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It must have been the way Lucy Sheridan looked me up and down when she entered the flat that made me think she wanted to have sex with me, or maybe it was her voice hesitating over the intercom, as if she’d found herself standing there in the middle of a dream-bidden errand, suddenly unsure how to proceed. I had greeted her in the hallway with my usual flamboyant kiss to each cheek, but careful to grasp tightly the cordage of my dressing gown, and holding my breath in order to keep my midriff in check. After our embrace we exchanged a further look – meaningfully I thought – until eventually Lucy turned away without speaking and walked toward the kitchen.
Lucy was from Northern Ireland and extremely beautiful, with dark brown hair and discreet, finely shaped features. Only her eyebrows seemed out of proportion, and added a slight menace to her prettiness. She was petite, but she dressed assertively in sharp suits or else simply in jeans and a tee shirt, and made little attempt to be coy. This suited her accent, which was full of hard sounds, and her astuteness in conversation, which was always to the point. Tragically, she was married to Adam, a successful and handsome man in his early forties – though in keeping with her enlightened self-image she had retained her own family name. Lucy and Adam had a reputation in our circle for being particularly savvy when it came to the marriage game. It was said they did not put undue pressure on one another, or make excessive demands on each other’s time: they ‘understood the need for space’. Their marriage was considered, in this light, and after only five years, to be a success. I liked Adam: he was genial and quick-witted, but we often found ourselves at a loss for conversational subject matter. Beneath the pleasantries we exchanged every time we met we disagreed about so much. He ran his own financial consultancy firm and made a lot of money; I wrote history books that sometimes didn’t sell more than five hundred copies worldwide. One of my hermetic pleasures was hearing Lucy decry his materialism. Although I knew it was a rather hollow criticism she sometimes referred to him scathingly as Adam Smith.
When she came into the lounge carrying the cafetière and two mugs I could see she was upset. Her hair was slightly flattened from the rain. She noticed me examining her and smiled, weakly.
‘How’s your book coming along?’ she asked, to deflect my attention, as she kicked off her shoes and curled onto the sofa. At that time I was writing a book on international terrorism, relating it to the history of the occident, the fall of Rome, that kind of thing. It was an unwieldy subject, and one that I didn’t really know very much about, but my publisher told me it was guaranteed to sell in the current political climate. As Lucy had deadpanned on another occasion, international terrorism’s the new Buddhism.
‘I don’t think you have come here at two in the morning to ask about my book’ I said, not wanting to think about or try to excuse my lack of progress. She looked crestfallen, so I thought that I should humour her. ‘It’s going ok, but I can’t really find a satisfactory angle, to be honest. The problem is that any analogy to Gibbon is already so tired….’ She wasn’t listening. She had created a prop for her chin by resting her elbow on her lap. She was hunched over and pensive. I had only put the side light on and a dark shadow from the spider-plant fell across her forehead and her nose.
‘What is it Lucy?’ I asked, fearing there had been some bereavement. She smiled again, this time more ironically.
‘I’m not sure; it’s all a bit ridiculous. For some reason I’m wile pissed off.’ She had often used this word wile in the past and I knew it for an intensifier.
‘What are you pissed off about?’ I asked, sounding like a psychoanalyst. She looked up at me.
‘I probably shouldn’t tell you, you’ll kill me.’ This time she laughed out loud. I felt relieved that the subject under discussion was not too serious, a death or a terminal illness.
‘You’d better tell me, now that you’ve woken me up in the middle of the night.’ I tried to sound severe as I plunged the coffee. She watched intently as I arranged the mugs on the table and poured. Neither of us took milk or sugar.
‘Okay, then,’ she began, before hesitating to take her coffee from the table. She snuggled up to the drink, robbing it of its warmth.
‘You know what day it is today?’
‘Monday’ I said, alluding to the time.
‘Well yesterday, then.’
‘No,’ I said, perplexed. Had I missed an anniversary, or a birthday?
‘You don’t recall the discussion about me and Adam and Remembrance Sunday? It was here, you were having a dinner party to celebrate something.’ About a month previously I had hosted a dinner on the pretext of my friend Damien’s new book. There had been a discussion about national festivals and how uninterested people were in St George’s day. Then someone had mentioned the seriousness with which the British still treated Armistice Day.
It was Clive Tunbel who had said, ‘there’s something sinister about all those fucking poppies; the pride people take in wearing them’. He was a professional philosopher, taken with such confrontational propositions. On this occasion, however, I agreed with him. As an outsider I had wondered at the British obsession with the Fist World War. Where I came from there were other wars, more recent wars, to remember and forget.
‘The famous Day of Forgetting?’
‘Yes, that’s it,’ replied Lucy, blushing slightly.
At the time I had thought it was said to lighten the mood. Lucy had begun to recount an idea she and Adam pursued: an idea that was completely in keeping with their reputation for liberal practice within the terms of their marriage. Part of their success. They had decided to set aside a day each year to take a total break from each other. Neither of them would be allowed to sleep at home, or get in contact: their mobile phones would be switched off. They had twenty-four hours apart, and once they reunited they were forbidden from speaking of what they had done or asking questions of the other person. It was a Day of Forgetting, and the ironic twist was that it took place on the second Sunday of November. Lucy had looked triumphant as she highlighted the irony, perhaps it was her Irishness that enjoyed the subversion, I had thought at the time, while watching Adam grin, smugly and amorally. Overall, I recalled, the idea had been received around the table with polite laughter.
‘Well, today is our third year,’ Lucy said.
I must have looked truly astonished, because for a moment Lucy seemed ashamed. She hung her head and I could see her jaw moving where she clenched and unclenched her teeth.
‘Well, what happened? Did he not come home?’ I was genuinely curious to know.
‘It starts at noon, it ends at noon. This is it.’
For a moment I didn’t know what to say. I tried to think of why she was here, and once more considered the idea of sex. Enfeebled, I ventured: ‘why not sunrise to sunrise?’ She looked at me searchingly before realising the complete inconsequence of what I had said. We lapsed into silence but I knew from experience that she would speak eventually to explain herself to me. She had always had that need to justify herself out loud; and I had become her preferred method for dealing with that need.
‘The first time it was exciting’ she said carefully, starting from the beginning so I could follow the logic of her predicament. ‘It wasn’t really planned or anything, we were just concerned not to get too dependent on one another, after the marriage. I think it was Adam who suggested it. It was November. We laughed at the idea and had sex. And then we just decided to do it. It was a turn on, you know?’
I nodded, sagaciously.
‘Anyway on Remembrance Sunday, around midday, Adam kissed me on the cheek and left the house. I didn’t know whether it was really happening, whether I had permission to do anything I wanted. I didn’t know what I wanted. I remember watching him reverse his car out of the drive and turn down the street without even looking back. It was a dry day, but very cold – probably frosty. I sat in the kitchen and drank a cup of tea. I had permission to do whatever in the world I wanted for twenty-four hours and I had a bloody cup of tea. I must have sat there for two hours flicking through a magazine before I got up off my arse and did something.’ She stopped talking; she was smiling to herself.
‘What did you do?’
‘At first I just drove around. I put on some provocative clothes – a short skirt, a low-cut top – not very me, and I drove around. I had some absurd fantasies, like I would stop and offer myself to a cute passer-by, or a tramp even. Then I thought about going to a lesbian bar. It was ridiculous. I didn’t know how to go about anything; I wasn’t bold enough. I felt that I needed to do something extreme, against my instincts. I thought a lot about Adam, and what he was doing: it drove me on to even stupider fantasies. God, I sound so stupid!’
She looked at me, uncertainly this time. ‘I don’t know if I should be telling you all this.’
‘It’s up to you’ I replied, confident that she had passed the point of no return. She needed to off-load this onto someone.
She continued with only a small pause to put her coffee mug down on the table. ‘So I went for a drink somewhere around Notting Hill Gate, in one of those expensive wine-bars. I suppose it shows the limits of my daring. You must be disappointed in me?’ She laughed out loud while staring at the carpet. ‘Do you have a cigarette by any chance?’
I had given up but always stored an emergency packet in the locker beside the bed. I hitched myself out of the room as quickly as possible keen to preserve the delicate balance of her revelation. I found the cigarettes and returned in the same fashion. ‘There are some matches beside the lamp.’
‘Why do you always put dead matches back in the box, it’s so infuriating.’ She had been trying to strike a used match and it had snapped.
‘Sorry, but I can’t think of a better place to put them.’ I had deflected this remonstrance from her before.
‘The bin!’ she concluded, as she successfully lit her cigarette.
‘Use the plant pot for ash,’ I said, afraid she was letting go of the meat of her story. She hugged her legs to her torso and rocked back and forth while she smoked. I looked between her legs where her tight jeans stretched across her groin.
‘To cut a long story short, I picked up an Egyptian guy or he picked me up.’
‘On a Sunday afternoon?’
She grinned. ‘There are always people on the lookout.’ She closed her eyes for a few seconds before continuing. ‘I’ll spare you the details. I gave him a false name; he took me home. He must have been rich because his flat was three times the size of this one, in Kensington.’
‘Impressive,’ I said, sarcastically. We shared a look.
‘So I slept with him. It was all a bit unreal, but exhilarating. I felt sorry for him in the morning when I left. He said that he loved me; that he wanted to see me again. I gave him a made-up number. Anyway, the best part was going home. Adam was already there. We talked nervously for a while and cooked lunch together. I remember trying to be discreet about having a shower. It was playing at being illicit, without really doing anything wrong. We went to bed early in the evening and we were so tender with each other; it was like the first time, or like we were younger than we had ever been together.’
‘And you didn’t mention the missing day to each other after that?’ I was incredulous.
‘Not once, well not until the next November. It just gradually faded from my mind.’
‘You didn’t want to do it more often, saying as it was such a success?’
She stubbed her cigarette against the clay pot. ‘After the second time, maybe, but the first time seemed so precise and unique; if we tried it again too soon it would be wrong, like tempting fate. And then, of course, someone would have had to bring up the subject and that was out of bounds. I didn’t know how Adam felt, and I suppose he didn’t know how I felt.’
She took another cigarette from the packet and proceeded to light it. It was difficult to gauge her mood. She had seemed upset and shaken but on top of that excited, almost bragging. ‘It was Adam who mentioned it again, the second time, early in November; but if I’m honest I had been thinking about it before, about what I would do. God, this part’s so embarrassing.’ She giggled. ‘Your friend, Damien.’
‘Yes?’ I said it warily. I felt a timid ripple in the pit of my stomach. Damien was a tall, handsome Scot who was also maddeningly smart. He had written a travel book recently on the expanded Europe, which had peaked in the top 20 of the UK non-fiction sales, and really I was rather envious of him.
‘Well I’d fancied him for ages, so – this is quite bold really – I turned up at his doorstep and he invited me in for a drink. I explained the situation and we fucked.’ She was blushing deeply now as she sucked on her cigarette and I felt a sudden chill. I moved myself over to the mantle and switched on the gas fire.
‘Why fucked, not had sex?’ I asked, when I had my back to her, trying to keep the croak out of my voice.
‘Let’s just say, it was the most passionate sex I’ve ever had.’
Turning around to look at her I could tell that I was even more embarrassed than she was. I looked away again. ‘Is that within the rules, sleeping with someone you both know?’
‘We don’t have a written constitution, she said, defensively: anyway I don’t see why not. I sat back down and waited for her to continue. The fire hummed.
‘Coming home was different that time, weirder. Adam was there before me again and he looked the worse for wear. Instinctively I said something innocuous like ‘heavy night’ and we both froze. I apologised and we hugged in the kitchen. I remember how strongly he smelt of sweat. Anyway I had a shower and went to bed. I was asleep before he joined me, and that was that. We didn’t mention it.’
‘He texted a few times and called me once, but I acted just like it had never happened. He seemed hurt, but what could I do? When he suggested we meet again I laughed flippantly and said he should come round and see me and Adam sometime.’
Damien hadn’t mentioned any of this to me and I was momentarily vexed. I studied an ambiguous crease on Lucy’s forehead as she finished her second cigarette and started immediately on her third. ‘So what happened?’ I was becoming impatient to get to the present.
‘Och, I don’t know. I suppose I was a bit resentful and I started to suspect Adam. Did he do the same thing; sleep with someone we both know, like Sarah Traynor. She’s always made it clear that she wants to get her claws into him.’
‘So you felt guilty and you projected your guilt onto Adam?’
‘She shook her head angrily. No that’s not it. It was more spontaneous than that. I intended to meet Damien again, that’s why I brought the subject up at the party last month. Adam was quite pissed off with me for mentioning it at all.’
‘I bet he was.’
‘I was all set to go to Damien’s place this morning. I was really excited and then, on the spur of the moment, I don’t know why, I decided to follow Adam instead. I was just curious I suppose.’
‘Oh dear,’ I said, and tutted my disapproval.
‘Maybe he followed me last year and that’s why he didn’t come to bed with me, how do I know?’ She sounded unconvinced.
‘But you can’t think of what the other person is doing; isn’t that the point?’ I found myself infuriated that their grand abstraction could end up so petty.
‘Listen to what he did,’ she persisted, ignoring what I said. ‘He went to a Remembrance Day service, in the fucking rain!’ I laughed, and I could see that she was glad. She didn’t want to be condescended to.
‘First I thought it was his rendezvous point with some girl, but I walked behind him all the way from Victoria to Whitehall and he stood there, sombre as you like, stony faced, incanting that stupid poem, you know, ‘for they shall not grow old’ or whatever it is.’
‘Did you approach him?’
‘No way! I stayed well clear. Afterwards he went back to his car and drove to the graveyard up by the Heath. He must have stayed there for an hour. I could see him coming back drenched, the hair plastered down on his forehead. I was quite far away but his head was bowed like he was genuinely upset about something.’
‘Maybe he had grandparents or great-grandparents in the war?’
‘His grandparents are all buried up in Yorkshire somewhere and even if you’re right about his great-grandparents, it’s a bit odd don’t you think?’
‘I suppose so.’ I shrugged. ‘People do odd things when they’re alone.’
‘That’s not the worst of it. He cheated. He went home! After the graveyard he drove home and he’s still there now.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I saw him going to bed. I sat outside for an hour and then I decided to leave. I went to get some food and came back. His car was still there. I went away again to get a drink. I even considered going to Damien’s for a while, but I went back again. I watched the house and at about 10 I saw his silhouette through the landing window. Going to bed by himself. I was this close to confronting him.’ She displayed an inch between her thumb and forefinger. ‘But I was too confused. Strangely…’
‘Yes that is strange,’ she said, in a dramatic whisper more to herself than to me. ‘I felt that I didn’t have the right to intrude until the twenty-four hours were up. I mean the right! Jesus, like I’d be doing something wrong by being myself and going in there and shouting at him.’ She dropped her head into her hands in a play of desperation.
‘He cheated by going home, you cheated by following him: so what. You’re even.’ I said this frivolously without noticing that she was crying. I had never seen Lucy cry before. She was usually so robust, dismissive of other peoples’ weaknesses. I watched her back rise and fall, and listened to her suppressed sobs in a state of indecisiveness. I held out my hand across the table in a gesture of condolence, but knew that she couldn’t see it there. It was almost five minutes before she lifted her head and scolded herself, and I must admit that I was relieved when it happened. She smiled at me and apologised for her lack of control. I told her not to be silly.
‘Do you feel guilty?’ I asked, with the intention of bringing the conversation onto an analytical level.
She was very quick to respond: ‘No way, why should I?’
‘Because you interpreted your freedom as the freedom to have sex with other people, and possibly Adam didn’t?’
‘Definitely not.’ Lucy lit a cigarette. She shook her head thoughtfully. ‘I feel manipulated. Adam suggested something and I entered into it. I thought I was experiencing things, following my own decisions, but I wasn’t. Adam was sitting at home all the time, like a fat pimp, getting off on the things I might be doing.’
‘That’s a harsh interpretation,’ I contended. I waited a few moments before adding my assessment: ‘Adam’s an independent character, an entrepreneur for god’s sake, that’s what you like about him. Don’t worry about what he did yesterday, that’s my advice. Simplify things.’ When it came to Lucy, offering advice like this was always superfluous, however appropriate it sounded. She was a single-minded woman. Still, I felt that I couldn’t let the moment pass without putting my opinion on record. She nodded but I could tell her mind was on a different track.
‘Will you confront him in the morning?’ I persisted.
She threw her head back theatrically and exhaled smoke like a mini-geyser into the already fuggy air. ‘I don’t know! I’ll have to sleep on it.’
I looked at my watch. ‘Sleep? But you still have eight and a half hours of freedom, of not being you. Why don’t you do something against all your best instincts, against nature?’ I intended it to be a humorous remark, but the minute I said it I heard the implication and I regretted it. I felt a moment of intense humiliation as Lucy faked a yawn opposite me in the quiet of the early morning that hadn’t been as noticeable to me before. It was extremely awkward and I almost tried to retract the implication by saying something like, I didn’t mean sleep with me.
‘Come on, let’s get you to bed’ I countered, rising, trying to keep my voice even. I held out my hand and she followed me into the bedroom. When I turned the light on both of us were forced to squint. It was scorching, and I dreaded to think what I looked like. I wanted to push her onto the bed; I was sorely tempted. Instead I offered her one of my shirts to sleep in and she thanked me.
‘I’m very grateful to you for listening, I’ve been so selfish tonight,’ she whispered in my ear as she gave me a hug.
‘You know, as a historian, all this forgetting confounds me’ I replied, as lightheartedly as I could.
We bid each other good night and I closed the door behind me with exaggerated care. I took a blanket from the hot press and re-entered the lounge. When I had stretched out – detecting only very slightly her aroma on the fabric – and turned off the light, I realised that my mind was unsettled. I was thinking about Adam going to the service and the graveyard and then returning home. Why did he just go home?
The answer suddenly struck me like one of those rare moments in my work when history seems to become a science. I just knew it: I knew with certainty that Adam was aware that he was being followed. He must have been. That’s why he did those things, to put her off the scent. Yes he was manipulating Lucy, but not at all in the way she thought. He caught a glimpse of her following him and realised that he had to put on a show. In doing so he was revealing a truth about himself that he would never have revealed had he been unconscious of her presence. That’s why he went home in the end; he simply ran out of ideas. I was satisfied with my conclusion. It explained so much more, and produced a superior question: what would Adam have done had he not known that he was being followed; and why was Lucy so willing to prefer this vast, monstrous unknown to what she now knew: that he was at home by himself, unfaithful to the rules of the game, but completely harmless?
With this my mind I was put at ease. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the last time I had really felt a woman’s skin and soon after that I was soundly asleep on the sofa.