She stands by the window on the upstairs landing, which she concedes to herself is probably her favourite window in the house. There is always considerable competition. She has lived here with Peter for over twenty years, loving the house from the start, with its sweeping Somerset countryside views to the rear, even if the front view is mostly their neat estate of ‘executive housing’. The landing window overlooks their side garden and then the fields beyond. The side garden is mostly lawn, and in the early morning, blackbirds would scavenge across it, their little feet darting comically if frantically across the grass.
When the children were children, this had been a strategically useful point for checking that normal mornings were proceeding in due order and no bodies had failed to emerge. Peter had always particularly cherished their en suite bathroom; ‘it’s wonderful, Jane, to not have to compete with the kids, much as I love them; they’re so unpredictable in the morning’. The two children, Richard and Kate, could sometimes seem like a dozen. Now every morning is peaceful, and she is sometimes find herself thinking that there can be too much peace. She realises that, favourite view as it is, she seeks the distraction of it when her mind is troubled.
Now it isn’t morning, it’s Friday evening, with Peter on the weary trek back from another interminable London conference, where he’d been for four days. His optimistic time of arrival was in twenty minutes; he would normally have phoned from half an hour away, so a customary seed of anxiety within her has already found its fertile soil.
In the distance, she can see his turn-off from the M5. She thinks she might catch a glimpse of his big blue car, triggering the Friday homecoming sequence of beginning the food, choosing a wine and checking the hot water for his soak off London bath. Familiar routines to bridge the work and weekend gap, before the boat and golf clubs for occasional visits, yes, with Peter’s persona adjusting slightly from his tongue-in-cheek golf club neo-conservatism, mostly to tease some far right members, to the more scurrilous wit of the boat club, too laddish for Jane’s taste. Now and then, there would be home or away entertaining; even more occasionally, in recent months, visits from the ‘children’, one now with their own children. But mostly reading, garden pottering, picking the better television.
Her face freezes momentarily as she remembers his usual Friday returning demeanour; moody, monosyllabic, sometimes rather rumpled, his blue suit dishevelled after he’d driven in it. She suddenly sees clearly enough that her assumption that he is simply shaking off the road travel is just that – an assumption. Peter’s nature is to be where the action is, to compete, to exercise authority; does he actually find weekends tedious? Is he now sitting disconsolately in some service station bracing himself to leave the real world for what he sees as a domesticated, premature old age?
She is disturbed enough by the thought to retreat to the bedroom, sitting on the bed beside the phone willing it to ring and replace malicious speculation with routine practicalities. By the time he has bathed and had a glass of wine, he is more amiable – even, on occasions, amorous, although not much recently. Usually, when she takes a glass to him, he is already in the bath, and she enjoys the intimacy of talking to him on a stool next to the bath. And yes, she thinks, the intimacy includes his nudity; he has never ‘let himself ago’ and she is still comfortable with his body. He is still good-looking, even with less hair than there used to be and eyes more frequently misted over with tiredness. If his libido is no longer as emphatic, it is a natural progression.
But, once again, a thought strikes like a blow. A middle-aged man, returning to domesticity flushed and dishevelled – from what, exactly? These never-ending conferences – what do they actually amount to? Why so necessary, for a well-established professional man in his early fifties? Yes, he’d showed her the programme for this one – human resources, personnel optimising, standard management gobbledegook, but why so many ‘how to manage’ conferences rather than just managing? Yes, he’d phoned her from the hotel, but on his mobile – technically speaking, he could be anywhere.
She sighs and kicks her shoes off to put her feet up on the bed. So, so silly. The bed retains the scent of him, even after four days; his soap, his after shave, that fresh air thing he carries with him because he spends so much time outdoors, golf, boats, walking. They had been married for nearly thirty years; she knew every facet of him, every face, every mood, every nuance of temperament and opinion. She had borne his children. It verged on paranoia to imagine he would go to the lengths of inventing conferences to cover his affairs. And her domesticity was his preference; even after the children had grown up, he was still not entirely happy with her part-time helping out in play school. When she’d said the boisterousness of the toddlers was tiring her, he’d been absolutely sympathetic and understanding.
‘You’ve done your bit, Jane, with our kids and other people’s. One of us needs to put our feet up, and if it’s you, I’m happy with that – it won’t be too long before I join you!’
She stands up and goes to the bedroom window overlooking the estate. It is September and Paul Knowles, the boy next door, a University student and runner, does his training runs every morning during the summer so as to be fit for the new term – ‘if it’s three months of just working in a shop, Mrs. Tyler, I’ll be right out of condition, and the coach will have something to say about that!’ Paul Knowles is twenty – nearly twenty-one. They’d known him all his life, baby, toddler, amiable child, sullen teenager, presentable young man, and he calls them Mr and Mrs Tyler as he always has. On a sultry autumn evening like this, he wears minimal kit, a bare-shouldered vest and tiny shorts. She discreetly watches him coming up the drive from a reflected angle in the wardrobe mirror, with a little mental slap on her naughty wrist. Who would have thought gawky little Paul, all limbs and teeth, would turn into such a gorgeous specimen? She sees no reason why a sophisticated middle-aged woman shouldn’t take pleasure in an attractive young man, and Paul’s departure from boyhood was now very obvious.
Again, a bolt of a thought roots her to the spot, gazing from young runner to bed and back. If she, in her housebound domesticity, could still find some handsome youth to peep at, where does Peter do his peeping, and who at, and is it just peeping, out in the wide world where closer activity than peeping is easy and recipients plentiful? She is a mature woman who can see such indulgences as harmless fun, even when occasional daydreams pop into her mind involving Paul. Peter is a mature, experienced man, with opportunities available – conferences, hotels, PA s, secretaries, girl employees ‘wanting to get on’ – what are his fantasies and peeping points, and is a man so assertive going to be as content as she is for daydreams to remain daydreams?
She hovers as Paul clatters back into the Knowles front garden; the near nakedness of him at close quarters momentarily startles and intrigues her. She moves towards the phone. This is unfair of Peter; there will need to be some explanation. She was afraid that he might even now be entangled in a motorway pile up, his phone crushed under a lorry’s wheels, possibly exactly as she is admiring the boy next door.
She leaves the bedroom, to move away from marriage headquarters and give herself space to think, and goes into the family bathroom, once the children’s and now effectively no-one’s for most of the time, its neglect reflected in pressed towels and presentation cosmetics, mostly unopened, except for Peter’s wet shaving things. He comes in here for a ‘proper shave’, supposedly because the mirror is bigger and the light better than the en suite. He leaves the door slightly open, and she speaks to him en passant as he shaves, inconsequential pleasantries answered in similar spirit. And what happens afterwards, she wonders? An impatient, raised eyes look in the mirror? A sotto voce mutter? Does he actually go in there to escape her ubiquitous being around him, and resent her invasions of his privacy?
Still, infuriatingly, no phone. By now, he should be here, the clunk-whirr of the garage door announcing his return, so that by the time the door shuts, they will be in their weekend together, their uninterrupted idyll, or perhaps a one-sided idyll. She stomps down to the kitchen, determined to start on the food and resolved to remain cool. After five minutes peeling and chopping carrots, the phone rings in the hall and she rushes thankfully towards it, thinking traffic jams, weather, conference delays in winding up. It takes ten seconds for her to register the moronic deadness of the silence, yet another ridiculous call centre. Big, sudden and shaming tears, a whole mist of them, and she rushes upstairs to the en suite bathroom, the inner sanctum, accessible only to herself and her husband.
She faces herself in the mirror; a strange figure, she pronounces scornfully within, to burst into tears and run around the house like some demented teenager. Smooth, well-preserved skin, the wrinkles minimised and the face still with dignity and some beauty, though the thin cheekbones seem even more so and there are two inescapable age lines just below the dark green eyes. The hair still with its shape, even if a little too guest WI speaker correct, and undeniably with streaks of grey which she, like Peter, refuses to dye out. The most unsightly features, beyond any doubt, are the two tear streaks, and she washes them away with a gesture of impatience.
Whatever has delayed Peter will be explained in its entirely logical ramifications, most probably within the next half hour. Perhaps, she thinks, stopping work altogether wasn’t such a good idea. Much as she loves Peter, she doesn’t really want to spend her whole life in his waiting room. If small children were too exhausting, receptionist somewhere, perhaps the Health Centre, meeting people and doing something useful. Maybe even a desk at the local Leisure Centre, with its Olympic standard pool, with the option of gorging herself on near-naked young men until she became more connoisseur than dabbler. She grins wickedly at herself and marvels at the way the under-eye lines suddenly gravitate to the sides and give her a quite sinister, predatory look. At the same moment, one eye tugs to the left and the little shelf where Peter keeps his collection of aftershaves. Travel usually meant topping up and usually he had five or six there. She had teased him about it; ‘how many fragrances do you need, darling?’ to be answered with his quiet smile. Now there were only two, meaning he had gone to some week-long dull management-fest equipped with at least three after shaves.
The mirror again, and this time the image is of a credulous fool, an old mare put out to grass while the still virile husband plays about in various temps’ and assistants’ beds and lives.
She stamps downstairs and sits heavily down in the hall, on the phone seat, and calls to mind his mobile number. Now she is strongly inclined to call, whether he’s in the car or not; voice mail could at least tell him in no uncertain terms that twiddling her thumbs in painful ignorance was not how she would be treated, not now or in whatever future might be left. She saw someone, perhaps that unsubtle creature Yvonne, who Peter’s colleague Douglas Caldwell laughably described as a personal assistant, next to him in the car.
‘Number flashing, Peter; don’t recognise it. Out in the sticks, by the look of it’. Peter stops at a traffic light and glances over. ‘God, darling, that’s the wife. Oh, hell’s bells’ – glances at watch – ‘yes, she would’ve started cooking and clucking by now, all set for a cosy old night and sod horrid old London for another week –‘
No, no, no. She closes her eyes. Peter is not like that. He does respect her, and any woman can tell when a man genuinely cares for her; his solicitude around her, the gentleness of his voice, the kindnesses and favours he does her. Peter knew how to treat her. Peter knew how to treat women. And with opportunity and appetite, which no doubt he still had, even if it wasn’t necessarily for what she had to offer…
She opens her eyes and looks, suddenly critically, at the objects in the hall, the wall clock, the occasional table, the landscape painting, the old-fashioned solid wooden hat stand, the whole a declaration of taste to whoever arrived at the house.
And every last object chosen by her. Where were they when she selected that wall clock, such a contemporary feel to it – had he been with her at the time? The hat stand she did remember, a high street antique/furniture shop, and she finds herself admiring it for a well- constructed, solid, reassuring old object – ‘Peter!’ she shouts delightedly to somewhere behind her, ‘this will finally do away with that dreadful coat rack threatening to fall off the wall’. Non-committal grunt to her right. ‘Do try to take an interest, darling’. ‘What – yes, of course, whatever you think best. You’re the decor expert, darling’.
Now she inspects the hall in detail, recording everything, the carpet, the carefully watered real flowers on the occasional table, everything chosen and maintained by her.
And, for that matter, the same applies to every other room; her choices, to which he graciously assents, probably because of a line of least resistance, bar occasional, mild semi-protests – ‘bit over the top on the fluffy cushions, aren’t we, darling?’; ‘do we need so much foliage, when Richard still has that persistent hay fever?’ – but peripheral protests which do not threaten anything drastic. If you don’t care, you don’t argue. ‘If it’s what she wants, what the hell? I’m a quiet life man’. She could hear him saying it, especially in the boat club – ‘I’m a quiet life man’.
These rooms are like the chambers of my mind, she thinks, the compartments of my being – cleanliness room, love room, food and entertaining room, room where I look out to think about the world outside on the condition that it never gets inside, all to my design and taste and all inhabited almost entirely by me. People come to take a trip around my mind, my tastes, my creative abilities, and return to the world to get on with their lives. I have made myself a beautifully accessorised prison while my husband prowls happily and satisfyingly around the real world, coming to see me for visiting time.
Now she suddenly finds herself in the utility room between the kitchen and the garage. She has a pill drawer there, something only she knows about, perhaps because no-one else is interested. In the drawer is a miscellaneous accumulation of medicines, some for ailments now forgotten about, some of them for others still irritatingly persistent, all of them hers. She stands and stares, knowing full well moving beyond looking at them will mean feeling, selecting and judging. That Rubicon is yet to be crossed. Something in her is hoping it will never be, another is breathing insidiously that there is a case good enough to be at least considered. No old age, no possibility whatever of being abandoned, humiliated in front of children and grandchildren, left with no life by a man after giving so much of hers to his, left to wonder desolately through the rooms of her mind peeping out at a world she dare not rejoin. All in a few minutes, a simple, conclusive act, ending all speculation, all fear, all striving to understand, even after so long, who or what she is married to. If she must be for ever adrift in her badly steered boat, perhaps the time might have arrived to just mercifully sink it. She stands and looks, she weighs the gambles and balances, and the angels and demons fight inside her for the right to hold sway over the life she has left.
Light and noise from the garage; the clunking and whirring begins. She closes her eyes again, already seeing him at ease in the bath, his eyes mellowing, dissecting for her the nonsense language of management seminars, the absurd vanities of his grander colleagues.
She opens her eyes, bangs the drawer shut and hurries into the kitchen to hack at the carrots again, ten seconds before he clatters in behind her.
‘Jane, darling, I am so, so sorry’. His scent is behind her, the fresh air, the after shave selection. ‘I simply could not get a signal; I kept trying, in lay bys, services, everywhere. Even a couple of efforts at a payphone, occupied by someone apparently telling their life story into it. And the traffic so heavy that every delay just made matters worse. I’m going to get on to the company who sold me the thing and play hell…twenty first century technology…God…’
She takes a long time to drop off to sleep, two eyes wide in the dark, turned away from his steady, even breathing on her right. She has resolved to clear the pill drawer, disposing of everything past its sell by, probably meaning everything. Somewhere inside her a silent scream remains unextinguished, and an oddly persistent question mark still sits insolubly over the after shave shelf.