“It’s perfect, don’t you think?”
She hardly knew what to say, he looked so pleased with himself.
As he’d driven out of town, up over the moors and down the narrow farm track, he’d refused to let on exactly where they were going. Nina had surreptitiously glanced at her watch now and again, as their time — her lunch hour — stretched to an hour and a half as long as she sweet talked Susannah in the office, making an excuse about a queue in the bank, perhaps, as it just ticked away. And the two of them sitting in the car, not touching, just talking, just driving.
He stopped in an overgrown lane next to a stile straddling a dry stone wall, and as she got out of the car, Nina couldn’t help checking her watch again.
“It’s not far,” he said, “and it’s worth it. I promise.”
“I’m not wearing the right sort of shoes.”
“I’ll carry you, then.”
He held out a hand.
He looked so hopeful.
She climbed over the wall and walked down the footpath into the cool dark wood. Her shoes, not heels, thank God, were going to be grubby and stained when she was done, she’d have to make an excuse. She could say she’d walked through the park, say she’d felt like some fresh air.
The path, overgrown but not too steep, led to a clearing in the trees. And in the clearing stood a small stone cottage.
“It’s perfect, don’t you think?”
Cold, surely. Cold and damp.
He took her by the hand again.
“Come on. Come and see.”
If she said no, then they’d have to go back to the car and drive back to town, and then that would be the whole lunch hour wasted.
The door opens easily and Nina tries to ignore the fresh scars in the wood where someone, not him, surely, has forced the Yale lock free from the door jamb. Wooden floorboards sigh and give slightly under her feet as she follows him in.
“Here,” he says, turning to the left, leading the way.
The fireplace, a solid tiled thing, dominates the room and for a moment it seems to Nina that somehow the house has remained fully furnished with a sideboard against the back wall and a table by the window and a heavy, over stuffed three piece suite. The cottage isn’t empty at all. The occupants of the house – her mother in the kitchen, her father in the back garden – are simply busy elsewhere.
It’s the carpet on the floor, that’s all. Not even the same carpet. Just similar. That and the picture propped up on the mantelpiece. There’s nothing else. Long abandoned, the house smells musty, the air stale.
She had been married from a house like this, a proper white wedding, in church, naturally.
“Well,” he says, “what do you think?”
“How did you find it?”
“I was out walking one day.”
He must have been asking around, telling people he was looking for somewhere out of the way, private.
“I thought we could, well, you know – no-one else comes here.”
She deserves more than this, better than this, and they both know it. It’s hardly romantic, this lonely little house, damp and forgotten. She should tell him to forget it; she should remind herself of what she has to lose. She should walk away without looking back.
There are grey smudges under his eyes, and he looks uncertain, a half smile on his face and he runs his hand absently through his hair. The jeans and jacket he wears have seen better days; his tee- shirt is faded and worn. He’s too thin, she thinks, not for the first time, and his hands are scratched and grazed. But none of this matters to her, she’d rather look at his narrow, pale, unshaven face than at her sleek and fashionably groomed husband. His every flaw and fault, the faint scar above his eyebrow, the scatter of freckles across the bridge of his nose, charm her; the very lines of his bones, from neck to shoulder to elbow to wrist are still almost unbearably moving. She can’t help herself.
It’s no longer a question of what she should or shouldn’t do. It’s simply a question of managing the practicalities of her betrayal.
She looks around the room, her glance skittering off the picture on the mantelpiece. There had been one like it in her parents’ house, tacked up on the wall, watching over them; a strangely calm Jesus, pulling his neat white robe open, pointing with a pale finger to his fiery heart.
This is for you.
Take it or leave it.
“But this will do, won’t it?”
He sounds anxious.
“Just for now. Just until…”
His voice fades.
It’s cold and damp.
It’s foolish and undignified and wrong.
It can’t possibly last.
She steps into his arms, breathing in the scent of him, closing her eyes and willing the world to go away. Clinging onto him as their time together bleeds away, measured in the steady rhythm of his heartbeat.
When she speaks her voice is muffled.
“Yes,” she says “yes.”