A Bit on the Side


‘Hey!’ the voice of the patio-layer, Bannister, rumbustiously protested. ‘What’s all this bloody hoo-ha then?’

‘IT WOULD HAVE BEEN TUESDAY,’ she said. ‘Tuesday of last week. The twenty-fourth.’

There was silence, a muffled disturbance then, a hand placed over the receiver.

‘We’ll ring you back,’ someone she hadn’t been talking to before promised. ‘Five minutes.’

The consignment of trouser suits had gone to York, another voice informed her when she telephoned again. There was ninety percent certainty about that. The Salvadore dresses had been on their way to York; the trouser suits must somehow have taken that route too.

Hours later, when the morning had passed, when there’d been further telephone calls and faxes sent and faxes received, when the missing trouser-suits had definitely been located in York, when they’d been loaded to a van and conveyed at speed to London, the crisis was recounted in the Paddington Street Gardens. So was the fury of the patio-layer Bannister, the threats of legal action, the demands that fees already charged and paid should in the circumstances be returned.

‘Could he have a case?’ Not just politely, she took an interest, imagining the anger on the telephone, the curt responses to it, for naturally no sympathy could be shown.

Listening, she opened the plastic container of the salad she had picked up on her way from the Prêt à Manger in Orchard Street. He had already unwrapped his sandwiches, releasing a faint whiff of Marmite. Edges of lettuce poked out from between slices of white bread. Not much nourishment in that, she’d thought when first she’d seen his sandwiches, but had not said. There usually was egg or tomato as well, which was better; made for him that morning in Dollis Hill.

SMALL AND SEDATE – no walking on the grass – the Gardens were where a graveyard once had been, which for those who knew added a frisson to the atmosphere. But bright with roses today, there was nothing somber about the place for those who didn’t. Girls sunbathed in this brief respite from being inside, men without their jackets strolled leisurely about. A lawnmower was started up by a young man with a baseball cap turned back to front. Escaping from a Walkman, jazz for an instant broke the Gardens’ rule and was extinguished swiftly.

She didn’t want the salad she was eating. She wanted to replace the transparent lid and carry the whole thing to one of the black rubbish bins, and then sit down again beside him and take his hand, not saying anything. She wanted them to sit there while he told her what the trouble was, while all the other office people went away and the Gardens were empty except for themselves and the young mothers with their children in the distant playground. She wanted to go on sitting there, not caring, either of them, about the afternoon that did not belong to them. But she ate slowly on, as he did too, pigeons hovering a yard away.

It was the divorce, she speculated; it was the faltering at last of his acceptance of what she’d done. It wasn’t difficult to imagine him lying awake at nights, more and more as time went by, for longer and longer, feeling trapped by the divorce. He would hear the breathing of his wife, a murmur from a dream; a hand would involuntarily reach out. He would watch the light breaking the dark, slivers at first at the edges of the curtains through which marauding cats had been known to pass. He would try to think of something else, to force into his consciousness a different time of his life, childhood, the first day in an office and all the strangeness there had been. But always, instead, there was what there was.

‘It’s over, isn’t it?’ she said.

He screwed up the foil that had wrapped his sandwiches and lobbed it into the bin nearest to where they sat. He nearly always didn’t miss it. He didn’t now.

‘I’m using up your life,’ he said.

Her unfinished salad was on the seat between them, where his briefcase was too. When they’d been employed in the same office their surreptitious lunches among the dozy attendants in the picture gallery hadn’t been necessary when it rained; there’d been the privacy of his partitioned space, a quietness in the building then, sometimes a transistor playing gently behind a closed door, usually not even that. But always they had preferred their picnic in the Gardens.

‘It’s what I want,’ she said.

‘You deserve much more.’

‘Is it the divorce?’ and in the same flat tone she added, ‘But I wanted that too, you know. For my own sake.’

He shook his head. ‘No, not the divorce,’ he said.

‘NO END TO THE HEATWAVE they can't see,’ Nell the tea-woman remarked pouring his tea from a huge metal teapot, milk already added, two lumps of sugar on the saucer. She was small and wiry, near the end of her time: when she went there’d be a drinks machine instead