on a dreich November day when the grey sky presses down, and rain falls straight as glass rods, my inclination is to draw the curtains and drink one too many measures of single malt. It had been such a day. Before my sight began to deteriorate, I would have jumped into the car and driven to visit Carol. Nowadays I usually went by bus. I looked out again at the remorseless rain, thought of the bus with its steamed up windows and chattering passengers – often with their cell phones glued to their ears – and phoned for a taxi.

In spite of the weather, the prospect of seeing Carol, lifted my spirits, it always did. Illogically, I still hoped that she would improve, that her memory would return and that she’d smile at me with more than a flicker of recognition. I paid the taxi driver and walked down Beech House’s drive, beneath the dripping canopy of ancient trees.
Susan, one of the carers, met me at the door. “Carol’s a bit withdrawn today,” she said. “She didn’t eat much lunch, maybe you can persuade her to have something.”
We both knew it was unlikely, but it had to be said. In the last month I’d noticed Carol’s waning interest in food. Sometimes I’d wondered if she’d forgotten how to eat. I found her sitting in her room beside the window, her face in shadow. Nearby, the flowers I’d brought earlier in the week had begun to droop.
“Hello, dear,” I said, giving her a kiss. “How are you today?”
There was no reply. I knew that I should use her name, rather than a term of endearment. If I did so there was more chance of triggering a response, evidence suggested.
“Carol, I’ve had an interesting few days.” I took her cold hand in mine. I told her about Ashley and Scamp – she’d always liked dogs – then I wittered on about this and that until Susan tapped on the door and came in bringing us cups of tea. I shook my head as she drew near.
“I can’t reach her today,” I said.
In my concern at Carol’s silence, I’d forgotten the rose. Since the first days of our marriage, most months I’d bought her a single long stem rose. I removed the Sonia rose from its cellophane wrap and placed it in her hands. She didn’t speak but became agitated, plucking at her skirt.
“It’s a rose, Carol. You’ve always loved roses,” I said.
A tear spilled down her cheek, followed by more. She looked at the flower, then at me, as if about to speak; searching for words that wouldn’t come. I fished around in my pockets for a tissue and carefully wiped her face.
“No!” she said suddenly, “No! No!”
None of it made sense. I felt like punching the door, anything, to relieve my feelings of impotence.

Ten minutes later I was in a taxi. I knew I wasn’t going home, not for a while. I needed warmth, some form of companionship.
“Stanhope Arms, please,” I said.
I saw Ashley as soon as I walked in. Her usually wild red hair was caught back from her face in a chignon, and she was briskly wiping an empty table. Catching sight of me she smiled.
“You’ve come at a good time,” she said, handing me a menu. “The lunch time rush is over. It will be a bit quieter for the next hour or so.”
I didn’t have much of an appetite but I studied the menu looking for something light. Soup seemed the best option.
“Have you been to see your wife today?” she said when she brought it to my table.
“Yes. It wasn’t one of her better days.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you want to be on your own or may I sit with you? I’m due to start my break.”
Of course there was nothing I wanted more. What did we talk about? Nothing of great significance, but I drew strength from her youth, her vitality.
“Do you work every weekend?” I said as she stood to go.
“No, usually alternate weekends. I was supposed to have gone away with Matt – that’s my boyfriend – this weekend for the first time, but I called it off, offered to work Emma’s shift.”
She went quiet for a moment and I wondered whether to ask her why she had backed out, but I didn’t. She would tell me if she wanted to and besides, young people have so many pressures these days.

It was nearly two weeks before I saw Ashley again: I’d begun to think she was walking Scamp elsewhere. My spirits lifted when I saw her coming towards me by the lake in the park.
“I’ve been away,” she said as I stroked Scamp’s head. “I took Mum on a short break to London. She’d never visited Tate Modern and she used to paint when she was younger. Thought it might encourage her to pick up a brush again.”
“And Matt?”
“That’s a long story,” she sighed.
“I’ve got plenty of time,” I said.
“I sometimes wonder why he’s still around,” she said. “I really like him, think he’s sound, but I thought my dad was.”
“And he wasn’t?”
“No. A few weeks before he died I found out he was having an affair, cheating on Mum. It made me feel sick to the pit of my stomach. I wrestled with whether or not to tell Mum, then he had the car crash. She’ll never know now.”
She looked away, but I had seen a tear slip down her face.
“I’m sorry,” I said, putting my hand over hers. “That was a lot to deal with, but I think you made the right decision.”
“But now I find it hard to trust any man, even Matt.”
I smiled. “I’m a man. You took me into your confidence.”
“But you’re different. You’ve stuck by your wife.”
“Is that what you meant the other week when you said saying I’d always be there for Carol was the right answer.”
She nodded.
“I’m not exceptional; there are lots of men like me. It’s not always easy, but in life we have to trust, to take chances.”
We sat in silence for a while, occasionally throwing Scamp his ball, watching him run back with it.
“I know you’re right,” she said at last. She fastened Scamp’s lead and passed me my stick. “That’s a bit tatty,” she said. “Perhaps I’ll buy you a nice jazzy one for Christmas.”
“Tell Matt I said hello”, I said.
“Will do. Drop into the Stanhope Sunday,” she called “After you’ve visited your wife.”

I watched her go, stepping lightly through the carpet of leaves.
I checked my watch. If I hurried I’d make the 1.25 bus. Today I felt would be a good day. I’d walk Carol outside so she could feel the sun on her face, and she would smile knowing, if only for an instant, that it was me she smiled at.

Separate Ways

Separate Ways

I closed the door, listening as he walked away. A few moments ago I had been in Josh’s arms, being kissed by a man who was not my husband. The kiss was assured and I’d felt a flicker of warmth in the pit of my stomach as I pulled back steadying my breathing. Was this how things had started for Russell?

Had I enjoyed my first illicit kiss? It was something I’d wanted to happen, something I knew would happen since I first met Josh two days before. Being with him, talking with him had brought a splash of colour to my day-to-day existence.

I hadn’t really wanted to go to the conference. My world had been permanently grey for weeks. Normally, working with the children I felt inspired, but now each day sapped my energy, my creativity. The last thing I wanted to be involved in was a special needs teachers’ conference, with workshops and everything else that it entailed.

‘Oh you must come, Carrie,’ my colleague Rachel from a neighbouring school had said on the phone a few weeks before. ‘We always have a laugh when we get together.’
And we always did, but the day before we were due to leave Rachel was struck down with flu. I thought of withdrawing myself then decided a few days away from Russell might be what I needed.

I’d not been, as they say, looking for anyone, but I’d met Josh during one of the first workshops when we’d been paired up. I couldn’t help but notice how attractive he was. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was a George Clooney look alike, but he was certainly out of that mould, though with slightly less hair. I was glad that in spite of being married eight years I hadn’t lost the art of flirting.

‘Nice to meet you, Carrie’. His voice was warm, clear, cultured. I looked up into dark brown eyes that smiled into mine. ‘He glanced at the task we’d been given. ‘I may not come up with the correct answer, I’m a behaviourist not a teacher, but let’s have a go.’

The weekend had flown by and tonight was the last night before we all went our separate ways. I was glad now that at the last minute I’d thrown my Karen Millen dress in the case before I left home. I’d snapped it up in the summer sale planning to wow Russell when we went for our customary anniversary dinner, a dinner that never took place after I found the hotel receipt in the jacket he’d asked me to take to the cleaners. He didn’t attempt to deny anything when I’d confronted him. He said that it didn’t mean anything, that he’d had a moment of weakness, that our marriage was worth saving. I hoped it was. It wasn’t perfect – what is – but should I throw eight years away? But Russell travelled quite a lot in his job, how could I be sure this was an isolated incident.

I checked myself once more in the full length mirror and walked out. Josh was waiting at the top of the stairs. He was well-dressed, self-assured but with no trace of arrogance. He smiled as I approached and I felt my heart thudding. Was he to be my moment of weakness. ‘ ‘You look lovely,’ he said as we walked down the stairs. Beautiful in blue. There’s a free table over there Do you want to grab it while I get us
something from the bar?’

I Iooked around the room glad the table was in a more secluded section, I wanted Josh to myself in the few hours that remained before I returned to the real world. I watched him wend his way through the crowded room, drinks in hand, smiling at me.

‘It’s fairly quite at the moment, but once the band starts up it’ll be more difficult to talk,’ he said leaning towards me. ‘I’ve just realised we’ve talked about many things but …’
‘I’m married,’ I suddenly heard myself saying. I’d removed my wedding ring when I’d arrived but I wanted to be honest with Josh.

He took one of my hands, gazing into my eyes. ‘Happily married?’
‘We have our problems.’
‘I’m long divorced,’ he said ‘no children, just Ben, one boisterous Border Collie cross.’
The band was playing now but we were far enough away for it not to interfere with conversation. The evening whisked by. We talked and were easy with each other, exchanging details of our lives. The more we talked the more I liked him. I could imagine breaking my wedding vows with Josh, not to get even with Russell, in a way he no longer mattered and I realised I’d never really forgiven him.

‘It’s the last dance; would you like to?’ Josh asked taking my hand.
The lights had lowered as Make You Feel My Love wafted round the half empty room. I fitted the curve of his arm perfectly and enjoyed the proximity, the warmth, the subtle smell of his cologne. It was almost like being in my twenties again, carried along by the music, wondering what might happen afterwards.
‘I’ll walk you to your room,’ he said as the music faded away.

As we walked along I was almost holding my breath. Was this the moment? Should I invite him into my room? Taking my key he opened the door and we looked at each other without speaking. And that was the moment when he kissed me.

‘I’d ask you in,’ I said, ‘but I don’t want a one-night stand, something tacky.
He held my hand. ‘Does that mean we’re going to see more of each other, that you might meet Ben?’ Then he bent his head and kissed my cheek.

I nodded, thinking of the decision I’d reached. Thinking of how I was going to tell Russell I wanted to end our marriage.

A Dutiful Wife

A Dutiful Wife

January’s a downer. I guess if you make New Year resolutions they give it a focal point. I
don’t, so it’s just same shit, different year. For instance, I can predict the scene each
morning when I get up: Martin drinking tea, engrossed in some supplement or other, the
cat unfed, the kettle nearly empty.
‘You might have refilled the kettle.’
‘Sorry. I forgot,’ he says, glancing up.
That’s all I usually get these days, a glance.
I gazed out at the slate grey January morning as the kettle raced to boiling point. When
had Martin gone off the boil? We’d stopped sharing a bed several years ago; he said he
was a restless sleeper. Our love life had been pedestrian before that, now it was
non-existent and not open to discussion. All I know is I haven’t let myself go and I’m sure he hasn’t got another woman. Apart from going to work, which is a ten minute journey from here, he only ventures out to visit DIY stores and suchlike. When he’s at home he can
usually be found in his shed, though his stomach always tells him when its mealtimes. A
creature of habit. My friend Julie said he might seem dull but he’s dutiful, unlike her ex.
‘Are you doing the weekly shop as usual today?’ Martin said, as I joined him at the

Those last three words echo in my mind. It’s Thursday, it’s expected as I don’t work
Thursdays I will do the weekly shopping. Spontaneity is being excised from my life. I’m
on the verge of saying, ‘No. I’m going out to drink, dance and flirt with unsuitable men,’
but the rebellion is smaller.
‘I’ve a few things to do here today. I’ll go tomorrow.’
‘Ok,’ he said, and planted a perfunctory kiss on my cheek. ‘I’ll see you later.’
Fantasizing about being kissed properly, I began to clear the table. Perhaps I would go
shopping ; there were no urgent jobs to attend to at home. I picked up the supplement
Martin had been reading. Glancing at the contents, one heading caught my eye, Love
Online: Jane, Sandra and Polly Speak. I found the page and quickly read these women’s
stories. They were not what my mother would call flibbertigibbets, but women with jobs and lives similar to mine. On impulse, I ran upstairs and turned on my computer. My fingers hovered over the keys. From the wall above, the photos of our two girls, Hannah and Lauren, in their graduation gowns smiled down on me. For so long they’d been the focus of my life, my loving duty, that I’d hardly noticed the years passing, but my fiftieth was looming and I wanted, in the words of a pop song, ‘horses to stamp on my floor’ before it was too late. It wouldn’t do any harm to look at the site.

It was easy registering with Love Online and for once sex discrimination worked in my
favour, it was free for women. I stretched the truth a little by knocking five years off my
age then, surprised at my own daring, I phoned my closest friend, Maggie. There was a split second silence and I prayed she didn’t disapprove.
‘You understand, don’t you?’ I said.
‘Yes, of course, you just caught me unawares. But, Debbie, please be careful. You
know, Martin and all that. Keep it away from home if you meet anyone.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘though I don’t think Martin would notice if I walked around naked.
As for anyone, I’m looking for a George Clooney lookalike.’
‘You wish. You’re not using your real name, are you?’
‘No. I’m calling myself Crazy Lady.’
She laughed. ‘If you meet anyone, make it a lunchtime date.’
Shortly after, wandering round the aisles of the supermarket, I wondered if anyone
would make contact. I contemplated the soup selection. If they did, would I have the
nerve to meet them? I threw a couple of cans of soup in the trolley and made my way to the
checkout.Exercising a great deal of self-control, I resisted the urge to go online for a couple of days. The perfect opportunity came after Sunday lunch.

‘The shed needs a sort out,’ Martin said, pulling on his boots. ‘I’ll be an hour or two.’
Lured on by the fantasy of what might await me, I logged on. I stared at the screen in
amazement; nine men had left messages and two more had ‘winked’ at me. I quickly logged off and ran a bath. I find lying in the scented steam of a warm bath a good place to think, and I was thinking of David, my first love, the man whose face I still carried in my heart. Those heady days: the kisses, the love-notes, the bracelet engraved To My Crazy Lady and the inevitability of its ending.
The last time he’d held me he said, ‘You know how I feel about you, but I have
obligations to Sue and the children. I’m torn.’
The next day I made the decision for us both; I vanished from his life.

The water was cooling. I’d always been a good wife, conformed, perhaps I should
delete everything. I wrapped myself in my bathrobe and ‘phoned Maggie.
‘It’d be a miracle if you found, David,’ she said.
‘I know, and he might be pot-bellied and bald, but I can’t help hoping.’
The next morning was the same old same old. I waited to hear the door close as
Martin left for work and ran upstairs. There were nineteen messages, most of them
unremarkable. ‘I’m looking for affection…’ and so on, but one was witty and caught my
attention. My heart racing like a sixteen year old’s, I began to tap out an answer. Hearing a
slight noise, I swung round. Martin was standing in the doorway.
‘What are you doing with that hammer?’ I asked.

An Egg

An Egg

We both wanted the double yolked egg but, of course, my mother gave it to my brother. He was a handsome child with wavy blonde hair and blue eyes and, though inquisitive and naughty, in my parents’ eyes, unlike me, he could do no wrong. One of his favourite pranks was hiding, sometimes for hours, causing them to fear he’d been abducted. Then, all innocence, he’d reappear, revelling in their relief.

Being a girl, the menial chores fell to me. The one I most loathed was taking our washing to the local laundry. The metallic clanking of the machines hurt my ears. Clouds of foul smelling steam billowed out, stinging my eyes, making me cough. Sometimes a toothless crone emerged, blinking, and grabbed the laundry bag.

My tales of the laundry enthralled my brother; I knew they would. He begged to be allowed to accompany me. At first my mother said, ‘No’, but she could refuse him little. One November morning she bundled him up in his coat and scarf and handed me the washing.
‘I expect you to take good care of him,’ she said, as we set off under a sombre sky.

I tried, I really did, but he slipped away into the bowels of the laundry, lured by its sounds and smells.

‘Count to ten,’ he called.

I’d reached one hundred when I heard the machines groan and grind to a halt. I picked up the shoe that rolled under a screen and began the walk home.


Nighthawks – The Woman’s Tale

Nighthawks – The Woman’s Tale

The view from the hotel window was breathtaking. I feed my eyes on it like someone whose sight has just been restored, savouring every detail. It’s June, Nancy, and the trees of Central Park are in full leaf, leaves of every conceivable shade of green. People, mostly couples, appear then as quickly disappear, swallowed up in another cluster of trees. I hope none of them will be separated by war as Joe and I were. My aching legs tell me I’ve left it a bit late, but I had to come here, for a day or two, to be near him. This is the same room where we spent our brief honeymoon, where we made love together for the very first time.

‘Come here Mrs Geraghty,’ he said, sweeping me up in his arms and carrying me over the threshold.
‘Mrs Anna Geraghty,’ I said, relishing the taste of my new name.
He kissed my hand. The slim gold band glinted in the light.
‘Do you know why a wedding ring’s worn on that finger?’
I shook my head.
‘Because a vein in that finger runs straight to the heart.’
I didn’t know if that was true, still don’t, but I liked the sound of it.
Still holding my hand he drew me over to the window.
‘I booked a room with a view. Come and get an eyeful of this before it gets dark.’
The view was as breathtaking then as it is now. Fall was approaching and flashes of red and yellow were visible in the vast green canopy.
‘It’s lovely,’ I murmured.
‘And so are you,’ he said, holding me close.
I could have stood there like that for hours, Nancy, I always felt safe in his arms.
He was still asleep when I awoke the next morning. I pulled on a wrap and tiptoed across to the window. It was a bright day and the sun shone through the window warming my bare feet. I didn’t know Joe had got out of bed until he spoke.
‘Close your eyes and don’t turn around until I tell you.’
I felt his hands around my neck, something cool against my skin.
‘You can look now.’
I opened my eyes. Joe was holding a mirror in front of me. I was wearing a string of milky pearls.
For a moment I was speechless.
‘Do you like them? They were my mother’s’.
‘I love them. No one’s ever given me anything so beautiful before.’
‘They were mom’s favourites. If she’s up there watching, I’m sure she’s smiling now.’

We only had five nights together before Joe had to join his ship, the Arizona, in Hawaii. On our last night we went to a small club and danced. I wore my red dress – Joe’s favourite – and the pearls. The last dance was Artie Shaw’s Stardust, one of our special tunes. I wanted to hold on to Joe, never let him go. There was war in Europe and rumours that we might become involved. He laughed them off saying things would be fine.

We didn’t talk much as we packed the next morning, though we were full of words.
‘I’ll write you often,’ he said. ‘By Christmas, maybe New Year, I’ll be back.’
‘I’ll try and fix the apartment, make it cosy,’ I said.
‘Don’t leave until I’m gone,’ he said. ‘I want to remember you in this room, standing near the window.’

Somehow I filled the days. We were renting a small apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After work, in the evenings, I made drapes and cushions, polished furniture, painted walls. Weekends were more difficult. My folks were miles away, just outside Minneapolis.
Sometimes I’d get together with a girlfriend and we’d go to a movie, but mostly I’d write long letters to Joe. His to me were the high point of each week, especially the one saying he thought he’d be home for Christmas. I spent the following evening writing Christmas cards. It gave me a buzz seeing our names laid side by side.

When I got up the next morning, I didn’t feel too good. I put it down to excitement at the prospect of being with Joe again. However, as soon as I reached work I had to rush to the washroom, overcome with nausea.
Martha Coben was coming out of a cubicle as I wiped my mouth.
‘You pregnant, Anna?’
I looked up from the basin, dumbstruck.
‘I was like that for months when I was carrying Frank.’
The denial I was about to utter died in my throat. Perhaps I was pregnant. I’d been feeling sort of different in ways I couldn’t explain for a couple of weeks.
‘Here. Have a mint,’ Martha said, passing a pack to me. ‘I used to find they helped.’
I made an appointment with a doctor on Fulton Street, and the following week tests confirmed I was pregnant.
‘You’ll be pleased to know you’re going to have a baby,’ he said, extending a large, pink hand to clasp mine.
But I wasn’t instantly happy; so many questions were racing through my mind. How would we fit a baby into our small apartment? Would I be able to keep my job? How would Joe feel?
‘He’ll be delighted,’ my mom said when I phoned. ’Write him tonight.’
‘But we never discussed babies,’ I said.
‘It’ll be fine; you’ll see. He’ll be delighted.’
She was right, Nancy. His letter said he was ‘over the moon’, and from that moment so was I.
I kept quiet about my condition at work. Martha smiled knowingly when some mornings I made frequent trips to the washroom, but she said nothing.

December 1941 arrived. I outlined the day of Joe’s homecoming, the 23rd, in red. I was so excited I could hardly wait. I posted the cards that first week and on the Friday, coming home from work, I picked up a Christmas tree. It filled a corner of the apartment, and I spent much of the weekend decorating it with trinkets and tinsel. I stood back to check it breathing in the smell of pine; all that was missing was a crowning star.
Martha rushed up to me when I arrived at work on Monday.
‘Have you heard the news, Anna?’
Her eyes were large in her pale face. She pushed a newspaper towards me.
US Declares War, Pacific Battle Widens.
I felt the paper shaking in my hands.
‘The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour,’ she said. ‘Your Joe’s there, isn’t he? I’m frightened Frank will be drafted.’
My eyes were fixed on the phrase: 1,500 Dead in Hawaii.
Joe couldn’t be one of those. I loved him too much; nothing could happen to him.
I bought a star on the way home, but didn’t buy my usual newspaper. Reading the bad stuff would only make it real. A letter from Joe was waiting when I got home. I read it over and over; each word was a reassurance.

The telegram arrived the next day. I was leaning up to fix the star on top of the tree when the doorbell rang. When I saw the Western Union boy I knew Joe wasn’t coming back. I wanted to run after the boy, push the telegram into his hands, tell him he’d made a mistake, it wasn’t for me.
I don’t think I slept that night. I remember curling up on the bed, hugging one of Joe’s jerseys, burying my damp face in his smell. I watched dawn shoulder its way through a gap in the drapes, spilling itself like sour milk on the floor. I slept then, waking mid-afternoon convinced there’d been a mistake, that Joe was still alive. I put on coffee and checked the mail. There was one item. I seized it and kissed the broad, strong handwriting. Joe wasn’t dead, here was the proof. I read the letter repeatedly, every loving, upbeat phrase. It was still in my hand when Martha arrived.
‘Are you all right, Anna? I didn’t expect you at work, but I haven’t heard from you. I was worried.’
I told her about the telegram then held out Joe’s letter.
‘He’s written to me. They’ve got it wrong, must have muddled him up with some other guy.’
She glanced at it then hugged me. ‘I’m sorry, Anna, look, 6 December. It was written the day before the attack.’

The next few weeks are largely a blur. I began drinking to get me through the evenings. I knew I should stop, Nancy, but it helped deaden the pain. One night I found myself sitting near two guys in a diner. I was wearing Joe’s favourite dress, the red one. The guy nearest to me moved closer, began a conversation. I don’t remember much – I’d had several shots of bourbon back at the apartment – except that he said he was up from Cincinnati. Somehow I found myself walking with him back to his hotel room. I shouldn’t have done but I let him put an arm around me, whisper in my ear that I was foxy. I guess in my alcoholic state I was trying to pretend it was Joe. It didn’t work. When he put his hands round my neck to raise my face to his I felt the pearls rub against his fingers, Joe’s pearls. I grabbed my purse and hightailed it, hearing him cursing me, calling me crazy. Maybe I was. Out on the sidewalk I sat on a bench and wept properly for the first time. I was emptied out, or so I thought until, Nancy, back in the apartment I felt you move for the first time. That kick brought me back to earth. I got out of bed and poured the bourbon away.

In a week or two you’ll be born. One day I’ll bring you back here where you were conceived and tell you our story yet again. By then you may have heard it so many times you’ll beg me to stop. I won’t mind, I’ll probably laugh, but I hope you’ll love the view. Look! There’s a pair of blue jays with their young in that nearby tree.