Jane Fallon is bestselling author of eight top ten novels. She shares this short story about the world of secrets, lies and affairs exclusively with woman&home readers.
Sometimes she wished he would do something bad. Have an affair or take up gambling. Something she could point to. Something that would give her a reason. It didn’t seem fair just to say she was bored. That after 20 years of marriage she had started to wonder if, maybe, it had all been a big mistake and there might be a more exciting life out there for her somewhere. Not that she had ever seen any evidence of that. Exciting lives, it seemed, were for other people.
Her whole existence felt grey and colourless. Muted was the term she’d used to her friend Claire. She and David were locked in a routine – a rut really – that never varied.
“It could be worse,” Claire had said, and Angie had tutted.
“I know it could be worse, but what’s that got to do with anything? Is that a reason to stay, because it could be worse?”
“No, of course not,” Claire had said. “I just…” She picked up a teaspoon and stirred her tea, leaving the sentence unfinished. They were sitting in the smart new tearoom in town because Angie thought they should try somewhere different. It was – if she were being honest – a bit cold and the chairs were uncomfortably hard. Their regular haunt was much more cosy.
She sighed. “There must be something more out there.”
“David’s a good man. He’s kind.”
“That’s just another way of saying he’s dull.”
Claire shook her head and Angie knew there was no point trying to make her understand. Claire and her husband Garth frequently went on holiday to exotic places or for meals at fancy restaurants. He was forever buying the latest gadgets or trying new things. Their life always seemed full of colour compared with her own.
“Don’t do it to him,” Claire said. “He doesn’t deserve this.”
David fussed around making tea. He wiped up a dribble of milk the moment it landed on the counter.
“How was your day?” he asked, as he always did.
“Fine,” Angie said. She concentrated on her phone.
Replied to a message from a colleague, Mark. A smiley face and a winking one. David couldn’t see the point of Twitter. In his mind, if you wanted to communicate with people there was email and text and, God forbid, good old-fashioned talking. Angie liked it, though. She liked the sense of intimacy that could build up quickly out of nowhere. She liked the easy rapport that she and Mark had on there. They were different with each other in the office now. Flirtier.
David was telling a story about something that happened at his work. He had a good job, something involving computer systems that Angie didn’t really understand. Probably because she had a tendency to switch off whenever he talked about it.
Mark had sent her a direct message. A private communication. This was new. She glanced up at David as she opened it. He was reading something in the paper, mug in one hand. She angled the phone away from him.
You crack me up!
Glad to be of service! she replied. She hesitated for a moment, wondering whether she should add a kiss. Put one on, took it off. And then she thought “Sod it” and typed two. XX. And that was the start of it.
Claire’s eyes were wide when she told her. “You’re having an affair?”
They were back in their regular café, at Claire’s insistence. Angie shrugged, trying to be cool about it, but she couldn’t keep the smile from her face. She waited for Claire’s expression to mirror her own, for her to bombard Angie with questions, living vicariously.
“That’s awful,” Claire said, frowning. “How could you do that to David?”
“It’s just a bit of fun.” Angie felt suddenly defensive. “A bit of fun that could ruin someone’s life.” Claire stirred her tea so violently it sploshed over into the saucer. “What has David done to deserve this?”
“It’s not about David,” Angie said. “David doesn’t ever need to know.”
“Then what is it about?” Claire looked her in the eye. Angie forced herself to hold the gaze.
“Well, clearly you wouldn’t understand. Mark’s fun. He wants to take me out, do crazy things, have fun. It’s not just about sex.”
Claire sighed. “David adores you…”
“It’s easy for you to say,” Angie snapped. “You’re always going places, doing new stuff, meeting new people…”
Claire interrupted her. “So what?”
“So, you have a life. You have a husband who wants to do more than sit on the sofa making small talk in front of the telly every evening.”
“Because I’m not enough for him!” Claire shouted, and Angie looked round to see if the couple at the next table were listening. “Because Garth’s idea of hell is an evening spent just with me, having to make conversation. Have you got any idea how much I’d love for him to even ask me about my day?”
Angie was stunned. She sat there with her mouth opening and shutting like a fish. She had always envied Claire a little. For her lifestyle, not because she’d want to be married to Garth, just to be clear. He wasn’t her type at all.
“I had no idea.”
“No,” Claire said. “I don’t suppose you did.”
Angie and Mark were in a hotel room. Their regular place. Anonymous, discreet and inexpensive because the cost started to mount up when you were meeting twice a week. They came here after work on Mondays and Wednesdays, stayed for an hour or occasionally two, and went home to their unsuspecting partners. Angie told David she was meeting friends for drinks, or that she’d been to a yoga class and he never questioned it. She didn’t know what Mark told his wife. She didn’t want to know. They didn’t chat on Twitter any more, they didn’t want to give themselves away, and at work they were careful to keep their communications strictly businesslike. No more flirty banter.
“I wish we could go away somewhere for a weekend,” Angie said, stretching out on the bed. Mark was already dressed and ready to go. They still talked sometimes about all the crazy adventures they wanted to have, but they had so little time together that the only place they ever went to was this hotel. “Just the two of us.”
“I do too, but you know we can’t.” He leaned down and kissed her. “One day.”
Mark said “one day” a lot.
“Do you really have to go?” Angie reached her arms up round his neck. It seemed to her that Mark was leaving earlier and earlier after their liaisons. They barely had time to talk. She knew she was being a bit needy, a bit clingy, and she knew that was against the rules they had made for themselves, but she couldn’t help it.
He unclasped her hands. “I do. See you tomorrow.”
Once he left she lay back on the bed, but there was no fun in being here on her own. The room was small, functional. There were no luxuries. No swanky toiletries in the bathroom that made her want to idle away a half hour in the bath before she headed home, even if she could have found a way to explain to David why she was coming back smelling different to anything they had in their own bathroom. There wasn’t even a minibar. She and Mark had taken to bringing a bottle of red wine and sharing it in the water glasses provided. It was hardly romantic. She poured herself the last of it and sipped it as she got dressed.
She was struggling at work. Distracted. She sat there waiting for Mark to walk past her office, for a tiny shared moment in the corridor, or a second of eye contact in the kitchen. She messed up a presentation because she was under-prepared. It was humiliating.
“God, that was embarrassing,” she said to Mark, as they peeled their clothes off later. She noticed that he folded his and placed them neatly on the chair these days. They used to end up in a tangle on the floor.
“Mmm-hmm,” he said, as he dived under the sheets.
“I mean, I thought I had everything covered, but…”
“Shhh,” he said, holding out a hand to her. “Let’s not talk about work, I have to leave at seven tonight. Katie has a school thing…”
Katie was his daughter. He had two children, something he had started to mention more often. “Of course,” she said, although she wasn’t really in the mood now.
David was stirring something in a pan in the kitchen when she let herself in. He smiled an open smile.
He poured a glass of wine and handed it to her.
“Not particularly.” He looked concerned. “Wasn’t it
your presentation?” David always remembered these things. Always. Angie couldn’t recall even telling him about it. If she lost her diary she was pretty sure she could just ask him what she was supposed to be doing. Well, with one very important exception, of course.
“Yeah. It was OK really.” She couldn’t be bothered to fill him in on the details. “I’m going to have a bath.”
“Dinner in twenty?” he said, and she nodded.
“I’m thinking of leaving him.”
Claire and Angie hadn’t seen each other for weeks. Claire couldn’t hide her disapproval and it had started to get on Angie’s nerves. She knew she should have been there more for Claire when her marriage to Garth had suddenly fallen apart and she was feeling a bit guilty, so she had persuaded Claire to meet for tea. Plus, she wanted to tell her friend her news.
“For Mark?” Claire said. “Is he leaving his wife?”
“He will,” Angie told her. She wasn’t as confident of this as she sounded.
Claire shook her head and Angie remembered why they hadn’t seen each other for so long.
“David knows, you know that, don’t you?”
“What? Of course he doesn’t. Do you think he’d be there cooking me dinner and making small talk every night if he did?”
“He’s waiting it out. He thinks you’ll change your mind.”
“How do you even know this?” Angie said. And then it hit her. “Did you tell him?”
“Of course not,” Claire said. “I would never… He came round a few times after Garth left. Just to check I was OK and because he knew you weren’t really around for me to talk to. He told me then. He’s known for ages.”
“Why…?” Angie couldn’t take it in.
“He loves you,” Claire said. “Not that you deserve it.”
Angie didn’t know if she was more surprised by Claire’s tone or what she was telling her. For once she had no idea what to say.
“If you leave him,” Claire said in a quiet voice, after a few moments. “I might… I like him. Not that I would ever have taken it further. Not while… and neither would he. Obviously.”
“You like David?” Now Angie’s mind was officially blown.
“He’s a good man,” Claire said, not for the first time.
“And when it comes down to it, that’s all that matters.”
She could hardly look David in the eye when she got home, knowing that he knew. That he was still smiling at her as if everything was the same as it ever was. She tried to imagine seeing him from Claire’s perspective – kind, loyal, supportive. It had its attractions. She thought about what Claire had said about liking him. Felt an unfamiliar pang of jealousy.
She made an excuse that she needed to get changed and headed upstairs. She fished her mobile out of her pocket and sent Mark a text. It was against their rules, but she wanted to talk to someone – him – about what Claire had told her:
Can you sneak out for a chat?
Thirty seconds later she got a response. Never text me. I’ve told you.
She didn’t want to let it go, though.
Sorry, just really need to talk.
This time the reply came even more quickly. See you at work tomorrow. Delete these messages.
She stared at her mobile for a moment. Thought about David cooking dinner for her. About Claire. Then she sent one more text. I think we should call it a day.
She waited for a response. Nothing came. She turned off her phone and headed downstairs.
David was still in the kitchen. She watched him from the hallway for a moment, stirring and tasting, taking pride in making something she’d enjoy. He looked up and saw her.
She took the glass of wine he offered her. “How was your day?
What’s happening at work?”
He looked at her as if he was surprised by the question. And then he smiled. “Fine,” he said. “I think everything’s fine.”
Angie smiled back. “I think it is too.”