‘Keep the change,’ she told the cab-driver, her buoyant mood unaffected by his crabbiness. He had kept up a peevish monologue most of the way, irritated, apparently, by the traffic, London in general and Boris Johnson in particular.
As she approached the heavy plate-glass doors of the restaurant, she could see Duncan through the lighted window, seated at a table at the front, engrossed in a sheaf of papers – an overflow of work, no doubt, since his job in corporate finance was even more pressured than hers in advertising. He dressed the part, of course – impeccable clothes, well-cut silver hair, general air of stylishness – a strong contrast to some of the oddballs she had dated in the last few years.
Suddenly nervous about her own appearance, she peered at her reflection in the doors. Was the new swept-up hairstyle ageing; the figure-sculpting scarlet dress too blatant, compared with his understated suit?
Too late now to worry. The maître d’ was already gliding forward to greet her and, as he led her to their table, Duncan sprang to his feet and held her in a close embrace; his touch sensuous, suggestive. As always, she gave silent thanks that, at six-foot-four, he was in perfect proportion to her own sometimes embarrassing height. Short men made her awkward, as if being a female of five-foot-eleven was a personal affliction, even a social catastrophe, whereas Duncan had told her from the start that, with her gracious bearing and statuesque proportions, she resembled a top fashion model. Having been labelled by her parents as ‘clumsy’ and ‘unfeminine’, she had stowed his compliment in her mind like treasure in a bank-vault. Even after all these years, it was hard to dislodge the image that had haunted her since childhood of a gawky, clumping giraffe.
Once settled at the table, Duncan ordered their drinks, then touched his glass to hers. ‘To us,’ he murmured, gazing directly into her eyes.
‘To us,’ she echoed, the phrase as much daunting as thrilling, since it was too early in their relationship for them to be an item. Yet, from the moment they’d first met at Fiona’s ‘February Blues’ party, she’d had a strong gut-instinct that this might well be more than just a run-of-the-mill entanglement.
‘How was work?’ he asked, his eyes gazing directly into hers. Such scrutiny made her self-conscious: was her mascara smudged, her make-up less than flawless?
‘Oh, the usual problems with the Taylor-Hodgson client. Between you and me, he’s a bit of a shit, but the account’s worth mega-bucks, so we’re all forced to humour him. How about you?’
‘Not the easiest of days, to be honest. But let’s not spoil our evening. I suggest we leave work behind, order our food and relax.’
As they opened their leather-bound menus, another waiter sauntered over and began reeling off the ‘specials’: basil-and-gruyere tortellini, hand-dived scallops, swathed in a coriander crust; salmon and crayfish pate, with lime and saffron dressing ….
As a working-class child, she still felt slightly diffident in face of gastronomic pretensions, despite her years of high living. Words like ‘aged balsamic’, ‘jus’, ‘rouille’, ‘en croute’ would have been double-Dutch to her parents, who had been more at home with bangers, mash and tins of mushy peas.
Duncan looked up from the menu. ‘I like the sound of the scallops.’
‘And how about your main course?’
‘I think I’ll go for the quail galantine.’
‘Exactly what I was going to suggest.’
It seemed an additional bonus that their tastes in food were similar – a strong contrast with her previous boyfriend, Geoffrey, whose predilection for pizzas had bordered on the tedious. If a man couldn’t raise his sights from cheese-and-tomato-covered dough, meal after meal after meal, didn’t it signal a certain rigidity, a mind closed to experiment? However, some lingering residual loyalty to her parents was forever clashing with her hard-won status as a successful account executive. She was well aware that her highly moral, Methodist father could have cited more heinous sins than guzzling pizzas.
She felt equally torn once their starters arrived. Her dad would have scorned their lavishly decorative presentation as a matter of style over substance. The chef had undoubtedly gone overboard, with a whole gardenful of tomato ‘roses’, lemon-peel ‘flowers’, and even butterfly wings made from slivers of cucumber; such a profusion of colourful garnish turning the over-large white plates into picture-frames for exhibits in an art gallery. Nonetheless, she murmured her appreciation. Fernando’s had just received its second Michelin star, so who was she to demur? ‘I’m glad you introduced me to this place. They do everything so beautifully.’
Nodding in agreement, Duncan reached across to clasp her hand. ‘Frances, I happen to know it’s your birthday next weekend.’
How did he know? Just because he was canny and had a flair for digging out facts, or had Fiona told him, maybe? ‘Yes, a rather unwelcome birthday, I have to admit.’
‘But fifty’s the new forty, everybody says, so I really shouldn’t worry. Wait till you hit sixty, like me!’
She wondered sometimes if he resorted to a little secret Botox. Certainly, he looked years younger than his age, and kept himself in shape with daily six a.m. gym sessions.
‘Anyway, remember a month or so ago, we talked about going away for a couple of days? Oh, I know we’ve both been too busy to arrange it yet, but I’d like to put that right. What I propose is a special birthday-surprise weekend. Would you allow me to set that up – somewhere nice in the country, perhaps? I’ll make sure it’s to your taste.’
‘Sounds wonderful!’ Surprises were rare – and welcome, when so much else in her life had to be rigidly structured and pre-prepared. ‘Left to myself, I was planning on going into purdah!’ Fifty was different for women, signalled the menopause and thinning bones – not that she had missed a single period, so far. But the prospect was always looming, with its attendant threat of old age and decline, and the continual sting of sadness about never having given birth.
‘All you’ll need to do is bring your lovely self, a frock or two for the evenings, and some gear for country walks.’
And a sexy nightie for you to remove, she added, silently, feeling a slight frisson of unease. The fact they hadn’t yet been to bed was entirely her decision. With Geoffrey, it had all been too precipitate, if not undignified; the drunken shag on just their second date, and waking in his grungy bed, with a stinkhorn of a mouth – the foul and fetid fumes of hangover-fuelled regret. She knew instinctively that Duncan was too special for such casual sex, and was determined to save herself, like a virtuous Catholic or bashful ingénue, in order to make their first time an ‘occasion’. Hence, the idea of a romantic weekend in some idyllic spot, to provide a fitting ambience. Fiona, of course, had snorted in derision at the very notion of chastity for someone with her extensive sexual history, but Duncan himself was sensitive enough to understand. However, now faced with the reality of finally making love, she couldn’t help but worry that, if the chemistry proved wrong, not only would the idyll fall apart, the whole relationship might crumble. Yet why should it go wrong, when his passion was obvious in just his kisses and caresses? Their titillating sessions on the sofa in her flat had given her a foretaste of how satisfying things could be, once she stopped playing vestal virgin.
Duncan had not yet touched his food, clearly more concerned with arranging the weekend. ‘I’m afraid the rest of my week’s going to be pretty hectic. I’ll be working late most nights, so there’s not much chance of seeing you until the Friday evening. But I’ll be sure to get off promptly then, so if there’s any hope you could also leave early, then I could pick you up at home and we could set off before the rush-hour.’
‘I’ll do my utmost, darling, but would you mind if we waited till nearer the day to fix a specific time?’
‘No, that’s eminently sensible, especially with your current pressures.’
His easy-going, adaptable nature was more important in a relationship, she was only now beginning to realize, than many other qualities – particularly for someone of her anxious temperament. And, as she felt his hand make contact with her thigh, feathering and stroking with erotic expertise, she dared to build her hopes for next weekend.
It was past 8.30 when they finally hit the road. The Taylor/Hodgson client had surpassed himself, rubbishing the campaign he’d approved only the previous day, and insisting that she and the whole creative team stay on late and brainstorm for new ideas. And yet, when she’d tried to –
All at once, a fox darted across the road, jolting her thoughts from the office. The reckless creature was clearly bent on self-destruction, although, by some miracle, it escaped scot-free. ‘Fancy a fox on the motorway!’ she said, admiring Duncan’s sangfroid. If an elephant had come charging out in front of them, he would have probably kept his cool.
‘Oh, they’re everywhere. A chap I know who lives in Dolphin Square found a mangy little vixen last week, careering around the basement, as if she owned the place!’
She laughed, determined to distance herself from the problems at work. She owed that to Duncan, who had accepted the delay with graciousness and patience and was now doing his best to make up time. It helped that his car was built for speed – a new red Jaguar F-Type, bought, she suspected, to foster his ‘youthful’ image. And at least they had missed the usual Friday-evening congestion and the M4 was now relatively clear. In any case, there was no real rush and it was actually something of a luxury to have nothing else to do but sit back like a duchess and let herself be chauffeured to some as yet undivulged destination. She knew they were heading west, of course, and that seemed agreeably apt: striking out for uncharted lands, discovering new horizons – including, she hoped, sexual ones. Relaxing back, she surrendered to the pleasurable sensation of speeding through the night, with an almost-full moon dappling the rushing-past trees and the shadowy darkness beyond, while the whine of the wind and the whoosh of the engine provided a steady soundtrack.
Even the forecast was benign, with a promise of balmy spring weather, once daylight broke tomorrow. The countryside would be burgeoning and budding; new young leaves unfurling in the warmth; daffodils prancing and boasting; birds heralding the longer days with crazy carillons of song. And perhaps she, too, would experience some sort of rejuvenation. It had been achingly long since she had permitted herself to feel even the slightest sense of girlish abandon.
‘Tired?’ he asked, allowing his hand to linger on her knee a moment.
‘No, energized! Which reminds me,’ she added, aware she’d been lost in reverie, when she ought to be conversing, ‘did you see that programme on sleep last night? Apparently, even the smallest light-source, from, say, a laptop or a mobile, can suppress your melatonin levels and play havoc with the quality of your sleep.’
‘Lord,’ he groaned, ‘not another thing to worry about! On top of the depleted soil, the polluted London air, our rubbish diet and imminent climate change. They’re all Jeremiahs, those doom-mongers, ignoring the fact we’re richer, healthier and live far longer than any society before.’
Not my parents, she couldn’t help but think. Her mother had died at fifty-four and, although her father was still alive, his health problems took up most letters of the alphabet, from ‘a’ for angina to ‘v’ for vertigo. As for being richer, the only largesse in his life came courtesy of her. Left to himself, it would be little more than subsistence. But she must banish her parents as fiercely as work, or she would plunge into her usual guilt about the clothes or shoes she bought that cost almost as much apiece as her dad had once earned in a week. This was a time for celebration, not for guilt, remorse, resentment.
And, as if on cue, Duncan broached the subject of her birthday. ‘Do you want to keep it on the “official” day – the Sunday – or would you prefer to celebrate tomorrow? I have a few surprises planned, so you’d better let me know!’
‘It all sounds very exciting – although I think I’ll stick to the Sunday, if that’s OK with you? I’m in no great rush to be fifty, even a day in advance.’
‘Well, since most of us alive now have a sporting chance of making it to a hundred, you can console yourself with the thought that you may only be halfway through your allotted span.’
Speculating privately about the next fifty years, consolation seemed a little thin on the ground. Apart from the threat of job-loss, there would be no escaping the purposeless vacuity of retirement, not to mention the fearsome prospect of cancer or dementia.
Duncan urged her to shut her eyes and doze, presumably interpreting her silence as fatigue. ‘You say you’re not tired, darling, but you’ve had a pretty gruelling day and, once we reach the hotel, I want us both to be supercharged. And, anyway, I’d rather you didn’t see exactly where we’re going, otherwise it won’t be a surprise.’
Although she did her best to obey, it proved impossible to doze, especially once they swung off the motorway and then turned on to a narrower road, where the oncoming headlights assaulted her eyes. Besides, a new surge of apprehension had begun snaking through her stomach at his mention of being ‘supercharged’. Wasn’t that setting the bar too high, with an attendant risk of disappointment? Yet she cursed her habitual pessimism – probably unjustified, as usual. After all, when he’d arrived at the flat this evening, she had responded without the slightest hesitation to his lingering, explosive kiss, despite her highly stressful session at the office. Indeed, she had been strongly tempted to peel off her clothes there and then, rather than wait tepidly till tonight. And, in any case, her gut-instinct had kicked in again, assuring her that the weekend would go well; might even prove the start of a whole new supercharged existence.
‘Wake up!’ he said, gently nudging her shoulder. ‘We’re here.’
She opened her eyes, amazed that she had managed to nod off in a car, when she often found it hard to sleep in her quiet and comfortable bedroom. Maybe things were truly changing and Duncan’s calm, optimistic nature would temper her own tendency to jittery disquiet.
But, as she peered from the car-window at the brightly lit, impressive grey-stone mansion, her mood plunged in mini-seconds from hopeful to startled, even horrified. A tide of fierce but long-suppressed and painful memories suddenly besieged her, throwing her off-balance, inducing her to turn tail and flee. The Lone Oak House Hotel, she spelled out, blinking several times to ensure she wasn’t still asleep and dreaming. There couldn’t be two Lone Oak House Hotels, least of all in the same part of the country – it was too distinctive a name. Besides, there was the same ancient oak she remembered from her previous visit, standing tall and gnarled, some twenty yards from the house.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, aware of the expression on her face.
‘You’re not disappointed, I hope.’
‘No way!’ Still floundering, she could manage only halting monosyllables.
‘It was highly recommended as one of the best hotels in ….’
Yes, that was the huge difference. Its present air of luxurious grandiosity was in total contrast to the shabbiness and decrepitude she remembered from thirty years ago. The house itself had been the same, of course, in its basic size and structure, but its hapless owners had left it to moulder and crumble, lacking the cash for repairs or even maintenance.
‘And it’s just been extensively renovated,’ Duncan continued, as if in answer to the puzzle. ‘A four-million-pound job, so I’m told. They restored all the stonework, repainted and refurbished it throughout, upgraded the plumbing and electrics and transformed the garden from a jungle to a miniature Versailles! So I do hope you’ll like it, darling.’
‘I know I will. It’s …. wonderful.’ How could she stay here with Duncan when the place was sacred to Josh? Even in its decrepit state, the cost of just a single night had been far beyond his means and he’d been obliged to save up for months. But that had made it still more special – a night she had vowed never to forget. Yet she had forgotten it – deliberately – buried it deep in her subconscious and labelled the memory as dangerous, self-defeating and strictly out-of-bounds.
‘Well, shall we go in?’
She let Duncan help her out of the car, screwing her face into the semblance of a smile. It was imperative to make an effort when he had gone to so much trouble.
A tall, personable man in elegant gold-and-green livery ushered them in, summoned a porter for their luggage, and led them to the reception desk, where they were greeted by a smart, young receptionist.
‘Ah, Mr and Mrs Pritchard,’ she said, warmly, passing Duncan the register.
So he had booked them in as a couple and under his name – exactly as Josh had done. Yet, whereas she had experienced the heights of elation at posing as Josh’s wife, she felt seriously conflicted at suddenly being Duncan’s. This whole parallel situation was deeply disquieting, and she was forced to rely on her acting skills, just to maintain her composure.
While Duncan signed the register, she glanced around the majestic hall, recognizing only its general shape and proportions; certainly not the expensive period wallpaper, ruched velvet curtains and elegant Regency chairs. On her first visit, a lifetime ago, the paint had been peeling, the curtains faded and shrunk, and the furniture only noticeable by its absence.
‘Well, they’ve obviously done a fantastic restoration job,’ she remarked, again making a conscious attempt to sound appreciative. They were now following the porter to the lift. She and Josh had trudged up four flights of stairs, stopping to kiss on each landing, until they finally reached their attic room at the top.
‘Yes, apparently they called in experts in several different fields – to match the period wallpaper exactly, and restore the crumbling cornices and try to return the house to its former glory.’
‘And they’ve succeeded brilliantly.’ Despite her valiant efforts, the words sounded hollow and false.
The porter led them along a lushly carpeted corridor, hung with gold-framed portraits. She glanced at each bewhiskered face, as if seeking help from these unknown dignitaries, but no kindly eyes or friendly smiles offered reassurance.
They stopped outside the Grosvenor Suite and, as the porter unlocked the door, she was confronted by a room of such stylish opulence, the small attic room seemed to slink away in shame. This high-ceilinged, spacious sitting-room was decorated throughout in subtle shades of ivory and cream; the twin sofas upholstered in oyster-coloured watered silk, which exactly matched the exquisite floor-length curtains. The room was lit by a glittering chandelier and two ornamental table-lamps, and boasted a Regency desk, two walnut-inlaid chairs, and a vast glass-topped coffee-table – strangely out of keeping with the rest.
Next, the porter showed them into the bedroom and placed their luggage on the rack. ‘Sir, madam, if you would like someone to unpack for you, there is a maid still on duty.’
Frances could only shake her head. She and Josh hadn’t bothered to unpack, but simply fallen on the bed in a tangle of limbs and swiftly shed clothes. Nor had they needed foreplay. The long and draughty train-journey, with two changes and multiple delays, had been anticipation enough and, by the time they arrived, they could barely keep their hands off each other. She could almost see the lumpy mattress and not-quite-clean, limp nylon sheets; a jolting contrast to this present bed, with its elaborate padded headboard, huge expanse of ivory-satin quilt, and more pillows than any couple would ever need or use.
‘Is there anything else I can do for you, sir and madam?’ the porter enquired.
Yes, she begged, get me out of here. Take me somewhere else – any hotel, any place at all, so long as it’s not the Lone Oak House.
‘I ordered dinner in our room,’ Duncan said, delving in his pocket for a tip. ‘But we’re much later than we planned, so I hope there won’t be any problem.’
‘No, sir. It’s all taken care of and should be here any minute.’
Any hotel that could lay on food at so unsociable an hour must be pretty exceptional, yet despite the fact that, in an attempt to make up time, they hadn’t stopped en route for even a snack, she had lost all appetite.
‘And your champagne’s already cooling in the other room.’
She and Josh had made do with a bottle of plonk and a brown paper bagful of cherries. He had looped the cherries over her nipples and, later, they’d played cherrystones, and he had blown up the bag and burst it with a boyish, exuberant BANG. But she simply must remove her mind from that could-have-been-life-changing romance. That she hadn’t let it change her life was the deepest of all her regrets, and no way must she revisit so disastrous an error of judgement, either now or ever.
At last, the porter left, gratified by his lavish tip, and Duncan immediately took her in his arms. But, instead of his tall, broad-shouldered body, she was pressing close to Josh’s short, skinny one. How could she have permitted something as trivial as height to scupper the relationship with the only man she had ever truly loved? Admittedly, she had towered above him and some of her (ruder) friends had called them Lofty and Shorty to their faces. That had mattered deeply at the time, but only now, after a whole dispiriting series of subsequent relationships – too many for comfort and most of them abortive – did it seem ludicrously petty as the reason for dumping her soulmate.
‘Darling, is everything all right?’ Duncan had released her and was looking at her anxiously. ‘You seem a little … distant.’
‘No, I’m absolutely fine.’
‘Starving, though, I’m sure. I could certainly do with -’
He was interrupted by a polite tapping on the door. ‘Ah, that’ll be our food,’ he said, calling out a loud ‘Come in!’
A waiter entered with a silver trolley and began unloading its contents onto the coffee-table, along with knives and forks, starched linen napkins and two fluted crystal glasses.
Again, she forced a smile, adopted an upbeat tone. ‘It all looks quite delicious.’
The waiter nodded to her respectfully, before addressing Duncan. ‘Sir, would you like the champagne opened now?’
The celebratory pop of the cork seemed like a rebuke. She was still struggling in the quagmire of the past, despite Duncan’s generosity and thoughtfulness.
‘Sir, madam, if there’s anything else you require, don’t hesitate to ring down to reception.’
‘Thank you,’ she and Duncan said in unison. If only unison was easier in all the other spheres. Josh was making her feel an adulteress, daring to defile their personal love-nest by coming here with another man.
Duncan gestured her to a chair, unfolded her napkin and spread it on her lap. ‘I ordered all your favourite things – I just hope I got it right!’
‘I’m sure you did.’ It would be the height of ingratitude – not to say bad manners – to fail to respond, when he had gone to such lengths to please her. And there would be more largesse on Sunday – birthday gifts and surprises, putting her still further in his debt. Yet, although she was physically present with him, she was still with Josh in heart and mind and spirit; recalling how, on that enchanted night, they hadn’t wasted a single minute on sleep, but giggled and chatted in bed between each urgent bout of lovemaking. It seemed aeons since she had giggled, decades since she had shared a flat, as she and Josh had done, once. How could she have forgotten that precious sense of coupledom, the joy of cuddling up in bed to another warm, receptive body, not just for casual affairs, but night after night after night?
Post-Josh, it had been mainly three-month flings, or even one-night stands – all profoundly unsatisfying, compared with someone who knew you through and through, and who didn’t care whether you looked a mess, or earned a pittance, or weren’t au fait with the latest fashionable trend or celebrity sensation. Josh had been blessed with a basic integrity, so that, instead of judging people by their façades, he pierced right through to their real, essential core. And she had been foolish enough to ditch him, allowed her superficial lust for wealth and status to suppress her deeper longing for permanence, security, a family and children.
‘The pate’s superb,’ she said, all but cracking from the strain of trying to drag her attention back to the present.
‘Yes, venison and duck liver. And the toasted brioche’s rather good, don’t you think? – much nicer than plain toast.’
Still on automatic pilot, she did her best to enthuse, although it was Josh’s culinary skills she was actually remembering: nothing high-falutin, just simple, unpretentious meals. He’d possessed many different talents, yet, as a struggling artist, had little chance of making anything but a basically unpredictable living. Her own childhood had been precarious enough, so it was only natural to seek out a high earner.
Or was it? Hadn’t she known, even at the time, that abandoning Josh had been the most self-destructive decision of her life? And wasn’t that the very reason she had buried the affair, refusing even to contemplate the full extent of her short-sightedness? His devotion had been obvious, and he had proved his commitment by begging her to marry him, even going down on his knees and whipping out a cheap but pretty ring. Yet, to her lasting shame, she had found herself worrying about the wedding photos, of all things, fearing that with her so tall and him so short, they would look a peculiar couple. Indeed, were the giraffe and the pygmy to stand side by side at the altar, some guests might be forced to suppress a few secret sniggers. In light of her greater experience, how petty that seemed in retrospect; proof of her fixation on image and appearance, even in her youth. If only she had been wise enough to go ahead with the marriage, she could be a mother now, a grandmother, part of a large, extended family in the shape of his five siblings and numerous cousins, instead of a lonely singleton, with her widowed father as her sole living relative.
Duncan would, of course, grace any type of photograph, with his handsome profile and gratifying height, yet, for all his merits, he could never fill the void inside her. For one thing, she couldn’t confide in him, as she had with Josh from the start, or let him see her shaky, damaged real self. Besides, except for superficialities, they were just too unalike. For Duncan, the ‘right’ car, the ‘right’ restaurants, the ‘right’ friends, the ‘right’ career-plan, were all absolutely crucial; as natural as the air he breathed. Admittedly, those things were equally important in her own job, and no one could deny that she was cocooned – indeed ensnared – in that whole beguiling scene, yet she was uncomfortably aware that her motivation had been venality and vanity; further proof, were it needed, of her irredeemable shallowness.
‘You’re very quiet,’ he said, leaning forward to touch her face.
‘Just enjoying the pate. I can taste a hint of brandy in it and something like juniper berries. It’s utterly delicious!’ This person she had become, the urbane, sophisticated gourmet, with primped demeanour and purring voice, was it really her, or had she created a false self to win approval and esteem? Before Josh had burst back on to the scene, Duncan had seemed the perfect match, not just tall and good-looking, but a director in his firm, with a salary to match, and an entrée into places that gave her lustre and distinction simply by dint of being seen there.
‘He’s the one,’ Fiona had said, approvingly. ‘You’ve been waiting all your life for a Duncan, so for God’s sake go for it this time!’
But Fiona herself – a wealthy socialite with a Chelsea penthouse and a Daddy in High Places – was just another aspect of the whole meretricious world she now inhabited: a world where expense was of no consequence, where the cut of your suit and your choice of vintage wines was proof of your inherent worth, and where you learned a patronizing condescension towards porters, waiters, lackeys. To her eternal discredit, she had totally forgotten that her own Dad had been a ‘lackey’, although he would have bristled at the term. Her nicer, younger self – the self her father had influenced – would have told her she’d sold out, compromised her values for the sake of power and prestige.
‘Don’t let your champagne go flat.’ Duncan passed her the glass and, for the first time this evening – indeed, the first time ever – she heard a note of rebuke in his voice. And who could blame him? Neglecting her champagne was a trivial offence; neglecting him unpardonable.
Desperate to make amends, she savoured the bubbly with exaggerated moues of pleasure, then, once they started on the sea-bass, pretended to relish every mouthful, pressing close to him as they ate, stroking his hand when he paused between mouthfuls – relying once more on her acting skills, as she’d done most of her adult life; the gawky giraffe determined to transmogrify into a graceful, high-born gazelle.
Fortunately, the charade convinced him and his normal unruffled demeanour returned, as she continued to play the role of attentive, appreciative mistress – so much so that he was now the one neglecting his food.
‘I’m getting more and more hungry for you, darling! Let’s leave our dessert till later.’ His fingers stroked slowly down her throat, lingered teasingly just above the plunge-neck of her dress.
She couldn’t help but tense. He had taken so long to make any outright sexual move (in total contrast to Josh), she had dared to hope that perhaps they could postpone things till the morning. By then, she would have had more time to eject Josh from their suite, lock, stock and barrel, and could concentrate solely on Duncan. But he was clearly in no mood to wait, so what excuse could she possibly fabricate for so unjustified a delay? She could hardly claim to be tired, when he was the one who’d done all the driving, while she had enjoyed an extended nap. Besides, he would be seriously insulted if she repulsed him on what was, after all, a sort of honeymoon weekend.
Already, he was slipping the dress off her shoulders, cupping her breasts in his hands – yet she was still standing ramrod-stiff. It was deplorably self-defeating to allow the past to ruin the present, when that past was irretrievable, erased from the slate entirely.
However, when he pulled her urgently towards him in a kiss, it was Josh’s kiss she was actually recalling – her first kiss ever, as a virginal lass of eighteen – a tentative and fumbling kiss from an equally inexperienced Josh. But, with remarkable alacrity, he had gained confidence, even chutzpah; kissing her on every possible occasion and some impossible, as when they canoodled in church – her parents still struggling to coax their disappointment of a daughter back to the Methodist fold.
Duncan, blithely unaware of her traitorous thoughts, unhooked her bra with practised expertise and began gently flicking his tongue against her nipples.
‘Let’s go into the bedroom,’ he urged, seizing her hand and steering her into that ostentatious sanctum, where he flung off the satin quilt with an exuberance worthy of Josh. And, all at once, Josh was there, and she was young and virginal again, without the slightest idea as to what to do, or what he might expect. For his part, he was so excited, he began ripping off her clothes with feverish haste and, although worried about being called a slag, she seemed powerless to resist. And, as his mouth inched down her belly towards her private parts, shockwaves of astoundment lasered through her body, especially when his tongue did things she hadn’t known tongues could do.
‘You’re so beautiful,’ he gasped, coming up for air a moment. ‘I’ve been imagining this ever since we met.’
But, when he guided her hand towards his zip, she hesitated a second. Wasn’t it terribly forward and blatant to unzip a man’s jeans, and, in any case, she kept fearing instant punishment from her father’s avenging God. But no punishment was forthcoming – only a swollen, frantic, self-important thing, springing up and surprising her – a thing she had no name for, which filled her with dread and longing both at once, a thing determined to get inside her, however much she might hear her parents’ warnings about sin and shame and appearing cheap.
‘Oh, darling, that feels wonderful!’ He was speaking in a fractured, panting sort of way, and was now lying right on top of her; his short, skinny, wiry body newly empowered, as it thrust and threshed and pounded, determined to take its chance before she changed her mind. But no change of mind occurred. In fact, her body seemed to be responding in some natural and instinctive way, as if, suddenly, amazingly, it had learned, of its own volition, how to match his frantic rhythm and thrust back fiercely against him, even copy his weird, half-strangled cries. At last, she had got out of her head, shut off all her worries about her parents discovering where she was, or her fear of falling pregnant, or him losing all respect for her. Instead, she had been transported to a new and freer world where nothing mattered except keeping time and pace with him, as they raced towards some destination she knew couldn’t help but happen and that would make her someone different ever after.
How could he go faster? Yet he did. How could so small a body – five foot four, at most – possess such sheer ferocity, not flag or tire, despite his laboured breathing?
Then, all at once, he seemed to explode – she with him – except they were no longer him and her, but one joined and coupled creature rising up, then slumping back in a sort of glorious agony she could never, ever describe, even if she were Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, or any of the other poets they had ever studied at school.
‘Oh, darling ….’ His voice was a rag: harsh, breathless, indistinct.
She couldn’t speak at all, needed time to adjust, to come to terms with the extraordinary fact that her devout and straitlaced parents must have done this – once, at least; come to terms with the equally amazing fact that it hadn’t been difficult or painful or disgraceful, or all the things her mum had threatened. And her school-friends had been wrong, as well, with their giggly, petty accounts of two-minute wonders, soggy disappointments.
‘Was it all right for you?’ the voice said – a different voice, now – deeper, older, more refined.
‘Oh, yes,’ she breathed, still clinging to the other voice, to the younger, smaller, stupendous, awesome body. ‘It was just -’ She paused. There were no words, although she would have to find some, to let him know, formally and solemnly, that this had been a life-changing experience and, because of it, she would love him for ever, never let him go. ‘… Just unbelievably wonderful.’
‘Unbelievably Wonderful!’ is from Wendy Perriam‘s latest collection of short stories, Bad Mothers, Brilliant Lovers, published by Robert Hale and available as an e-book (here) or paperback (here [Amazon] or here [Robert Hale]).