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‘One can expect nothing good to come out of Birmingham – even your Jane Austen got that right,’ Nicholas declared, pushing away his plate.
I knew better than to object that he had taken the quotation out of context. Nicholas was not a man for Jane Austen, and to defend her against his charge of being bourgeois would be to open myself to not quite tender ridicule.
‘But since Birmingham lies between Coventry and Worcester, I suppose that’s where it must be,’ Nicholas continued. ‘Now, Marion, your train gets in at 10.37―’
‘And it takes a good five minutes to walk through the Pallassades―’
Nicholas winced extravagantly. ‘If only they could have spelt it correctly… Then you will walk up New Street. You will go into Paradise Forum. No. No, that’s far too―’ He sought for the mot juste.
‘Might not the Library be more appropriate?’ I suggested, wearying of his game.
‘That building that Prince Charles stigmatised as being more fit to burn books than to store them?’ Nicholas liked to educate me. ‘If you insist. You will go to the Enquiry Desk, collect some leaflets, and then turn to leave the building. As you walk down the steps to the fountain, you will, quite by chance –’ and at this point he smiled – ‘catch sight of me. We are colleagues, Marion, who know each other only distantly, but whom it would be discourteous for either of us to ignore. Then we will fall into step. And the rest of the day is ours!’
If I had been about to baulk, his smile – impish, infectious – melted me. His eyes were gleaming. They were so blue against his fine, pale skin he might have been wearing those cosmetic contact lenses.
‘Let me see,’ he continued, ‘at which conference did we meet, Marion?’ He paused while the waitress offered the dessert menu.
Clearly I was not expected to tell the banal truth. If Birmingham was scarcely a romantic trysting place, how would you describe Manchester, particularly on a wet Saturday? But that was where we’d both gone – separately, in those days – to discuss the rigours of A Level English.
‘Post-structuralist approaches to D H Lawrence,’ I said. ‘So we must have met at Nottingham University. Perhaps you dived dramatically into the lake to rescue me.’
He looked blank. Oh, dear: he could never have been to Nottingham. If only I could make better jokes. He hardly ever laughed at anything I said these days, though he once said he’d chosen me for my wit. I found that as hard to believe then as I did now, though I suppose there wasn’t much else about me to attract anyone. I was no lovely bimbo, after all, while he – yes, he was very attractive. He’d kept both hair – a dark gold – and figure. Perhaps men aged better than women. I watched him turning the power of his smile of the pretty young waitress. He had the most beautiful teeth, immaculately white and even, except for one top one at the front. The second incisor had somehow managed to escape the attentions of an orthodontist. He would tell you that he never saw a dentist at all until he went to university: his family was poor when every other white South African family was rich. I’d never quite understood why the family returned to the UK, but they left one poverty for another, colder one. And Nicholas, a bright boy with a funny accent, was bullied. The first time we went to bed, he told me about the bullying and I wept on his chest.
He pushed away the menu. ‘You know,’ he said to the waitress, giving her the full warmth of his smile, ‘I’m sure you could rustle up some decent cheese and biscuits – no, bread, not biscuits – if you tried.’ He turned to me. ‘No, I’ve never mentioned Nottingham to Claire.’
‘I’m afraid there’ll be a supplement,’ the waitress said.
‘I’m sure you can sort out that little problem,’ he said, winking at her.
She blushed – it was a very intimate wink – and flitted away.
‘No,’ he continued, returning his attention to me. ‘Not Nottingham. I’ve never mentioned Nottingham.’
‘Are you sure? There can’t be many Midlands cities you haven’t mentioned: Hereford, Lichfield, Wolverhampton, Derby – aren’t we supposed to have visited them all?’
‘We have been to them all,’ he snapped. ‘But never Nottingham.’
We’d been to the cities, perhaps, but, unless the conferences we’d signed up for were two-day events, with overnight accommodation we could surreptitiously share, we rarely did more than register and put in a token appearance. We’d collect a programme and always hear the opening and closing speeches, so he could comment disparagingly on them to his wife. Between times we’d slip off together.
He was often tetchy. Perhaps he missed the intellectual challenge of what he’d signed up for. That was how I’d first noticed him, of course. The whole Manchester conference hall had noticed him, to be honest. Most of us were sitting dutifully writing notes. Examiners are important people, after all. One examiner, however, a woman, plain, middle-aged, was surprisingly unsure of herself. She spoke hesitantly, diffidently – and couldn’t answer one of the questions from the floor. Nicholas responded with a torrent of amusing abuse. The more she flushed and stuttered, the more viciously urbane he became. And then, sensing that he was turning her into a victim, and losing our sympathy, he turned to her with that radiant smile and a question which she could answer with a simple, ‘Yes’. At lunch, everyone wanted to speak to him, to secure him for their table. But it was me he approached.
‘I’ve had enough of English teachers in the mass,’ he said. ‘Isn’t there something special on at the Whitworth?’
We spent an agreeable afternoon dawdling round the gallery. But we parted at the station without any promises, and I didn’t expect to hear from him again.
But I’m not sure I didn’t hope I would. It was a new experience for me, to be picked out from a crowd as an attractive woman. I don’t think it had ever happened before – not since I was a young woman, at any rate.
A couple of days later, I found a postcard from him, bright, risqué, in my pigeonhole at school. No address, not even a phone number. All I knew was that he worked in a big comprehensive somewhere the far side of Worcester, and I could hardly phone round all the likely places asking for him. Even if I’d dared, even if I’d located him, I wouldn’t have known what to say to him. It was so long since I’d negotiated the perilous waters of a new relationship. My divorce from Greg wasn’t yet absolute, and I still hurt after all his years of philandering. I’d put up with it while the children and I were dependent on him: as he pointed out if I complained, I hadn’t anything to offer except mothering skills and I should be grateful he was still funding the family home. If only I hadn’t let myself go, he said.
To my surprise, I managed to get an OU degree, and then my teaching qualification. And I landed the first job I applied for, so I was able to support Caz and Neil through university. But after Greg, I made a stern resolution: I’d stay free of men. And yet here I was, half admitting that a new relationship might be … I wasn’t sure of the word. Exciting was the nearest I came.
A few days after the postcard came an envelope, franked by a school. Inside were a glossy prospectus and a compliments slip. No signature, no message. Even I realised I was being challenged. A couple of days after that came another brown envelope. Still no message: just a leaflet giving details of another training event. Lichfield, this one, on Feminist Interpretations of Chaucer. I sent a cheque off straight away, almost hoping that the invitation was nothing to do with Nicholas and that I’d be able to hear the discussion.
It was not in Lichfield but in Oxford that our relationship changed gear. In the middle of the station buffet, while we were waiting for our trains home, he removed my cup from my hand, leaned across the table and kissed me. I pushed away, speechless, shy as if I were fourteen again, bolting for my platform. It was one thing to join a friend in a little anarchic absenteeism, a scholarly skive. It was quite another to enter a sexual relationship with a married man. Yes, of course it was. I’d suffered years enough from Greg’s extra-mural activities. So had the children.
If he’d even attempted the line about wives not understanding, I wouldn’t have written back to him. He didn’t. His letter, which arrived in the common room pigeonhole alongside my union newsletter, wrote frankly about his marriage. His wife was a high-flying sales executive clearly bored with him, his children adolescents, ready like mine, it seemed, to quit the family roof for ever. It would be wrong to make assumptions, wrong to rush into anything, but was there any harm in two middle-aged people enjoying time together and hoping, at last, for happiness? Surely I realised he was promising a lifetime’s commitment?
Wolverhampton, then, and Derby and Stoke and Hereford. Even when I’d bought my first car, the first new-from-the-showroom, dire-to-insure car I’d ever had, we still went by train. He teased me about that car, as I’d hoped he would. But not quite in the way I’d hoped. It seemed I’d disappointed him with my normality, my choice of model and colour being predictable and – yes – middle class. Why hadn’t I tried to fly?
I disappointed him in bed, too. He tried to pretend I hadn’t, but it was clear something was wrong. Perhaps it was the venue – I’d booked a hotel in West Bromwich. It was less risky for me to make the arrangements, he’d insisted, for that and subsequent trysts. But my choice wasn’t always a happy one, not that you’d expect otherwise with a tight budget and only a pin and Yellow Pages for guidance. Shabbiness: that was what we found so often in the anonymous beds.
Except once. In the bath. In Sheffield.
I’d bought a dozen scented candles to float in the washbasin, to flower again in the mirror. And somehow, in the splashing of the water, in the giggling and slipperiness of it all, we discovered what I’d always longer for – passion. Enormous passion.
At least I did.
He seemed quietly depressed afterwards.
Over dinner that night, he took my hand. ‘It’s time you met my children. No excuses. We’ll meet in Birmingham over half term.’ He flicked through his diary. ‘Claire has a conference in Hull mid-week, so – yes, Wednesday will do. It’ll rain, of course. One can’t expect anything else in Birmingham.’
And then he issued his instructions.
As if to confound his predictions, Birmingham produced a glorious spring day. Wherever you looked, tubs and hanging baskets glowed with flowers. Standing at last at the top of the wide, curving sweep of steps from the Central Library to the Town Hall, I half expected a Hollywood cast straight from a Busby Berkeley movie to sing and dance its way down the civic amphitheatre. And I should have had a tight-bodiced, full-skirted dress and high-heeled shoes to swish my way down to him. Him and his children. They stood with their backs to me, looking at the Victorian fountain.
If they were teenagers, they were very small for their age.
The elder, a girl, had the same curly hair as her father, but where he was blond, she was decidedly ginger. The son was dark and stocky. Nicholas stood with a hand on each child’s shoulder. He lifted his right hand – for some reason he always wore his watch on his right wrist – to check the time. Surely, surely he should be turning round to look at me. That was what he’d planned. He would turn to me and smile in welcome. If I had to run up behind him it would make me look like an importunate stranger.
If only there were a Plan B. But Nicholas never had Plan Bs.
At last I circled along the steps.
He didn’t look round.
‘Surely – surely it can’t be Nicholas?’ I made myself say. I winced. My voice was shy, hesitant, embarrassed. Yet this man and I had shared passion in a bathroom in Sheffield.
He turned slowly and looked splendidly puzzled. Clearly he should have had a career on the stage. But perhaps he was overdoing it – you wouldn’t spend the day with someone you appeared barely to recognise.
The children stared and sighed.
‘Nicholas?’ I prompted.
‘Why, it’s – it’s Marilyn!’ he exclaimed. ‘Freya, Piers: this is a woman I met at some teachers’ do. Marilyn.’ His enunciation was perfect.
I stumbled on the last step. As I recovered, I stared at him. His smile was bland and social. Perfect from one chance acquaintance to another. But what else had I expected, when his children were with him?
‘I thought it was time these two saw the Second City sights,’ he said. ‘I thought we’d go to Brindleyplace, and then to the museum.’
‘Dad! You promised. The Wildlife Centre. You promised.’ The girl whined like a child. But then, she couldn’t have been more than eleven.
‘No!’ Her brother shoved her hard. ‘Chicken Run. You always―’
‘You’ve obviously got a busy day planned,’ I said more cordially than I felt, strapping a cheerful adult-to-child smile in place. ‘How did you get here? Train?’
‘No. Dad’s got a new car.’
Something magic? I imagined him in something long and red and glamorous.
Nicholas coughed and flushed. Suddenly I didn’t want to hear him confess.
‘You should start with the lovely fountain in Victoria Square,’ I said, brightly Mary Poppins. ‘They say it’s best at night, when it’s lit up, but it’s beautiful even by day.’
Had he brought his children for me to meet for the first of many times? Or to act as a shield while he got rid of me? Even if it were the latter, I deserved my own name. But perhaps I misjudged him. If only I could get him to myself for a moment.
The wide shallow cascade was surrounded by other half-terming children. Freya and Piers stuck close to their father, however. He was explaining the design – telling them about the strange carved marble beasts. Telling me as well, of course. Come to think of it, he was always telling me.
Then he pointed to the reclining nude woman. ‘The floozie in the Jacuzzi,’ he said, smiling.
I didn’t like his smile. As much as the words he’d used, it told me what he considered me. What he’d always thought of me.
The children were bickering again.
‘If you don’t shut up, we’re going straight back home,’ he snarled.
But I thought I’d give them a day to remember. I’d do it not just for myself but for the woman examiner and for the waitress and for all the other women Nicholas had ever used. Yes, even for his wife. A day when a quiet middle-aged woman told them clearly that her name wasn’t Marilyn but Marion. And lightly but firmly pushed their father into the fountain.
Find out more about author Judith Cutler here.