How Are Things With You?
It was three in the morning when they left the club. Blossom Dearie had finished her second set with ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ and the audience were still on their feet, chanting and cheering for more. In the street, Daniel hummed the words, wanting to make Anna laugh. But she wouldn’t laugh: frowning, sullen, glaring miserably into the rain. They’d argued in the hotel. Hadn’t even unpacked. He was hurting her, and she’d pulled away.
‘They’re love bites.’
‘Come on, Anna!’
‘You should sell them.’
‘Like tattoos. Fake vows. Love you forever.’
‘You don’t want forever.’
‘Five minutes would do,’ he nearly said, but Anna didn’t get jokes. His anyway. ‘Hi lover,’ one of the street girls grinned from a doorway, busking against Daniel to annoy Anna. A cat watched them from a flowerbox, waiting for the milkman to bring the dawn. A Japanese tourist was filming the rain. She was wearing a yellow mac and her body creaked against the plastic. He hummed briefly ‘Once Upon a Summertime’, then stopped.
‘I could die for a cappuccino,’ he said. Anna wanted to get back to the car. They had already cancelled the hotel booking. ‘I feel like a man finding a strange girl in his bed,’ he said, ‘not knowing her name and wanting her.’
‘Blue movies and rain,’ Anna sneered.
They’d started talking in July when Anna joined the newspaper, meeting for coffee in a café opposite the offices. She was on a graduate training scheme, straight from university. He liked listening to her talk.
‘Why me?’ she asked.
‘The editor likes me to keep an eye on the trainees.’
‘Like Cyclops?’ she said.
She didn’t bother to answer. She was a tall girl, her dark hair ironed straight and with a long fringe to hide her eyes. Or hide behind, he joked. ‘I iron it every night,’ she said. When he laughed she flicked her hair over the collar of her jumper, distracting his attention. Her lips were thin and pale without lipstick. She wore skirts and knee-length boots that were all the fashion. Her fingernails were chewed to the quick.
She didn’t seem interested in the younger journalists. ‘Can’t you find a decent man your own age?’ Daniel asked when they started meeting after work. ‘Girl like you. Must be plenty of young blokes around.’
‘Married men are safer,’ she said casually.
‘We weren’t talking about married men.’
‘You don’t get all the fuss,’ she went on, ignoring him.
‘“Say you love me,”’ she mimicked.
‘Anna . . .’
‘Not that being married has done my mother much good.’ Daniel sat back, acting defeated. ‘I might as well not be here,’ he said dryly.
After work, he would stay late at the office, his wife and her mother at home. His daughter was asleep by the time he got home. Some nights, he wandered the streets, thinking he might meet her, find her coming out of a club or café. One Sunday, he drove over to the office and spent hours walking around the city centre, searching for her face in the crowds. Which wasn’t likely. She lived miles away in the fens, spent her weekends reading or helping her mother round the house. She had a lot of friends. He pushed the thought of other men from his mind.
At the end of August, the editor invited Anna to babysit for him, and told her she could bring a friend if she wanted.
‘He suggested you,’ she said when she told Daniel. She seemed irritated or offended.
‘He’s probably seen us around,’ Daniel said. ‘Having coffee.’ She went on with her work as if he wasn’t standing there.
On the night, they had a takeaway and then sat on the sofa watching television. ‘I’ve known Sam for years,’ he said.
When he drove her home, she sat silent beside him all the way. ‘You don’t seem very happy,’ he said when they parked outside her parents’ house.
‘What do you expect,’ she said, surprising him.
‘I thought you only went out with married men?’ She went quiet, biting her lips.
‘I don’t have to like it, do I?’ she muttered, then got out of the car and slammed the door.
A week later, they took a picnic to an isolated village and sat in the grounds of a ruined abbey. Anna brought a volume of fourteenth-century verse with her. She’d studied it at university. It was a hot day, the last of summer. They sat under a sky of fierce cobalt blue, and she read aloud from a poem called Handlyng Synne. It was by the Lincolnshire poet Robert Mannyng. ‘“Blissed be he of God of heuene,”’ she grinned, as they wandered the buttercup meadows and deep lanes, the riverbank where they collected simples, imagining they were being wise.
‘I love you,’ Daniel said, faint with the heat.
‘Don’t say that.’
‘Still, don’t say it.’ He dropped her off near her home and drove back to Lincoln where his daughter had a fever.
‘I could rent a flat,’ he told her on the Monday morning.
‘While you stay with your wife?’
‘I can’t lose you,’ he said wearily.
‘Then stop going on about it.’
When she went on holiday, he realised he was missing her. She sent a postcard to the office, but it was for everybody in the newsroom. The day she got back, they went for a meal. She seemed preoccupied, restless. When he offered her a cigarette, she shook her head.
‘Did you give up smoking?’ She was always talking about giving up.
‘No,’ she said. ‘They stain your teeth.’
‘Seems a funny reason not to give up,’ he joked.
‘Then give up.’
‘I will when I’m ready.’
‘Didn’t you want to meet?’
‘I’m here aren’t I!’ He laughed, trying to sound good-humoured. ‘You might as well not be.’
She sighed then and relaxed back in her seat, fiddling with her coffee, her hair. ‘I’m tired. I just got back from Italy.’
‘I saw the postcard,’ he said. ‘I thought I might get one of my own.’ She shrugged. She went on to tell him about a boy she met at university. They’d gone out together for a few months, and she’d spent her holiday staying with his family in a village in the mountains overlooking Lake Como.
‘What do you mean, what happened?’
‘You stayed with his family, didn’t you?’
‘They’re very strict,’ Anna said abruptly, staring out of the window. ‘His mother didn’t like me. So, I came home.’ She pushed her coffee cup aside. ‘It was like a chapter from Lawrence’s The Lost Girl,’ she said, but he didn’t know what she was talking about.
Then she started telling him about her father. He’d been in the navy, in the war. His ship was in Scapa Flow when they were torpedoed by a German submarine. Eight hundred men and boys, burned or drowned. She sounded bored, as if she were reading a script from a newspaper. She stopped abruptly, taking a cigarette from the packet Daniel had left on the table. He lit it for her. Her father was invalided out of active service, she said, and had suffered chronic depressions ever since, never holding down a job. He was always there. ‘He smokes and goes fishing,’ Anna said. ‘He never catches anything. My mother looks after him. That’s her job.’
She stubbed her cigarette out. ‘I thought I might like you,’ she smiled, suddenly genuine, or sounding genuine.
‘Well, I’m married,’ he said sarcastically, ‘so that should make it all right.’ She relaxed then. As if she was relieved.
‘You aren’t married enough,’ she laughed, ‘keeping that photograph on your desk.’ She meant the photograph of his wife and daughter. She finished her cold coffee and walked out of the restaurant.
It was September when he borrowed a friend’s car and arranged the trip to London. He booked a hotel in Kensington, and tickets for Ronnie Scott’s to hear Blossom Dearie. When they arrived at the hotel, Anna said she felt sick, and collapsed on the bed and went straight to sleep. Later, when they tried to have sex, she asked him to use two condoms, and they ended up checking out early.
She refused to speak on the way to Soho. When he tried to put his arm round her shoulders during the performance she shrugged him off. She hardly touched the food he ordered.
‘You should have stayed,’ she said as they walked back to the car.
‘The club’s closed.’
‘There were plenty of girls hanging around. They’d look after you.’ On the drive back to Lincoln, she was tense and white-faced. Their arguments usually ended this way, but he refused to speak this time.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said at last. She said she wanted to get back home to see one of her friends who needed her help. He didn’t ask what help.
‘We used to go to see the Stones before anybody ever heard of them,’ she told him. ‘I should have been there this weekend.’
When he didn’t answer, she lit a cigarette.
‘It’s not my car,’ he said. She shrugged and stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray. He could see her fists clenched on her knees. She sounded angry when she started talking. She said she’d had a lover called Rupert who hated girls smoking.
‘He was lovely,’ she said provocatively. ‘He had a flat in Soho and his friends used to watch.’ Daniel gripped the steering wheel. The speedometer flickered upwards.
‘Did you make him wear two condoms?’ Daniel jeered.
‘We never bothered.’
He screeched the car to a halt on the grass verge and told her to get out. It was five o’clock in the morning, a thin hot dawn rising from the fields. She slammed the car door and he drove off with another screech of tyres, the speedometer touching eighty before he slammed the brakes on and spun the car into a three-point turn in the middle of the road. He drove back slowly, trying to see where he’d left her. The road was deserted.
He found her crying up on the grass bank, terrified of being attacked. He got out and walked towards her, shouting obscenities. Pheasants clattered up out of the long grass. He stopped when he saw the tears of mascara running down her cheeks. She climbed back into the car and they drove until they found an exit. Parking on the edge of scrubby woodland, they had sex on the hard ground, in a wilderness of wild garlic.
‘I made it up,’ she whispered afterwards.
‘Made what up?’
Daniel lay on his back, watching an aircraft high in the sky, its vapour trail drifting to the horizon. He realised he’d enjoyed shouting at her, the drama of ordering her out of the car. The excitement he felt when she was telling him about the boy. The excitement he still felt.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, feeling the tiredness coming.
They lay quietly together as the sky reddened. The roar of traffic drowned the sound of birds. I like her, he thought vaguely.
‘Nothing,’ he said again, but she didn’t answer.
William Bedford is an award-winning poet, short-story writer and novelist. In 2014, he won first prize in The London Magazine‘s International Poetry Competition. His Collecting Bottle Tops: Selected Poetry 1960-2008 was published in 2009, The Fen Dancing in 2014, The Bread Horse in 2015, Chagall’s Circus in 2019 and The Dancers of Colbek in 2020.
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This article was commissioned by The London Magazine’s editor Steven O’Brien