She lay quite still; watching him.
The reflection in the wardrobe mirror showed him to her. A tall, lean young man without the paunchiness of middle-age or even the mature roundness of the thirties.
The question was thrown over his shoulder; casual; matter of fact.
‘I’d love one.’
She heard her own voice; calm, unemotional. Not the voice that had cried out with pleasure just a few moments ago.
She could hear him in the lounge now, mixing the drinks, taking his time. Waiting. Delaying. Giving her time to cover herself.
‘I can’t find the soda!’
The excuse floated back into the bedroom. Always an excuse. They were never anxious to see her naked body once the love-making was over. It was one of the unwritten rules of the game.
‘It’s in there somewhere,’ she called back. ‘Probably in the glass cabinet.’
Slipping her arms into her house-coat, she buttoned it to the top and quickly rearranged her make-up.
When he came back to the room he hesitated at the door, only momentarily but long enough to give her notice of his entrance.
The warrior returning to the battlefield, she thought, even though the skirmish was over, the enemy conquered. The disarrayed sheets formed the hillocks and trenches of no-man’s land, and the unclean peace of an armistice filled the room.
‘Thank you, darling.’ Her hand trembled only slightly as she took the glass. ‘Here’s to us!’
‘To us,’ he answered, then drank slowly. Very slowly.
‘Pat was telling me she saw you at the Dixon’s party the other evening.’ She tried to make it sound casual. ‘Did you enjoy it?’
< 2 >
‘The usual thing. Everybody talking and saying nothing. And Sally Dixon spreading gossip like an ancient sower of seeds – indiscriminately scattering vicious rumours in the nicest possible way, of course.’
‘Of course.’ Her smile was unconvincing. ‘And was there anyone new there? Anyone interesting?’
‘All Sally’s acquaintances are interesting. Like the amoeba is interesting to the biologist or excreta to the dung-beetle.’
She laughed. But the answer was too glib. ‘Was it really that bad?’
‘Decaying, my darling, but not quite bad.’
‘So I suppose you left early?’
The question slipped out and his reply bordered on indignation. ‘Yes, I did, as a matter of fact.’
She flushed up. Checked herself. Don’t push too hard, she told herself. Don’t pry.
‘I’d love another one of these, darling.’ She waved the empty glass at him as a symbol of truce.
With the briefest of smiles he took it, his eyes telling her that he didn’t give a damn what she’d heard or what she knew.
Eyes say so much, she thought. They pass love, hate, desire, disgust between two people . Silently. Like aphonic electricity. If she didn’t look at his eyes she could go on pretending.
‘As a matter of fact there was someone new at the party.’
Why did he always say “As a matter of fact” when what he meant was “If you really want the truth then here it is”.
‘Anyone I might know?’ She had to ask now the game was opened up.
He shrugged. ‘Don’t think so. A friend of Ted Rogers. Pert little thing. I remember thinking what an amusing pastime she’d make if she wasn’t so obviously inexperienced. Maybe Ted’s breaking her in.’ He paused, calculatingly. ‘Not your sort though, dear. Too . . . ‘ He pretended to search for the appropriate word.
< 3 >
She found it for him. ‘Young?’
‘I was going to say naive. But young will do equally well.’
She bit her lip; wanting to hit him; wanting to smash that arrogantly handsome face. That boyish, unlined face.
‘You must introduce her to me. Maybe we’ll find we have something in common after all.’
‘I don’t think so, darling. She’s the active sort. Tennis, swimming, waving Union Jacks at The Proms. All sweat and enthusiasm. The sort of things one does in one’s youth.’
Bastard! Rotten bastard! ‘She must have other interests? Less demanding pastimes?’
‘Pastimes?’ The word rolled around his tongue like a fruity wine. ‘I’m not sure what you mean?’
Liar! Bloody liar! You know damn well what I mean.
‘She must have other admirers apart from Ted? In my day –‘
She stopped herself; too late.’
‘In your day?’
‘You were about to say that in your day? . . . What was it like in your day?’ His enjoyment was obvious. ‘Do tell, darling. It’s always fascinating to learn about times past. The good old days.’
There was a pause. A long, long pause. Then, with a slight quiver in her voice, she said, ‘Gerald has asked us down for the week-end. Do you think you can make it?’
‘Does he really expect me to?’
‘Of course. He enjoys your company.’
‘Come off it, Marjorie. What have a retired bank manager and I got in common — apart from you, that is?’ He watched her closely as he twisted the knife. ‘Does he enjoy seeing us holding hands, watching us retire together for the night, listening to the harsh sounds of love in the bedroom next door? Have you any idea what he feels when that happens?’
< 4 >
She laughed, uncertainly. ‘Don’t be silly, darling. He doesn’t mind. He’s quite broad-minded.’
‘You don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, do you? It’s not a question of being broad-minded, my sweet. It’s a question of jealousy, hatred, resentment . . . the resentment of stubborn old age.’
She looked puzzled. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘No. No you don’t do you?’
‘You think he’s in love with me? Fancies me? Is that what’s worrying you?’ Her voice suggested a certain self-esteem. ‘But that’s ridiculous. Gerald’s so –‘
‘Old?’ He finished the sentence for her. ‘There’s no age limit on love, my darling. Only on love-making.’
‘You think he’s jealous of you ?’ she asked.
‘Of both of us.’ The look of bewilderment on her face only added to his enjoyment of the moment. ‘Maybe he resents your perpetual youth? Your sexual vigour? Perhaps he envies your unnatural talent for screwing people half your age.’
She tried to laugh it off. ‘Now you’re being silly.’
‘Am I? Maybe somehow you’ve stumbled on the elixir of youth. Life’s great secret. More precious than money. More envied than riches.’
‘I don’t find that very funny.’
‘Then why continue the joke?’ An overtone of triumph pervaded his voice. ‘A farce is only amusing when everyone realises it’s so obviously ridiculous.’
‘But not so ridiculous when the audience is paid to participate.’ The words were spat out without thinking.
‘At last!,’ he said spitefully.’ The bitter truth. The wisdom of age.’
They faced each other; their bodies taut, unyielding. Then slowly the woman’s body slackened, surrendered, deflated like a balloon into wrinkled submission.
< 5 >
‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured. ‘It’s silly to quarrel like this. I told myself that this time we wouldn’t quarrel.’ She waited for his agreement. It never came. Reaching into a drawer she brought out a small package. ‘I bought you a present. I happened to be passing a shop and –‘
‘You mean you deliberately went there to buy something,’ he interrupted firmly.
‘No, I just happened — ‘
‘For God’s sake let’s stop all this bloody pretence! You went to the shop and asked for something expensive. Something good enough to barter for a young, supple body. Maybe you didn’t say it in so many words. You never do. That’s all part of the game. A kind of sophisticated Snakes and Ladders. Up the ladder of pretence and down, down the slippery snake whenever we get too close to reality.’
‘You’re really in good form tonight,’ she said bitterly.
‘I’m always in good form. That’s what you pay me for . . . Oh, don’t tell me you’re shocked? You find that distasteful? The sex may be satisfying but the conversation’s disgusting. Down the snake and back to square one.’
‘I think you’d better go.’
‘And just when I was beginning to enjoy myself . . . for the first time this evening.’
‘But that’s my vocation. My job. To please. Give pleasure. You know I actually studied law at university. My parents wanted me to become a barrister. But it was all so dull. Dismal. And such hard work. Even harder than this . . . and not nearly so rewarding.’
She fumbled for the gift, holding it out to him, hopefully, like a child offering a favourite toy in return for a brief smile.
But he didn’t even smile. The game was over. She knew it. No amount of pretence could restore the make-believe. They may play the thing out to the end, but it really was the end this time.
< 6 >
He flicked open the small box. ‘Cuff links. Just what I wanted.’
‘Gold,’ she said.
‘I’m sure they are.’
‘The man said if you didn’t like them — ‘
‘I could return them and he’d refund the money.’ He paused. ‘How kind of him. I can’t think what happened to the last pair you gave me. Lost, I suppose.’
They stood, silently awkward.
‘Better be off,’ he said. ‘Busy night. Never a dull moment . . . Thanks again for the present.’
She nodded and watched as he picked up the expensive overcoat he’d casually thrown on the armchair. It always seemed out of place against the rich gold brocade; a temporary covering, soon to be removed.
Opening the door, he turned as if to say something, then changed his mind, shrugged and walked out.
She stared at the closed door for some time, seeing the dark oak panels streaked here and there with a lighter grain — like tears running over heavy make-up, etching lines through the perfumed powder, rolling over flabby cheeks and settling in the creases of ageing skin.
Another game was over. And she’d lost. Again.