‘Jesus, if I have to watch another PowerPoint presentation I swear I’m going to rip my own head off.’ He was looking at the ceiling, not at anything else, and she was holding his hand under the covers. He liked it that he knew she was there without having to look.
‘Ah, remember what Clooney said? About hollowing out your own leg?’
George Clooney on “Desert Island Discs”. He’d chosen William Shatner singing ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ because it was so awful you would hollow out your own leg to make a canoe and escape.
‘What is it with women and Clooney? He’s got a weak nose and he’s not as smooth as he thinks. Anyway, I have it on good authority he bats -‘
‘Mark, for God’s sake. Anyway, says who, Patrick?’
Patrick was his best friend and, until he’d met Fiona, the person he’d always talked to about films, music and pop culture. Fiona knew all about Patrick, including that his mum had died of cancer when Patrick was sixteen, and how all the boys had been half in love with her because she was young and funny and knew every film and every song that had ever been made. Patrick, on the other hand, had no idea Fiona even existed.
Fiona said: ‘Go on, I bet Sarah likes a bit of Clooney.’
Which bit? That would be the obvious thing to say. But he didn’t want to think about Sarah, or the children. He needed to stop calling them that, it didn’t help. Michael and Sophie were grown up, just about. Michael had a job, was about to leave home. Sophie had a place at university. “We’ll never stop worrying about them,” Sarah’s voice said in his mind, but he thought – tried to think – they’re ok, they’re fine; job done, mission accomplished. It was his turn now, wasn’t it? And as before, he thought how this made him sound cold, as if he didn’t love them, and also as before it made him remember them when they were tiny, and his heart broke a little.
Yet where was he, Mark, in amongst going to work, ferrying the kids around, loading the dishwasher, keeping people’s drinks topped up at parties? Didn’t everyone want to feel they were being chosen, instead of just being there? More voices: “You can’t have it all,” then “Why settle for less?” and he thought how even the most serious questions got turned into cheap advertising slogans, which was a conversation he could have had with Patrick or Fiona, not so much with Sarah.
He sat up into the stuffy air of the hotel room and Fiona sat up too.
‘Yes?’ she said, smiling. But they both knew they didn’t need an excuse to look at each other. “You’re still at that stage,” a voice said in his head. He tilted forwards so their heads were gently touching. When Fiona spoke, her words vibrated through him, which he liked; he wanted her to be there. Seeing each other a few times a year, it had taken a while for him to be able to conjure the sound of her voice in his head, to go with the words from her long emails, now deleted for safety.
‘Let’s go and walk by the harbour,’ Fiona said, her voice buzzing in his temples.
She got up and began gathering her clothes from the floor. He watched, settling back on the pillow, enjoying the sensation of knowing you are about to do something, but not doing it yet. “Imagination’s always better than reality for you, isn’t it?” said Sarah’s voice in his mind.
It was one of those riverfront developments where factories and warehouses have been made into bars, cafes and fancy shops. They leaned on the railing overlooking the river, Fiona’s arm draped over his, making him think of two snakes coiled together.
‘Dental implants, eh?’ He grinned, daring her to resist, but after a moment she broke into a smile. It had been their first joke, the one that brought them together.
‘So how are you enjoying International Dental Implants Expo 2009?’ she’d said. They’d both been on the perimeter of the scrum around the drinks table outside the conference hall. He’d laughed, because they were at an IT conference and it was a bizarre thing to say, yet he’d known just what she was getting at: that this was the most boring conference imaginable. She’d gone on:
‘So are you big in dental implants?’
‘Oh, yeah. I’m fucking massive in dental implants.’ It wasn’t like him to swear, but then she’d laughed and he’d gone from feeling as if he wasn’t being himself to feeling as if he was being more himself than he had been for a long time. That was how it started. Dental implants became a running gag with them: “Is that a dental implant in your pocket, sir? … I need mental implants, me …”. It would all sound stupid to anyone else, he knew that, but it wasn’t about the words. It was just her, just them. It was the sheer, million to one, hilarious relief of finding each other: they laughed with relief.
The sun warmed their faces, and he studied Fiona’s profile as the water moved quietly. She had a proper nose. He liked a proper nose on a woman, not small or button or turned up. What was it that Sophia Loren had said when asked if she had considered a nose job? Something, anyway, about how the nose determined the whole character of the face and should never be changed. “Oh, the great connoisseur of women,” he could hear Sarah’s voice again. He remembered kissing Fiona for the first time and the strange contours of a different face next to his, different teeth that had to be negotiated.
They were middle-aged, on the threshold of being old but not yet old in today’s reckoning; and together they felt young. Though perhaps Fiona had never stopped feeling so, with her mighty laugh and wild, honey-coloured hair. (Sarah’s voice: “Of course it’s dyed. All women over thirty five do”). Mark moved his fingers over his own hair, as if touching something fragile.
‘Do you think, ‘ he’d said to Fiona, ‘you could love a man in the autumn of his life whose hair is preparing to go south for the winter?’
‘Well,’ she’d looked carefully. ‘Your hair is certainly on its last legs – so to speak – but you know what?’ Here she’d leaned in to whisper. ‘Standards go way, way down at our age. You only have to look as if you used to be attractive. And you definitely look as if you used to be very attractive.’ Then she’d laughed raucously and that was the last time they’d spoken of age.
Fiona said: ‘You know, I kind of wish I could meet Patrick. I know I can’t now. It’s going to be difficult for him – it must have been Mark and Sarah since forever for him.’
‘Well, he was your best man.’
‘Yeah. It’s just not what he calls us.’ It felt embarrassing to be telling her this only now, and he realised he’d kept it back. ‘He calls us … Spot and Sis. You know, Spot as in “a mark”. It’s from when we were kids.’ He thought he might be blushing.
Patrick had never married. He liked women but called relationships “a bear pit”. He would never have kids. With Mark and Sarah, he had a measure of family life when he wanted it – the kids loved him – but then he could retreat to his own space. Mark had always assumed it was maybe because of Patrick’s mum. But even before she died they were almost like part of each other’s families. Fiona knew all this, but still.
‘He calls Sarah “Sis”?’
Abruptly, he broke away from her. ‘Shit!’
‘Shh! He’ll hear us. It’s Mike Walker. We ought to go.’ He was looking at a stocky, balding man with glasses, browsing in the arcade behind them.
‘Because he’s the Procurement guy, and the back of his shirt is always sweaty when he take his jacket off. Because I’ve seen him looking at websites that sell combat weapons. And he’ll see us together.’
‘What’s wrong with Procurement, Mr Helpdesk Manager? Always thought that was a bit of a girl’s job myself.’
As a Third Line Support Engineer, Fiona inhabited a largely male world. It pained him slightly to imagine her amongst the usual Third Line types: jokers, wide boys with sharp clothes, blinding you with science, saying “Mind if I drive?” when they rolled up to fix your PC. He glanced across at Walker’s back.
‘Look, soon it won’t matter, but he can’t see us now.’
‘Then,’ said Fiona, ‘we’d better run.’ And she took off down the riverfront. For a second he panicked, because surely this would attract attention; then he noticed the soft, flailing, but curiously endearing way she was running. Finally, heedless of Walker, he ran after her, only for Fiona to accelerate sharply into a wholly more athletic style of running. It occurred to him she had been jokingly “running like a girl”, but it was clear she was a proper runner. “Not that you know anything about running,” Sarah’s voice said.
With some effort, he caught her up by some barrels outside a Victorian-styled pub. She was breathing a little fast and her soft, clean perfume came off more heavily into the air, but her eyes glittered up at him.
‘I didn’t know you ran,’ he said, gasping.
‘I didn’t know you didn’t.’
He held her waist, glancing briefly over his shoulder.
‘I really don’t think Mike Walker has been in pursuit.’ She fixed him with her wide-set eyes and slapped the top of a barrel. ‘These things are making me thirsty. Race you back to the hotel?’
He didn’t get the chance to say no, and then a strong memory came of Michael dashing up and down the alleyway near their old house shouting “Daddy, can you see me? Am I a blur?”
Back in the hotel room, Fiona pulled open the mini-bar. Reflexively, he glanced at his watch.
‘Oh, come on,’ she opened a miniature of gin. ‘I hope you’re not going to be that boring when we’re living together.’ She made G&Ts for them both. ‘We’ll need these to endure the rigours of the keynote speech. Cheers.’
They entered the conference hall separately and sat apart, as he always thought, like spies in a film. This was their fifth, sixth conference? He secretly liked being able to watch Fiona from a distance, in a full body shot as it were, to see her shape as she moved across a room.
The presentation was called “Top To Bottom: Embedding Network Security and Compliance”. The speaker was a young, eager man with sideburns razored to a point and a narrow strip of beard bisecting his chin. He kept rapping the projection screen with a pointer as he intoned ‘Top … to bottom.’
‘Top bottom. Chin = landing strip’ Mark texted to Fiona, as usual automatically deleting the message once it had been sent, as he would delete her contact details before he got home. Sometimes he worried that she was hurt by all his precautions, his deletions. But he knew that she knew their situations were different. It was lucky they didn’t both have people in their lives who could be let down or betrayed. Then again, how lucky would he feel to be nearly fifty and with no one who felt he belonged to them – or they to him? Sometimes he thought: why doesn’t she miss it – does she miss it? But never when he saw Fiona, looked into her face. When people had beautiful eyes it usually meant big, wide eyes, like a child. Fiona’s eyes were beautiful in a different way: narrow, green, wide-set, almost hooded eyes which creased as she spoke, as if she were continually on the point of laughter. Her eyes let you in on a secret or a joke, invited you in, focused on you.
His phone vibrated with Fiona’s text: ’Interesting stuff. Maybe too hard for a helpdesk manager.’ He tried to sneak a look in her direction, just as his phone went again: ‘Chin = Brazilian.’ He smiled to himself, then deleted her messages.
At dinner he failed to avoid sitting on a table with Walker.
‘The thing is, people think procurement is just a form-filling exercise, but you know -’ Walker had a nasal, somewhat cajoling voice.
Fiona was a few tables away and he discreetly tried to look over as Walker talked to him. Every time he saw Fiona she was either talking, laughing or pouring more wine. He felt a childish pang of jealousy, and a yearning to pluck her away from all these people.
‘Seen someone you know?’ Walker’s voice, close to his ear.
Walker smiled. ‘So how’s the little woman?’
Mark knew there was no winning with people who used expressions like “the little woman”, so he tried to ask after Walker’s partner or wife, whose name he forgot. Melissa?
It turned out it was Melanie, and also that she was no longer Walker’s wife.
‘I’m sorry,’ Mark said automatically, but he had a strange feeling, like déjà vu. No – the opposite. This was a conversation he, Mark, would have to have in the future, repeatedly, until everyone knew.
Walker, though, dismissed any potential sympathy. Mark only half-listened. It was all good – water under the bridge – long overdue – life really did begin at forty. At this, Mark regarded the thin, colourless hair and blotchy complexion of his colleague: it had never occurred to him Walker might have been under forty.
‘I mean, they say you’re being selfish if you don’t have kids, but selfish to who? Makes it easier when everything inevitably goes tits up, if you ask me. How is that selfish? No offence.’
Mark recognised these arguments, because he used to make them, a long time ago, but of course things had changed or anyway they had happened.
Walker leaned in confidentially. ‘Anyway. I’m mature, free and single now. Because it’s true what they say: women like an older man.’ He tapped the side of his glasses and laid a warm hand on Mark’s forearm. ‘There was a young lady who wanted me to – talk to her.’ He grinned expectantly.
‘You know. Dirty!’ Walker broke into a chuckle. ‘Bloody hell, I’m telling you –’
Then Mark had a brainwave, or rather he remembered something he shouldn’t have forgotten, but it would get him away from Walker. He excused himself and went out of the function room into the quiet smell of carpet and air freshener. He found Home in his phone’s address book. It rang several times then went to the outgoing message, which Patrick had recorded for a laugh: “Hi, you’ve reached Sarah, Mark, Michael and Sophie. They’re screening their calls in case they don’t want to talk to you.” His friend’s voice sounded thin and boxey. There was history in that message. He should have re-recorded it years ago. Then he realised the beep had gone.
‘Hi, it’s me, just calling to … ok, maybe you’re not there. Anyway, I’m ok, the conference is ok … I went to the river today. I can’t seem to shake off Mike Walker, so that’s not so good … Anyway, I hope your thing went ok. Speak later, and -‘ he lost his thread. ‘Love you – say hi to the kids.’
He had to say that – love you – because it was what they always said, but why slip into that about the kids, which they hadn’t said for years?
Back in the function room the lights were dimmed and people were out on the dance-floor. To his relief, Walker was no longer at their table, but where was Fiona? Then he spotted her, dancing on the far side of the floor, looking happy and beautiful in the half-darkness of the coloured lights.
Then: he spotted Walker. Walker, dabs of sweat appearing on his back, shrugging, wiggling his way across the dance floor, unmistakeably heading straight over to Fiona.
In the annihilating blare of the music Mark watched them talking, soundlessly, as if in a dream, tilting together, leaning in to make themselves heard.
He’d been sprawled on the narrow sofa for quite a while when he saw Fiona come through the door carrying her coat and bag. He had a Scotch and ice and was channel-hopping with the TV on mute.
‘Hi,’ she kissed him.
‘How did you end up dancing with Walker?’ He turned off the TV.
She went to the mini-bar. ‘Hmmm? God, I don’t know.’
An anxious, headlong feeling was gathering in him.
She poured a drink. ‘He said he saw you looking at me. Said you were a dark horse and all that. I think he was joking.’
All his precautions.
‘Don’t worry, I played dumb. Said I had lots of admirers. I’m sure it’s fine. He said you were a good man.’
‘Shit, Fiona.’ All his precautions, yet he’d never realised until this moment how afraid he was of being found out.
‘Let’s not overreact. He doesn’t know anything. He mostly talked about his divorce and going back on the dating scene. I felt sorry for him.’
‘He’s having a whale of a time, can’t stop talking about it.’
‘He’s trying to make himself feel better. God, men are so unobservant.’
He’d never liked being lumped in with “men”. She hadn’t done that before. This was a new feeling between them: him being annoyed by the fact that she was finding him annoying. “You’re at that stage,” a voice said in his head.
‘Look,’ she sat by him and took his hand. ‘Walker’s a bit boring and sweaty, but he’s harmless. His wife is divorcing him. You know, whatever the circumstances, a divorce is a huge thing. It’s like losing a limb.’
The whole climate of the room seemed to change.
She looked at him with a tender concern that worried rather than comforted him. ‘I wasn’t saying that about you!
‘But it’s what you’re thinking.’
‘I wasn’t thinking.’ She stroked the backs of his hands with her thumbs. ‘You know my sister got divorced.’
He did know that, but he hadn’t thought about Fiona having some personal knowledge of divorce, even at second hand. There seemed only one thing to say next, and he made himself do it.
‘Are you – changing your mind?’
She held his hand tighter. ‘I know you love me.’
He loved her?
‘We have – different lives.’ She closed her eyes briefly and her face looked as smooth as a child’s. ‘If you want to stop – I mean – I don’t want to stop, but I would understand – if you did. We could be friends.’
He knew she was being good and kind; showing love. And yet nobody wanted to hear the person they loved offering to be just friends, and he was filled with doubt and dread. He felt a familiar loneliness.
‘I don’t want you as a friend. I’ve got a friend.’
‘Patrick. But I know you love me partly because I’m like Patrick – Mark?’
It hadn’t been his intention to storm off, but it had come on quickly. He locked the bathroom door and managed to get himself over the toilet bowl just as his stomach convulsed and he heard himself retch. His eyes were watering, the smell was in his nose, and he found he was trembling slightly. It was how he remembered it as a boy, vomiting. He wondered if he’d just had too much to drink. Perhaps they both had.
‘Mark? Are you ok, honey?’
‘Just give me a minute.’ Had she called him that before? It was what Sarah called him.
He blew his nose and flushed the toilet. Suddenly he longed for a friendly voice, someone to talk things over with. But who was there? Sarah, his wife, and Patrick, his best friend, were the only people he went to for help.
He leant against the door, slid himself down onto the cool bathroom floor and huddled into the doorframe.
‘Are you all right?’
He was surprised to hear Fiona’s voice so close to his ear, on the other side of the door.
‘I’m ok.’ Then: ‘Have you really never missed being married or having children?’ He put his ear to the door.
‘But – you know. I wasn’t against it. Well, maybe I was, a bit, when I was younger. It just didn’t happen, and I didn’t feel like I needed it to happen to be happy.’ She paused. ‘You said you were never desperate to have kids?’
He was sure now she was sitting on the other side of the door, and they were only separated by about two inches of whatever the door was made of. ‘We couldn’t decide. So we just decided to stop using contraception, and it happened. And then Sarah thought Michael shouldn’t be an only child, so …’ His tailbone was beginning to ache.
Fiona carried on: ‘I’ve always been ok on my own. If I choose to be with someone it’s because I want to, not because I need to. That’s better, isn’t it?’ She stopped. ‘We’ve talked about all this. Nothing is a sure thing. We just have to try. If we want to.’
‘I know.’ The crack of his knees echoed across the bathroom as he got up. His back was stiff. “Need an old-man back rub?” Sarah’s voice said. He hadn’t told Fiona about the back rubs.
‘Mark.’ Fiona was calling. ‘Are you coming out?’
That was when it hit him. He knew it was ridiculous, morbid. But once the thought was in, he couldn’t get it out, and if you were going to change your life you had to think of everything – didn’t you? – look at it from every angle. So: What if one of the children died? They were grown, not the little girl who asked to be carried “as a special treat” or the boy who ran like a blur. But there it was. If the unthinkable happened, who would you want to see? Whose voice would you want to hear? It was more likely, of course, that he would die. And then how would they feel if he died belonging to Fiona and not to them?
Spot and Sis. Michael and Sophie. Patrick. They were all tangled together like the cables behind the television. If you took things apart, re-arranged them, would they ever work properly again? “But isn’t that what you wanted to do? Break out, be yourself?” There, Fiona’s voice, in his head. But that was the trouble: they were there, all the voices, and the questions, but he couldn’t tell if they were his questions, or only questions he imagined being asked by the other voices.
‘Mark. Honey. Are you ready? Are you coming out?’
He didn’t know if he was ready. He didn’t know if he was coming out. If he did come out, he didn’t know if something was going to happen. If something did happen, he didn’t know what would happen.
He was looking for the truth of the thing, the fact of the matter, and there should have been a voice, his voice, telling him what that was.
There was no voice.
He went over to the sink, automatically noting the wrapped miniature bars of scented soap which he would take home for Sarah, as he always did if he went away without her.
He opened the tap and let the water run into his cupped hands, where it shimmered momentarily before gradually seeping down and trickling away.