It was Saturday morning when Michelle received the call.
She was up early at the kitchen table, her tablet in front of her, dabbing her finger into various recipes. Stephen had dropped it on her late last night when he came home from work that he’d invited his co-director Ian and his wife Steph for dinner. It was one of those ominous sentences that began “I know it’s short notice but…”
“But you know I hate dinner parties!” she’d protested, “I hate even the idea of dinner parties!”
“I’m sure you’d like them if you tried,” he’d replied.
“I won’t. I know I won’t.”
“But you like Ian and Steph.”
“I like Ed Sheeran but that doesn’t mean I have to cook dinner for him.”
“Now you’re being silly,” he said, “Anyway you’ve never even been to a dinner party so how do you know you won’t like them?”
That comment had hurt. Its implication that he was from better-heeled stock dug deep, like it always had down the years they’d been together. But she didn’t address it, she never had, she’d always let it sink deep and rest on the soft bed of her feelings with all the others.
“But it’s such short notice,” was all she’d said.
“I agree, but at least it’s Saturday and I won’t be working for a change, so I can lend a hand, peel a few spuds or whatever.”
“But what will I cook?”
“They’re both meat-eaters so they’re not fussy, though Steph doesn’t like curry.”
Fussy. He was fond of saying that of vegetarianism, itself another disparagement of her, from the day she’d turned vegetarian twenty years ago, till now. To him it didn’t make sense, especially as it meant doing two meals every night, though admittedly she did have the time with not working.
“Now I think I’ll turn in if you don’t mind. Been a knackering week.”
And that, she knew, was that. No point arguing. Taken as read, like it was taken as read that he was the breadwinner, the man responsible for everything she had. So now she was at the kitchen table with the tablet, looking through recipes for anything other than curry while Stephen was still in bed for his customary Saturday morning lie-in.
Since she sent the letter she’d done her best to forget about the man on the train. She’d felt foolish and regretful, and yet had her doubts as to whether the thing had even reached its intended recipient. Even if it had, how could she of all people expect a response – what a stupid thing to do to put her number on the back! At most she should’ve put her address on it, but hadn’t done so lest Stephen opened it. And what the hell was she doing thinking he’d’ve written back anyway! But then that was another indication of her childishness, wanting the immediacy of response that texts these days offer, rather than the old-fashioned letters that made you wait. Oh it was all so silly! Stephen was right, she was silly, a stupid, silly fifty-year-old woman who should know her place is to cook dinner for Stephen’s important colleagues, appreciate and enjoy the comfortable life she’d been afforded, love the man she’d loved all these years, stop thinking stupid silly thoughts and take him up his cup of tea and breakfast. It was all Jude’s fault with her silly American utterances about needing an outlet which led to their catfighting all the way from Covent Garden to Euston.
Shuddering at the shame she felt at even writing that letter, Michelle looked out though the patio windows on to the immaculate garden, watching the wind anger the willow and the laurel. She loved that garden so much, the way it twisted and turned and went on forever, its nooks and crannies, the various hidey-holes with their sunshades and trailing roses and honeysuckle. She wished it was hers and hers alone; of course she owned it, like she owned the house or part-owned it with Stephen, but she couldn’t claim she owned its beauty – that was down to the gardener Alfie, because she wasn’t allowed to get her fingers dirty, and anyway Stephen insisted that with their wealth it would be selfish not to provide work for the local gardener who’d dig for Britain for a minimum wage. The thought made her frown, and it was just then that she heard a familiar vibrating sound on the table. It’ll be one of the kids, she thought, they normally call on Saturday morning. But when she picked up her phone she saw it was a mobile number she didn’t recognise.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi,” he said, “it’s Will.”
“The guy on the train?”
“Oh God,” she said.
“I just rang to say thank you for your letter, it really cheered me up.”
“Wait a minute,” she said, with a nervous glance at the door leading to the stairs before opening the door to the patio.
“If it’s a bad time…” he said.
“No really it’s fine,” she said, once outside.
“Anyway yea it really cheered me up. Especially your kind comments on Return to Cocoa Yard.”
“No I really did enjoy it,” she said, “I was worried you’d think I was silly writing that letter, putting my number on the back.”
“Not at all,” he said with a chuckle, “it’s very rare I get fan-mail, believe it or not.”
“Nonsense I bet you’re deluged.”
“I wish. Anyway I was worried too, that you’d think I was silly putting my note in your book, or stalkerish even, especially as I’d put the earring in there too, the earring that wasn’t even yours to return.”
“It was very sweet,” she said.
By the time they’d finished their conversation Michelle found herself sitting under one of the sunshades near the bottom of the garden, the rich smell of honeysuckle squirting like perfume in the stiff September breeze. She’d no idea how long she was on the line for but she knew it was way past the time for Stephen’s breakfast. Checking for signs of her husband in the bedroom window, she squirrelled her phone into her dressing-gown pocket and hurried back to the house. Closing the patio doors she realised her hands were shaking, so filling Stephen’s cup seemed a trickier task than normal without splashing over the side. It was all so confusing, baffling even. She barely knew the man and there he was calling on a Saturday morning, and there they were talking as if they’d known each other for ages. They were laughing, saying silly things, agreeing they were like teenagers sending secret notes to each other across a classroom. Saying so much about themselves to each other, comparing notes on how life can be what it is, repetitive, dull, predictable, depressing. But the most baffling and unpredictable thing of all was that he’d asked if she’d like to meet up and she’d said yes.
“How far are you from Manchester?” he’d asked.
“I live in Lancaster,” she’d said, “So not that far, I can easily get a train or drive.”
“It’s just that I’m doing a signing Wednesday week. I wondered if you’d like to come along?”
And she’d said she would. Wednesday week, and they’d be in touch nearer the time to confirm.
When Michelle had taken a few minutes to compose, she took the tray up to the bedroom, cups rattling more than they normally would, and was surprised to see Stephen sitting up in bed, wide awake.
“Morning Shell,” he said, “I was just getting up.”
“Sorry it’s a bit late.”
“You were on that phone ages,” he noted, not impatiently.
Michelle struggled not to betray her panic and said, “It was Jude. Calling to let me know she’s back home.”
“Ah,” he said, “Thought it might be one of the kids.”
“Thanks,” he said, when she put down his tray, “So how is she?”
“Jude of course.”
“Oh. Yea she’s… Yea she’s fine.”
“Took a helluva long time to say she’s fine. I mean I know you like sitting in your garden but you’d next to fuck-all on, you must’ve been freezing.”
“I didn’t notice the cold,” she said, truthfully.
“Good job it isn’t Alfie’s day to do the gardens or he’d’ve had a nice surprise amid the floribundas!”
“There was something I didn’t tell you,” she said, giggling at his joke but feeling suddenly under pressure, “about London.”
“We had a row. Me and Jude.”
“Oh things, you know.”
“Oh she said something about what I was wearing, you know what women are like, we take it personally. I think I was just being over-sensitive. Steve, do you think I’m old-fashioned?”
“The way I dress.”
“Not really,” he said.
“I didn’t say that!” he said, “Is everything OK Shell?”
“Yea I’m fine,” she said, “So that’s why I was on for so long. We had it out. We’re fine now though, I feel much happier.”
“Good,” said Stephen as she turned to leave the room, “Because don’t go, I’ve got something else that’ll cheer you up. Surprise, like. I was going to wait till tonight at the dinner party but had second thoughts ’cause it’d seem show-offy.”
“What would? What surprise?”
“We’re gong to New York.”
“I’ve been, you haven’t, but you’ve always wanted to. I’ve booked some time off, I can show you the sights. Thing is, Shell, I’ve come to a realisation.”
Michelle couldn’t control the flicker of guilt she knew had crossed her face. Why was he saying this? Had he heard some of her conversation with William? The shaky hands returned and she wrang them, trying to strangle their betrayal.
“I work too much,” he went on, “which means I don’t pay you enough attention. So I made a decision. I told Ian I was having a fortnight’s holiday and I wasn’t taking no for an answer, and I was taking you to America for which I’m also not taking no for an answer. And this afternoon you and me are going shopping to get you some new attire!”
“I can’t believe it,” she said, masking her discomfiture.
“Believe it,” he said firmly, “Believe that soon you’ll be in Manhattan and all its wonders, sitting in the biggest garden there is, Central Park! And what’s more, you can catch up with Jude and she can say sorry for whatever she said to you face to face. And you’ll be dressed in the best stuff money can buy and you’ll show her who’s old-fashioned.”
“I’ll phone and tell her,” Michelle said, still struggling to make sense of all this, “When are you thinking?”
“Next Friday, for two weeks.”
Next Friday? But that would mean…
“I can see you’re flabbergasted,” he said, “You don’t have to say anything.”
“I’m sorry I’m just so shocked. That’s wonderful,” she said with heroic effort, before turning to leave the room, doubtless to bang her fists down on the kitchen table in frustration.
“Don’t go,” he said again, patting the space in the bed beside him, the space she left but didn’t sleep in last night, “Get in.”
“But we have to go shopping,” she said, “Not just for clothes, I need ingredients for tonight’s dinner.”
“Later,” Stephen said, “Take off the dressing gown, show me that beautiful body of yours and get in.”
With a cocktail of emotions swilling round her head, Michelle knew there was no point arguing. She would take off her dressing-gown, get in beside him and do her best to please. But this time she’d know it wasn’t just because it was expected, because she didn’t want to lose his friendship or because she loved him for that and not for anything else. This time she’d be doing it because she knew that if she refused it would be because she would rather be getting in with someone else, the someone else she’d have to tell she couldn’t make it Wednesday-week after all.