I know it’s not right, but everyone does it, don’t they? Ok, you get the odd old school, uptight nut who actually manages to keep their trousers on, but most people don’t say no to a bit on the side.
Particularly when you’re being treated the way I am.
It’s not that I’ve said anything, mind. She won’t change, not Steph. She just goes on about it being her career, says she’s doing it for us, all that old guff.
And what kind of a bloke starts bleating on about his feelings, eh? Just like Granddad used to say, ‘We didn’t win the war by complaining.’
So, I’m just dealing with it my own way and it’s working out fine. Better than that, in fact. Lucy’s really kind. She listens to me and looks after me.
And ok, hands up, I confess… the other benefits aren’t half bad either!
It’s not as if that’s what it’s all about, of course. I just like having someone around. I reckon she’s a bit lonely too and everyone needs a hug, don’t they?
It’s just a little bit of fun, that’s all. Two people, not doing anything else in the evenings, it doesn’t cause any harm, does it?
It’s a nice little flat she’s got too, even if these stairs are on the steep side. She would have to be on the top floor, wouldn’t she?
Oh, that’s a cute touch. Loving your work, Lucy baby. A bottle of beer stuck to the knocker, with a note. A taster to start you off…
* * *
It takes a moment for the door to open, just like I knew it would. She’s dumping the apron and checking her make-up. I’m not daft, I can do the brains thing, the same as Steph. It’s just that I don’t let it take over my life.
‘Hi!’ Lucy chirps, as she opens the door. We share a cuddle and kiss, all slow and lingering in the cosy half-light of the lounge. Her perfume is musky, just the way I like it. She’s not the best looking of girls, but she does her best with those brown eyes and long, shiny-sleek hair.
It’s the figure I really went for, I suppose. That’s always been my sweet tooth. We met at the gym and she sure knows how to fill a running top.
‘Do you often wear heels to cook in?’ I ask, as Lucy teeters back to the kitchen at the end of the room.
‘Only when there’s something special on the menu,’ she replies, with an arched eyebrow.
The shoes look new to me, as does the skirt. Beneath it, there’s a flirting hint of stockings. A side door is half open as if waiting, the bed neatly made.
For a second I wonder if I’m getting in deeper than I should. But I’m here now and dinner smells great.
We can just sit and chat, listen to some music, snuggle up a bit. It doesn’t have to be any more than that. The condoms can always stay safely in my pocket.
But then, I think I remember saying that before, don’t I?
* * *
Dinner is a Moroccan lamb thing, which tastes much better than it looks. I’ve bought a not-so-fine corner shop wine, but Lucy diplomatically puts it on the side and brings out a bottle of Bordeaux. Her nails are carefully painted, the same shade as the wine.
We sit across a little table, candle in the middle, music lulling away in the background. ‘How’re you doing, then?’ she asks. ‘You sounded down when we chatted at the gym.’
‘It’s just work stuff, you know. There’s a lot on. But it keeps me entertained.’
You’ve got your pride, but it must be obvious that’s a lie. I’m a building control officer at the council, which is about as exciting as a lifelong party political broadcast.
The shadows flicker across Lucy’s face. It might be the wine, or her eyes, but I can feel myself relaxing into her company, like easing into a warm bath of contentment.
Ok, I’m not out having a beer with my mates, my standard cover story, but I’m with a woman who isn’t always on her phone, or falling asleep because she’s so tired from work. And it’s not as though Steph would be home anyway, not these days. So what’s the harm?
‘What about you?’ I ask, and Lucy talks about some of the vintages she’s just shipped in. She’s a wine merchant, which probably explains her reaction to the bottle I bought. I reckon it’s more of a hobby than serious job – her family are well off – but she enjoys it.
I hesitate as we sit down on the sofa, keep a little apart, and Lucy spots it. ‘Don’t worry,’ she soothes. ‘I’m not a gossip, you know that.’
It’s true enough. In the month we’ve been – how do I put it? – special friends? She hasn’t pressured me at all, hasn’t said a word to anyone.
But there’s still a tic in my mind. Maybe it’s guilt, or perhaps it’s the one thing I remember from English lessons at school. There is a promise made in any bed, a line from some play, The Crucible, I think? It stuck in my head because Mum and Dad were getting divorced at the time and I heard her yelling at him about another woman.
Lucy reaches out, gently takes my hand and starts massaging between my fingers. It feels so good I don’t even think to stop her, just say, ‘I don’t understand what you see in me. I mean… you know about… home and… well, you know.’
‘Who can explain chemistry?’ she replies, simply. ‘I think you just need a friend. And maybe so do I.’
She edges closer, skirt slipping up her legs. Her touch transports me to a land of smiles, where I’m the most important part of someone’s world.
The massaging reaches my shoulders, and I close my eyes and lean into her. ‘I need to get at your back properly,’ Lucy whispers, and starts unbuttoning my shirt.
* * *
It’s like having two bickering demons – Remonstrations and Justifications – on my shoulders on the way home. I hardly notice I’m almost back at the flat, but just realise in time for the necessities of unfaithfulness.
There’s a pub around the corner, so I knock back a quick half, check I’m not looking too dishevelled, and slap a little of the ale on my face to mask any lingering perfume. Then I wonder what to do with the text I’ve just got from Lucy: Incredible night, you make me feel so special. Thank you for coming round. Remember, I’m always here if you need me. xxx
It should be deleted straight away, disappeared and done with, just in case. But…
I can’t quite bring myself to do it. I guess maybe I need to feel someone appreciates me at the moment. My finger hovers over the trash button, but then I have an idea. In the contacts, I change Lucy’s name to Liam. How about that for a solution? Smart move, you clever boy.
I’ve already spotted Steph watching me a couple of times when I’ve keyed in the PIN code for my mobile. I reckon she might even know it. Now, if – God forbid – she should get into the phone and see the message, she’ll just think it’s one of my mates larking around.
That’s the business of deceit. It’s all about anticipation.
Surprise surprise, Steph is asleep on the sofa, a blanket around her and a book on her chest. Her hair is straggling across her face, and her super-expensive, city slicker designer jacket and shoes are strewn around the lounge. I’m sure she’s put on weight. She never has time to get to the gym these days.
I wonder whether to gently stroke her face to rouse her, but can’t bring myself to do it. Instead I make a bit of noise and she starts awake.
‘I wanted to wait up for you,’ she smiles, dozily.
‘Well, it almost worked.’
‘Did you have a good night?’
‘Yes, thanks,’ I reply, and quickly change the subject. ‘How was your day?’
‘Oh, hectic, as ever.’
Steph glances at her watch, and I just about stop myself from saying Sorry to keep you. There’s a silence, then she asks, ‘How were the boys?’
She hesitates, then adds, ‘You’ve been out with them a lot, lately.’ She glances at my phone again and looks frightened of what she’s about to say.
‘You’re not… I mean… there isn’t… someone else?’
I wonder if I haven’t cleaned myself up enough, if she can smell perfume, whether she knows something. What to say, what to say? I hate lying to her, even if I’ve got plenty of practice lately. Then I remember a story from the paper, about politicians and the indispensable art of non-denial denials.
‘I only go out with my mates because you’re never here,’ I reply, using the hurt to hide the wobble in my voice.
‘I do it for us!’ she protests.
‘At this rate, there’s not going to be any us. The only us is me and an empty flat. It’s been six months since you were promoted and it’s just got worse and worse.’
Steph recoils, as if she’s been physically shoved. ‘But… I’ve got to prove what I can do to make the job mine. It’s what we said. So we can actually afford to buy a place of our own.’
‘And it’s nothing to do with your career?’ I can’t help goading. ‘Ambition? The big city life?’
‘That’s maybe a part of it, I admit, but…’ Steph closes her eyes, breathes out hard and the sharpness seems to fade away. She’s exhausted; it’s in her eyes, the shakiness of her hands. ‘Look, let’s not row, please. Shall we talk about it at the weekend?’
I’m not a bastard, however much I might act like one. I do love the woman, I really do. It’s just… where the hell is she when I need her? You can’t have a relationship with yourself, can you?
‘Yeah, ok,’ I relent, because she looks so miserable. ‘But can you get home at a decent time tomorrow, so we can go out for a drink and something to eat?’
‘I’d love that.’
She smiles and holds out her arms. I ease myself in to a cuddle. But I can’t help noticing Steph smells a little unwashed, not like the musky scent of…
Ah, shit. What am I doing? Lucy’s all right, but Steph… we’ve been together for years, we’ve talked about getting married.
I’ve got to sort myself out. Be honest with her about how it’s killing us, her not being around. We can find a way through this.
Another text comes through while Steph is in the bathroom. Let’s get together again soon. I’m still glowing from tonight. Wish you were here to snuggle up with. Night! xxx
I’ve got to be careful what I write back. Tomorrow, Steph and I are going to sort ourselves out. But if it doesn’t work, if she won’t stop doing such stupid hours, I’m going to need Lucy to fall back on.
If Steph sees the texts, my Liam for Lucy disguise isn’t going to work if it’s all too lovey-dovey. So I type, You’re funny! Had a good night too, thanks, look forward to seeing you again soon. x
That looks ok to me, just daft laddish banter. Or maybe I should delete the messages?
But… ah, it’s so good to feel wanted again.
When I emerge from the bathroom, Steph is waiting with a surprise; my favourite undies.
‘Just a little statement of intent,’ she says, coyly. ‘I’ve got to be up early in the morning, I’m sorry. But do you mind if I climb in with you for a while, instead of heading to the spare room again?’
A smile spreads across my face, I can’t help it. We give the springs a damn good test, and bloody hell it feels brilliant. I can’t remember the last time we were this spontaneous. It’s just like the old days.
We fall asleep, intertwined, and I find peace comes much easier than it has for weeks. My mind’s clear at last.
Tomorrow night we can talk and get everything sorted. Steph and I are going to get through this and make it.
We’ve talked about running away sometimes, Steph and me, taking the money and touring the world. On work days like this, it’s a beautiful fantasy.
A gang of builders have put up a load of dodgy scaffolding and the residents are threatening a sit in until the council intervenes. A couple of my staff are bickering away at each other, taking it in turns to charge into my office and complain about their jobs. And across the road, there’s a building site playing a delightful symphony in the key of pneumatic drill.
It’s only the thought of getting home, going out for a meal with Steph, having some time together and maybe even another night like yesterday that keeps me going.
I’ll tell Lucy next week. In fairness, I always made clear it wasn’t a long term thing. Steph and I are back on track and that’s what matters. Happiness is the end of the day and a return to the flat. But when I finally get back, I know something’s wrong.
It’s too tidy. It feels hollow, echoey, empty. Steph’s coats have disappeared from the little hallway, along with some photos.
Oh, no. No, no, no.
On the table is a note. I can see from here that it’s smudged with tears.
It feels a long walk to pick it up, and time slows down as I read –
I know we’ve had some difficult times lately and I sensed you were drifting away from me. I thought there might be someone else.
I love you, never doubt that. I wanted to be with you. I know I deserve a lot of the blame. But believe me, I want the best for you, so you can be happy.
This morning, I looked in your phone. Forgive me, but I had to know. Before tonight, and our new beginning.
If it had been a woman, I might have understood. We could have worked through that. I know I’ve not been around enough.
Please, this is so hard, but you need to be true to yourself. If that’s who you are, don’t be ashamed, rejoice in it. Love is love, whatever the form.
Goodbye, and I very much hope you and Liam find happiness together.
Simon Hall asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work