Infidelity – 300 word version

Infidelity

It was dark in the wings. I should have been in the Green Room but I wanted to watch the performance.

A strong arm slipped around my waist. It felt so right that I couldn’t help myself. I turned towards Frank, tilting my face up to his. He kissed me. I yielded, as I would have done for Jim, and then thought, ‘No, I don’t need to pretend…’ and kissed back enthusiastically.

How long is eternity? Two seconds? Three seconds? That is how long the kiss lasted, but it brought its own sort of eternity.

And then it was over.

Frank stepped back.

“Liz, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. I’m so sorry. You’re a married woman.” Even in my swirling Arcadian haze of arousal I noticed that he didn’t say that he was a married man.

“Don’t be sorry, Frank. Don’t be sorry”. My right hand stroked his chest feverishly. The quartet on stage was reaching its climax.

“Oh, Liz, you are just so…Liz, I love you’.

Why did Jim never speak to me like that? Why did he never kiss me like that?

I felt guilty that night as I went to bed. Jim didn’t seem to notice anything. He kissed me goodnight, rolled over, and was snoring gently within a minute. Normally I liked Jim’s snores. They weren’t loud, they just rumbled gently and reminded me that my man lay beside me; a comfortable knowledge of security. That night, though, they grated.

‘Liz, I love you’. The joy of that knowledge! And its guilt. Lying there beside my sleeping husband thinking of another man’s love.

And then, knowingly and deliberately, I imagined Frank’s embrace, the look of bewildered joy on his face, his tender words. I allowed the joy to seep through me. I went to sleep.

 

Friday Fictioneers – Infidelity

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (‘Join the Party’) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Infidelity 190626

PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

Infidelity

It was dark in the wings. I should have been in the Green Room but I wanted to watch the performance.

A strong arm slipped around my waist. It felt so right that I couldn’t help myself. I turned towards Frank, tilting my face up to his. He kissed me. I yielded, as I would have done for Jim, and then thought, ‘No, I don’t need to pretend…’ and kissed back enthusiastically.

How long is eternity? Two seconds? Three seconds? That is how long the kiss lasted, but it brought its own sort of eternity.

And then it was over.

Join the party!

 

What Pegman Saw – Tropical Paradise

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s location is the British Virgin Islands, noted for sailing, watersports, luxury hotels and tax dodging.

WPS - Tropical Paradise 190209

Tropical Paradise

“Oh, stop pestering me! You know I hate tours. You go on your cruise and I’ll stay here and sunbathe.”

“And drink,” thought Roland, sourly. He gave Denise a peck on the cheek. “Okay. See you Thursday.” By the time he reached the quayside he was whistling cheerfully.

A dip in the pool. A gin. Lunch on the terrace followed by a pampering session in the spa. As Denise dressed for dinner, she felt toned and attractive. “Not bad for forty,” she commented, sidelong, to the mirror.

As Denise ordered a martini she smiled at Leo, immaculate in linen suit and lilac tie, who was sitting alone at the bar.

“Roland went on the tour then?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, And Helen?”

Leo nodded.

“Would you join me for dinner?” he suggested.

Meanwhile, Helen and Roland, close and intimate in a single berth, didn’t spare their spouses a second thought.

Maureen

This short story started life as a writing exercise – those of you who have read Stephen King’s “On Writing; a memoir of the craft” may recognise it. It’s a little over 4,000 words long, and takes 10 – 15 minutes to read. It’s pretty dark, so if dark isn’t your thing, look away now!

Maureen black pickup 181026

Maureen

Rob sipped bourbon as he sat in the bar revising his quarterly sales report. Every so often he was distracted by shrieks of laughter from across the room and he glanced over. ‘Girls’ night out,” he murmured to himself.

One girl in particular, a quiet girl, caught his attention. She had placed herself in the corner, under a light fitting. She smiled rather than laughed, and she was attractive rather than beautiful. Her sleek brown hair shone; her blue eyes sparkled like sapphires displayed in a jeweller’s window.

Rob was packing up his laptop as the girls started to leave. The quiet girl went to the bar. Rob saw the barman frown and ask her something. She responded merrily, and the barman served her a measure of spirits, but the frown didn’t leave his face.

Rob went to the bar, ordered bourbon. He jerked his head in the direction of the quiet girl. The barman shrugged.

“That’s her last. She’s had enough. Don’t want her getting into trouble on the way home.”

Rob nodded. “Should I offer her a lift do you think, Sam?”

“Wouldn’t hurt. Takes a while to get a cab this time of night.”

“Ah, another night owl,” exclaimed the girl as Rob approached. He smiled.

“Not really. But I felt like some company. My name’s Rob, by the way, Rob Carter.”

“Nice to meet you, Rob.” She offered her hand. Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “I’m Maureen.”

They didn’t date often before Rob proposed marriage. Maureen had caught her man.

Rob’s family and friends were delighted.

When he told his mom, she squeezed his arm hard and her eyes moistened.

“She’ll take good care of you, I can tell. I’ve worried about you, Rob, trying to look after yourself all on your own in that house.”

“I don’t do that bad, Ma! Besides, I’m hardly expecting Maureen to have my slippers warming and my dinner on the table; it doesn’t work like that these days.”

His dad winked.

“Good looking girl you got, son. Well done!” He leered at Rob, took another six-pack out the fridge and handed a can to him. “Cheers!”

Maureen told her mother in the kitchen of their pokey apartment.

“He seems nice enough, I s’pose. So did your father when I married him. Ha! Men!” Her mouth hardened. “Move over, gal, I wanna mop that bit o’ floor.”

Maureen bit her lip. Dad had vanished when she was fourteen. Her mom had never explained where he’d gone, or why.

Rob and Maureen were happy during the first few months of their marriage. Rob enjoyed being cosseted; Maureen enjoyed their affluence. They went to plays and concerts, and they dined in good restaurants. Maureen always left the choice to Rob.

“I love going out with you,” she said once to Rob, “but these places are so different from anything I’m used to. Please – you choose for me. Look after me, Rob.” And she clung on his arm and looked at him with glowing eyes.

Rob liked to finish these evenings with love-making, but to his surprise it was anti-climactic. It wasn’t that Maureen was unwilling; far from it, she was eager and she tried hard. And Rob could tell that she was trying. If he held back for long enough, she would ‘climax’; she was faking.

Still, there’s more to marriage than four bare legs in a bed. Rob may have worked a little later in the evening; Maureen may have started drinking a little earlier in the day; but they would have said they were happy together.

It was shortly after their anniversary that they had their first real row.

“Why are you late?”

It had been a brutal day in the office. Rob had faced criticism from his boss and moaning from his subordinates.

“Why are you drunk?” he countered.

They had shouted. Half concealed resentments spilled out, and, as the quarrel escalated, disappointments became vocal.

“And you’re frigid!”

Everything went quiet.

Then Maureen picked up the bottle of wine with which she’d been entertaining herself, and lashed out.

Fortunately for Rob – and for Maureen, come to that – he was quick, and took the bottle on his shoulder rather than his temple.

What followed was technically rape, in that it was non-consensual.

Afterwards, they sat amid torn clothing, arms around each other, kissing, touching tenderly.

“You climaxed.”

Maureen shuddered.

“I did,” she said. Tears oozed from under bruised lids. “Do it again.”

They went to bed. Rob soon fell asleep. As Maureen lay on her back, listening to his breathing become regular and gentle, images of her father drifted into her mind. She shook as she remembered his whisky-breath, the way he punched and kicked her mother. She sought sanctuary in earlier memories. Holding his hand, sitting on his lap. She remembered his voice telling her stories. She slept.

Maureen couldn’t believe it when she missed a period. She didn’t know what she wanted to do. Should she use the ‘morning after’ pill, or welcome the child? She’d never thought of having children, and Rob had never said anything.

When Maureen missed a second period, she told Rob. He was thrilled. Within a fortnight the spare bedroom had been transformed by a design consultancy. The walls were delicate cream, with a frieze of animals. The carpet was soft green. The Moses basket was natural varnished wood, hanging from an elegant stand.

“I know you’ll want to breastfeed,” Rob said, “but I hope you’ll let me join in and bottle-feed sometimes. Perhaps we could share the night shift?”

“I’m not dead set on breastfeeding. Of course you can join in.”

Together they chose a chair for the nursery, a high-backed wooden chair with upholstered arms and seat, and they stood it in the corner, close to the cot. Rob imagined himself sitting there with the baby crooked in his arm, enjoying the closeness of this new life that he had helped to create.

“Should we be spending all this money on the house?” Maureen spoke sharply.

Rob raised an eyebrow.

“It’s not a problem, you know. This quarter’s bonus will cover it.”

“Will we still be able to afford the Bahamas in May? You know how much I want to go.”

Rob did some rapid mental arithmetic.

“Don’t worry, Maureen. Your vacation’s safe!”

“It had better be.”

After dinner, Rob retired to his study. Perhaps he should get out his trade directories and look for some new prospects?

As the weeks passed, Maureen’s moods swung wildly between tenderness and violence. At home Rob spoke less often, for fear of saying the wrong thing and prompting an outburst. At work, though, the prospect of becoming a father had energised him. He’d identified several possible large accounts and was chasing them enthusiastically.

“I’m going to be late this evening, darling,” he said to Maureen. “That company – Harrisons, you know, the one I told you about?”

“Mm-hm?”

“I’m entertaining their Purchasing VP to dinner.”

Maureen had thinned her lips.

“What’s his name?”

“The VP’s a woman, darling. I told you, remember? Jenny Lightfoot. She’s fifty, with a cast-iron permanent wave and she uses her handbag like an offensive weapon.” He chuckled. Maureen did not.

Jenny had proved to have a formidable head for bourbon, but by eleven o’clock the deal was done. A contract for a full year with an option on two more years, a total of three million bucks. Rob was humming as he climbed into the cab.

The lights were off in his house.

“Better be quiet,” he muttered, even as he wondered whether Maureen would be awake. He would love to tell her the good news. A deal like this would enable them to travel somewhere really exciting once the baby was a little older. He fumbled cheerfully with the key and stumbled inside.

He didn’t know it was a rolling pin that hit him, just that it hurt. He lunged forwards, taking two more blows, the second and more painful on his collarbone.

“You bastard! I can smell her perfume on you. You low-life scum, you’re no better than the rest of them!”

He struggled with her, trying not to hurt their unborn child, and eventually pulled the rolling pin from her.

“It’s bourbon you can smell, you stupid bitch.”

The slap to his cheek made him cry out and clutch his face.

“Never, ever call me that again!”

He slumped against the wall, struggling to clear the whisky fog, listening to her footsteps steadily climbing the stairs. He felt too exhausted to follow. The bedroom door slammed. After a while, carefully and quietly he went to the nursery and sat in the new chair.

What the hell was he going to do?

Next day, Maureen refused to discuss the fight. She talked brightly through breakfast. Rob would have wondered whether he’d dreamed it, if it weren’t for the large bruises on his arms and collarbone, and the gash on his cheek from Maureen’s ring.

For the next few months, until the baby was born, Rob was extremely careful. He scheduled no evening meetings, and he showed Maureen the email from his boss that confirmed the dates when he would be away for the sales conference. Indeed, he gave her details of the hotel so she could ring them and check that he was there, and not with another woman.

And when their daughter was born, Rob suggested they named her Irene. He didn’t care whether Maureen got the point or not.

Perhaps she did. At all events, there were no more fights for a few months. There was no more sex, either.

Irene was four months old when Rob met Charlene. It was just a physical thing. No commitment either way. The relief was tremendous.

They took to meeting once a week, on Tuesday afternoons, in a hotel. It was fun. Rob didn’t dare imagine the consequences if Charlene ever demanded more than fun; or if Maureen were to find out.

But Maureen didn’t feel any need for proof. Suspicion was justification. One Tuesday Rob came back cheerful and relaxed.

“Did you pick up those holiday brochures? We might plan our European trip tonight if you like. It’s going to be a great bonus this quarter!”

“No. Sorry. I’ll look on line – there’s more choice there anyway.” She wandered across to him. “What’s that odd sweet smell?”

“I can’t smell anything. Perhaps it’s the chemical plant I went to this morning?” Rob was surprised Maureen could smell anything above the eau de parfum that she always wore.

Maureen wrinkled her nose but said no more while Rob prepared a bottle of formula for Irene. As he sat down, cradling Irene in the crook of his left arm, and offering her the bottle with his right, Maureen said, “You’ve been with another woman, haven’t you?”

Without waiting for an answer, she picked up a half-full bottle of wine, stamped across the room and swung it viciously at Rob’s head. It caught him a glancing blow, stunning him briefly. Irene released the teat from her mouth and wailed. Panic-stricken, Rob looked around for somewhere he could safely place her.

As Rob tried to stand, Maureen hit him on the left shin. The bottle broke. The pain was intense, disabling. Rob cradled Irene in his lap and curled his body over her. He cringed at the thought that the next blow would be to his head, and then Irene would be defenceless.

“Look at you!” exclaimed Maureen. “You’re pathetic!” She slammed the jagged end of the broken bottle hard onto Rob’s right hand, and left him to whimper, to look after himself and Irene as best he could.

The next day, limping and with his hand bandaged, he consulted a lawyer.

“Hm. You want a divorce with custody of the child. That’s not common, you know. Has your wife been unfaithful?”

“No. At least I don’t think so.”

“Have you been unfaithful to her?”

Rob coloured and kept silent. The lawyer shook his head.

“You’d have a mountain to climb, an absolute mountain. We could try, but it would be very expensive and the chance of success – what, one percent maybe?”

As Rob left the office, the lawyer tutted to himself. ‘You meet some selfish bastards,’ he thought. ‘Wants to have his floozy and keep the baby too. I don’t know.’

Rob was frightened as he opened his front door that evening, but Maureen greeted him tenderly. She took his coat, poured him a bourbon, gave him a quarter hour to relax, and then suggested he might enjoy feeding Irene.

Irene was in her sweetest mood. After drinking half the bottle of formula, she was much more interested in playing. She reached out her little arms to Rob and smiled and dribbled and blew milky bubbles.

Maureen came and stood behind Rob. He tensed, expecting a blow, but Maureen massaged his neck.

At last she said, “I’m sorry about yesterday. It won’t happen again.”

Of course, she wasn’t telling the truth.

Of course, Rob believed her.

He and Charlene continued to meet for sex on Tuesdays but it was becoming less frenetic. Increasingly there was gentleness, even tenderness. One afternoon, as Rob left the bed to get dressed, Charlene said “Would you mind talking for a bit? I know you’ve got to get back to work; I won’t take long. Promise!”

Rob smiled at her and climbed back into bed.

“I can’t help noticing the bruises – and sometimes the cuts – on your body, Rob. I know you don’t play sports, so what’s going on?”

Rob’s pulse beat loudly in his ears. He felt chilled. He sat silent.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Rob. I want to help you.”

“You can’t. Nobody can.” Tears squeezed from Rob’s eyes, and he started to sob. Charlene gentled him.

“It’s alright to cry, Rob. It’s okay, everything’s okay. You can tell me.”

So he did. He told her everything, and she was okay with that. There was no horror, no emotional storm – no violence – just calm, lucid acceptance. And when he’d finished he wept again, this time for relief.

It took twelve difficult months for the divorce to come through. Rob found it almost impossible to testify about Maureen’s violence, but Charlene and the lawyer made it clear that he had no choice. If he didn’t testify, he would not get custody of Irene. He testified.

Maureen denied it. Perhaps she was too shrill, or perhaps Charlene’s testimony about the injuries on Rob’s body swung it, but he was awarded custody.

For the first time in a year, Rob entered his own house. Maureen had packed. Irene sat in her pushchair in the hall.

“I’ll give you one last chance,” said Maureen. “You let me stay, and I’ll say no more about all this.”

Rob gestured at the door.

“Get out of my house.”

“You’ll regret this.” She hissed the words, then spat at him. Irene started to cry.

An old black pick-up juddered round the corner, Maureen’s mother at the wheel. Stony-faced, she climbed out. She was holding a shotgun, pointing it at Rob.

“I oughter blow your brains out, runnin’ out on my Maureen. And if you ever come near her again, that’s just what I’ll do.”

The two women threw suitcases into the trunk, and zigzagged away in the pick-up.

The letters started soon afterwards.

The first was a single word.

“Adulterer”

Rob gazed at it. Should he do anything about it? Was there, indeed, anything he could do about it? After a momentary hesitation, he screwed it up and threw it in the bin.

“Wife-beater,” said the next, and, “Child-stealer” the third.

The fourth read “You’ll burn”. Rob frowned as he pulled out the accompanying newspaper cutting. It was a photograph of a recent fatal fire. He took it to the police. They weren’t helpful. Rob pulled strings in City Hall, and the police ‘investigated’ which is to say they dusted the fourth letter for prints. There were none. Surprise, surprise, the sender had worn gloves.

Perhaps the police were right not to be concerned because there were no more letters.

“Is something the matter, Rob?” asked Charlene, as they enjoyed spring sunshine in Central Park one Saturday afternoon.

“No. That is, did you notice that woman over by Bow Bridge?”

“The one in the head-scarf? Can’t say I did. Do you know her?”

“No.” He pulled a face. “Did you think she was a bit like Maureen?”

“Same height and build, I suppose, but she was a much older woman, Rob.” She slipped her arm in his. “That’s all over, Rob. You’re free now. You can focus on your lovely little girl, and I shall stand by you for as long as you want me.”

“I think I want you beside me forever,” said Rob.

“I don’t think you know that yet, Rob. There’s no rush.” She seemed about to kiss him, when Irene, in her buggy, blew a raspberry.

They laughed and strolled on, content.

Spring passed inexorably to the heat of summer. The day was breathless. Rob was collecting Irene from Seedlings Academic Playschool, fastening her into her car seat. He heard running feet approaching, just as he latched her harness, and then he felt a shattering pain in his hip.

Half in, half out of the car he fought to climb out, to slam the door, to protect Irene. Another blow struck the same leg as he made it outside. He scarcely recognised Maureen, snarling, malevolent, wielding a baseball bat. The next blow was aimed at his head. He flung himself sideways. The bat struck the car, denting the roof.

“I’m going to get you!” Maureen was gleeful. She twirled the bat like a drum major’s mace. Rob hobbled to place himself between Maureen and the car door. Maureen swung viciously, and the bat smashed into Rob’s chest. He dropped.

He couldn’t say how long the blackness lasted. Later he remembered a few seconds where the sound of a siren drowned his efforts to tell the paramedic about Irene in the car, before the blackness again.

He opened his eyes to sunlight. A monitor beeped rhythmically beside him. Saline solution dripped into a cannula in his wrist. His chest felt tight, but he realised he was breathing okay. His left leg felt numb. The door opened softly.

Charlene walked across to the bed and put her hand on his. “Thank God,” she said, and then “Irene’s okay, she’s fine.”  Rob did his best to smile as the blackness took him again.

In fact, the actual damage could have been worse. A half dozen broken ribs, a punctured lung and some dramatic bruising to his left leg was the extent of the injuries. He had been lucky. The security guard at the playschool had restrained Maureen, and the school’s administrator had re-started Rob’s heart before the paramedics arrived.

Rob was discharged from hospital five days later, two days after Maureen was committed to Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center. The news of her incarceration was a profound relief.

Irene had become very clingy after the attack on Rob; “Goodness knows how much she saw and understood,” said Rob to his mother. She shuddered.

“I nearly lost my boy. I always said Maureen was a nasty piece of work. I hope Irene doesn’t inherit her viciousness.”

“Of course she won’t, Mom. She’ll inherit your sweetness of nature through me.”

Rob’s mom smiled at him. “You must stay with us until you’re properly better.”

Gradually the pain of the injuries eased.

“You should get out and take some exercise, son.”

Rob felt his pulse skip a beat. He hadn’t been outside on his own since the attack. OK, so Maureen was under lock and key, but there was still her mom and that shotgun. He felt cowardly, but he couldn’t face it, not yet, not now. Perhaps if he weren’t on his own?

“How about you join me, Dad? Walk off some of that beer belly.”

Rob’s dad caught the hesitation, and the look of apprehension.

“Yeah! Great idea! Shall we do it straight away?”

Rob was pre-occupied throughout the walk. He felt as though somebody had tied a target on his back. He ached between his shoulder blades.

“Could we go back to the car now? I’m feeling tired. First time out; big day! But not much energy, I’m afraid.”

“Do it again tomorrow, son?”

“You gotta date, mate.”

As his dad drove them home, Rob kept looking in the door mirror. Was that Maureen’s mother’s old black pick-up he could see? It was lurching and weaving through the traffic. He flinched and stared straight ahead as it pulled level with them at some traffic lights. When the lights changed, the pick-up turned right.

Gradually the fear eased, but it didn’t disappear. Still, after a few more days he found he could go outside on his own.

Three weeks after the attack, he returned to work. “Just half-days for the first week,” instructed his boss, “and if you’re finding it too tough, take another week. We can’t afford to have you keel over. You’re the only person Harrisons are really happy to deal with.”

At noon he took a cab back to his house. As he put the key into the lock, he noticed that the door knocker was tarnished. “I’ll have a coffee then come and clean that,” he thought. He didn’t have the energy to tackle even such a small task without a sit-down first.

The house felt dirty; everything was covered with dust. He was going to have to find a cleaner. Maureen had organised that during their marriage. It was odd. Despite the divorce and the attack, she still felt present in the house. She’d arranged the pictures. She’d chosen the wallpaper for the living room. Rob sighed. Her touch was on everything. Perhaps he should just have the house deep-cleaned, the decoration refreshed and then sell it. Buy somewhere else. Start again with Charlene.

He picked up the bourbon, then put it down again, instead making a black coffee, and sitting down in front of the TV. He flicked channels and was just in time to catch the local news.

“Breaking news from the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center!” The journalist stood outside the secure hospital. “Fire broke out in the wing holding the most dangerous patients. Twelve appliances and eighty crew are fighting the blaze, and more are on their way. There is an unconfirmed report that some patients escaped in the confusion. The Center have refused to confirm or deny this report.”

A roiling plume of smoke could be seen in the background.

“The Center have, however, told us that the evacuation of staff and patients proceeded in an orderly fashion with only minor injuries. A further bulletin will be issued at one thirty this afternoon, and we will be covering that. In the meantime, it’s back to Arnold in the studio.”

Rob switched off the TV. His skin crawled. It wasn’t the pictures or the wallpaper. It wasn’t the evidence of her choices in the furniture. They weren’t what had made him feel she was present. It was her perfume. Subtle, understated, elegant. He could smell it. He could smell it right now. Surely it wouldn’t have clung to the furniture over a period of months?

But she was in Kirby Forensic. Unless the report was right, and she’d escaped.

No. That would be too unlikely. The TV company were probably misinformed. Besides, even if she’d escaped, how the hell would she have laid her hands on that perfume in the Center? Unless…

Had there been a bottle of it on her dressing table? He hadn’t been sleeping in the main bedroom since returning to his house after the divorce.

He thought, “I should go and look. Set my mind at rest” but he didn’t move. His legs felt drained of strength. He looked at the fire-irons; he could take the poker. And yet he didn’t move, he couldn’t move. His breathing came fast, his pulse raced. He was shaking too much to stand.

He heard footsteps, her footsteps steadily descending the stairs. Still he sat. He heard splashing. Maureen’s perfume became overlaid with the stench of gasoline.

Her footsteps were quiet on the living room carpet.

At last he moved. He sprang to his feet and turned towards her. She dripped gasoline from her sodden clothes. She splashed gasoline from the five gallon jerrycan she carried.

She put down the can, and she smiled at Rob.

“Time to burn, Rob,” she said.

The click of her lighter was the loudest noise Rob had ever heard.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Fictioneers – Courtesy Car

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Courtesy Car 180124

PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

Courtesy Car

“When I get back from the garage you’ll tell me who your lover is, or I’ll kill you!” John yelled, as he slammed the door.

Panicking, Sue phoned Robert, owner of the garage. “Darling, he’s threatening to kill me!”

John drove up the motorway in a ‘courtesy’ car. It was filthy, and rattled.

“Courtesy car?” he exclaimed. “It’s the ’I don’t give a stuff’ car!”

No, it was worse than that. The ‘Blow you, go somewhere else’ car?

As the brakes failed, he had just time to realise it was the “I hate you and wish you were dead” car.

That special place

Jim and Liz Nightingale, have just become ‘empty nesters’. This gives them more freedom, of course, but how do they want to use that freedom? Will they enjoy it together, or will they drift apart? And then they holiday together in Greece, in the small city of Nafplio. They bring turbulent emotions to that special place. What will they take away?

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On their first evening in Nafplio, Liz and Jim Nightingale entered Plateia Syntagma, Constitution Square, from the passage beside the archaeological museum. They walked under the majestic plane tree at the entrance to the square, and looked along the row of cafes and shops that stretch the entire length of the north side.

Children played in the square, chasing footballs, riding bicycles and launching ingenious flying toys, whose coloured lights, red, green, and blue, flashed in the dark and silken sky.

The cafes were packed.

A couple stood up to vacate a table right under the plane tree.

“Quick, Jim,” said Liz, nudging him in the direction of the empty seats. Jim resisted.

“Hadn’t we better check out the other cafes before making up our minds?”

Liz pushed past him and sat down firmly. She smiled at him and said, “Nothing could be nicer than this, Jim.”

As the waiter wiped the table, Jim sat down grudgingly in the seat opposite Liz.  She ordered two coffees, in Greek. The waiter smiled and asked, in Greek, whether they would like anything to eat, ice-cream or fruit salad perhaps? Liz declined.

“I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the dinner very much, Liz.”

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, Jim. I was tempted because the taverna seemed much less crowded than the others. I suppose that should have been a giveaway really. But fancy that waiter lecturing you because you didn’t finish your meal, as though you were a naughty child! I admired your restraint!”

Jim slapped at his arm.

“Bother these mosquitoes.”

“Just ignore them, Jim. Have you been bitten yet?”

Jim unbuttoned his sleeve and inspected his forearm.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Good. I shouldn’t like to think we’d put up with the smell of that awful repellent for nothing.” She stretched back against the cushion on the wicker chair. “Isn’t it blissful to sit here warm and comfortable at half past ten in the evening?”

Jim grunted. His shirt was dark with sweat under the armpits.

The following morning, Liz woke early, as usual. She slipped out of bed quietly, not wanting to wake Jim. She looked at him with tender concern. He worked so hard during term-time, and was tired out by the time of the holidays. And now that he was nearing fifty it took him longer to recover.

She dressed, and went lightly out into the sunshine. Her brightly patterned sun-dress fluttered in the breeze.

Now, where was the minimarket? Down this street? And then left. Yes. She bought bread, butter, milk, croissants and oranges. That should do. If Jim fancied a fry-up they could go to one of the cafes later.

As she walked, she thought about the argument she’d had with him a few days earlier, when he’d told her that he wanted to try for a post as deputy head-teacher. ‘What a mess!’ she said to herself. ‘I wish Jim didn’t want this job up in Macclesfield! I’m desperately worried for him. He’s so conscientious, and I’ve seen what the strain of being a head of department has done to his health. But I daren’t tell him that, or he’ll go for the job just to prove that he has the strength for it.”

As they sat eating breakfast, Liz said, “I went into the bus station. There’s a bus to Mycenae at ten o’clock. Shall we visit the archaeological site today, do you think? It was one of the places you particularly wanted to see.”

Jim smiled at her. “Organising me again? You really enjoy finding your way round new places, don’t you?” Liz bit her tongue and said nothing. If she didn’t arrange trips when they were overseas, they wouldn’t do anything at all; and she’d told Jim so only a few days before the holiday.

“Yes, let’s go to Mycenae then.” Jim hesitated a moment, then added, “I do appreciate you doing the planning, you know.”

Jim made an excellent companion for a visit to the antiquities. He was a history teacher with a gift for bringing the past to life. As they strode up the ramp to the Lion Gate his words clattered like armour, and tramped like foot soldiers marching behind their gold-encrusted king. Liz listened intently; she was very aware that the roots of her own discipline of mathematics were largely based on the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers. It was such a pity, she thought, that so much of history was about rulers, wars and battles rather than ideas.

That evening they dined at a taverna away from the seafront. The tables lined a passage between two buildings, and were covered by awnings. Bougainvillea spilled from balconies, making the walls gay with their blooms. Jim seemed preoccupied, then, while they were sharing a Greek salad, he suddenly said, “Can we talk about that possible new job without getting angry, Liz?”

“I’m sure I can. I’m not sure you can, Jim.”

Jim laid his hands on the table, palms down, fingers spread, and looked fixedly at them.

“You see, Liz, when I was passed over for the deputy headship last year I felt hurt, badly hurt.”

Liz laid the fingers of her right hand lightly on Jim’s left hand. “I know, Jim. I know you were.”

“I felt resentful that somebody younger should be given the post, after all the work I’d done for the school. This opportunity that I’ve been told about gives me a chance to put that right.”

“But it’s up north, Jim. I don’t want to leave Sussex, I don’t want to leave our beautiful home, and I don’t want to give up my job. I know I’m only a class teacher, but I love what I do. I turned down an offer of promotion when you were a new head of department so that I could support you. Don’t you think my professional career deserves consideration too?”

The waiter appeared with their main course. Jim was silent. Liz thanked the waiter in Greek, smiling. He smiled back. “You speak good Greek!”

“Just a few words. I’m looking forward to enjoying my meal!”

They ate in silence for a few minutes.

“This is so much better than yesterday’s food,” exclaimed Liz.

“Yes it is, isn’t it? You know, Liz, I really want this job. It’s the best opportunity I’m ever likely to have. It would give me the chance to put some of my ideas into practice instead of just proposing them in staff meetings and having them rejected. Do you grudge me that?”

“Of course not, Jim. But I’m just saying that when we make a decision about it, we must consider everything. It’s not just your job, it’s our lives. There’s the house, and our friends, and the things we do. Don’t these matter to you at all?”

Jim laid down his cutlery.

“Well, of course they matter, but the job is so important, Liz. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that my work is what gives meaning to my life.”

There was silence. The waiter, from his station by the door, looked to see whether they were ready for him to clear the main course.

Liz spoke quietly. “So what meaning do I have in your life, Jim? What about Clive and Susan our children?”

Jim gestured impatiently. “You know I didn’t mean that, Liz!”

“Clive is newly married. Sue is expecting her first baby – our first grandchild, Jim – and you sit there and tell me that your work is what gives meaning to your life. I’m astonished. I’m astonished and deeply disappointed.”

The waiter approached. “Have you finished. Didn’t you like the food?”

“I’m sorry. The food was very good, but we’re – thinking of other things, I’m afraid. Jim, have you had enough?”

Jim waved away the plate.

”Well, I want a coffee. How about you?”

“I suppose so. Yes. Thank you.”

“Two coffees, please. No sugar.”

“So what do you want, Liz? If you don’t want me to try for promotion?”

“I just want to see more of you, Jim. Let’s have some fun in the evenings. Play bridge with friends. Go to the pub.”

“And when would we do that, Liz? You’re always with that chap Frank, fund raising for your precious operatic society.”

“I’d be happy to do less of that if I could see more of you, you know. And I’ve been trying to persuade you to find a date for a romantic dinner ever since you cancelled our anniversary dinner!”

“You’re still holding that against me?”

“I’m not holding anything against you. I’m just pointing out that I’m trying to see more of you. I would prefer you to be giving less time to your work rather than more. And a new job would demand more of your time for years. What’s in it for me, Jim?”

“You were very attracted to Frank once, weren’t you? And he moved down south a few years after we did. Don’t tell me he didn’t choose where to live with no thought of you!”

Liz went white.

“How dare you. How dare you! I have never been unfaithful to you. Never! Now go away. And don’t imagine you’re sharing my bed tonight. You can sleep in the spare room. That should suit you; you can have the air-conditioning on all night and bolt and bar the windows against those mosquitoes who terrify you so much!”

Jim stood up.

“You’ve got the cash to settle up?”

Liz nodded, lips pressed tightly together.

Jim gave her one final look, and pushed his way between the other tables. Liz sat still. The waiter came over to collect the cups.

“I’d like another coffee, please.”

“Straightaway.”

A little away from her, the staff had arranged tables to accommodate a party. It looked like four generations of a family; a young couple with a toddler and a babe in arms; four adults in middle life, and an old lady, dressed in black, but laughing heartily, and downing glassfuls of retsina in a single draught.

‘Why can’t our life be like that?’ wondered Liz. She shook her head.

She wandered to the seafront, sat down at the cafe ‘Napoli di Romania’, and ordered an ouzo, without ice. The small boats rocked and bumped against the harbour wall, bouncing on the waves. It was breezy and some of the locals were wearing cardigans, but Liz didn’t feel cold. She looked across at the Bourzi, the island fort, illuminated by floodlights. She looked beyond, and saw the lights of shops and houses and cars a few miles away on the far side of the Gulf of Argos.

She took a large swallow of ouzo. The taste and the warmth filled her mouth and spread down into her stomach. Had she been rather hasty in assuming Jim was accusing her of infidelity?

“Oh, bother the man!” she said.

The couple on the next table looked round, and she realised she’d spoken out loud. She didn’t know whether to feel irritated, embarrassed or amused; so she took another gulp of ouzo.

It occurred to her that there were things she’d never done on holiday, feeling herself constrained by Jim’s preferences.

‘Stuff him!’ she thought, being very careful not to open her mouth this time. Even so, she glanced at the couple next to her as if they could somehow have overheard.

The cocktail bar on the main street was packed with youngsters, young men in tee shirts and dark, tight jeans; young women dressed as though for carnival. Liz, using a blend of tenacity and charm, found herself a seat and ordered a Manhattan.

About one-thirty in the morning the music became more rhythmic and louder. Liz had nearly finished her third Manhattan, and was chatting in Greek to a man in his mid-forties.

“Come on,” he said, suddenly rising to his feet, “Let’s dance!”

Liz looked up at him, startled, then she smiled and stood up.

She was a good dancer; and so, she realised, was he. Deducing that some of his steps were from traditional dance, she copied him. Some of the young folk started to cheer and clap. She suddenly understood that some of his steps were meant for the man, and looked at him for a cue as to what she should do. With hand gestures, he indicated appropriate movements. She attempted them, laughing out loud with delight.

People stopped in the street to watch. The bar staff joined in with the clapping. Onlookers took up the dance.

The music stopped. The crowd applauded. Liz’s partner seized her round the waist and held her tightly against him. His face pressed against hers, as he sought her mouth with his.

Liz was very tempted. Her body throbbed. Excitement filled her in a way she’d completely forgotten. Nevertheless, “No,” she said. The man looked at her in surprise and disappointment.

“I’m sorry,” said Liz. “I don’t want anything more than the dancing.” She looked him very directly in the eye, and hoped that her ability to maintain discipline in the classroom would be sufficient to keep him at arm’s length. For a few seconds longer he held her, then released his grip.

He bowed.

“Then I must respect your wish, madam. You are an excellent dancer; thank you! And you are very beautiful.” He sounded wistful.

He strolled away. Liz watched his trim figure become lost in the throng.

‘Liz Nightingale, you are a little drunk. It’s time to go home.’

Despite the neatness with which she had danced, Liz found it difficult to walk steadily. The streets became narrower and darker. Liz was not a nervous person, but it crossed her mind that walking alone in the back streets of a foreign city at two in the morning was possibly not the wisest thing she had ever done.

The steps up to the apartment were steep and uneven. She stumbled and bruised her shin.

“Ow! Ouch! Bugger!” The exclamations were (more or less) sotto voce. Then she giggled, and sat on the step rubbing her leg until the pain eased.

She fumbled with the key as she tried to insert it in the dark. “Don’t drop it, Liz,” she muttered. Even when she finally had it in the lock, it didn’t want to turn. “If Jim’s locked the door, I’m going to make a lot of noise!” Then she remembered that she had the key to the side door, not the front door. She was giggling again as she sneaked in.

The door to the second bedroom was closed, and she could hear the air conditioning running. She went into the main bedroom and switched on the light. The empty bed was a melancholy sight, with her half-unpacked suitcase sitting on it. Jim’s suitcase had gone. Liz looked into the wardrobe. His clothes weren’t there. “Sulking. How childish.” She enunciated the words very clearly, but they still sounded slurred. She moved her suitcase onto his side of the bed, pulled off her clothes and lay on the bed. She was asleep within seconds.

“Jim. Make me a coffee, love, would you…” She opened her eyes. Jim wasn’t there. She was curled up next to her own untidy suitcase. It was hot, the sun outside was brilliant. Her mouth was dry and sticky, with an unpleasant taste. Her head throbbed. She fumbled in the case for her dressing gown.

As she ran herself a glass of water she noticed that the door to the second bedroom was ajar, and the air conditioning wasn’t running. Jim had gone out.

She was on her second coffee and third glass of water, just beginning to feel that some dry toast might stay in her stomach, when Jim returned. He looked at her, slumped dishevelled and pasty-faced at the dining table.

“I packed some Alka-Seltzer. Would you like some?”

“Mmm. Horrid taste, but yes, it would probably be a good idea.”

As she sipped the Alka-Seltzer, Jim said, “Can I make you some toast? Perhaps with a little honey?”

“No honey in the cupboard.” She massaged her throbbing temples.

“I’ve bought some. And some peaches.”

Liz looked up. Peaches were her favourite. Jim held one out for her to inspect. It looked delicious, and felt perfectly ripe. She took the fruit and bit into it. The sweet juice dribbled down her chin; the perfume of the fruit filled her mouth and nose.

“I’ll make the toast,” said Jim, handing Liz a tissue, and laying a plate on the table in front of her.

“There’s a bus to Argos every half hour,” he said. “It goes from outside the booking office. I thought we might go there today, if you’re feeling up to it?”

Liz wiped her mouth.

“Jim,” she said, “We’ve got to talk. We can’t just pretend yesterday didn’t happen.”

“Do you feel well enough for that?”

Liz recognised the concern in his voice.

“I dare say I’ll cope somehow.”

“Liz, I wanted to say I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean to imply that there was anything – improper – between you and Frank. But I dislike the man, and, well, I’m a bloke and I get jealous. You’re very precious to me, Liz.”

Liz folded her arms, and sat in silence. The noise of cicadas clattered in through the open window.

“That’s not actually enough, Jim,” she said at last. “You as good as accused me of being unfaithful to you. In my book that’s the worst insult of all. I try to live a life of integrity, and you tell me that you think I may have cheated you in the most profound way possible. Don’t you understand at all who I am?”

Jim sank onto one of the chairs. He looked out of the window, his gaze fixed far beyond the trees that bordered the terrace. He thought back over their life together. He couldn’t remember a single occasion when Liz had acted without integrity. And he’d only half-noticed. How could he have taken her so much for granted?

He cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry, Liz. I know there’s nothing between you and Frank, and that you’ve never been unfaithful. I should never have said what I did. Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true.”

They sat in silence a while longer, and then Jim said, “I heard you come in last night. I was concerned about you. I crept into the bedroom. You’d left the curtains open, and the moon was shining brightly. You were asleep, and you looked so beautiful. I’d been feeling angry, but when I saw you, and realised again how much I love you…” He stopped to steady his voice.

“Come here, Jim,” said Liz softly. She held him gently and waited for the pain to ease.

“I got very drunk last night, Jim. I went to the cocktail bar and made an exhibition of myself dancing in the street. And the Greek who’d been dancing with me tried to kiss me. Luckily for me he understood that no means no. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have done that.”

Jim nodded. “It certainly wasn’t sensible. It could all have got out of hand.”

“Yes, I know. Still, I’m paying for it now; at least for the drunk bit. Why are hangovers so much worse when you’re older? Let’s give Argos a miss today; I don’t fancy too much bright sunlight for a while. Perhaps we could visit the archaeological museum today?”

“Sounds good. I hope you’ll be fit by tomorrow, though.”

“Tomorrow?”

“I bought tickets for ‘Antigone’ at the ancient theatre of Epidauros.”

“Oh, Jim, that’s fantastic! Thank you! Oh, wow!”

Jim grinned. “I hoped that would please you!”

They spent a quiet day. Pizza for lunch at Café Kentrikon, a visit to the museum, a siesta. In the evening they crossed the peninsular and then strolled under the pine trees, with their heavy, resinous scent, around the promontory, and out along the breakwater. As they walked back along the harbour front, they mingled with smart Greeks wearing their best summer outfits, and with cheerful Dutch families, and chic French couples. Liz led Jim to ‘Napoli di Romania’.

“Here’s where I started my binge,” she confessed cheerfully.

“I expect you’d prefer a soft drink tonight. A fresh orange juice, perhaps?”

“Actually, Jim, I would prefer an ouzo. I can drink orange juice anytime, but I don’t have many opportunities to enjoy ouzo by the wine-dark sea. Ouzo, please.”

As they sipped their drinks, and nibbled the peanuts that had come with the ouzo, the sun sank towards the mountains in a blaze of rose-gold glory. The sea was completely calm, stretching before them like turquoise-grey lacquer, highlighted with gilding.

“You know, Jim, we’re going to have to sort out this business of the job. I don’t want to stop you applying. If you decide to try for it and succeed, I will go with you and support you. But I think we should be very careful in weighing up the pros and cons. And, in all fairness, I think we should consider my career as well as yours.”

They looked at the people walking along the promenade, showing off to each other.

“Thank you, Liz. I appreciate the support. Having thought about it last night, I agree that we need to take everything into consideration.”

They reached simultaneously for the nuts, and then both laughed.

“After you,” said Jim.

“No, go on Jim. They’re more your thing than mine.”

Jim helped himself.

In front of them, the strolling crowds played out in miniature the pageant of life in all its diversity, joy and angst. Pride, love, self-regard were all there.

“I haven’t given you all my reasons for being wary of this job, Jim.” Liz took a deep breath. This was a gamble, she felt, but one that in the present circumstances was worth taking. “I think that you would make an excellent head-teacher. I admire your ideas, and I admire the heck out of your ability to inspire people. The thing is…”

She paused. The last sliver of the sun slipped below the mountain peak; the western sky glowed even as the sky above them darkened. Jim waited quietly.

“The thing is, Jim, I’m afraid of what the effort would do to you physically. Being head of department affected you badly, and I fear this would be even worse.”

Jim put his hands behind his head, and reclined in the rattan chair.

“I hate to admit it,” he said, “But I think you’re probably right. It was my only concern about the post.”

The waiters were lowering the awnings, and Jim had to bend his head to avoid the canvas.

“Liz? You won’t think I’m a…failure, if I don’t try for this post? I feel it would somehow be letting you down.”

“A failure, Jim? I would never feel you were a failure! Your example has inspired me throughout my career, not to mention our marriage. And, Jim. I want to say I’m sorry. I was horrid to you last night. I said some nasty, vicious things. I’m really sorry.”

They clasped hands. The last light faded in the west; but the whole evening stretched before them.

 

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