After a drive of more than two hundred miles, Mr.Wooler found himself lost in the streets that teeter uphill behind Brighton’s smart esplanades. Taking directions from vague old man outside a public house, he rounded one last corner and reached his goal, a drab Edwardian terrace at half past three. It was hot and the journey had left him with a headache - not severe, for Mr.Wooler permitted neither extremes nor sunglasses.
As he stopped the car he wondered if his wife was watching. She would not recognize the car – Mr.Wooler changed his car every five years – but she would, he supposed, recognize him.
He turned off the engine and sat for a moment of contemplation and rehearsal.
“I’m sorry to surprise you like this, Alice.”
But would she let him in? Or would she crouch behind her letterbox, her amber eyes glinting with abuse, snarling at him like a leopard? Surely in seven years she must have mellowed? Surely?
Mr.Wooler sighed and got out of his car. He locked the door. He tugged the handle. He tested the other doors the same way. He did not forget the boot. Satisfied he dropped the keys into the pocket he used for key carrying. He told himself that he was calm and in such a frame of mind that reason would prevail, although his solicitor had long ago advised him to wade in there and thump her. But Mr.Wooler was the sort of man who pressed his fingertips earnestly together; who did not smoke; who liked dogs but did not have one. All his shirts were the same colour and he had not been brought up to thump the other sex.
“I really can’t see that striking her would achieve anything in the circumstances,” Mr.Wooler had said. Yet his loins had stirred; not earnestly, but they had stirred.
“Hummm!” his solicitor replied, closing one creased and blood-smirched eye and peering at Mr.Wooler, the better to assess his chances.
Standing now, not without a sense of trespass, on his wife’s stretch of pavement, Mr.Wooler thought – No! No fisticuffs. Rational, adult discussion, that’s the thing.
He scrutinised his wife’s front door as though he expected hatches to slide open revealing primed cannon. He tapped with a knocker shaped like a bulldog’s head.
“Rational,” he repeated.
The houses had no front gardens. Gratings in the pavement sliced up the daylight into basements where people actually lived. The basement of Mr.Wooler’s house had no windows and no light got in and it was cluttered with fragments of flowerpots. His wife had smashed the flowerpots before she walked out. She had ripped the pendulum out of his grandfather clock. She had cut his lovely purple cummerbund into shreds strewn round their bedroom and along the landing. His aspirins, shaving tackle and cough lozenges had been swept into the bath as by one blow. She had taken nothing but her clothes, some jewellery cashable only in nostalgia, and the child, then two years old.
“Adult,” murmured Mr.Wooler, tapping again.
His wife’s voice called from the upper part of the house.
“It’s open. Come up!”
He knocked louder, resenting her neighbourliness. The response was a clattering of utensils and her footsteps coming down carpetless stairs. His heart began to hammer. Suppose she ran him off her patch with grapeshot invective? The inside of his mouth went dry.
“Who is it?”
He made no answer. Let her open up. Let her find out.
The door between them swung wide.
There was flour on the frames of her glasses and on her hands. Her nose was floury. And her hair, which had been short, now swung about her shoulders. She was wearing something blue.
“What’s this?” she said, with no hint of surprise. “The end of the seven lean years?”
“Hallo, Alice,” he said.
“Or the start of a plague of boils?” Before he could speak she went on, “I was baking. For Eva’s school party.”
“School? Why, of course.” He was going to say “Time flies,” but checked himself. She is still magnificent, he thought. Sleek, like a racehorse.
“What do you want?” the racehorse asked, nostrils flaring. “Why don’t you bugger off?”
“I hoped we might talk.”
“To what purpose?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t let you know.”
“In case I happened to be out?”
He said nothing.
“Well?” she asked.
“Must we talk on the doorstep?”
The mocking smile he had endured so often spread over her face. She dropped her voice to a stage whisper. “How d’you know . . . I haven’t got a fella . . .?” She jerked her thumb in the direction of the stairs. “Up there?”
He wanted to say, “You would not, because of the child.” Curiously, he felt certain of this. “No doubt your behaviour has been as proper as mine,” he said, and regretted it.
“Have you trundled your insufferable smugness all the way from Yorkshire in one day? You always were one for marathon drives, weren’t you?”
There was a short silence. Then she seemed to come to a decision. “I suppose I’ll have to make you tea. Come on then.”
He followed her up the stairs on pine treads uncarpeted by design, not poverty. She climbed as an athlete would, on her toes.
“Do you have the whole house?”
Her calf muscles tensed and softened.
“None of your business.”
He kept his silence, thinking already that she had not changed, wondering if he were to touch the skin behind her knee, would she turn and kick him in the teeth.
She showed him into a room that overlooked the street, a living room separated by an archway from a kitchen done in dark wood and brassware. Her baking covered a table placed in the arch. The room smelled of fresh cooked pastry and gingerbread and was warm and sunny. He felt the contentment in it with a pang. On one wall were pinned childish drawings with the beginnings of style. There were framed pen and ink drawings too – of a grinning schoolgirl; a group of three magpies; and a self portrait, kneeling naked, arms out-flung, hair streaming.
“You still draw?”
“And teach. But I had to change my technique.”
“Don’t bother me with questions. Sit! Go on . . . sit down!” She waved him to a chair. “Why have you come?”
“What are you baking?” he said.
“Oh, that’s marvellous. Stanley, you’re a knock-out.”
“I realize this must seem strange . . . ah, popping in on you after seven years”
“Tea or coffee”
“Tea. Thank you.”
“Strange? But you are strange, Stanley. You’re as strange as a three-pound note. What am I supposed to think after seven years?”
As she filled the kettle, he noticed she held it awkwardly. “If you don’t mind, I’ll carry on with my pastry while you do your talking. Do you still do the same talky job with all those talky people? The rooms you used to fill with your talk.”
She flipped a sheet of pastry over and over, dusting it with flour from a shaker held awkwardly also.
“Yes,” he said. “Still at the same place. But I’ve had a couple of promotions.”
“Now you can talk down to everybody, eh?”
I should have expected that, he thought, and made no more of his success. He raised a mild hand. “Yes. Yes. I do . . . do probably talk too much. Always did.”
She picked up her rolling pin. He saw that the fingers of her right hand seemed curled as if by cramp.
“Have you hurt your hand?”
“I put it through a glass door . . . in my first school after . . . after I came here. Some tendons were cut. For a time it looked like amputation. The fingers will close just enough to holds my brushes. It was my own fault.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Of course not.”
It could have been her face, he thought.
“Serves me right.”
“What? What d’you mean?”
“That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”
“Pay the bitch out for leaving you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You misjudge me.” The kettle boiled. “Can I help?” he asked.
“It did not disable me.” She sounded angry.
“No. I am truly sorry. Please believe that.”
“I scarcely notice now. I don’t need pity.”
“Eva would be . . . “
“Just out of nappies. I had good help. I managed.” She made tea, arranging cups and saucers on a tray with great speed, the crippled hand nudging and steadying, while he imagined the cascade of glass and blood. Had it cracked her calm? He could not see Alice screaming for help. She would have walked to the Head’s study, her good hand clamped on the pumping wound saying, “I’ve had an accident. Call an ambulance, Headmaster.” Perhaps then she might have fainted, but tidily, using a chair, not in an undignified heap on the Head’s floor. And the school would have sent the brasher girls to the hospital with flowers, and welcomed her return by cheering and clapping when she took the platform, slinged and smiling, at morning assembly.
“You have far too sweet a tooth, I remember,” she said.
“Yes.” He laughed.
He did not know what to say. She placed his cup on the table where she was working. “There you are,” she said, not looking at him. “Help yourself.” She picked up her rolling pin again.
Carrying his tea, he crossed to the window. Two small girls were passing, sharing an ice cream, lick by lick.
“Where is Eva?” he said
“At Brownie Camp. For the weekend. What a pity you won’t see her.”
The rolling pin thumped. “Stanley, what on earth do you want?”
He turned from the window and did not know what to say, and sat down again.
“Do you even know yourself?” she asked. He considered this while she turned her pastry this way and that with her left hand while the other gripped the pin. He did not know, absolutely, why he had come.
“Do you want me to come back to you?” Now she looked at him with such frank eyes that he was startled. He could not answer, for she would make “No” an insult and turn a “Yes” to scorn. He considered turning the question back on her – do you want to come back, Alice? – but that would only invite a rebuke.
“Does she like the Brownies?” he said.
She folded the pastry on itself and on an imprecation. “Do you love me, Stanley? Have you been pining away all these years? No . . . you didn’t get a pot like that from pining, did you. I bet . . . I bet you have girls up in the bedroom, don’t you Stanley? Wriggly eighteen-year-olds who tell you you’re marvellous and your wife was a bitch and rub oil in your back.” Her smile showed her fine, square teeth. “No! I know! You’ve got a seven year itch. Hee Hee! Oil’s just the thing for that, Stanley!”
“Alice!” No one had ever rubbed oil in his back
“Alice!” she mocked, her head on one side. He pressed his knees together. He would not be baited. He would not lose his temper.
“There are things we should discuss, Alice. Should have discussed a long time ago.”
“But it took you such a long time to get here, Stanley.”
“I . . . “
“You were scared!’ She rolled the pastry vigorously. He could not answer. She was right. He blundered on.
“Financial arrangements. Eva’s school . . . I can pay for Eva to go to school.”
“I keep myself. Eva goes to my school. Good heavens, Stanley, I wouldn’t leave you flat and then take subsidies for my desertion.”
“You admit desertion?”
“Oh yes! Of course. No argument.”
“You may wish to marry again?”
“Do you?” she asked, and before he could answer, went on, “Not me. Once was enough. Let’s stay as we are, with our love a little flower pressed in our prayer-books, to look at in our declining years.”
“I do wish you’d be serious.”
“But you’re not.”
“Of course . . . or I wouldn’t be here.”
“Rubbish!” She put down the rolling pin. “Stanley, you meandered down here on the spur of the moment. You know you did. Whatever possessed you? Was it because it’s a nice day? Had you a plan? You had no plan. What do you want?”
“I hoped I’d learn what you want.”
“Alice . . . “
“I have what I want,” she said. “All I want. My work. My friends. Eva.”
“I settled my conscience years ago.”
“Is Eva . . .?” he began.
“Damaged by it. No.”
“Doesn’t she ask about me?”
“Do you wonder about her?”
“Of course I do,” he said, seeing from the way her face closed that the conversation had come to a cul-de-sac. Their brief marriage had been nothing but cul-de-sacs. He sipped his tea. “Why did you choose Brighton?” She pressed tart cases from the pastry with a crinkly cutter. Her brow furrowed, theatrically, he thought.
“It’s . . . “ She stopped. “Perhaps because it’s like me.”
“Yes. Y’know . . . a raddled old tart behind a lot of fancy make-up.”
“That’s silly. A veiled search for compliments.”
She used the wrist if her damaged hand to hold a jar against her waist while she spooned jam. “They’d go to my head, I suppose?”
“What I was never sure of,” he began, choosing his words cautiously for the minefields ahead, “is . . . “
“Is why I left you?”
“Well . . .”
“Do you want a divorce? Is that it? I wouldn’t stop you.”
“Couldn’t,” he said, with emphasis.
“Of course I could. I said I wouldn’t. Stop being silly.”
“But you couldn’t,” he insisted. “Not after all this time. The reformed divorce law allows me to . . . “
“Stanley! I don’t want a windy explanation of the niceties of the divorce laws. I said I could stop you and I meant it. It would take me about five minutes, I should think.”
The radiance of her smile should have warned him, but his irritation rose like a dog’s hackles. “You may overvalue your talents in many directions, Alice, but even you cannot re-write the divorce laws unilaterally to suit your whims. Today, tomorrow, I could raise an action on the grounds of the irretrievable breakdown of our marriage.”
“Of our fiddlesticks! Anyway, who decides it’s broken down? It’s a perfectly serviceable old marriage. It’s you that’s broken down, Stanley. Now drink up your tea and stop sounding so puffy.”
“But what do you mean? Just how would you stop me? What would you do? Could you do? The law is the law.”
“But I’m an outlaw, Stanley. Didn’t you know that? Oh dear.” With an exaggerated sigh she resumed her spooning while he struggled with rising frustration. She had not mellowed. She had in no way changed. She still refused to concede that words had precise meanings, which must be taken note of if orderly relationships were to be established. He also knew it was pointless carrying on the argument.
“What did you tell your colleagues?” she asked. Her smile was back and the edge of mischief in her voice.
“I wish you wouldn’t turn my questions.”
She filled the last of her pastry cases and put the tray of tarts into the top oven of her cooker. “Did you tell them I was taking a long holiday?”
“I told them what was true, of course.”
“True? I thought that perhaps you’d tell them you’d had me committed.” She laughed.
“Don’t be preposterous!”
“Imagine it! ‘Mrs. Wooler’s in the Bin. Did you know?’ ‘Poor Stanley. Poor long-suffering old chap.’ ‘Didn’t we always say she was doo-lally.’ Oh, Stanley, it would have been a lovely excuse.”
“Yes. You know . . . saved your stuffy old face. Long, lugubrious old face. And it would have fitted the facts.”
“Facts?” He knew well what she meant but wanted her own admission that she had behaved outrageously. She only laughed and set the oven timer and came round her baking table to sit in a rocking chair. She rested her head and rocked with her body, keeping her feet on the floor. She wore wooden exercise clogs with canvas tops. Her feet were bare and brown. Her crabbed right hand gripped the chair arm, its wreckage accenting her beauty like a squint in a lovely face. She rocked, and her laughter came in bubbles and he knew she was remembering.
He could forgive her the public humiliations, her bizarre behaviour culminating in an attempted strip-tease requiring forcible restraint, at a party given by his office manager, a solid fellow used to dependable cooks and secretaries. It was the private ones, hurtful at first and then merely puzzling, that still distressed him.
As if reading his thoughts she said, “What a way to repay your kindness. I suppose you were kind.”
“I could never work you out,” he said, encouraged.
“Well, you know . . . Woman . . . ever mysterious.”
“You could never be persuaded to discuss our difficulties.”
Her chair came slowly upright. She looked at him, her eyelids drooping slightly. “Our difficulties! What a cheek!”
“I will accept that in some measure . . . possibly in greater measure than you, I was to blame. But you cannot pretend . . . well, you may pretend, but you do not deceive yourself that you were wholly free from blemish. No, no. I say . . . I will accept blame, though quite what my sins were I have never been sure.”
“Well, not sins perhaps. But there must have been some tangible reasons for your leaving.”
“Did I need reasons? Outlaws need no reasons.”
“Really, Alice! This is preposterous. I am trying to help us. I came down here, at some inconvenience to my schedule, I might add . . . to see if we couldn’t work out something sensible.”
“Oh I see! That’s what you came for. To work out something sensible. I’m so sorry that was inconvenient for you.”
“Alice!” He made his voice a little sterner. She sat upright.
“Yes? Yes, Stanley?” She spoke quickly, clipping her words. He pressed on.
“I hoped we might be able to discuss . . . sensibly, why you left. If we could only talk things over . . . I might be able . . . “
“Yes, Stanley? Yes? Yes? What?”
He spread his hands. He pressed his fingertips earnestly together. “Well, we might be able to work something . . . more sensible out.”
“You said that.”
“Something sensible. To be able to work it out or something.”
“We could never talk,” he blurted out. “I could never . . . what’s the expression. Get through to you.”
“No.” She gazed at the ceiling. “I’m your femme fatale, Stanley, old chap!”
“I still think . . . “
“What?” she said, but her tone had changed, become wintry.
“You should tell me why you left. I have a right to know!”
“Why I left? You have a right? You have a left – right – left. Do you always march about in a suit? Do you never knock about in an old tee shirt and pants with rips in the knees?” She stood up. “What would talking settle? What do you want to know for? To be happier in your misery? Discussions like this make my flesh creep.”
“Alice. For once. Be reasonable.”
“Will you excuse me for a moment? Help yourself to more tea. I’ve set the oven timer for my pastry. I should be back . . . but if it buzzes, would you . . .?” She handed him a yellow oven glove with ‘Tomorrow We Eat In Town’ printed on it. He accepted it absently. “Leave the oven on, though. I’ve another batch to do.” Her smile sparkled. “Won’t be long.”
“Where are you going?”
“Goodness, Stanley, you never ask a lady where she’s going.”
As she left the room he half rose from his seat.
“You were always such a gentleman,” she said as the door closed after her. Then she poked her head back into the room. “All right,” she said. “I will tell you.”
“What?” Neither sitting nor standing, he gazed at her.
“Why I left you. Because calling you Stan was always quite out of the question. And do close your mouth.”
She was gone before he could ask her what she meant. But she did not leave the house and in a moment he heard her singing, a few ironic bars from ‘Butterfly’, her voice as high and clear as he remembered it.
He sighed. The trouble had begun the very day of their wedding, with summer rain gusting against the church windows while he proudly escorted his bride, unprepared for the furies ahead. Even as they came down the aisle she whispered a startling paraphrase of Hamlet’s great soliloquy, relevant perhaps to wedding days but distasteful to a virgin bridegroom and certainly intemperate in the House of God. On their honeymoon, which she afterwards referred to as the syrupmoon, she flirted outrageously with barmen, hotel undermanagers and the embarrassed husbands of equally recent brides.
And now? What had calling him Stan got to do with it? No one called him Stan, not even his peers at the office. Stanley, he had always thought, was a name with a dignity befitting his recent promotion. But let her call him Stan if she wished. Why was it out of the question, and what possible difference could it make? Where was he to go from here? If he persuaded her to return, what was he letting himself in for? Where did Eva fit into his plans, if indeed he had any? He could imagine Eva wrinkling her nose when Alice said ‘This is your father.’
The buzzer on the oven drilled into these gloomy thoughts. Let them burn, he thought, but was at the oven and reaching into it for the baking tray, his hand warm in the mitten, when the door flew open and Alice rushed into the room, her clogs clattering on the wooden floor. The buzzer was still sounding. He could not see, among the array of knobs and switches, how to turn it off.
“I’ll get it,” Alice said. “Oh . . . you’ve taken them out.’
He turned with the tray in his hands.
She had only her clogs on and brief pale blue knickers with a darker blue embroidered pattern.
“Put them on the table,” she said. She took the tray from him as he averted his eyes.
“Ummmmmm . . .” she said, inhaling. “Lovely. Look at them, Stanley. Aren’t they gorgeous? Would you like one while they’re still warm?” She stood close to him in the space between the table and her sink and cooker. Her perfume reached him, fresh and heathery, with the smell of pastry and hot jam. He felt trapped by her nudity in the narrow space. It would be impossible to pass her without some sort of contact.
“For Heaven’s sake, go and dress.” He heard his voice squeaking. He stared resolutely out of a side window in the kitchen area.
“I heard the buzzer going on and on,” she said. “I thought perhaps you’d wondered off somewhere. My pastry might have spoiled.”
“Maybe. But I wish you’d get dressed. This is typical of your exhibitionism. Don’t imagine I don’t realize why you’re behaving like this.”
“But I’m in my own home,” she said, demurely. “With my own husband. Bent only on rescuing my jam tarts. The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts . . . don’t be such an old fuddy-duddy.”
He still looked out of the window. In the backyard of the house next door three cats stood as though frozen, their tails bristling. They seemed in their wariness to be yawning at each other. He swallowed. Behind him he heard Alice weighing out flour. “Why change your frock in the middle of baking? This is just an attempt to discomfit me. It is adolescent.”
“Really? When I was that age I had to be bribed out of my clothes. Ciggies or motorbike rides did the trick. Are today’s pubescents more forthcoming?”
“Surely you have a housecoat or something?” He turned.
“Eek!” she cried. “A man-thing with his eyes upon me!” She crossed her forearms in front of her. Her injured hand rested, a pink claw against her shoulder.
“Let me past,” he demanded, looking over her head, “I won’t be subjected to this.” He brushed past her. “You’ll never grow up. Your outlook on life is a child’s. A distortion. You should think of Eva, how she will be affected by it. And show some responsibility.”
“But Eva isn’t here. Anyway, she often sees me in the buff.”
“I meant in general. You know perfectly well what I meant.”
“Now, where did I put the marg?”
He could follow what she did by the sound of weights banging on the scales and ingredients tipped into the mixing bowl.
“I can’t manage things as well as I once could. With my fingers. You know?”
He sucked his teeth and came to a decision.
“I shall leave,” he said.
She switched on an electric mixer. “I don’t like these things,” she shouted over the machine’s rising whine, “but my hand . . . you know?”
“That is, unless you’ve anything to say,” he shouted back.
“No. You’ve said it all!”
He stood uncertainly for a moment. “Well then . . . “ He turned to the door, still not looking at her, “Bye!” she called after him.
He left the room. “Damn,” he said to himself. “Damn. Damn. Damn.”
When he was halfway down the stairs the mixer stopped. He hesitated but went on down. Had she weakened? Did she want him not to go? Three steps from the bottom something struck him hard just below his shoulder and a second later, her other clog clattered past him and thudded against the front door.
“Good riddance!” she yelled.
He did not look back and as the door closed he heard her shouting something about him being as puny as a shirt button. Typical, he thought. Yes, leaving was the right thing to do. She was clearly beyond the reach of reason. Coming to Brighton had been a mistake after all. Tomorrow he would instruct his solicitor. He felt in his pocket for the car keys.
· * *
Upstairs, Alice stood looking at the closed door. Her clogs lay close to each other at the stair foot, in a patch of sunlight. She heard his car start up and drive away and the street grow very quiet. She turned to her reflection in a mirror on the landing. She began to cry. For a few moments she cried bitterly.
“He had such fine shoulders,” she sobbed. “Lion’s shoulders.”
If only he would refuse to stand for her nonsense. If only he would stop nit-picking his way through it and silence her with some decisive act, or even laughter. She blinked away her tears at last, her lower lip trembling, until her crying had ceased to sting and only her sorrow remained. She felt suddenly cold. Her hand ached. She had waited so long.
“Pout!” she commanded. Her reflection pouted. “That’s better!”
The line of her lip slowly lengthened as her smile gathered and her white teeth glistened. She winked at herself. Being more than a match for Mr. Wooler, it was a comfort to know she was at least the equal of her smile.
She went to the bedroom and made up her eyes and slipped her blue dress back on, and from there to the kitchen, to face her baking and the years that waited for her.