Two people, one a man the other a woman, were having a drink in a hotel in the South of England surrounded by vineyards. He’d seen her drinking alone and looking nice, tall, slim, brunette, attractive, so he’d positioned himself at the bar where she could see him and ordered a chardonnay. As he’d sipped it, enjoying its cool tang and complimenting its citrusness to the barman though he was no connoisseur, they’d exchanged looks, he and the woman, and smiled. Now, one hour later, they were talking, getting to know each other over a second bottle. She was saying she was here on business, been in a conference all day but none of her colleagues wanted to drink that evening hence she was alone, and worked in sales for the company who’d hosted the conference, and lived in Manchester so was staying till tomorrow when she’d do the four-hour drive back. And he was saying what a coincidence because he was also here on business and was also in sales and was also staying till tomorrow when he too would make the four-hour trip back to Manchester. In other words, he was saying, they had so much in common, and she was agreeing in so far as it was funny. And so the two were getting along fine, and as time wore on, the sexual chemistry was more evident. There is absolutely nothing unusual about this story at all, except for the fact that the two people were, in fact, married, and to each other.
Coming to the vineyard was his suggestion during one of their counselling sessions designed to explore the idea of putting back some sparkle into their sex life therefore marriage – he’d even joked that they could put back the sparkle with some sparkling wine, and she’d laughed out of duty, as had the counsellor but out of professional politeness. The counselling was her suggestion, because they’d been married twenty years and the union had gone from youthful excitement and naive exuberance to childlessness and inevitable aridity. In previous sessions they’d decided they were both culpable in different ways for growing apart; the night they’d first slept in separate rooms for example was so far back that neither could remember who first mooted it. But in that session, when he’d made his joke about sparkle and the counsellor had laughed out of professional politeness, she’d laughed out of duty and agreed to the idea. So here they were, and to the observer it would seem, getting along fine. Internally, however, he was thinking he really did love her, with her soaps and her cushions and scented candles and Maeve Binchy and the looks she’d managed to hold on to, and she was thinking the man wasn’t all that to look at and though he was prone to depression and essentially selfish he had some kindness in his heart, not least his admission that he’d been at times difficult to live with. This idea of a quasi first date was a good one, with its added ingredient of wine-tasting, which was addressing the charge she’d made that he’d grown predictable, non-experimental. So when she excused herself to visit the ladies’ and gave him the smile he just about remembered, he grew in confidence that this was worth trying and one of the rooms he’d booked would be unslept-in that night.
With a degree of excitement, the woman entered the bathroom and checked herself in the mirror before slipping into a cubicle and clanging the door behind her, then weeing with the thickness she used to in days gone by and was pleased at this sign. When wiped, she sorted the underwear chosen for the occasion then left the cubicle and checked the woman in the mirror – the red and bloated lips and the apple hue of youth to a face she’d worried was fading – before heading back to the bar.
But then she saw another person outside a room about to go in, smiling at her, the smile she saw on the person to whom she’d been talking in the bar before the man had come in.
Back in the bar, the man was thinking his wife was a long time, but mused she’d be touching up her make-up, making herself beautiful for him. He’d finish his wine then retire to their room and wait, or she might indeed have beaten him to it.
In another room, the woman was tasting something she’d never known before, with the person to whom she’d been talking in the bar before her husband came in. The person who was legitimately on a conference, hosted by a cosmetics company, who was alone because none of the other delegates wanted to drink that night. The taste she was having, she’d often thought and read about in books her husband called Chick-Lit, the kind of taste that was right now getting much more than she’d ever known, the kind of taste that had made her feel the way she felt in the bathroom.
Back in their room, the man was becoming impatient and frustrated and visiting the site he’d vowed never to visit again on account of coming here with his wife to try and restore some love.
By now, in the other room, the woman was lying with the other person tasting a cocktail of pleasure and guilt, whispering that this had been unexpected, treading fruit both strange and nice, yet vowing never to do this kind of thing again as she’d agreed to come here with her husband to try and restore some love. But had they tried? Had she any love to restore?
“You’ve been a long time,” said her husband when she found him.
“Sorry,” she said, and added as per the rehearsed excuse, “I went for some air, I didn’t feel well.”
“You do look a bit red,” he said, “Having one of your hot flushes?”
She left that unanswered.
“Come to bed,” he said.
“I don’t want to. I think I need more air.”
“You need a lie down.”
“Please don’t tell me what to do,” she said.
“You are!” she said, “You always have!”
“We were getting somewhere,” he protested.
“But I’ve realised,” she said.
“Realised what? What have you realised?”
She paused before saying, “I don’t love you.”
And he paused before countering, “You do love me.”
“I don’t,” she said, “I’ve never loved you.”
“You can’t mean that.”
“I can,” she said, rising unsteadily to her feet. “I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I don’t think there was any point in trying after all.”
And the man could only watch in confusion as she left the room to sleep in the other one he’d booked, leaving him to unsleep in this bed alone.