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A Bit on the Side

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‘Thanks, Nell,’ he said.

It wasn’t the divorce. He had weathered the tremors of the divorce, had admired – after the shock of hearing what so undramatically she had done – her calm resolve. He had let her brush away his nervousness, his alarm at first that this was a complication that, emotionally, might prove too much for them both.

Sipping his milky tea, he experienced a pang of desire, sharp as a splinter, an assault on his senses and his heart that made him want to go to her now, to clatter down the uncarpeted stairs and out into the fresh summer air, to take a taxi-cab, a thing he never did, to ask for her in the much smarter office building that was hers, and say when she stepped out of that life that of course they could not do without one another.

He shuffled through the papers that were his afternoon’s work. I note your comments regarding Section TMA (1970), he read, but whilst it is Revenue policy not to invoke the provisions of Section 88 unless there is substantial delay it is held that when the delay continues beyond the following April 5 these provisions are appropriate. Under all the circumstances, I propose to issue an estimated assessment which will make good an apparent loss of tab due to the Crown.

He scribbled out his protest and added it to the pile for typing. She was the stronger of the two, stoical, and being stoical was what he’d always loved. Deprived of what they had, she would manage better, even if the circumstances suggested that she wouldn’t.

He wasn’t in the Running Footman when she arrived. He usually was, and no matter what, she knew he’d come. When he did he bought her drinks, since this evening it was his turn. He carried them to where she kept a seat for him. Sherry it was for her, medium dry. His was the week’s red wine, from Poland. Muzak was playing, jazzy and sentimental.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said before he said anything else.

‘I’m happy, you know.’ She intended to say more. She’d thought all that out during the afternoon, her sentences comprosed and ready. But in his company she was aware that none of that was necessary: it was he, not she, who had to do the talking. He said, again, that she deserved much more; and repeated, too, that he was using up her life.

Then, for the forty minutes that were theirs, they spoke of love: as it had been for them, as it still was, of its confinement, necessarily so, its intensity too, its pain, its mockery it had so often felt like, how they had never wasted it by sitting in silence in the dark of a cinema, or sleeping through the handful of nights they’d spent together in her flat. They had not wasted it in lovers’ quarrels, or lovers’ argument. They did not waste it now, in what they said.

‘Why?’ she murmured when their drinks were almost finished, when the Running Footman was noisier than it had been before, other office workers happy that their day was done. ‘Please.’

He did not answer, then dragged the words out. It was in people’s eyes, he said. In Chiltern Street it was what the bagwoman he gave alms to saw, and the taxi-driver in the Japanese café, and their waitress there, and the sleepy attendants of the picture gallery, and people who glanced at them in the Gardens. In all the places of their love affair – here too – it was what people saw. She was his bit on the side.

‘I can’t bear it that they think that.’

‘It doesn’t matter what people think. Come to the flat now.’

He shook his head. She’d known he would: impulses had never been possible. It was nothing, what he was saying; of course it didn’t matter. She said so again, a surge of relief gathering. More than anything, more than ever before in all the time they’d been in love, she wanted to be with him, to watch him getting his ticket for the tube, to walk with him past the murky King and Queen public house at the corner of India Street, the betting shop, the laundrette. Four times he’d been to the flat: two-day cases, in Liverpool or Norwich. She’d never wanted to know what he said in Dollis Hill.

‘I don’t mind in the least,’ she said, ‘what people think. Really I don’t.’ She smiled, her hand on his arm across the table, her fingers pressing. ‘Of course not.’

He looked away and she, too, found herself staring at the brightly lit bottles behind the bar. ‘My God, I do,’ he whispered. ‘My God, I mind.’

‘And also, you know, it isn’t true.’

‘You’re everything to me. Everything in this world.’

‘Telephone,’ she said, her voice low, too, the relief she’d felt draining away already. ‘Things can come up suddenly.’ It had always been he who had made the suggestion about his visiting her flat, and always weeks before the night he had in mind. ‘No, no,’ she said. ‘No, no. I’m sorry.’

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