Dave Whippman is in his early 60s, British, and has spent most of his working life in healthcare (he is now retired). He writes poetry and articles as well as stories and has been published in British nursing journals, the small press, and in mainstream magazines.
Little Lady Luck
They first met at an art exhibition. A Peter Blake retrospective, to be exact. Lovers always remember such details. Susan was there alone because her husband wasn't interested in art, didn't see the point of it. Piers, by contrast, shared her enthusiasm for paintings, for culture generally, and could always surprise her with surprising little snippets of knowledge, for instance the fact that some of Blake's pin-up portraits, such as Babe Rainbow and Little Lady Luck, depicted female wrestlers.
Like Susan, Piers was unaccompanied. His wife, a lawyer, had her own career and was at that time in the USA on some legal matter. In fact, as Susan quickly discovered, he had the sort of marriage where the partners are rarely on the same continent, let alone in the same house. It made the passionate affair, which quickly developed, a much less tricky business than it might have been.
And now, all these years later, they met again at another exhibition (Hockney this time.) Piers recognised her at once – why wouldn't he? She had kept her slim figure; her hair was grey, and she didn't dye it, but it made her look dignified rather than frumpy. She had the same impeccable dress sense. He called out to her, and turning, seeing him, she experienced a girlish, excited feeling in her stomach, a kind of pleasurable sickness.
He bought them coffee in the gallery's restaurant. They were both eager to talk, and to listen. Like schoolkids, she thought, smiling. ‘I've got to get back to work in a minute,’ he said, ‘but let me buy you dinner tonight.’
So here they were, in a discreet corner of a classy bistro, as though they still had something to conceal. At first, she took delight in simply physically seeing him again after all this time. The years had been kind to him as to her: he was balding, but had the sense not to try a – what did they call that ridiculous hairstyle meant to disguise baldness? – a combover. In fact the receding hairline showed off the good compact shape of his skull. She thought it made him look like a bust of Caesar - quite the Roman statesman, appropriate considering he worked for the Foreign Office. And he hadn't run to fat, as her husband had done.
She took a sip of wine and said, ‘I suppose you'll be off on your travels again soon. Sent where the FO decrees.’
He shook his head. ‘No. I'm back for good. Last post before I retire, and it's right here in jolly old London.’ He looked at her and smiled. ‘So you needn't worry about the Civil Service breaking us up again.’
‘Are you going to buy a property?’ she asked, twirling her fork round the last mouthful of spaghetti. ‘Despite the recession, London prices are still up there in a league of their own, I'm afraid.’
‘You've managed it, though. You said your house was in Wimbledon.’
‘It's a flat,’ she corrected him. ‘When Frank died, the house was too big for me. I got a ridiculous amount of money for it, of course.’
Piers nodded. ‘Must still have been a difficult time for you, though. My divorce was bad enough.’
Fleetingly, and uncharitably, she wondered how bad it could have been. After all, while still married, he'd hardly ever seen his wife, and hadn't tried very hard to stay out of his lover's bed. Then she put her knife and fork on the plate. ‘This sounds awful, I know, but the real loss for me was when you left.’ It was true; when the affair ended because Piers was posted abroad, it had been for her a kind of bereavement. If her husband had been a more observant man, he would have noticed the change in her mood. But the world of insurance had been Frank's life as well as his livelihood. Her silences, her often red eyes, didn't register over the journals of risk groups and test cases. And then, a few years later, the irony of her actual bereavement: Frank, whose business it had been to study actuarial tables, to assess the lifespans of others, collapsing amazed and blue-lipped one day at his desk.
Returning to the present, she smiled as Piers squeezed her hand across the table. ‘A widow who's rich and beautiful! I'm amazed that nobody's snapped you up.’
‘Flatterer! But the truth is I found I'm one of those people who – what's the phrase – can sit by themselves in an empty room. I have friends, naturally. We do theatres, galleries of course. And I've become one of those frightful women who volunteer for charity stuff, and go to craft workshops. If you come back for coffee, in fact, you'll be drinking it from a home-made cup!’
He gave the mischievous grin she remembered so well. ‘I thought you'd never ask! I'll just settle the bill...’
* * *
Next morning she was woken by a hand gently shaking her shoulder.
‘My turn to make the coffee,’ he smiled, placing a steaming cup on the bedside table.
‘Thanks.’ She sat upright, holding the sheet round her shoulders.
‘Ahh, we're shy, are we?’ he grinned. ‘Not like last night.’
There had indeed been no room for shyness or awkwardness at the end of the previous evening. She realised now that for her, this had been not so much because of desire as a feeling of inevitability, almost resignation, about what must happen. ‘Sorry, this is all a bit strange. It just seems so weird anyone else staying the night here.’
‘Plenty of time to get used to it.’ He kissed her on the neck. ‘We're both free agents now, Susan.’ She'd always loved it when he called her by her full name instead of Sue; now it somehow seemed pretentious. ‘But not for long, I hope.’ He kissed her again. ‘Do you understand what I'm saying?’
Thinking her answering smile must look rather lame, she changed the subject. ‘What time do you have to leave for work? Give me 5 minutes to wash, then I'll cook some breakfast.’
When she went from the bathroom to the living room, she smelled cigarette smoke. ‘I couldn't find an ashtray,’ he said. ‘I'm using a saucer.’
‘There isn't an ashtray here. I don't smoke. Gave up years ago.’ She thought he might have asked before lighting up, then reproached herself for being petty.
Of course, they had exchanged mobile numbers. A few minutes after he'd left, he sent her a text message.
LEFT MY CIG CASE AND PEN ON TABLE
NO WORRIES WILL BE IN TOUCH V SOON
She walked over to the table. There indeed was the same cigarette case he'd used all those years ago. And the elegant-looking Parker pen; he was the sort of man who hated using a biro. In the days after their first parting, how she would have wanted such things, as comforters, like a child's teddy bear...
She stood for perhaps a minute, frowning. Then, sitting at her writing desk, she pulled a large padded envelope and some stamps from a drawer. How well organised she had become over the years! Putting the case and pen into the envelope, she sealed them and stuck on the stamps. She'd written the address of his lodgings in her diary, and transferred it to the front of the envelope.
She had a pottery class across town. There was a post box just outside the tube station; she hesitated a moment before dropping the envelope in.
On the bus, she texted him back.
YOUR STUFF IS IN POST
SORRY BUT NOT SURE ABOUT A RETURN MATCH
LITTLE LADY LUCK
She didn't know if he would get back in contact. What she did know - and it gave her a marvellous feeling of contentment - was that it would make no difference anyway.