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14 minute read.
“Six o’clock, dinner is almost ready, Peter should be home any minute.”
Martha set a couple of candles on the dinner table and arranged the cutlery neatly. She had put on the nice yellow dress with the white polka dots that Peter liked, although looking at herself in the mirror she thought she looked a bit too much like a doll, especially with her blonde hair. But since it was their anniversary, she thought it would be right to make an effort. Peter would surely remember and bring in a gift or some flowers at least, so she felt like she shouldn’t be waiting for him as if it were just another day. Peter rang the doorbell just as she was beginning to cut into the roast lamb. She opened the door and he gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Hey darling, oh it smells amazing in here, what’s going on?”
Nothing, he’d brought nothing. There she was, all dolled up like the good little housewife, waiting stupidly for Peter to realize what was going on.
“Oh, you know, I just made some dinner.”
“But what is it? And how come you’re wearing that around the house, I mean you look…” Peter froze in place as he was taking of his shoes, dropped onto a chair in the hallway and slapped his forehead. “Oh God, I’m such an idiot, how could I forget? Shit…”
“Ah, you’ve figured it out, have you?”
Peter stood up, one shoe still on, all his features pointing downwards. He looked truly pathetic, Martha thought, like an old wet dog with sloping shoulders and wearing a sad clown mask like that relief she saw when passing the Adelphi Theatre. Peter approached her and gave her a big bear hug, dropping his head upon her shoulder. He didn’t cry, but he might as well have. Martha wondered how much he was just putting it on at this point, playing the guilty man. But pretending to care was still better than not caring at all, she thought. But she was disappointed still.
“Come on, take your shoes off, I’ve made lamb. We can still have a nice dinner.”
Like a man walking towards the electric chair, Peter went to the bedroom to change and came back, meekly taking his seat as Martha put a full plate in front of him. At least he put on a nice shirt, she thought, although it’s too little, too late.
“Look, I’m really sorry. I don’t want to make any excuse, I’m an idiot.”
Martha took a deep breath in, but didn’t answer. A deep breath of disappointment that spoke a thousand words. She took a sip of wine instead.
“I know you didn’t mean it. I was just… so sure you’d remember, you know? Anyway, I don’t want to talk about it anymore. There’s always next year.”
There’s always next year, the phrase cut deep into Peter, but what could he do now but play along? Other than some ordinary remarks about the quality of Martha’s cooking, the dinner went on in silence. At the end, Peter was the first to stand up and begin clearing the table. As he was doing the dishes, Martha reappeared in the kitchen doorway, having changed into more traditional house clothes.
“Listen, tomorrow I’m going away for four days, the company’s sending me Portsmouth for a conference. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, it must’ve slipped my mind. They want us to travel more and more often these days…”
Peter felt he was in no position to complain. He continued scrubbing a pan. “Wow, four days. OK, that’s alright, I’ll probably be working late this week anyway. In fact, if you’re away I might just stay at the office a bit longer to get some stuff done. Don’t worry.” He turned towards her. “Do you need anything for the trip, I mean anything I can do for you?”
“No no, I’m all packed, it’s not that long anyway. I’m getting the train from Waterloo, I probably need to be there at, oh God, eight I think?”
“Mm, early rise.” No other thoughts came to Peter’s mind.
The next morning, Martha woke up before Peter, grabbed her troller silently and did her best to leave without disturbing him. The sky was grey and the atmosphere oppressive. Martha could see her breath, so she wrapped her scarf more tightly around her neck and hid her nose and mouth inside it. She made her way to the tube station and travelled up the Northern Line, getting off at Archway. Gabriel had his one-bedroom flat there, his London pied-a-terre. Martha stopped at the end of a street, pretending to look up something on her phone, but in fact looked around to make sure nobody she knew was in the vicinity. She then made her way to a building and rang the buzzer. The door clicked open and she went through and up the three flights of stairs quickly, breathing heavily by the time she reached Gabriel’s door, forcing her to take off the stifling scarf. Gabriel, a tall man in his early forties, opened the door, and Martha entered without even looking at him. Once inside, she suddenly felt very hot, her cheeks burning red. She dropped her bag on the nearby coffee table. Gabriel followed and helped her take off her coat, but then threw it vaguely in the direction of the clothes hook near the door. In the same movement, he embraced Martha from behind and began kissing her neck. She didn’t resist, on the contrary. They had sex right there on the tiny living room couch that could barely sit two people. After they had gotten dressed again, Martha went to make a coffee while Gabriel opened the door to the balcony and lighted a cigarette. Martha joined him outside with her coat on top a now-rumpled thin blouse. Gabriel was staring at the city encased by steely skies.
“Listen, why don’t we leave tomorrow? We could go out somewhere in London tonight instead. There’s nothing to do in Graffham on a Wednesday.”
“I can’t, Gabriel, you know that.”
“But why? Do you expect your husband and his mates to be out and about on a random day of the week? What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not… afraid of anything. I just wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself, you know? I’d be all tense.”
Gabriel came closer and put an arm around her. His hands were big and warm, like an animal’s paw, Martha thought. “Tense? With me around?”
“You know what I mean. I’d rather be out of the city.”
“Well, alright then. Have you got everything you need? We can go right now if you want. I just need to grab my things. Oh and we can stop at The Fox and Rifle on the way for lunch!” Gabriel flicked the end of the cigarette over the balcony and went back inside to find his bag. Martha followed him in and fell back onto the couch – the only piece of furniture in the living room besides the low table in front of it – and slowly sipped at her coffee.
The few days in Graffham were quite uneventful, but getting in some exercise and fresh air while walking around the various trails in the hills couldn’t hurt, Martha thought. Gabriel was considerate as always, and the vacation home was beautiful. And the sex was good, she had to admit it. They mostly spoke of trivial things, just to make conversation. She knew Gabriel was the intellectual type, he was a museum curator after all, but he was always a bit guarded around certain topics. She wasn’t quite sure how to broach them anyway, that is to say, she asked herself how curious a mistress should be in the first place. She was still learning how to do it, they’d only known each other a few months, but it was certainly an enjoyable pastime.
On the drive back to London, Martha’s curiosity got the better of her. Being stuck in the car for a few hours had the mind drifting. The words tumbled out of her mouth with no intentionality.
“Do you do this often?’
“Do I do… what?”
“Oh don’t play coy.” She could almost hear the gears turning in Gabriel’s head.
“Um… well, no. I mean maybe it happens now and then, I mean on a trip or something. But it’s not… like this.”
“I see, it’s just a one-night stand.” For some reason Martha quite enjoyed seeing him squirm. He didn’t answer, so she continued: “So, there haven’t been any other women? Mistresses, that is?”
“Well, no. I just… don’t know what came over me when I saw you, you know?” He turned and smiled waveringly at her.
“Ah, trying to flatter me, I see.”
“No, no, it’s true, honestly. And what about your husband?”
“What about him?”
Gabriel wasn’t sure what he was actually asking. He just wanted to deflect the conversation away from himself, the question was instinctual. He felt stupid for not knowing how to follow up.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. We’re having a good time, aren’t we? That’s allowed, everyone deserves to be happy.”
“Exactly, that’s how I feel about it! We’re not hurting anybody really.” Gabriel’s shoulders relaxed.
“Listen, could you drop me off somewhere around Vauxhall? I’m meeting a friend there.”
“Oh it’s nothing like that, God, what do you take me for?” Martha teased him.
“I meant nothing by it. When can I see you again?”
“I’m not sure, there’s work, there’s James, the kids… Probably towards the end of the month.”
“Alright, we’ll talk. I need to take the kids up to York for a few days anyway. Vauxhall then?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
Vauxhall didn’t seem so bad on a sunny day. Even the terraced houses had something of a cheery, communitarian feel under blue skies. Martha made her way to number fifty Fentiman Road. The front steps were well maintained and the door was painted a vivid red, even more vivid now that the sun was hitting it. An older woman opened the door with a great big smile on her face, and together they went into the reception room. The house was always eerily silent, only the sound of the wall clock could be heard. The tea pot was already prepared and the old woman had taken out the good biscuits.
“You look thin, dear. Are you working a lot?”
“I’m the same as last time you saw me, mum. But yes, we’ve got a lot of work to do at the new branch. You’d think Cambridge was a calmer place than London, but we still need to get it all up and running. Then we’ll be able to relax a bit.”
“Oh… oh don’t overwork yourself. But it’s so good to have you here for a few days. How’s Peter, how come he couldn’t come by?”
“Oh he’s fine, he’s just away to Germany for a week, I told you about it on the phone.”
“That’s right, that’s right you did tell me. Go on then, have a bit of tea. Tell me about things, I barely hear from you.”
Martha never knew what she was supposed to tell the old woman. She was waiting for any story with hungry eyes, but what was there to tell? Life was complicated, to tell one story would mean having to start by telling a different, explanatory one, and another before that. She’d have to explain a whole string of events starting with her leaving the family home and leading up to this moment, otherwise none of it made any sense. She always did her best though, thinking of enticing tidbits of information she could share, and all of them were greatly appreciated – any conversation was good conversation in this silent house. Martha explained that she could only stay for one night and for most of the following day, since she had to get back the following evening. The old woman was somewhat disappointed, but tried to enjoy every moment she had with her daughter regardless. Such was the way of the world, Martha thought, and sitting in too small a bed that night, she trembled at the idea that one day she too would end up like this, in an old, empty house, counting the hours until she’d again get to see those people close to her, now far from her. And who will come visit her? She spent the following day really making an effort in her interactions with the old woman, really trying to comfort her in her time of need. But she had planned to visit Beatrice in the afternoon, so, after kisses and hugs and being given a packet of cookies, Martha started making her way towards Stratford.
On the way, she saw a lonely-looking older man carrying a bag of groceries, hunched over from their weight. A look of great emptiness filled his eyes. It made Martha think back to the first time she entered a stranger’s house. Across the street from her apartment there lived a family who often went on holidays, leaving their home empty, and in a moment of weakness, instead of turning right to enter her own flat, she turned left and walked up to the door of the empty house. It was locked of course, so she carefully made her way around the back to the garden she knew was there, as she could see it from her window. It was noon and the street was empty. She jumped the fence and made straight for the French windows. They were locked as well. But the bathroom window had been left slightly ajar. She climbed through and dropped down into the bathtub. Sitting there for a few minutes, silent like a statue, she only listened to her own heartbeat. A sudden clarity came upon her for a moment, and she wondered what the hell she was doing. Her conscious mind had no answer, but something inside her mind pushed her ahead, out of the bathtub and onward into the rest of the house. It was a standard lower-middle class home, Ikea furniture, a well-stocked office room, a tidy kitchen. Once she got her bearings, everything else fell easily into place. She could see herself entering the home, the serious businesswoman and single mother, dropping her keys into the key bowl with just such a movement, taking her shoes off before stepping onto the carpet, taking off her earrings and holding them in her right hand as she used her left to hold the door frame while she leaned into the living room, searching for Charlie. Then she’d say ‘Charlie!’ not quite shouting, but speaking firmly, and he’d respond from the first floor, ‘Here, mum!’ Now she could see herself as the put-upon housewife, mother of three, speeding between the kitchen and the upper floor to make sure all the kids were alright while her husband was toiling away into the night. Now again she made her way to one of the kids’ bedrooms and saw herself returning to the family home, the dutiful daughter seeing her old room maintained just as she’d left it when going to university. Why these thoughts came so easily to her, Martha couldn’t say. Perhaps it was because she had never felt a strong sense of individuality, an internal necessity to ‘be’ someone. To ‘become’ was infinitely easier, a protean person whose only constant is change. Perhaps it was instead because she desired all these things, but was never able to find them, so she was left grasping at straws.
This strange home gave her a great feeling of calm, however, and from then on, whenever she had the time, she wandered the neighbourhood, observing patterns of comings and goings and breaking into many others without being caught. Each one had its own atmosphere, each one brought out different thoughts and feelings out of her, and they were exhilaratingly saturated feelings. Continuing in this manner, she had found an enticing possibility on Fern Street, a few streets from her own flat, a small house where a young man seemed to live alone. In fact, seeing him day in and day out, Martha thought he lived not only alone, but in a lonely manner. She took her time, observing his movements from afar, and finally found the perfect time to make her way in. She had noticed that the young man had the habit of leaving his bedroom window ever so slightly open even when he left the house, presumably hoping nobody would notice – a perfect opening. It was a messy bedroom, the bed unmade and worn socks left on the floor. A musky smell permeated the room. Martha made her way to the hallway, but to her shock, when turning towards the living room she found herself face to face with the young man, standing there in his underwear with a cup of coffee in his hands. The man, equally shocked, gasped and made a sound like that of a sparrow, Martha thought, jumping backwards and spilling his drink all over the front of his t-shirt. But Martha’s mind, to her own surprise, had already begun its process of transposition, and acted before she had a chance to filter what came through.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry I startled you. I thought you knew I wasn’t going to the office today. Take that off, I’ll put it in the wash.”
The man was still shocked, but in his eyes Martha saw something, a breaking down, a flash of splintering, if only for a moment. He meekly did as he was asked, and they enjoyed the rest of their day together as any couple might. When she left, Martha felt that she had uncovered something, not something valuable perhaps, but certainly hidden, like an earthworm burrowing its way through cavities underneath life, unseen, but with a purpose. She had a talent, she realized, for finding that same look that she’d seen in the young man’s eyes in others, wherever they were, in a coffee shop or waiting at a bus stop. A look of need, the need for a void to be filled. Finding what it needed to be filled with was a challenge, but an enticing one. However, she had no time to find out what the older man with the groceries needed, as Beatrice was waiting for her. She had met Beatrice, Bea, in a bookshop. Bea was browsing the fiction section and, turning around to examine a different bookshelf, her gaze met that of Martha. There was that look, distant and forlorn. Martha sprang into action right away, unthinking.
“Oh my God, what are you doing here? I haven’t seen you in ages!”
Beatrice was taken aback, but Martha continued the assault. “It’s me, Martha! From school? God, it must be, what, ten, twelve years?” She could see Beatrice computing the information, and once it was digested, a smile brightened her face.
“Martha, oh wow, you’ve changed so much, I didn’t even recognise you! Where’s the long hair?”
“Oh it was too much of a hassle.” She made a cutting motion with her hand. Martha didn’t allow for any moment of awkwardness and went in for a hug. It was reciprocated and then she knew she was on her way with Bea.
Martha was quite happy to see Beatrice and Ronnie, her puppy. In fact, Ronnie was not much of a puppy anymore, he’d grown so much since last he’d seen him. He wagged his tail and ran all around the apartment, with Beatrice shouting after him to stop before he broke something. They finally managed to put a lead on him and went out to West Ham Park.
“Remember that time we went to Sicily? We must’ve been, what, thirteen?”
“Remember Giancarlo?” Martha snickered.
“Oh, you mean Giancarlo?” Beatrice said in an exaggerated Italian accent.
“Oof, now there was a real man! The way he could clean a hotel pool…”
“Yes, perfect for two thirteen-year olds.”
They both laughed.
“Anyway, forget him. I was thinking, we should do that again, but this time without our families, obviously. I’m trying to remember it, and I just get a few images, I can barely put it together. I must be making most of it up. Would you be up for a trip?”
Martha thought it through for a while, throwing a ball for Ronnie to return.
“I suppose so, as long as it’s not too long a trip. I mean, a few days…”
“At least a week, so it’s worth it.”
“A week… Maybe. September?”
“If that’s what works for you. What about James?”
Martha stared at the grass in front of her. Ronnie brought back the ball and she crouched down to pick it up, but stayed there for a moment, feeling the smell of the damp grass.
“James… I don’t know where that’s going.”
“Really? I thought you guys were working things out.”
“We were, but… I don’t know, what if there’s nothing to work out, I mean nothing on the other side?”
“That bad, is it? You know best. I never liked him that much anyway. He’s always… scowly.”
Martha looked up at her, amused. “Scowly, you say. Yeah, he is quite scowly, isn’t he? And with no reason, too.” Ronnie was doing laps around them waiting for the ball to be thrown again, so Martha stood back up and chucked it as hard as she could. “Anyway, I’m going to his place now, and we’ll sort it out.”
They said goodbye at the exit of the park, each going in a different direction. Beatrice was a nice girl, Martha thought, she deserved a best friend like her. A childhood best friend to reminisce with, to have a bond with. She took a black cab towards Greenwich and sitting there realized her body, her spirit, her time were exhausted. She could feel herself spreading out increasingly thinly over the lives of others, until she was just a transparent film. She wanted to break up with James not because they no longer got along, but rather because she couldn’t stretch that far anymore. But wasn’t that what she had needed in the first place? She thought back to the old man with the grocery bag. There were so many of these people all around her, and only one of her. If only she could break apart, severalise. They only needed a bit, a tiny morsel of her each and they would be nourished, the ashes in their eyes rekindled. But there was nothing left to give, she’d have to let James go, she realised, out of necessity. At least she’d leave him better than she’d found him, she could take solace in that. Martha made a little pillow out of her scarf and leaned her head on the taxi window. She closed her eyes and tried to dream of a world where Martha was sublimated, reduced to an ethereal substance that could be spread with ease to everyone in need.