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.
With a certain irony, Jack first sees her at a birthday party given for Jill by Stephanie, Jill’s best friend. That evening, when Jack first notices her, Jo is looking extremely good in a Simone Rocha LBN that perfectly showcases the dark red lipstick she has applied to her mouth: Jack likes the way that mouth is full with a seductively short upper lip; her eyes are kind and somehow troubled, but the mouth is out there, proud and alluring. Later Jack tells himself he moved towards her out of duty, because he was aware that she didn’t know many people there, but really it’s because he found her attractive and, well, let’s face it, she’s at least half a decade younger than the crowd of 40-something women who are all divorced, getting divorced, thinking about getting divorced, or busy stealing each other’s husbands.
Jack and Jo introduce themselves and start to talk. There is a small overlap, a synergy in their professions: he runs the marketing department of a big printing firm; she runs her own ad agency.
“I think you have beautiful eyes.”
Fractionally, those beautiful eyes widen.
“Not the most original line, but thank you all the same. Yours are nice, too.”
He can’t tell whether she is extending the flirt. So he pushes harder, and says, “Do you ever do lunch?”
She looks a little startled, as if he’s guessed that she’s anticipating this. “Oh – well – sometimes, yes. It depends.”
“How about Tuesday, at The Delaunay? It’s near where you work.”
He has been waiting five minutes when she arrives, not exactly out of breath, but breathlessly agitated and full of redundant apologies for being five minutes late. She is wearing a black, polka-dotted silk blouse with waterfall ruffles, tucked into tight trousers that show off an enviably pert bottom. At lunch, after the mandatory exchange of basic information, their conversation flows without pause and Jack feels tempted to give details of his married life that are perhaps better left untold. His my-wife-doesn’t-understand-me routine or his we-don’t-really-have-sex-anymore shtick only just avoid those very clichés. Is this the third glass of Chablis talking – or a subconscious wish to ratchet up the intimacy, to fast track their rapport? He backpedals.
“I’ve never told anyone quite so much about myself before. I’m sorry if it’s ‘too much information’.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I rather like it when people confide in me. And sometimes, sure, you’re right, it is a little too much, but then – well – it’s often pretty interesting, too,” says Jo, those immaculately painted lips doing a mischievous little twitch, keeping him engaged, controlling the tempo between them. “Still. A shame about you and Jill. She’s beautiful. And you make such a…” her brow furrows delightfully as she searches for the mot juste, “…handsome couple.”
Is there a flash of bitchiness in her voice? If there is, it’s only to be expected. And, no, not bitchiness really: somehow it sounds more like resentment. After all, she’s been dumped, and it must be hard to be on the receiving end of that. Despite his best efforts to pump her for information, Jo refuses to say anything about her ex partner, other than that it was very painful. He looks into her kind, sad, wise eyes and feels another acute ache of attraction.
In the street they embrace saying goodbye and they quickly promise to meet again for lunch. But this time, yes, they really will talk business. He inhales as his cheek brushes hers, breathing in her essence, and he just catches the scent she wears: Miller Harris, the sexy, tuberose one he bought for Jill last Christmas from that shop in the City. She hadn’t liked it.
Two more lunches take place, but little or no ‘business’ is discussed; then, at the end of the fourth one, she puts her hand on top of his, smiling, and says, “I don’t think we can really go on meeting like this, Jack. Besides, I really want to fuck you.” Jack instantly flips his hand, palm up, and their fingers catch.
* * * *
The affair with Jo lasts all autumn and Jack is utterly – well – cuntstruck. And somehow, even the very occasional sex with Jill improves: now Jack feels like a dog with two tails. Then one day in December, with Christmas looming, after they have fucked, Jo is on top of him; both have come, and he is still inside her, still quite hard. Jo looks down at him. For a while now Jack has noticed that her eyes no longer have that troubled, vulnerable look. Rather smugly, he puts it down to the contentment he has brought to her life. They fuck every week. Sometimes twice, occasionally three times. They are best friends. They are confidants. They tell each other everything. On this occasion, earlier on, they were discussing Jill, and Jo now revisits that subject.
“Would you be surprised if you found out that Jill was screwing someone else?”
The question takes him by surprise.
“I sort of doubt that, really. But yes, I think I would.”
“Well, I think she probably is. Would it matter to you?”
He doesn’t answer her question. “You never see Jill, so how could you know? I see her every day.”
“But you’re at work. Or here, in my flat, so conveniently close to our offices. You don’t know what she’s up to. Do you? Not really.”
“True. But I just know she wouldn’t go there. Not Jill.”
“Are you fucking her?”
“You know we don’t… any more.”
Jack pauses. He doesn’t know which is more unsettling: having to lie to his inamorata, because yes, he and Jill did occasionally still have sex; the tone of Jo’s voice, which is amused, just a little mocking; her line of questioning; or the possibility that she might be right, that his wife could indeed be screwing another man. Cuckolding him, in fact.
“Jesus! What makes you think… ?” His voice tails off because Jo is giving him a hard little smile now, holding his eyes with hers; his cock has shrunk and he can feel a warm wetness over his thigh. She leans down and kisses him on the mouth.
“I’ve got to get back to work. See you next week, sweetie.”
Sweetie? thinks Jack. She’s never called me that before. Outside, the snow is settling. London snow: dirty slush that ruins shoes and freezes toes.
Over the next few days, Jack is plagued by the possibility that his wife is matching his own infidelity; he watches Jill like a hawk for any signs of uxorial dereliction. But she is sweetness and light, the soul of domestic dedication. Surreptitiously, he checks her phone calls and texts, her credit card expenditure, even those ‘secret’ places where they hide her jewellery when they go on holiday. But there’s nothing; nothing that could possibly be construed as suspicious or out of the ordinary; nothing to incriminate her. Somehow he feels… cheated.
* * *
One day he returns home, late morning, with the excuse of having forgotten a file. Part of him fears he will find her in their marital bed with a man half his age; part of him perversely wants to catch her being unfaithful. It would even things up between them, assuage those sharp little spikes of guilt that, increasingly, he finds so troubling. Jill is making lunch for Stephanie, who arrives soon after he does. They hug and wish each other Happy New Year.
When invited, he decides to join them. Homemade quiche and a big, elaborate salad. They drink Tesco’s Cava and talk about respective grandchildren. This makes Jack feel a bit ancient.
“Did you ever have lunch with Jo?”
Stephanie’s out-of-the-blue question finds Jack unprepared, but he covers well.
“Yes, we had lunch near my office. Nice girl. Really nice. We had a good talk, looked at a few ideas, but nothing came of it. I mean, her agency isn’t…”
He lets the last sentence drift and die a natural death.
He wonders if he’d sounded too casual, or somehow unnatural or if his voice had risen. But the answer seems to satisfy both women, and they continue talking, almost as if he wasn’t there. Jack suppresses a sigh of relief. It’s cool, he thinks; just a polite conversational gambit that went nowhere.
“I’ve got to run, I’m afraid. Back to work or it’ll be P45 time…”
They all laugh, because recently Jack has been made a senior director. His time is, effectively, his own. Kissing them both fondly, he makes for the front door in the hall, opens it, then remembers that he has left that file (the pretext for his unexpected return) upstairs. He runs up to fetch it, feet light on the carpeted staircase.
The winter storms have hardly affected central London, but the occasional showery gust of wind still buffets this part of the city. Downstairs, Jack hears the front door slam. Looking down into the stairwell, he sees the top of Jill’s head as she comes out of the kitchen as if to check that he has gone. She returns and he can hear the friends’ voices.
As he descends the stairs, their conversation becomes clear.
“Have you talked to Jo since that party back in September?”
“No. And you were right: asking that psychopathic little slut to your birthday do was a mistake. But I was trying to be nice, to let her down gently, to stay friendly with her. Unfortunately this was not reciprocated. And somehow I’ve got the feeling she knows about us now.”
“Oh fuck, do you really think so?”
Then Jill says, “Funny that she should have had lunch with Jack. I wonder what they talked about.”
“Well, according to you it could only have been Chelsea, malt whisky or vintage cars.”
They laugh. Then Jill says, “Come here, you…”
That’s unfair, thinks Jack. I’m not that boring. He debates whether to leave now or eavesdrop further. Curiosity wins and he lingers on the stairs. But there’s an incredibly long silence, and he’s about to change his mind, make a run for it, when Stephanie finally says, “Mmm. That was very nice. So… are you going to invite me upstairs?”