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A Bit on the Side

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IN THE JAPANESE CAFE he helped her off with her coat and took it to the line of hooks beneath the sign that absolved the management of responsibility for its safety. They weren’t the first in the cage, although it was early, ten past eight. The taxi-driver who came in most mornings was reading the Daily Mail in his usual corner. Two of the music students had arrived.

He hung up the coat, which still carried a faint trace of scent. Light-weight, and black, its showerproof finish as protection enough today, since the forecast they’d both heard – she in her kitchen an hour ago, he while he shaved in Dollis Hill – confidently predicted that the fine weather was here for another few days. He hadn’t brought a coat himself and he didn’t wear a hat in summer.

From the table they always sat at, side by side so that they could see the street where the office workers were beginning to hurry by, she watched him patting a pocket of his jacket, making sure his cigarettes and lighter were there. Something was different this morning; on the walk from Chiltern Street she had sensed, for an instant only, that their love affair was not as it had been yesterday. Almost always they met in Chiltern Street, their two journeys converging there. Neither ever waited: when one or other was late they made do with meeting in the café.

‘All right?’ she asked. ‘All right?’ She kept anxiety out of her tone; no need for it, why should it be there? She knew about the touchiness of love: almost always, it was misplaced.

‘Absolutely,’ he said, and then their coffee came, his single croissant with it, the Japanese waitress smiling. ‘Absolutely,’ he repeated, breaking his croissant in half.

Another of the music students arrived, the one with the clarinet case. Then a couple from the hotel in George Street came in, Americans, who sat beneath the picture of the sea wave, whose voices – ordering scrambled eggs and ham – placed them geographically. The regular presence of such visitors from overseas suggested that breakfast in the nearby hotel was more expensive than it was here.

The lovers who had met in Chiltern Street were uneasy, in spite of efforts made by both of them. Discomfiture had flickered in his features when he’d been asked if everything was all right: now, at least, that didn’t show. She hadn’t been convinced by his reassurance and, within minutes, her own attempt to reassure herself hadn’t made much sense: this, in turn, she kept hidden.

She reached out to flick a flake of croissant from his chin. It was the kind of thing they did, he turning up the collar of her coat when it was wrong, she straightening his tie. Small gestures made, their way of possessing one another in moments they made their own, not that they ever said.

‘I just thought,’ she began to say, and watched him shake his head.

‘How good you look!’ he murmured softly. He stroked the back of her hand with his fingertips, which he often did, just once, the same brief gesture.

‘I miss you all the time,’ she said.

She was thirty-nine, he in his mid-forties. Their relationship had begun as an office romance, before computers and their software filched a living from her. She had moved on of necessity, he of necessity had remained: he had a family to support in Dollis Hill. These days they met as they had this morning, again at lunchtime in the Paddington Street Gardens or the picture gallery where surreptitiously they ate their sandwiches when it was wet, again at twenty to six in the Running Footman.

He was a man who should have been, in how he dressed, untidy. His easy, lazily expansive gestures, his rugged, often sunburnt features, his fair hair stubborn in its disregard of his intentions, the weight he was inclined to put on, all suggested a nature that would resist sartorial demands. In fact, he was quite dressily turned out, this morning in pale lightweight trousers and jacket, blue Eton shirt, his tie striped blue and red. It was a contradiction in him she had always found attractive.

She herself, today, besides the black of her showerproof coat, wore blue and green, the colours repeated in the flimsy silk of her scarf. Her smooth black hair was touched with grey which she made no attempt to disguise, preferring to make the most of what the approach of middle age allowed. She would have been horrified if she’d put on as much as an ounce; her stratagems saw to it that she didn’t. Eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, unblemished neck: no single feature stood out, their combination necessary in the spare simplicity of her beauty. Good earrings – no more than dots, and never absent – were an emphasis that completed what was already there.

‘Have your cigarette,’ she said.

He slipped the cellophane from a packet of Marlboro. They talked about the day, predicting what it would bring. She was secretary to a businessman, the managing director of a firm that imported fashion clothes, he an accountant. A consignment of Italian trouser-suits had failed to reach the depot in Shoreditch, had still been missing the evening before. She spoke of that; he of a man called Bannister, in the patio business, who had been under-declaring his profits, which meant he would have to be dismissed as a client. He had been written to yesterday: this morning there’d be an outraged telephone call in response.

The taxi-driver left the café, since it was almost half past eight now and the first of the traffic wardens would be coming on. From where they sat they watched him unlock his cab, parked across the street. With its orange light gleaming, he drove away.

‘You’re worried,’ she said, not wanting to say it, pursuing what she sensed was best left.

He shook his head. Bannister had been his client, his particularly, he said; he should have known. But it wasn’t that and she knew it wasn’t. They were lying to one another, she suddenly thought, lies of silence or whatever the term was. She sensed their lies although she hardly knew what her own were, in a way no more than trying to hide her nervousness.

‘They suit you,’ he said. ‘Your Spanish shoes.’

They’d bought them, together, two days ago. She’d asked and the girl had said they were Spanish. He’d meant to say they suited her then, but the bagwoman who was usually in Chiltern Street at that time had shuffled by and he’d had to grope in his pocket for her twenty pence.

‘They’re comfortable,’ she said. ‘Surprisingly so.’

‘You thought they mightn’t be.’

‘Yes. I did.’

It was here, at this same table, that she had broken the news of her divorce, not doing so – not even intimating her divorce – until her marriage’s undoing was absolute. Her quiet divorce, she had called it, and didn’t repeat her husband’s protest when the only reason she had offered him was that their marriage had fallen apart. ‘No, there is no one else,’ she had deftly prevaricated, and hadn’t passed that on either. ‘I would have done it anyway,’ she had insisted in the café, though knowing that she might not have. She was happier, she had insisted, too. She felt uncluttered, a burden of duty and restriction lifted from her. She’d wanted that.

‘Wire gauze, I suppose,’ he said, the subject now a cat that was a nuisance, coming in the bedroom windows of his house.

Although such domestic details were sometimes touched upon – his house, his garden, the neighborhood of Dollis Hill – his family remained mysterious, never described or spoken of. Since the divorce, he had visited the flat her husband had moved out of, completing small tasks for her, a way of being involved in another part of her life. But her flat never seemed quite right, so used had they become to their love affair conducted elsewhere and differently.

He paid and left a tip. He picked up his old, scuffed briefcase from where he’d leant it against a leg of their table, then held her coat for her. Outside, the sun was just becoming warm. She took his arm as they turned from Marylebone High Street into George Street. These streets and others like them were where their love affair belonged, its places – more intimately – the Japanese café and the Paddington Street Gardens, the picture gallery, the Running Footman. This part of London felt like home to both of them, although her flat was miles away, and Dollis Hill further still.

They walked on now, past the grey bulk of the Catholic church, into Manchester Square, Fitzhardinge Street, then to her bus stop. Lightly they embraced when the bus came. She waved when she was safely on it.

WALKING BACK THE WAY THEY'D COME, he didn’t hurry, his battered briefcase light in his right hand, containing only his lunchtime sandwiches. He passed the picture gallery again, scaffolding ugly on its façade. A porter was polishing the brass of the hotel doors, people were leaving the church.
Still slowly, he made his way to Dorset Street, where his office was. When she’d worked there, too, everyone had suspected and then known – but not that sometimes in the early morning, far earlier than this, they had crept together up the narrow stairs, through a dampish smell before the air began to circulate in the warren that partitions created. The wastepaper basket had usually been cleared the night before, perfunctory hovering had taken place; a tragedy it always was if the cleaners had decided to come in the morning instead and still were there.

All that seemed long ago now and yet a vividness remained: the cramped space on the floor, the hurrying footsteps heard suddenly on the stairs, dust brushed from her clothes before he attended to his own. Even when she was no longer employed there they had a couple of times made use of the office in the early morning, but she never wanted to and they didn’t anymore. Too far away to be visited at lunchtime, her flat had never come into its own in this way after the divorce. Now and again, not often, he managed a night there, and it was then that there were the tasks she had saved up for him, completed before they left together in the morning.
He thought about her, still on the bus, downstairs near the back, her slim black handbag on her lap, her Spanish shoes. What had she noticed? Why had she said, ‘All right?’ and said it twice? Not wanting to and trying not to, he had passed on a mood that had begun in him, the gnawing of disquiet he didn’t want to explain because he wasn’t able to, because he didn’t understand it. When she’d said she missed him all the time, he should have said he missed her in that same way, because he did, because he always had.
When he had settled himself in the partitioned area of office space allocated to him, when he had opened the window and arranged in different piles the papers that constituted the work he planned for the morning, the telephone rang.

‘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

‘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.’

She had never asked, she did not know, why it was he would not leave his marriage. His reason, she had supposed, was all the reasons there usually were. They would not walk this evening by the murky public house, or call in at the off-license for wine. She would not see him differently in her flat, at home there and yet not quite. It was extraordinary that so much should end because of something slight. She wondered what it would feel like, waking up in the night, not knowing immediately what the dread she’d woken to was, searching her sudden consciousness and finding there the empty truth and futile desperation.

‘It’s no more than an expression,’ she said.

He knew she understood, in spite of all her protestations; as he had when she arranged her divorce. It had become an agitation for her, being married to someone else, but he had never minded that she was. A marriage that had died, and being haunted by how people considered the person you loved, were far from the heart of love itself; yet these had nagged. They would grow old together while never being together, lines ravaging her features, eyes dulled by expectation’s teasing. They would look back from their rare meetings as the years closed over this winning time and take solace from it. Was that there, too, in the bagwoman’s eyes, and idly passing through strangers’ half-interested reflections?

‘I haven’t explained this well,’ he said, and heard her say there was tomorrow. He shook his head. No, not tomorrow, he said.

FOR LONGER THAN JUST TODAY she had been ready for that because of course you had to be. Since the beginning she had been ready for it, and since the beginning she had been resolute that she would not claw back fragments from the debris. He was wrong; he had explained it well.
She listened while again he said he loved her, and watched while he reached out for the briefcase she had so often wanted to replace yet could not. She smiled a little, standing up to go.

Outside, drinkers had congregated on the pavement, catching the last of the sun. They walked through them, her coat over his arm, picked up from where she’d draped it on the back of her chair. He held it for her, and waited while she buttoned it and casually tied the belt.
In the plate-glass of a department-store window their reflection was arrested while they embraced. They did not see that image recording for an instant a stylishness they would not have claimed as theirs, or guessed that in their love affair, they had possessed. Unspoken, understood, their rules of love had not been broken in the distress of ending what was not ended and never would be. Nothing of love had been destroyed today: they took that with them as they drew apart and walked away from one another, unaware that the future was less bleak than now it seemed, that in it there still would be the delicacy of their reticence, and they themselves as love had made them for a while.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of PenguinGroup (USA) Inc., from SELECTED STORIES by William Trevor.
Copyright © 2009 by William Trevor
 

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