On the day of his twentieth wedding anniversary Ralph got a letter from his lover. This was no accident. She had made sure he got it on the exact day, putting it under the door of his office early in the morning so he found it when he got to work. She had written his full name on the envelope, including his middle name, Sylvester, which he mostly didn’t want people to know. She often did that, writing the three words somehow voluptuously, even though her writing was round and clear and like a schoolgirl’s. She’d stopped putting circles on the tops of her ‘i’s, but still the sight of her upright, even slightly backward-sloping handwriting made him think of a child. Of course she was quite young, so it wasn’t that surprising. Inside were four carefully written pages, of love and how she wanted them to be together for always, and that this should happen soon. She talked about the past and the way their love had grown, and how it would continue to grow in the future, and couldn’t continue to be so crushed as it was now, it would have to burst out. There weren’t many ideas in it, she just said them over and over.
He looked at the three names, traced very straight across the envelope. Somehow they were an assertion of ownership, of him belonging to her in every detail.
He had his morning planned out and having four pages to read did not exactly please him. He had a fair idea of what she was going to say. How strong their love was, and so on. How tempestuous. Not a pretty, delicate affair, but life and death. Though he realises when he looks at it carefully, not skimming through but reading behind the lines as well as what she says, that she seems to be admitting that she knows they will never be man and wife as she so ardently wants, that this will be a secret she will have to keep all her days.
But it is her opening conceit that shocks him. She mentions him celebrating twenty years of married life and says, shouldn’t it be fourteen? They have been lovers for three years, so it should be seventeen minus three, subtracting the years of the affair from the time of its beginning, which gives her fourteen for his marriage to have lasted; that is what he should be celebrating, fourteen years. It is a mad logic; he can’t believe she can mean it. He imagines saying to Sally, of course, actually, it’s only fourteen.
Melinda knows he is married, of course she does. The lover always does. Sometimes she accepts that. He thought she absolutely accepted it. That there was no question of his leaving his wife. But she so wants it she thinks she can make it happen. For a moment he feels panic, as the inexorable force of her will slides out from the words in front of him and he wonders if he will be able to escape it. Even though he has never allowed her to think it, well, never given her permission to think it, yet will is not logical, he understands that.
The classical situation: the mistress knows, the wife doesn’t. Mistress is an old-fashioned word, he doesn’t think you can use it these days, but Melinda likes it, I am your mistress, she says, mine is the power. He suspects she wouldn’t need much encouragement to act the full dominatrix bit. Sometimes he wonders what Sally suspects. There was a time when he was careless and she questioned him, but he swore there was nothing, and he thinks she believed him. Melinda’s letter says that on this day there will be three people unhappy, but that isn’t so. Sally is happy; she knows he is taking her out for dinner but not where. She is busy with her own life, her work, and with the children. She trusts him, she believes him. She is comfortable with him. They have a good time. He will be happy having dinner with her tonight. They will laugh, and drink toasts, and remember grand moments of their lives. He’ll make sure he doesn’t think of Melinda. Melinda doesn’t know about this old loving companionship. She thinks he stays in the marriage out of duty, not desire. That’s the trouble with a mistress; if she believes the passion, of course she can’t believe the marriage. And yet he knows that there can be both. Melinda doesn’t think they have sex any more.
Some days he wishes she’d go off and fall in love with someone else. But then when he thinks that a cruel knife of jealousy carves into his heart. And yet, how simple life would be without her. Sometimes he thinks the easy thing would be for her to die. He would not lose her to someone else. He would grieve for this lost love and would be free of the deceit that sometimes he thinks will destroy him. Once when she was lying beside him going on about how unhappy she was, how she had given up all her life to him and he gave her so little in return, he had thought of putting a pillow over her face and holding it tight. Silencing that little voice, he wouldn’t say whingeing, he didn’t want to, but lying entwined afterwards should be a blissful time, not whingeing. Of course he wouldn’t kill her, he wasn’t that sort of person. And anyway he knows how strong she is. She has small shoulders and waist but broad strong hips and solid muscular legs. She would probably kick him to death before he could smother her. He laughed, and she was silent, offended, and of course he couldn’t tell her what was funny. He said, I was thinking how beautiful and strong your legs are.
Why is that funny?
It’s delight, he said.
He got up from his desk and made some coffee so he could start his day from that point and do the things he’d planned, which were going to crowd now. In an hour the first of his students would come. At least Melinda was no longer one of them; that was one sticky situation he was no longer in. She was still a student, but not of his. Start thinking of that and there could be nightmares. Of course they were discreet. Very. But people looked. They stared, they observed, and what they did not see they invented.
His first student of the morning was a middle-aged woman, very safe. And hard-working. She was interested in post-structural theories of character in novels. Well, he wasn’t sure how interested she was, that was what she was working on. She talked about Hardy’s Tess, she wasn’t sure how she fitted in to the theories she had in mind, and Ralph suggested she might be better sticking to more recent novels, whose authors might have had some ideas along her lines. Oh, do you think so, she said. It’s just that I love Tess, I wanted to write about her. Patiently he listened and tried to help her elucidate some possible hypothesis. It’s such a sad novel, she said. When the clergyman won’t bury the baby Sorrow in the churchyard, it breaks my heart. He thought a better subject for her might be the sadness of Thomas Hardy, but it seemed a bit late to suggest that, and he knew she’d be offended. She was enough of a student to know where the fashionable topics lay.
After she’d gone he made some notes and then checked in his desk drawer. Of course Sally’s present was still there. The only thing was to make sure he took it home with him. He was very pleased with it, and took it out and looked at it again. It was a ring, a Georg Jensen ring, of three sorts of gold, yellow, white and rose, three wave-like bands flowing together and scattered with small diamonds. When they’d got married they couldn’t afford an engagement ring, they’d just had a narrow band of gold. He’d sometimes looked at it on Sally’s fine brown hand, held her thin fingers in his and admired them. Once he said, You should have some wonderful other ring; she said, Oh no, I like this plain one. He wouldn’t have bought her a diamond solitaire or a sapphire, it was too late now, but this elegant mixture of different golds wasn’t too far from her plain band. Sally was a good person to give presents to; she would look at you in an entranced sort of way, like a child surprised, and slowly open it, as though the suspense was as important as the result. They were going to the restaurant by the lake, where the black swans came up to the little beach outside. It would still be twilight, the birds would not have gone off to sleep. He would give it to her. It was so small, maybe she’d guess. She’d look at him, and at it, and smile, her lips curving, her face luminous.
Early in the afternoon he was coming back from the library when he saw Melinda walking away from his staircase. There was a dejection in her movements; he knew she’d been to see him. He was about to call to her, but then didn’t. It would take too much time. She would come up to his office, and sit in his big chair and talk. About the letter, about them, about the future. When he was alone with her he wanted to touch her, to put his arms around her, feel her skin, her ears, the small points of her breasts. You can’t keep your hands off me, she would taunt him, full of delight. He said to himself that he wouldn’t touch her, that they would just sit and talk like friends, but every time he saw her he wanted to lean into the spaces of her. Then they wanted to make love, and they couldn’t do that, in his office, during the day, the secretary next door, anybody who might knock. You could lock the door but that didn’t look good, alone with a student in the middle of the day. Best thing was to leave the door open, but Melinda didn’t like that. Even better was not letting any connection happen. He loitered a bit, until she went under the next-door building and into the courtyard.
He did not have the productive day he had planned, and arrived home quite grumpy. But there was Sally, bathed, scented, her hair a dark cloud, wearing a dress he liked, with a low neck that showed the soft round skin of her breasts. She had sparkling wine in an ice-bucket and some bowls of nibbles. The children sat with them and drank toasts, a tiny glass for Julia who was sixteen and a more usual one for Tom who was eighteen. If he’d been married for fourteen years where did this leave the children? Bastards, presumably. The thought was as preposterous as the word. No more such thoughts, he was not thinking of any of those things, not of Melinda or the letter or her impossible claims. He was twenty years married and in the bosom of the family he loved and would never leave. Funny word, bosom, talking about families; he remembered Sally breast-feeding and what wonderful milky contentment there had been in her full breasts. One of those lovely things that would never come again.
He showered and Sally called a taxi. It was a balmy night so they could sit on the terrace, right by the edge of the water, just along from the little beach where the swans tucked up for the night. That was another thing, they both liked to eat outside. Now that the sun had set and the lake was greyer than ever in the silver twilight the swans came sailing slowly in, clucking a little, and arranged themselves in clusters. Ralph ordered glasses of a local riesling, something they didn’t usually buy to drink at home, it was too expensive, and they tapped the glasses together in a toast. To the next twenty years, he said, and Sally’s eyes sparkled. I suppose they will be a bit different from the last, she said. Now the children are just about grown-up. With a bit of luck I’ll be a granny.
Ralph laughed. He liked the idea of the next generation coming along. More milky babies. Let’s hope so, he said.
They were reading the menu, savouring the dishes in words, imagining what they might order. Going out to dinner had always been a favourite pastime of theirs, one they hadn’t been able to indulge much when the children were small. Now it was a bit easier.
Let’s push the boat out, said Ralph. Why don’t you have the lobster.
Sally looked at him, her face full of mischief. Okay, she said.
He ordered venison, more of the riesling and a bottle of red wine, the pinot noir grown in the vineyard over the hill from their house. He looked into the restaurant, where the lamps had been lit now it was dark. The lights were yellow and dim. Quite a lot of people in tonight, though not all the tables were occupied. On the terrace there were candles in glass hurricane shades. The water still held the light. He remembered some Elizabeth Jolley novel he’d read, years ago when he was teaching Australian literature. Water is the last to lose the light, Jolley said, or one of her characters did, and here it was, the irregular shape of the lake held by dark edges of land studded with points of electric light, the water luminous in the last of the day’s brightness. He said this to Sally, and she remembered too.
You know when I used to be flying to Sydney in the early morning, she said, it was the same thing, in reverse, coming into the city all the pools and ponds and streams would be full of silvery grey light, while the land was dark. The pinpricks of lights don’t count, they aren’t luminous. The water was like quicksilver.
Ralph liked this image. He felt contented sitting with Sally, making idle interesting conversation, drinking delicious wine. And now the oysters had come. Sydney rock, the best kind, from the Clyde River. On their first date they’d eaten oysters, he’d thought how good it was that she liked them, a lot of girls didn’t, it seemed to him. Last year in an antique shop they’d bought some nineteenth-century French oyster forks, quite different from the pointed English ones, these were round, like a small spoon with tines, and every now and then they had a feast of oysters at home and used these forks, which were good at scooping out the juices.
The world is our oyster, he said.
A bit later, when the main courses came, Sally said, The world is my lobster. Remember George Cole used to say that in, what was the program, Minder?
Yes, he said, we don’t get programs like that any more. Well, maybe we do, as good, but nothing quite like that.
Things pass, said Sally, and other things come.
Very wise, said Ralph, and tapped glasses again.
The venison was rich, with a black sauce of prunes and port and pickled walnuts. He paused, leaning back in his chair, taking a breath, his eyes glancing over the dark lake and then into the dim yellow restaurant. In the window, not metres away, was Melinda. His neck went rigid. He looked straight ahead, saw Sally see her too.
Isn’t that that old student of yours, she said, without curiosity. What was her name …?
He turned his head. Melinda? Yes, it seems to be.
Melinda, of course, she said. Of the relentlessly mellifluous name.
He froze. Raised his head slowly. Sally was telling him she knew. This was the catastrophe. But she was tranquilly eating her lobster, glancing through the window with an idle gaze.
Who’s she with?
He’s a tutor in the history department. A pretty boy.
A pretty boy. With rather long blond curls and a cleft chin. He felt sick. First with jealousy, then with rage. The jealousy was a sharp knife in the heart, the rage was a thick, bitter reflex of violation. Perhaps the rage washed the jealousy away. After all, he didn’t need to assume they were in a relationship. The boy was just a convenience. The rage felt good, simple, implacable. How bad was this behaviour. Then there was wonder. How had she found out where he was going? He hadn’t told her, not politic to tell your lover where you are taking your wife for dinner.
Sally said, Are they an item?
No idea. Every time I see him he’s with a different girl.
He had written it in his diary. When he booked, he wrote the time and place. She was sometimes on her own in his study, he could picture her going through the pages, checking up. Inviting that bloke, what was his name, Gary, to come out to dinner with her, so she could present herself to him, to Ralph, inescapable, unattainable, there.
He grabbed that thought. Unattainable. Yes. And he wanted it like that. Nothing to do with him. Uninteresting. So he could tell himself, and even come to believe it. He shifted his chair slightly so he wasn’t looking in Melinda’s direction, he would escape her, and tried to smile at Sally.
How’s the lobster?
It’s good. Very succulent. Every time I eat lobster I think, why don’t I do it more often?
You should make a resolve: eat more lobster!
They aren’t that easy to come by. Maybe we should make a resolve to go to places that have fresh lobsters as a matter of course.
Okay. A non-New Year’s resolution.
He hadn’t given Sally the ring yet. He’d remembered to bring it, it was in his pocket. He should have done it at the beginning of the meal.
They ordered lavender crème brûlée for dessert, it was famously Ralph’s favourite, not lavender, necessarily, that was unusual, and not very evident. Sally sometimes made it for him. She’d bought one of those little sugar blowtorches just so she could do the caramel on top.
Delicious, he said, but not as good as yours.
She smiled at him, indulgently. Maybe.
When they’d eaten them, and the last of the red wine was drunk, he said, I am feeling reckless, and ordered two glasses of French champagne. They drank a toast, and he gave her the small black velvet box. Her eyes sparkled, and she held it for a moment, scrunching her shoulders in excitement. When she opened it, her eyes popped. Oh, it’s beautiful, she said. He took it from her, slid it on her finger, then brought her hand to his lips and kissed it, slowly, his mouth on her fingers. They tasted smooth and a bit lemony, of the finger bowl she’d washed off the lobster in. Then he held her hand up to look at it. He’d slipped it on top of the narrow band of gold, and the three wavy planes of different coloured golds sat on the long knuckle of her ring finger very prettily. The tiny diamonds sparkled, catching the candlelight. Yes, he said, it’s right.
Yes, she said, it is. Oh Ralph, it’s so beautiful. Oh, you’re so good. He was still holding her hand, she drew his to her lips and kissed it, her eyes shining on him. One of the things he liked about her was she never said, Oh you shouldn’t have. He hated it when people said that, after you’d gone to the trouble of buying them a present. It was like a slap.
He glanced at the lake again. The bridges were necklaces of light strung across its dark shape. Remember, he said, that Maupassant story, ‘The Necklace’, how terrible it is.
Yes, she said, once you read it you can’t get it out of your head. That poor woman, a life of drudgery for twenty years to pay the lost necklace back, and then she finds out it’s not diamonds at all, but paste. She shuddered.
He glanced the other way, into the restaurant, Melinda and Gary were standing up to go. He stared at Melinda, and when she looked in his direction he gave her a small wave of his hand and the sketch of a smile, and turned back to Sally.
To our next twenty years, he said. Definitely no drudgery.
© Marion Halligan