“Come on, do you good, you’ll feel better for it.”
“Where is it anyway?”
“Somewhere you’ll like.”
“I don’t like surprises.”
“You’ll like this one.”
Silence. A long silence. He hadn’t been able to make it out.
“Yes, yes, right. I’m sorry. Fine, it’s fine, of course, we’ll go.”
“I just said.”
“I want you to like it. I want you to enjoy yourself, it’s special.”
“I will. Sorry. What time do you want to go?”
“Pick you up at seven.”
“As early as that?”
“There’s things to look at, then we can have a drink and then we’ll eat.”
“Is it far, this place, wherever it is?”
“I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“Right. Fine. See you then.”
But she had already gone.
He sat, now, over his tea, Scotch egg and green beans, plums and cream, hearing the way her voice had been. In his head. He’d known but he hadn’t known. Of course he hadn’t. They were engaged, they were getting married in six months. She’d got a cold coming or the curse.
He stared at the egg on his plate. Neatly halved, the pale crumbly yolk, the rubbery grey-tinged white, the sausage meat, the orange crumbs.
When he’d got there she hadn’t been ready and her sister, Georgina, had been there, looking at him and then looking away. Afterwards, he realised that Georgina had been embarrassed. Because Alison had said something.
But he’d ignored it. Of course he had. Nothing was wrong. How could there be? They were engaged. They were going to be married. There was no one like Alison who had ever been born. That was how he felt, the extent of it. No one who had ever been born.
She’d come into the room and the sun had come out. It’s what happened, what she did. She wore a blue frock and a white jacket and her hair was down, floating round her head somehow, gauzy hair. The light showed through it as she came into the room.
Georgina had looked at her. Alison hadn’t wanted to catch her eye.
There was something.
But when he pulled away from the kerb, he could have laughed with happiness.
“The Compton Ford Hotel,” she had read aloud as they drove through the gates and up the drive. The gravel crunched under the wheels. “I’ve heard about this place.”
“You’ll like it. I came and sussed it out.”
“Us. You wait.”
He handed her out and she had looked round slowly, taking everything in, the inch-thick gravel and the lawns, the stone urns full of white flowers, the terrace and avenue between the trees.
“It’s very smart here. It’s got to be expensive.”
The staircase curved round and there was a marble floor in the entrance, a glass-roofed dining room, with doors open onto the lawn. White tablecloths. Waiters in long white aprons. Flowers.
“Look at the flowers,” Alison had said, her voice a whisper.
“You wait—they’ll be yours. Ours.”
“What do you mean?”
“We can’t get married here!”
But she had turned away. She had gone to the Ladies while he went to order their drinks and find a table on the terrace in the evening sun. He sat, imagining it, picturing her. The garden full of their guests, Alison in the centre of it all.
She came back after what seemed a long time.
“I asked for a brochure,” he said, “when I came before. The sort of things they do. You can have anything you want. You ask, you can have it.”
She had looked at him and looked away quickly. She had picked up her glass of wine and taken a small sip and put it down.
“What do you think?”
He could still see the way the sun had been shining on her face and on the table and her glass and his glass, and feel the warmth from it. A few other people had come in. Behind them there was the soft sound of someone putting cutlery down on linen.
“I’ve got something to say.”
That was all. Odd. That was all he’d needed. “I’ve got something to say.” And his world had fallen apart. He’d watched the pieces of it floating away slowly like leaves down and down and out of sight and all there had been was a dark hollow space and a cold wind blowing.
Just that one thing she had said and the way she had looked, but not at him, the expression on her face. I’ve got something to say.
The pale gold lager and the paler wine had soured and curdled in the glass and his fingers had turned to ice.
He had heard her out and said nothing. Nothing at all. Just got up and paid the bill, cancelled the table. “Not feeling too good.”
“Say something, please say something. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, I don’t know how it happened, I didn’t mean it to, only it did, I’m really sorry.”
On and on. She was sorry. Didn’t know how. But it had happened. He had said nothing.
It wasn’t that he had not heard her or taken it in. He had. She was not going to marry him because she wanted to be with Stuart Reed. His friend Stuart Reed. Now her lover Stuart Reed.
He had not driven too fast or carelessly. He had gone straight to her house, walked round, opened the car door for her. She’d stood on the pavement outside the house, her eyes big, mouth working.
“Say something, for God’s sake.”
But he had simply stood and, in the end, she had walked unsteadily towards the gate, not looking back.
He had caught sight of Georgina. Looking down from the window upstairs.
Georgina. She knew.
He had got back into the car and driven off, driven for a long time and as he drove, he allowed the anger to seep out of the place where he had penned it. Drop by drop. He could not let it come too fast because it was so strong and so deadly, so concentrated. It would have set the car on fire.
The grief came much later and was so confused in his head with the anger that he barely recognised it for what it was. What shocked him was how the love he had felt for her had shrivelled to nothing and been burned up. He still felt passion but in a way which had twisted inside out, turned in on itself.
He sat beside a railway line watching the trains which flashed by every twenty minutes and pictured her lying on the rails. Her eyes were open and she saw everything and knew that he was watching her die under the wheels of the train. In the time he spent there, an hour or more, he planned what he would do and when and how he would do it and where he would go afterwards. He planned it so meticulously, in such careful steps, that he knew that he would succeed. He could not fail.
And none of it would be his fault. He would not be to blame and he would explain that to anyone. He was not to blame. She had done it. To him. To herself.
It had taken two days and then he had woken in the night crying. He cried for her and for himself and what he had lost, knowing surely that he would never love again as he had loved her. It had taken him so long. Others did it so easily, girlfriends, partners, wives, but he had never got it right, never had the knack. She had been his miracle and he had never quite believed in her. Maybe that was it, he had thought, lying in the dark, maybe she had not been believable. Maybe it had not been true, as he had felt it. He had always been amazed that she had responded to him but then, why not, he’d got lucky, it was bound to happen, people had always told him so.
So now? Go to her. Go and ask and plead and beg.
No way. It had been hard enough. He wasn’t about to risk that, losing his pride as well as everything else.
He knew what he had to do. He had thought it all out, hadn’t he?
He had turned over and slept but in his sleep the tears still came.
He stared at his plate. Then he took up his knife and fork. He gouged out the hard-boiled yellow iris of the Scotch egg and dissected it into minute crumby pieces on his plate. The white of the eye came next, prised out as a single flabby half-moon. He cut that into slivers. The rest, the sausage meat and the outer crust, he mashed with the back of his fork, pressing it down hard and flattening it onto the surface of the plate.
He did the same with the other half of the egg until the whole was a turgid mess, the iris of the egg and the white mashed together and stirred round and round, round and round.
He sat there for a long time, remembering. Reminding himself.
Helen put down her fork. “The thing is—given the play discusses such serious issues, it always surprises me how funny it is.”
“Have you seen it before?”
She shook her head. “I used to belong to the Lafferton Players.”
Phil made a face.
“All right, I know … It was all very am-dram and I left but I did get to know some brilliant plays, like the David Hare trilogy. I thought then how funny some of Racing Demon is.”
“Easy. When he’s challenging God, telling him He’s not up to much, He’s like some low-down football team.”
“Yes, and the supporters are like those who sort of support God but it’s OK ‘because they’re Accrington Stanley in their daily lives—they just don’t go to the games.’”
“What, go to the Accrington Stanley games?”
“No, to God’s.”
It was not a subject that had arisen in their half-dozen meetings but after seeing the Hare play about clerical crises and the state of the Church of England, it was inevitable one of them would raise it and Helen had known it would not be her. She had almost declined the theatre outing just because of it.
She ate more of her saltimbocca, very slowly.
“Is that not all right?”
“It’s delicious. I’m savouring the last mouthfuls.”
She had to tell him about Tom. Of course she had to. And why not? She would defend her son to the gallows. But it was difficult. She’d veered away from it. But this was Phil. She looked at him across the table. He raised an eye brow. Phil. The Phil she was growing to like very much, whose company she loved, who …
She put her knife and fork together and drank the last of her wine.
“You needn’t worry.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about it. Religion and politics, you know.”
“Well, we’ve done politics.”
They were both Gordon Brown Labour voters, both glad to see the back of Blair, both from families who in the past had been militantly left wing. As a student, Phil had sold the Socialist Worker, he said, had even become a Trotskyite for two terms.
“But you grow up, don’t you? Real life breaks in.”
The waiter came to clear and bring the dessert menu. Phil ordered another glass of wine for her and more mineral water.
“I couldn’t eat anything else,” she said.
“How disappointing. I could.”
He ordered a pudding for himself, then said, “I’m an atheist. I cannot understand how anyone of intelligence believes in a God. It baffles me. I also think religion is dangerous. A force for ill. And if you’re a Scientologist we’ll have to agree not to mention Thetans, that’s all.”
“Oh, I’m just getting my head round being a person without intelligence.”
“You believe in God?”
“I think so. Anyway, I sing with the cathedral choral society. I go to the Easter service, Christmas, the Advent carols … That’s about it, though, I’m not a very good churchgoer.”
“Ah. Accrington Stanley in fact.”
“It’s Tom you should know about. Not that I mind, not that it makes any difference at all to … anything.”
“Tom. Tell me.”
He leaned closer and put his hand on top of hers on the table. “What is so dreadful about Tom?”
“No, not dreadful …” She sighed. It was difficult and it ought not to be but she still felt uncomfortable sometimes with what had happened.
“When he was sixteen one of his friends asked him to go on holiday with him and his family. Tom said yes and then it turned out to be some sort of Christian holiday—in tents on a showground. Anyway, by the time Tom realised, he said he’d better go as he’d said he would. It would be a laugh and there were bands, he’d get through it. There were beaches nearby for surfing, which he loves. It was in Cornwall. So off he went. Lizzie and I went to walk in Northumberland—Hadrian’s Wall. We laughed a lot about how poor Tom was coping. But when we all got back he’d coped by joining up.”
“You mean they brainwashed him?”
“Not exactly. But the atmosphere was so highly charged and emotional and he was under a lot of pressure. He said it was like a light going on. He did nothing but read the Bible and go off with these people. They have very extreme, fundamentalist beliefs and they’re pretty ferocious about everyone who isn’t one of them. I was angry. I tried to talk to him. But you can’t. Their brains seem to be rewired and you can’t get through. Lizzie gave him hell. But I assumed it would fizzle out, like all these teenage things.”
“And it hasn’t.”
“On the contrary. And I’ve been trying not to tell you.”
Phil started to laugh.
“Not funny. It really isn’t. You should hear him—he’s so earnest and serious about it. He isn’t the Tom I know, Phil—he never talks about anything else, he has hardly any other friends. He went to one of their conventions in America this summer and he came back quite terrifyingly right wing and even more fundamentalist. We’ve had to agree not to talk about it at all. I find it pretty difficult to live with.”
“So would I.”
The restaurant was emptying. Phil had finished his pot of wine-soaked cream. They agreed to pass on coffee. Phil asked for the bill. But what he had said seemed to drop heavily onto the space between them. So would I.