“Don’t they look glorious at this age. Men. The bastards.”
Pia and Briony are looking at their husbands across the room.
The two men have their arms draped over each other’s shoulders and are thanking everyone for a great party.
“And don’t we look shit,” says Pia.
Briony raises scant brows.
“Speak for yourself, love.”
I was, thinks Pia. I was thinking only of myself and of my softening, dropping face. My softening, dropping body.
The faces of Will and Mac are not dropping like hers. They are taut. Lined, yes, but in a fascinating and appealing way. They are grey, Mac at the temples, Will nearly all over, and the colour is steely and complex. The colour is not a colour at all but a host of interesting striations, like moorland rock.
Oh shut up, she tells herself. What can I do about any of it?
The hair on Will’s body is also grey. She catches glimpses of it as he undresses for bed. These days they both get cold in bed and are pyjamad up. Seeing each other’s flesh and hair comes in flashes of hurried transit. Sometimes she’ll catch sight of him naked as he gets ready for work in the morning and finds that she is appraising him. It is not the body of a young man by any means but not an old one either. There is a dogged firmness to his thighs and stomach. Exercise – the weight-lifting, core-strengthening type – comes as naturally to him as eating and shitting. To her it is the epitome of tedium. She had the exercise of a lifetime carrying the kids and then caring for them. Does one still have to bust a gut? Seems one does.
Now and again, if she complains of the sight of her, he says in that cajoling voice:
“Twenty sit-ups a day and you’ll see the difference.”
And she’ll say: “Oh fuck off.”
Briony, who is tall and imposing, has commented often enough: “Isn’t it a good thing that at our age, we have such small appetites now.”
Have we? Pia has wondered. I could eat all the time and mostly chips with curry sauce.
Will and his oldest, dearest friend Mac, have turned 56 at around the same time, and though not in the least the partying type, were persuaded to celebrate jointly by Mac’s wife Briony, who is the partying type.
Briony was happy to host in their opened-out, spartan London flat, and a good thirty guests were invited and came.
Pia has stood at the side for most of the party, not even observing, but just removing herself from it. Soon it will be over, she tells herself, and then she can go home to bed and book.
Briony, loitering beside her with a drink in her hand, gestures towards their men with her glass.
“I suppose we’re lucky,” she says.
“I suppose we are,” says Pia.
They are good men, devoted husbands and fathers. They work hard and earn well. Pia and Briony also work but neither earns as much as her husband. They are not concerned about the fact. They like nice homes and far-afield holidays. They love time off.
“He’s not only getting handsomer with age, but he’s getting much better looking than me,” complains Briony about Mac.
Briony is a striking looking woman, with long wood-hued hair, and age won’t play the same treacherous game with her as it has with Pia.
Pia looks across at Mac and, yes, it’s true, he is an astonishingly good-looking man.
When they were younger, when the two couples started spending time together, then Pia had often been a little tongue-tied when alone with Mac. It was like being with someone famous or powerful. She felt deferential in his presence. His perfect features and thick longish hair gave him a specialness, the uncommonness of celebrity. But he is not at all conceited, let alone vain. He is a gentle and funny man, who can get a room laughing with a single muttered sentence, which is what is happening right at this moment, as Pia and Briony watch and discuss the birthday boys and look them over and congratulate themselves on their good luck. Why not? They nearly always talk about their children and so it’s rather pleasant speaking about their partners as though they were young women sizing up their chances.
Will is talking now, a tiny bit more serious, a little more emphatic than his friend. His strength is what is most noticeable about him. People often think Will might be an army officer in his working life, because of the competence and durability his exudes. Pia loves his hands, which used to hold her so firmly in bed – even when asleep! – that she felt pinned down by his love. She felt owned by him and, say what you like, it’s a nice feeling.
Nothing has changed. She knows he loves her. She feels nothing but love for him too. Even when exasperated by him she loves him. Maybe that says more about love than it does them. Now that the children have left home for university, Will and Pia will spend more time together. You never know, maybe the old foursome will be able to relive some of their happiest, most riotous hours.
Briony is leaving her side.
“Mac’s so pissed he’s going to say something fuckwitted any minute,” she says and goes to break up the speeches, which are going on far too long anyway.
Pia watches her friend trying to pull the men off-stage. They are in the middle of a gathering and the exercise becomes a comedy tussle.
Will throws back his head and hollers to the ceiling:
“No! We will not be parted. He’s my best mate.”
You love him, she thinks, with a deep and very sentimental loyalty that I’ve never known among my own friends. It’s what boys do. It’s what makes you so useful in a war.
And so the evening bubbles along, a continuum of chatter and laughter, with a boisterous moment spiking the graph occasionally, and then a slowing and quietening until it is just the four of them left.
Two a.m. The city beyond the broad picture window – eight floors down – is a circuit board of lights and fizzing movement. They are sitting together on the huge corner sofa having retrieved a half-finished bottle of red wine. Pia is smiling and Will is asleep, his head tipped back and his mouth open.
“I could do this every night,” says Briony.
“Could you!” cries Pia. “I couldn’t.”
“Me neither,” says Mac. He proffers his glass and they click them together in agreement.
“Lightweights,” complains Briony.
“Pia, Pia, Pia,” says Mac dreamily. “My kind of woman.”
“We married the wrong men,” says Briony poking her husband in the thigh. “You two would be found dead in your bed, still clutching books, having read passages out loud to each other until you just conked out from boredom.”
“Sounds perfect,” says Pia.
And once again Mac raises his glass and lets it collide with hers.
• • •
The following week is a melancholy one for Pia. Will is away for most of the day every day, working with a team of employment lawyers in the North. She wakes late, when the dog really can’t hold it in any longer, and then pulls tracksuit bottoms over her bare arse and stumbles through the streets as the dog sniffs every streak of urine deposited since the last expedition.
As she walks, she is assailed by her youth.
It really does assail her these days and drapes over her with a thick sadness that slows her down and redirects her mind away from all that is bright and positive about her current life. She put it down to the absence of her children at first but thinks now it’s just part of the process of ageing. Her mother went through it and almost certainly her mother before her. It must be part of the transition.
She remembers the strangest things: waking up one light-drenched morning in a tent with her girl-friends – she was only around sixteen – and looking at the sleeping faces surrounding her, all utterly perfect, and suddenly coming to the elated realisation: we’re women! We’re proper bloody women!! And images come to her of even earlier days, shopping with her mother, watching her choose certain fruit from the grocers, mysteriously rejecting others. And she recalls sitting on an upturned flowerpot in her grandfather’s allotment while he swore with each shove of the spade. Her university days come back again and again, the mess and drama of her late teens and early twenties.
And most of all, she thinks of all the sexual encounters she’s had. In her twenties they had been casual and usually fast and unsatisfactory with young men in a hurry. In her thirties and early forties desperate though fine-tuned, mostly with Will, her new husband. As she headed towards fifty she could feel a glorious, all-knowing, earth-mother kind of energy building within her. She was obsessed with the sensation of sex, the mind-body hostage-taking insanity of it. She wanted it morning, noon and night. Had to have it. Unfortunately, Will didn’t want it morning, noon or night and so, apart from the odd moment of self-generated ecstasy, she was alone. Deeply alone and life-long lonely. A function ended. A sensation forgotten.
And now she’s not even sure that she cares about any of it. She feels ill half the time, fundamentally tired. Why does the past even matter? It’s gone and therefore powerless. She doesn’t wish to relive it. The happiest days of her life have easily been since settling with Will. Or have they? Is it just because they are the most recent good memories? Could it be that all these earlier ones are now crowding back for a simple reason… that she’s facing the end? That she’s on the last leg of the journey?
On Friday, the day before Will is due to come home, she takes the dog out later than usual. She’s had a bath and played CandyCrush for half an hour while in it.
She comes downstairs to find a pool of dog wee by the bottom step.
“I know,” she tells her as she attaches the lead. “What’s the point? The horse has already bolted.”
• • •
As she rounds the corner of Shelby Street she sees him and struggles to understand why he is there.
He must be a good hundred feet away but when he smiles, she can see every slow fluctuation of it.
She waves limply, still puzzled, and waits for him to reach her. When he does, the dog sniffs his toes.
“Mac?” she asks.
“Hello,” he says.
“He’s not at home, you know,” she tells him. “He’s still in Leeds.”
He reaches down to ruffle the dog’s back. The dog bends her head round to snap ineffectually at his hand.
Mac straightens and smiles at Pia. For a moment she’s forgotten how to behave. She simply looks at him.
How much time passes? Who knows? The dog drags at the lead.
“I came to see you, actually,” says Mac.
His mouth is open and his eyes wide. His body is nervy.
“Is it because of his birthday?” she asks. “Have you a secret plan?”
He breathes in enormously, holds his breath, then lets it out in a great explosion of relief.
“Pia…” he says.
“What?” she laughs.
“Oh God,” he mutters. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.”
She is waiting. Her heart is beating. She doesn’t know what’s going on. And then suddenly she does.
“Do you feel it too?” he asks. “If you don’t, I’ll go. If you do and you want me to go, I’ll go. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll definitely go. If you…”
She holds up a hand at once to quieten him.
“I do,” she says.
• • •
They stand on opposite sides of the bed. They’ve been laughing rather frenziedly ever since they arrived and now they face each other, the laughter going off in small, heart-shuddering detonations in each of them. Between them is her unmade bed, her off-white nightie in a tortured knot, half-hanging off the side nearest him.
Her I do out on the pavement had been taken as a signal and they had put their heads down and walked the length of Shelby Street in silence and then come to her own street and wavered at the top of it. Together they stared at her house, the dog straining to go home, pulling Pia’s arm straight out in front of her. And still they had waited, unclear as to what they were meant to do next. Until he finally looked at her and – with clear, earnest eyes and lines of concern breaking out all over his forehead – he had said:
“Are you ready?”
They had grinned at each other at exactly the same time – not one prompted by the other but spontaneously. Evenly. This grin was the final propulsion and they speed-walked along the street and arrived at her front door, where she handed the lead over to him while she fumbled for her keys in every single pocket of her jacket. The laughter must have bubbled up at around that time, in the absence of any words between them.
It is still popping and bursting out of them as they stand with the bed between them, the world uncertain beneath their feet, the air so thin that, a minute more, and she might ask for an oxygen mask.
“Briony and I never really have sex any more,” he says as though it’s an apology. “Do you and Will?
Such an unexpected bark of laughter from her that she puts her hand up in front of her mouth to excuse it.
“Of course not. I’m fifty-five.”
He is nodding. Because he understands? Because he sympathizes? And then a little unnerving touch of seriousness:
“Tell me a good reason why we shouldn’t do this.”
She doesn’t have to think.
“Because I’m covered in hair. From head to foot. I had no idea, you see… Oh, you mean moral reason? Don’t, Mac. Don’t make me think any more deeply than I am.”
She loves that smile. She has always been able to make him laugh. She assumed that that was all there was between them, a similar, klutz kind of humour. Self-denigrating. They are both expert practitioners at that. Whenever he laughs at what she says, she feels a little prickle of excitement all over.
“I erm… I suppose we’d better get in. This is the bit where we tear each other’s clothes off, isn’t it?”
“All that hair…” she says, mournfully.
“We could shave it off! Does that count as foreplay?”
She winces at the very thought. And for a moment she tries to see herself as he must see her – will see her in a moment, so much less than perfect, so disappointing, so very below par. But wait! He’s already undoing his trousers and stooping over as he extricates a leg.
She undresses so quickly that it would be easier to count the beats of a hummingbird’s wings and she’s in the bed and under the duvet before his t-shirt is up and over his head. He stands stunned for a moment, as though a whirlwind has passed through.
Is she expected to look as he removes his pants? She’ll see his penis. She assumed she’d never see anyone else’s penis in the flesh for the rest of her days, except perhaps a grandchild’s. As his hands take hold of the waistband of his surprisingly delapidated underpants, she glances away.
“I look awful,” she tells him, her face still turned away. “Old. Very saggy.”
She feels the mattress give as he gets in and looks back to find his face barely inches away from hers. They are gathered together in that musty bed like a pair of naughty kids, thrilled. Terrified.
“Old?” he asks. “You’re not old. And what’s age got to do with anything?”
“I thought it might be a bit off-putting for you. There’s no way I can get my legs behind my ears.”
He reaches over and picks a strand of hair off her face, then looks directly into her eyes. She is waiting for him to say something that will make her heart soar, that will help her forget herself, that will transport her right back to her pristine youth.
“You’re alive and you’ve got holes in all the right places,” he says.
A pause before the laughter comes spilling out again.
“Idiot,” she says. She watches the listless movement of his lips and wants to kiss them. So she does. She jabs her head forward and pecks him on the mouth. He raises an arm, presumably to hold her head in place, but, too late, she’s pulled back. Her smile now is strong.
“Have you always wanted this?” she asks, licking her lips to get a secret taste of him.
He does that thing where he sweeps his hair back and off his face.
“I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “I must have. I just didn’t know it. Did you?”
“I don’t know either. It was never an option really, was it?”
If she reaches out her hand she will touch his penis. Penis! It’s a vile word. Willy’s worse. He’s not a child. Cock. That’ll do. Shouldn’t the cock be touching her by now? Oh God, at their age some degree of manipulation is only to be expected. But it’s Mac! Her friend. She’s known him for twenty years! She can’t wank him off. Can she?
“What do you want from this?” she suddenly asks him.
“Sex,” he says. “What do you want from it?”
“Sex,” she replies. Then checks with him: “Not a relationship?”
“How is that even possible?” he asks.
How is that even possible?
How is it even possible that two happily-married people, friends, admittedly always attracted to each other, could have a quickie, then get up, shake hands and get on with their lives?
He is posing her another question. She is grateful for the time-buying.
“I don’t want to put it in your head if it hasn’t already occurred to you but isn’t it a bit weird us being here together, naked, in your marital bed.”
She can’t believe her ears.
“What makes you think it never occurred to me, for goodness’ sake!” she exclaims. “But the funny thing is that I don’t seem at all concerned about it. I mean, in relation to the bed. It’s just a bed. And I don’t think Will would be either, if he were in here with Briony. Oh God. How would you feel about that? About Briony being in your bed with Will?”
He seems to consider the scenario with brief depth, then simply shrugs. She should assume, then, that he has no feelings about it at all.
“If Will came in here now,” she says, “he’d say: ‘Hello Mac, I see you’re in bed with the missus’. And you’d say: ‘Yes, sorry, do you mind?’ And he’d say: ‘Well, your timing’s great because the cricket’s just on from India and so if you hurry up we can get a few overs in before they’re all out’. And you’d both groan about England being all out. Oh and you’d get a move on.”
Mac is laughing fondly now and the look in his eyes is of immense pleasure at the very thought of spending some time with his best friend.
“Once upon a time,” continues Pia, “maybe twenty years ago, he would have punched you. Not kicked or stabbed or anything but just one punch to get the message across. Oi, don’t walk on my lawn kind of thing.
“I’d let him,” Mac says. “Fair’s fair.”
Oh my goodness. You’re adorable, she thinks. Is this the moment? Shall I take control and reach out and start?
Her fingers begin to walk across the perilous expanse between them.
His eyes turn away away from her and he sighs.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” she wants to know. “Have you changed your mind?”
He turns over onto his back and his eyes are now trained on the ceiling. She feels she can relax but is also stung. She remembers now – the insecurity, the fragility. She shuffles closer and lets her head lean against his shoulder. He reaches round a hand and two fingers stroke her cheek.
“I deliberately didn’t stop to think about it,” he says. “I felt something strange at the party when I looked at you. And I thought: Hurry, before it goes. No one will blame you. Find out out if she feels the same way.”
“What was it?” she asks. “That you saw in me at the party?”
“Hmmm,” he says. And then says it some more. “Hmmm.” And finally he explains: “I saw someone I ought really to have sex with.”
“But that’s no answer,” she complains. “Did you want to have sex with this person because you were attracted to her or because it was me? What I mean is, if there had been someone else, would she have done?”
“Ah,” he says. “I see. Is the object of the exercise sex or sex with you?”
“Exactly. Because if it’s me…”
If it’s her, then is that an admission to love?
“Just to finally nail this down,” she persists. “If I were a stranger and you met me at the party would you want to shag me? I bet not.”
He opens his mouth but nothing emerges.
No. No, she thinks. This is not about how I look or what I exude or anything ethereal. This is a kind of unfinished business. The need to finish things, at our age, is quite overwhelming.
“But that’s alright,” she says aloud and stretches her hand out and finally, finally, it lands on target.
“Do you mind?” she asks, her fingers closing around.
“Mind?” he asks with a guffaw. “That’s why I’m here, isn’t it!”
He tuns on his side and now, once again, they are nose to nose. The light in his eyes is hypnotic – the single most arousing aspect of this whole fandango so far. She feels her blood speed through her veins.
“Might need to crank her up a bit though,” he says.
“Yes, I thought I might,” she grins back.
He kisses her on the lips and it’s an enchanting moment.
“Oh God,” he groans. “What is it now? You’re a nightmare.”
Her hand drops back onto the bed and he shakes his head with exasperation.
“I just wondered what you thought about me.”
“What?” he gasps. “Now?”
“Quickly, yes. Now we’re getting to the crux of it. The reason why we’re here. Am I the same person as the one you met all those years ago? Remember, when Will introduced us outside the cinema?”
“The same person? Of course not. We’ve all changed. I have. It’s been twenty years.”
“Exactly,” she exclaims. She finds herself ruffling his chest hair like she might the back of her dog. “We are old, Mac. We are old. We are not the same people. They might have been entirely different people, that young man and that young woman, about to go and see a film. They were beautiful, weren’t they.”
“You still are,” he murmurs.
“That’s just not true. And so this, us, here together, isn’t about attraction. It’s something much more meaningful. It’s about an ending, for both of us. We are not wives and husbands, mothers and fathers any more. We are nothing. Nothing. The slate is clean. The heart has had enough. The main adventure has ended. Nothing hurts. Nothing will ever hurt again.”
Mac lifts a hand and rubs his eyes rapidly. It’s something he does and she loves to watch it. How funny! She knows so many of his mannerisms, now she thinks about it. She’s been taking mental notes of them since that first meeting, two young couples outside a West End cinema. Shy assessments of each other. One pair – Mac and Briony – already engaged. “My best mate,” Will had said. “To love me is to love him. We’re inseparable.” No idea then of marriage, of childbirth, of rows and devotion, of food, endless fucking meals, of decorating houses, mowing lawns, supermarket after supermarket, of teenagers, of dead pets and holidays always having to be by the sea.
Just four young people standing stiffly outside a cinema, about to go in, one of them sweeping his long hair off his face, the other admiring the hand that did it.
She grasps that hand now and kisses the back of it.
She is laughing. “I’m glad. I’m so, so grateful. I want something new, something entirely unexpected. I don’t want to go back.”
And now she places his hand on her breast and the moan that is deep in her throat is actually voiced by him.
“You’re right!” he says, and she can almost hear the emotion wetting his voice. “I understand. This might be a nothing. A moment.”
“Exactly, but the point is, we don’t know. We mustn’t know anything.”
His lips are on hers now. They are laughing as they kiss.
The room, Will’s clothes folded over the chair back, the portraits of the kids, the chest of drawers with two mugs still on it from the morning, all of it swaying in and out of focus. The window, the radiant sky beyond, the sounds of children and cars coming up from the street… spinning and churning, like her head, like her body.
She’s never laughed like this before. There is nothing separate about them. Their lips are sliding across each other.
“Pia, Pia, Pia,” he says. Then: “Crank her up.”
“I’m on it,” she says, like she’s been asked to switch the oven off or the central heating on.
Pia, Pia, Pia.
They are laughing uncontrollably, their shoulders shaking, their faces hurting.
“Just one thing,” she says, letting go, breathing out. She’s just checking. Nothing will stop them now, but she just needs to check.
“Is this infidelity?” she asks.