Ellen in the following excerpt is Barnaby Marechal’s wife. This is about one year after his disappearance. She has finally abandoned any hope of his return. Frank is a former party colleague with whom Barney worked for a number of years. Barney, cut off now almost entirely from contact with his former life, still counts Frank as a trusted friend. In order to give those who have not read the previous excerpts a better idea of what this is all about, it would helpful to read the synopsis here – (https://besonian.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/synopsis-of-an-unpublished-novel/)
And on a completely different subject, W and I are today leaving for a two week break in central France. Ruby is almost packed and is clearly raring to go. The sun is shining and the forecast for the next week is excellent. A bientot mes amis! And now – the excerpt ……
“I don’t find jokes about sex very funny.” Ellen turned away from Frank and pulled the duvet up. “They’re more often smutty than funny.”
“How about this then. ‘Do you – ?’”
“No. Stop it.”
“This isn’t smutty. ‘Do you smoke after intercourse?’ ‘I don’t know, I’ve never looked.’”
Suddenly she burst out laughing.
“Well, do you?”
She stopped laughing, frowned. “Do I what?”
“Let’s have a look.” He started to pull the duvet down off her. “Let’s see if you do smoke after – “
“Frank!” She yanked the duvet back up over her breasts. “No! That’s crass.” She looked at him in puzzled surprise. “Frank, that’s really, really crass.”
He sat up, his face blank. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“So you should be. Christ.” She turned away from him again.
He went to say something. Held a finger poised to tap her naked shoulder. But then stopped. Bit his lip and turned away.
“There’s a bottle of Argentinian red open on the unit in the kitchen. Get me a glass please, would you?”
He slipped out of bed. Stood looking around, naked and embarrassed. She could see him reflected in the cheval mirror. “If you’re looking for something to put on, there’s a dressing gown – ” – she withdrew an arm from beneath the duvet and pointed across the room – “ – in that wardrobe.”
He opened the wardrobe, looked inside, and drew from it a heavy, multi-coloured dressing gown. He looked with a curious distaste at it.
“Yes,” she said, watching in the mirror, “it was Barney’s.”
He looked at it again, then put it on and went from the room.
“I watched you, you know. For years. D’you know that? I gazed at you from afar.” Frank lay looking up at the ceiling. “Wondering. And hoping – in a hopeless sort of way. I never thought I’d be here with you like this.”
Ellen, sitting up in bed beside him, sipped her wine and looked out of the window. It was very dark outside. There was no moon, no stars. She could just about make out the nearest branches of the maple Barney had been threatening for years to have removed. Its roots, he claimed, were bound to disturb the foundations of the house before very long. Then what sort of a mess would they be in? What indeed?
Frank mused on. “I used to watch things you did. How you talked, how you laughed. How you held your knife and fork at meals. Silly, ordinary things. I needed to take in all I could of you.” He paused. “You were so – so much a woman.”
She looked down at him.
“Were you ever aware?” he said. “Did you know that?”
“No.” She sounded slightly apologetic. “Not really.”
“And I used to wonder what would it be like to feel my face against your face.” He took a deep breath. “I dared not let my imagination go further.”
“How is Martha? Or is that a bit brutal given the circumstances?”
He shrugged. “It comes, it goes.”
She drained her glass. “I know very little about MS,” she said, “but might it make that aspect of life – a little difficult? Or not? I hope you don’t mind my asking.”
He gave a non-committal grunt.
“I’m sorry. That was inept of me.”
“No, it wasn’t. It does.” He held up the wine bottle. “Top up?”
She nodded. He filled her glass.
The chimes of St. Laurence’s church in Ludlow echoed distantly across the fields. He looked at his watch.
“Where does she think you are?” She tried hard to keep any suggestion of guilt from her tone.
“Having a drink with a couple of the local party members. I didn’t say which members. Or where.”
“So – how long is it then since you and she – well – tasted the joys, as it were?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Four years. Five? I’ve lost count.”
Ellen raised her eyebrows.
He sat up, reached behind his back and re-arranged his pillows.
“But surely,” she said, “having MS doesn’t actually mean you can’t. Does it? Or does it?”
“So – ?”
“Some people do.”
“Right. And some don’t.”
He shifted awkwardly. “It’s not for everybody.”
“What’s not? I’m sorry, I don’t think I – ”
“It affects things. Not everybody copes too well with the ways around it.” He looked away towards the window and the maple tree.
“I think I understand,” she said.
The telephone by the bed suddenly erupted. They both started. Frank sat forward anxiously, peering at it.
It rang on.
“Does she have this number?” Ellen said, quietly.
“Let it ring.” She twirled her glass slowly around by its stem. “Let it ring.”
“She wouldn’t ring here.”
Ellen peered at her reflection on the surface of her wine.
Frank kept his eyes on the telephone. It seemed to be going on for a very long time. It stopped. He sat back.
She said, “We’re entering difficult waters Frank, you and I.”
A train threaded its way through the night, slowing down towards Ludlow. The nine-forty-six from Paddington. The times she’d sat downstairs thinking he’d be indoors now in around twenty minutes.
Frank suddenly sat forward again.
“Listen,” he said, “I’d better go.”
“Oh.” She frowned. “That’s very sudden.”
“I need to be back by half-ten.”
“You didn’t say.”
“I didn’t think. I’m sorry.” He slid awkwardly out of the bed.
“OK. Well – er – do you want anything before you go? Coffee – or – ?”
“No. Thank you.” He picked his clothes from the chair he’d earlier draped them over and started to dress.
Ellen watched, bemused.
He turned away to pull on his underpants.
“Are you alright?” she said.
“You’re not acting alright.”
He turned back to face her. Threw his shirt on and started doing up the buttons. “I’m a bit concerned.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“As you said – ‘difficult waters.”
“That was obvious. Right from the start.”
He stepped into his trousers.
He stopped. Looked at her.
“Don’t you think you’d better have a shower?”
He shook his head. Continued pulling on his trousers. “I’ll be alright.”
“It’s not you I’m thinking about. We have been – rather close. Put it that way.”
He stopped again and looked at her.
He stood quite still. His shirt was half-out over his trousers which he held up with his hands, unzipped and crumpled like a clown’s.
Ellen looked away.
“OK.” The word was a staccato jab which seemed only just to escape his mouth as he bit back a surge of nervous irritation. He yanked himself back out of his trousers, one leg of which got caught round his foot. With some difficulty he flicked it away. Then pulled off his shirt and underpants and threw them down on the floor. “Shower,” he said, and walked naked from the room.
Ellen watched him leave. Listened to his bare feet padding along the polished oak boards of the landing. The few moments of almost silence as he traversed the Axminster rug. The padding continuing. Then stopping. The opening and the rather noisy closing of the bathroom door. The shower starting up, grumbling a fraction before it got into its stride. So banal and so familiar. Twisted painfully out of true in these now and forever changed times. She lay slowly back down.
At night, Martha left her bedroom door just a tiny bit ajar. “So’s not to feel entirely on my own,” she used to say. Frank put his face to the gap. The room was in darkness, but the light from the landing was sufficient for him to notice a slight movement of the bedclothes.
“Hello dear.” She sounded sleepy. “I’m not asleep. Was it a successful meeting?”
“The usual sort. Are you alright?”
“I watched a bit of telly. It wasn’t very interesting.”
“Did you have your warm milk?”
“I did. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that I didn’t notice a used milk saucepan in the kitchen.”
He heard her yawn. “I think I remember washing it up.”
“And you’re alright?”
“Yes. I’m alright.”
“I locked the back door, by the way. And the conservatory. To save you having to think about it.”
“Thank you. So – goodnight then.” He turned to leave.
He looked in again. “Yes?” he said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
There was something in her voice. A fleck of apprehension shot through him. “Tell me.”
“Nothing. I’m just glad you had a successful meeting. A goodnight kiss would be nice.”
He went to her bedside. The light behind him threw his shadow across the bed so he could hardly see her face. He bent and kissed her cheek. The skin was loose, the flesh slightly puffy. He had lived a life with this face. Seen joy, pain, heartache, laughter in its company. He suddenly felt a need to tell her where he’d really been, what he’d really done. But of course he couldn’t – not now nor ever.
“Good-night,” he said, quietly.
“Good-night, Frank.” She turned away on her side. “Till morning.”
He went slowly to his own room. Closed the door quietly and sat down on the single divan bed. He took his shoes off, lay them neatly side by side on the floor. Then sat looking out of the window. His curtains were open. Through the trees that bordered their land he could just make out the public tennis courts lit dimly by the lights from the street on the far side. A fox appeared from the shadows and wandered across them. He found himself cursing Barnaby Marechal. But what’s done is done, and done for all time.