'So you're a private detective?' she said. A woman alone at the bar with a garish cocktail in her hand was either a lush looking for company or a tart looking for trade. This one was, in fact, a fine intelligent woman at play who had intuited my sexual allure from my posture on a stool and my profession from the way I fingered my glass. 'I am.' 'Well, I might have a job for you.'
Awkward, like teenagers, we spoke it out loud. We said, in words, what we both knew, both hoped, both feared might be true. We blushed (“And so we should,” you said) and I covered my cheeks with my hands, abashed. We stumbled over words, sort of stuttered, and tried out different ways to say it. I don’t know which one of us spoke first, or how many times we each started a sentence and then abandoned it when it began to sound corny or clichéd. Like teenagers, finding our ground, unsure of ourselves and each other. We were scared of saying it wrong, of saying too much, and flinching from the possibilities of rejection and humiliation. Both of us old enough to be out of practice, both comfortably wrapped in long marriages. Both still comfortably, happily married.
It was the Dutch psychologist Lotte van der Berg who first coined the term 'coital signifier' to mark that moment in a conversation when the emphasis dramatically alters. Professor van der Berg, actually a friend of mine, was trained as a moral philosopher but moved into its sister disciplines after she was asked to do some research into so-called 'internet chat', those sad discussions in cyberspace which almost guarantee that the participants will never meet. In an area where words have to tell all, therefore, and the conversationalists only ever appear as vignette portrait photographs or the more sinister anonymous grey heads, all meaning has to be sought in tone, temper, usage, style, and solecism – in a word, language.
It was two years since they had ended. She’d had a fling with a man at the gym and although Michael had never known, it had changed things between them. She’d allowed herself to grow distant; puzzled, he’d drawn away in response, and they’d parted at the turning of the year. Michael had been polite and civilised about it, as she would have expected. A neat row of boxes. Money left for bills. A quiet shedding of the five years they’d spent as a couple with no recriminations or noise. The affair had petered out not long after Michael had gone, and two years on, she was lonely. When she heard through friends that Michael was still single, she began to wonder whether she could win him back. They had so much in common, after all. Similar tastes in books and films, a love for travel. And, of course, fine food. Food. It had been their pornography…
If a man’s wife betray his trust, he may yet find comfort in the Society of his friends. What then must a man do if not only deprived of the love, harmony, and companionship of the woman who had sworn to cleave to him forsaking all others, if her fall takes place at the hands – (not to mention other Parts) – of his lifelong Friend, the man who stood at his shoulder even at the Hymeneal altar? Such however is the sad case of Lord Clonallon and his Lady, who after some ten years of domestic felicity, have had all bliss destroyed by her seduction by Viscount Ballybryan. We will not try the patience of the reader with the usual lawyer’s cant and jargon attendant on these occasions, but will endeavour to put before him the Facts of the Case – namely the most incontrovertible evidence of the guilt of the adulterers. Charged with criminal conversation with Lady Clonallon, the Defendant made the usual plea, namely, not guilty, rendering it incumbent on the accusing party to prove the affirmative.
It’s not a bad life playing piano in a smart restaurant. That is if you like playing the piano better than working in an office. You need to be tolerant. Public taste is predictable but your repertoire has to cover a wide range of mood and sentiment; especially if you take requests. Also, you have to balance being impressive enough to command respect and unobtrusive enough not to fuck up the conversations. I’d fetched up in Savannah after my concert career led me to near starvation. In a classy eatery with a decent piano, I was guaranteed at least one square meal a day and time out mornings and afternoons to give music lessons or stay in bed. I liked Savannah. It had enough tourists and well-heeled locals to support a clientele year round.
It was never too late for a first time. That’s what Lacy thought. After a few days in Montreal, the strangeness of this new, foreign city no longer overwhelmed her. She loved hearing people speak in French as they drank espresso and nibbled chocolate croissants in cafes. Even the parking signs were a glorious challenge that made her double-check if she was following the city rules or not. Promoted at work six months earlier, she traveled one week every month. Conferences in Boston, advertising pitches in Seattle, or now in Montreal, as part of a special digital media panel at McGill College.
Her body wobbles next to mine as I lie, awake in the dark, pondering the miracle of my being here with her. Her thunderous breathing regulates my thoughts, the heavy intake and expiration of breath like a train crashing through the night. Her side of the bed leans dangerously close to the floor, while I lie light as a feather on mine, trying a funambulist’s act not to roll down against her. I think irrelevantly of Power Plates, the micro-muscular structure solicited as people balance precariously on the machine, pretending to be astronauts. I am like them, but my balance is fragile and my body is now weary. It is the winter of my life and she lies beside me, the most unlikely mound of flesh I have ever considered and the one I love most.
Just when all seemed well with the world, once Jack and Jill have fallen in love, have moved in together, have bought their first apartment, have decided to marry and have a baby – or two, have moved gently up the jobs and housing ladder, have established a circle of good friends and a dinner-party-giving social life, have holidayed in Cuba or other cool middle-class destinations, have swapped their left-leaning politics for more centrist ones, have organised their granddaughter’s naming day, have reached the extraordinarily ripe age of fifty-two and forty-nine respectively and are, indeed, a ‘perfect couple’, Jack and Jill, at the top of their hill, just then, when everything seems just peachy, then things… oh dear… then that’s when things can go awfully wrong. And here’s how they did.
I had rented a cabin north of Billings on the edge of the Bull Mountains. My line of work gets slow in winter and I wanted the time out to do some writing. The snow started toward the end of October, kind of early but not unusual and nothing serious. There was something of a wind chill though. So as I drove down the dirt road from my cabin to the highway I was intrigued to see a figure trudging along. We arrived at my junction at the same time. The figure turned out to be a girl: stocky, round of face under her parka hood. She was carrying a long rifle. I recognised it as a buffalo rifle, and an old one at that. She had stopped to let me pass. I wound down my window. “I’m headed into town, can I give you a ride?"