Gilbert and Rhoda’s two horses grazed peacefully at the far end of the paddock. An electric fence protected the whips of hawthorn, damson, dog rose and briar that would grow into a hedge.
“Just this last jump to move into the corner with the others and then we can start to plant the fruit trees.”
Gilbert took a firm grip of one end of the structure; Rhoda took the other. “And…lift!” she called. Together they carried it easily to the hedge and put it down.
“I wish things had worked out as we planned,” said Gilbert. Rhoda took his hand and squeezed it. They both gazed at the low jumps.
“Those are the past, dear. The orchard is the future.” Although Rhoda spoke positively, she thought, ‘Maybe – maybe by relinquishing my dream I’ll make it come true.’ But she knew it wouldn’t.
Gilbert dug holes, Rhoda spread the tree roots, and Gilbert filled the holes with a mixture of soil and compost. Rhoda staked each tree carefully and watered it. They planted twelve trees, six apple trees, two cherry trees, two pear trees and two plum trees. The meadow would become an orchard and they would tend it together. It would bear fruit for them.
They stood side by side in the late afternoon sunshine, and looked at their handiwork. The new trees were well spaced, leaving them plenty of room to grow. Gilbert and Rhoda hoped to see them flourish and mature. Gilbert held Rhoda close. He kissed her tenderly on the mouth. Very gently she pushed him away. “We’d better go in,” she said. “I need to cook dinner, and you need to clean up ready for choir practice.” As they walked towards the house she slipped her hand into his.
“If the miracle happens, we can put the jumps up again,” said Gilbert.
Great Pinnerton Choral Society was a good choir, and Gilbert sang tenor with them. He was also the Secretary. His fair hair, blue eyes and athletic build had the more susceptible of the sopranos sighing over him; they knew he was safely unobtainable. Gilbert and Rhoda were a by-word for loving fidelity.
The choir was halfway through the vocal warm-up exercises when the door opened, and a man in a leather jacket entered. He made an apologetic gesture to the Musical Director, and stayed where he was until the vocal exercises were finished.
“Have you come to join us?”
The man nodded. “If you’ll have me. I’m a bass.”
“Excellent. I’ll give you a short audition in the break. Would you like to sit next to Eric in the back row?”
Eric waved a welcome. Mavis, the society’s librarian, bustled round with a score. “You can borrow this for now, but please come and see me during the interval,” she instructed.
The new arrival, dark-haired, tall and muscular, grinned at everybody. His teeth gleamed very white in his sun-tanned face. “Thanks for the welcome, folks. My name’s Brendan. I’ll hope to meet some of you later.”
Violet, the oldest soprano, nudged her neighbour and giggled sotto voce. Gilbert glanced up at Brendan as he squeezed past to reach his seat. There was an energy about the man that was simultaneously unsettling and attractive. Brendan caught his eye, patted him on the shoulder.
“Sorry for barging through.”
During the interval Gilbert went to greet Brendan; as Secretary he needed to record contact details. And, although he usually went straight home after the practice, this time he invited Brendan to join him for a beer in the Cutlers Arms.
As they started their second pints, Brendan pulled out his mobile.
“Let me show you something,” he said.
It was a video clip, an aerial view that plunged vertiginously to trees a hundred feet below. The camcorder panned through one-eighty degrees and showed a limestone cliff a mere twenty feet away, which stretched up another hundred feet above the camera.
“I shot this video in a microlight in Cheddar Gorge,” said Brendan. “You sound like an active chap, Gilbert. Have you ever flown a microlight?”
Gilbert shook his head, and laughed. “The highest I ever go above ground is when I’m hacking cross-country.”
“Ah! Hunting, shooting and fishing, eh?”
“No, just riding for pleasure. I’ve never felt the urge to kill things”
“Have you got the bottle for flying, do you think?”
“I’m not sure I can be bothered to find out.”
“Well, if you fancy giving it a try, I shall be in Kemble on Saturday. I’m a qualified instructor. I’ll take you up in tandem if you like. Give me a call; here’s my card. And now, I’d better be off. Two pints is more than enough. I’m on the bike tonight.”
He covered Gilbert’s hand briefly with his own. It was warm, dry, and calloused. “I hope I’ll hear from you.” The words were soft, almost a caress, and then Brendan was gone. Gilbert sat looking at his hand for fully twenty seconds, hearing again Brendan’s parting words, feeling again that odd, intimate, touch. Then he shook his head. He, too, should be on his way.
Come Saturday he was in Kemble, wearing both sweater and cagoul; Brendan had instructed him to come warmly dressed. He listened attentively to the induction talk, and then helped Brendan wheel the two man aircraft from the hangar onto the grass runway.
“Listen,” said Brendan. “This is important. For this first flight you are a passenger. All you must do is sit still; I’ll do everything necessary for the flight. You don’t need to try to move with me; that will only make controlling the craft more difficult. Just keep still, right?”
Gilbert nodded. “No problem.”
It was a glorious April morning, the cloudless blue sky scarred only by the contrails of airliners passing far overhead. The grass, short and even, glowed in the clear light. Brendan started the engine, which throbbed directly behind Gilbert. He felt the warmth of the sun on his shoulders, the slight cool breeze on his hands. The engine note rose in pitch and the craft began to move.
It reminded Gilbert of the first time he’d ridden a motorcycle, that sense of precarious balance, the speed of the ground passing beneath, simultaneously fast and slow. He looked up, ahead, past Brendan’s helmet. The speed was only about thirty miles an hour. And then the horizon dropped gently away and they were airborne.
They climbed slowly, in great circles. The rim of the world expanded. Gilbert saw a pigeon fly beneath them, flapping industriously from one rooftop to the next to join her mate. The wind was stronger and colder, and the fabric airfoil occasionally chattered slightly. The light of the sun perfused everything, dazzling when straight ahead, glinting off every reflective surface. Gilbert closed his eyes. He listened. He breathed the chill air. He felt. He lived.
When he opened his eyes again, he was surprised at their altitude. Cars on the motorway passed like coloured beads sliding on a thread. But even as he watched them, he realized that Brendan was taking their craft down. The engine note was quieter and less insistent. They were returning to the mundane world, with its problems and its grief. Gilbert wished that Brendan would climb again, take them ever higher until they reached the edge of the finite, the beginning of eternity.
Down they went, and now the aircraft was racing towards the runway. Fifteen feet, ten feet, they were over the grass, the wheels were spinning, five feet, a slight bump, and they were on the ground, with Brendan taxiing towards the hangar.
They stopped, dismounted. Brendan looked at Gilbert. The corners of his mouth quirked up. “Good, eh?”
Gilbert nodded. “Stunning.”
“Same time next week?”
“I’ll call you. Thank you.”
Gilbert sat in his car, motionless, his mind filled with the bigness of the sky and the closeness of Brendan. He had wanted to touch him, wanted to hold him as they flew. ‘I love Rhoda,’ he thought. ‘That’s what love is, the feelings I have for her. I can’t love Brendan.’ And once the thought had been articulated, he couldn’t rid himself of it.
Eventually he drove home, slowly, carefully, letting the concentration purge his mind, letting the morning’s scintillating images dim and dull until he could safely examine them, talk about them to Rhoda.
Of course he went the next week, and the week after. He started lessons. At first, Rhoda enjoyed his new liveliness; he had been becoming restless and frustrated. She was glad that he had this new hobby. She took advice from friends and bought him a single man aircraft ready for when he qualified to fly solo. It was the best birthday present he’d ever had.
A few weeks later, when Gilbert arrived for choir practice, he was accosted by Mavis.
“I’m a friend of yours, right?” she demanded of him.
“A very good friend, Mavis.”
“Would you mind walking me home after choir practice tonight, and having a coffee?”
“It will be my pleasure.”
During the interval, he told Brendan that he wouldn’t be able to join him in the Cutlers Arms after the practice. Brendan nodded.
“Okay.” He looked disappointed.
As Gilbert escorted Mavis, he asked whether she’d had any trouble to make her fearful of walking home on her own.
“I’m worried about you, not me,” she replied. “Let’s be discreet, and wait until we’re indoors, shall we?”
Once indoors, Gilbert accepted a biscuit and quietly took a sip of his coffee. Mavis cleared her throat.
“So what’s going on between you and Brendan?”
“That’s very blunt, Mavis. What on earth do you think is going on? Brendan and I are friends.”
“My eye. You’re inseparable. And the way you look at him. It’s not just me, Gilbert. People are gossiping.”
“I can’t be responsible for other peoples’ words. Brendan and I are friends, nothing more. We go flying together at the weekends.”
“How much time do you spend with Rhoda at the weekends?”
“Mavis, you are a dear friend, but I really don’t think it’s appropriate for you to ask me that sort of question.”
“Someone needs to ask it, Gilbert. I’m Rhoda’s friend too, remember.”
“Do you think I’m neglecting her? She seems happy about the flying.”
“We’re not talking flying here, Gilbert. Have you introduced Brendan to her?”
“I’m sorry, Mavis, I’m not prepared to be interrogated like this.”
“Hmph! I thought not. I bet you haven’t even told her about him.”
Gilbert put down his cup on the coffee table and stood up.
“Mavis. I appreciate your concern for me and for Rhoda. I take it in the spirit in which it was intended, but I have to say it is misguided. There is nothing…improper between Brendan and me.”
That weekend, in the hangar after the flight, Brendan kissed Gilbert. It was not a long kiss, a mere brushing of the lips with a warm embrace. Gilbert’s face convulsed. He pulled Brendan fiercely against him, then pushed him even more fiercely away.
“Brendan, this is impossible. I’m married.” His voice was rough.
“There’s little enough joy in the world, Gilbert. Grab it while you can.”
“I have joy with Rhoda.”
Softly. “I’m glad for you; but I don’t believe you.”
“Don’t do that again, Brendan. Not ever. Or I won’t be able to see you at all.”
“That might be better anyway.”
“No, wait, I didn’t mean I don’t want to see you. I do want to see you. It’s just that I don’t want to betray Rhoda. But you’ve woken me up, Brendan. Something had died, and now it’s alive again. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t see you again.”
Brendan crooked a finger.
“Come here, Gilbert. This won’t hurt you, or anybody else.”
He opened his arms. Gilbert looked at him. There was that little upward crease of the lips that he loved to see, the teasing, questioning recognition of his own identity that it implied. He slipped into the embrace, allowed Brendan to kiss him firmly. Then he stepped back.
“I must go, Brendan, I must go.”
“See you at choir practice, then. I hope you don’t get dragged off for more committee business afterwards; I enjoy our beer and chat.”
* * *
The row with Rhoda was the following Thursday. It started quietly; the worst rows often do.
“There’s a microlight festival in three weeks time, love. I thought I might go.”
“You do remember Val and Brian are coming to dinner on the fifteenth?”
“Ah. That had slipped my mind. Couldn’t we put them off?”
“I don’t want to put them off, Gilbert. I’d like to see them. I’d like us to see them together, because we haven’t done much together recently. In fact, I haven’t seen much of you at all.”
“Okay. Yes, sure. I’m sorry I’ve been neglecting you.”
“You could sound a little more enthusiastic. They’re our best friends.”
“I’m sorry, love. You know what I’m like when I start something new.”
“This is different, Gilbert. You’ve been a different person since the weekend. Distant. Not unhappy, in fact sometimes you seem positively exalted. But you never seem close.”
Gilbert spread his arms, expecting Rhoda to snuggle in as she usually did. She ignored the gesture.
“You don’t seem close now, Gilbert. In fact, you seem a mile away.”
Gilbert’s pulse raced. Had Mavis been talking? Had he better say something about Brendan?
“There’s something, isn’t there, Gilbert?”
“I’m having a great deal of pleasure from flying. It…lifts me up, opens me to, I don’t know, new thoughts, new experiences.”
“Take me this Saturday. Let me share that with you.”
“I’d better check with Brendan. We…”
“Brendan! This is about Brendan, isn’t it? That must be what Sheila meant when she commented on how close the two of you seemed at choir practice! It’s not about flying, not really. What’s going on, Gilbert?”
Gilbert folded his arms.
“Nothing is ‘going on’, Rhoda. Brendan and I are good friends.”
“I don’t like it, Gilbert. I want you to stop seeing him. Go and fly from a different airfield. Take me with you. Let’s be together again. I’ll learn to fly too, and we’ll fly together.”
“You want me to stop seeing Brendan?”
“Yes. I want you to stop seeing him altogether, before you…you do something you would regret.”
“But…he’s my best friend, Rhoda.”
“Yes. And I’m your wife.”
“Rhoda, let me try to explain. What I feel for Brendan is different from what I feel for you.”
“Oh, you feel for Brendan, do you?”
“Yes, I do.” Gilbert spoke quietly but firmly.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me that you love him?”
“I suppose, in a way, I do.”
“No. No, of course not. Of course we haven’t.”
“There’s something, though, isn’t there? Something happened at the weekend.”
“Brendan kissed me. He wanted more but I stopped him.”
“How could you, Gilbert, how could you?” Rhoda’s face worked with passion. “You’re my husband. You’re nothing to him. He doesn’t love you; I love you, I need you. Give him up – for both our sakes!”
“I don’t think I can give him up, as you put it. I think I’m in love with him.”
Rhoda was panting now, gasping for breath. “You bastard. You utter bastard. I’ve stayed with you even though you can’t give me children, the children I long for – the children I deserve!” The tears cascaded down her cheeks. Gilbert had never seen her weep before. It tore at his heart.
“My dear, my love, please stop. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do; I feel as though I’m being washed away in a deluge.”
He reached for her, tried to make some physical contact that would tether him to reality, to the bedrock of their relationship.
She hit him.
The marks of her fingers purpled his cheek.
She was screaming now.
“Don’t be under any illusions. If you have sex with someone else, if you betray me, I shall have my children. I shall have sex with the milkman, or the postman, or the…the vicar – whatever it takes to get pregnant. And you, Gilbert, you will raise them as your own because when that predator has finished with you – used you up – wrung you dry – you’ll come to me on your knees, and that will be my price for taking you back.”
Gilbert stood, ashen.
Rhoda took several deep breaths, calmed herself, although the tears still flowed.
“I shall have a child with Brian!”
Gilbert recoiled from her. “Val is your best friend! Would you really do that to her?”
Rhoda’s lips twisted; her eyes were hard as stone. “Val will let me, when she knows what I’ve gone through. It’s only sex, when all’s said and done.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I will tell Val and Brian that your low sperm count is why we’ve never had children. I shall tell them about your fancy-man, and throw myself on their mercy.”
Gilbert sank onto one of the kitchen chairs. He looked at the ground without seeing it.
Rhoda grabbed the kitchen roll, and mopped her face.
“Leave him, Gilbert. Ring him now. Tell him it’s finished, he’s never to see you again.”
As though hypnotized, Gilbert drew his mobile out of his pocket. He called Brendan.
“It’s over, Brendan. I’ve been thinking. I love Rhoda; I’m not going to betray her even for you.” He struggled to speak. “I’ll stay away from Kemble. Would you, please, stay away from the Choral Society?”
Gilbert imagined the little shrug that would have accompanied Brendan’s “Okay.” He thought his heart would break.
“Well, goodbye then, Brendan.”
He rang off and looked up at Rhoda.
“I really do love you,” he said.
“I know.” She reached out and touched his hair. “The pain will go, Gilbert. It will go.”
* * *
Rhoda was pregnant by Christmas. Four years later, Gilbert and Rhoda watched hand in hand as their little boy, blond, blue-eyed and the image of Gilbert, set his pony at a low jump in the orchard – and cleared it.
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