Clive's Novels

A Study of Adultery

Chapter 3 of The Last Stop.

Felicity Precious stood in cloud-covered sleepy Leamington Spa, staring out the bay window of her thirties house. She often mocked fashion, and thought there was no place for it in architecture. She had laughed, as over the years, her house had been dismissed as substandard ‘jerry built,’ then resurrected as an example of good practice, but was now treated with derision again, for being part of the urban sprawl, so typical of English towns and cities.

She moved through to the hall to check the telephone. Why did the telephone need checking? Did she think it was about to fail? She noticed how fuddled her mind had become and put the receiver back on its holster, but in so doing, glanced in the long mirror that formed the centre-piece of a dark-oak trestle with its high back and rim of coat hooks, clothes brush and a cylinder for umbrellas. Her eyes settled on the reflection of the tall, elegant, slim woman with a hint of tummy flab, from number thirty-two, who was cleaning clean windows. Was it to hide her bad conscience? Her conscience apart, she was very pleased with her address. She wasn’t superstitious, but thirty-two always struck her as a safe number.

She took a moment to admire a hallway full of dark browns that most visitors politely ignored. She knew the hidden meaning as they said, ‘You’ve kept the original features. How quaint?’

She treasured the Lincrusta wallpaper and linoleum floors with carpet runners down the centre of the passage and stairs. A few steps had her pausing again in the living room, where she stopped to admire the leaded art-deco windows with absurd scrolls of coloured glass. This was the very stuff that was ripped out in the fifties, and, she was well aware, hardly a tear had been shed for it since, but she loved it! She knew her neighbours considered her the crinkly eccentric from down the street, but that was disingenuous. Her beautiful skin was anything but crinkly. She was one very handsome woman, even if the wrong side of sixty.

Felicity knew her husband thought her eccentric, but that was unimportant. Often enough he’d told her thirties interiors were not his thing, but fortunately for her, Jack belonged to the group of men who believed taste was a woman’s domain. On the plus side, her interior decoration ambitions didn’t cost much, so she encouraged Jack to take plenty of disposable income for travelling, which she wasn’t that fussed about. She thought this a good compromise, which would lead them through a happy retirement.

Felicity more stroked the windowpanes than cleaned them. The lead was none too strong eighty years on and if it broke, she knew that her husband would get his way and replace the windows with modern PVC things. She, however, enjoyed going over the lead with a damp cloth, cosseting and pushing the metal flat against the glass again, so that it didn’t feel as though she was living in a tent whenever the wind blew. This was a necessary measure if she were to remain a successful window-protector.

A furtive look down the street revealed her visitor was late. Perhaps he wouldn’t come? She distracted herself from the anxiety of being stood up, by wallowing in a moment of smugness. The other houses caught her attention, because they had long since lost the original features and the fact that their owners were now enjoying draught-free winters in no way excused the vandalism that had destroyed them. With a self-satisfied smirk, she remembered that they wouldn’t achieve draught-free until the floorboards were sealed around the edges and the fireplaces blocked off, their elaborate oak surrounds consigned to the furniture recycling store. The neighbours had kept a quaint open fire, and so, even if they never lit it, were still leaking heat and no better off than she.

She jolted into the present. None of these draughty issues concerned her now. She was cleaning windows so that she could spot her lover the moment he parked in the street. The idea was to get the front door open, before too many nosey neighbours had time to see him arrive, and count the hours or days until he left. She had been imagining for weeks how she and her lover would be lost for days on end, in a rush of long forgotten hormones.

Most of the neighbours knew that something was afoot. She winced as she recalled the depth of her mendacity. For weeks she had been living a lie. Every time Jack announced, to anyone who would listen, he was off for a culture vulture break in Berlin, while his wife was going to soak up the vibes in Lugano, with her sister, she fought down the blush of a bad conscience.

Ouch!

She had never booked her flight. She entered in the kitchen calendar a departure date and time just after her husband’s. That had been stupid. She had been forced that day to pack a suitcase and drive to the airport with him, wave him off and then take her suitcase back to the car and return home.

She winced as she noticed on their departure, next door weeding, and again when he witnessed her return a few hours later. She knew his game, and had long since worked out that hours spent weeding, were the best way to keep tabs on what was going on in the street. One of her favourite pastimes was thwarting his snooping activities. He had shouted something like ‘flight cancelled?’ across the lawns. She had chosen to give a weak wave, but otherwise ignore him and gone indoors. Her tactic had not fooled anyone. He would scour the earth, pretending to search for an offending dandelion, until he had worked out what was up at 32.

‘Men are a mystery!’ she thought and reminisced on how she had landed in this pickle. Forty years of marriage had killed the erotic spark. She despaired of ever getting her husband to make love to her again. Something had died. It was not surprising, she surmised. Forty years is a long time. It is longer than she had ever spent doing anything else in her life. And the man she loved had run out of steam with her; bored she presumed. Should she have just accepted it? Was it part of getting old? Perhaps she would have said ‘c’est la vie’, but for one uncomfortable truth that refused to retreat to a distant fold in her brain. In our world of permissiveness and promiscuity, Jack had been her only lover. She was an exception in our times. And just because Jack had given up in bed, Felicity was not about to accept her last years as sexless. Had she had her share in her late teens or at university, like all the other girls, she may have been content to let the last hormonal urges pass over her. But it hadn’t been that way. A variety of coincidences had contrived to keep her a virgin until she met and fell in love with Jack. Then it had been an avalanche of cascading emotions and steamy sex and it all hadn’t mattered. Now it felt different; like a life of missed opportunities. She knew how immature she was being. One can’t turn the clock back, and to dream of catching up on missed adventures was downright daft. But hormones and daft are often interchangeable words. She’d observed it in her own teenage children as they went through the various dippy stages of adolescence. She despaired of her own daughter and her choice of partner. Now she was the silly one.

Felicity had tried with a few dating sites for mature men and women. The guys she had clandestinely dated – not easy in small-town Leamington – had all been arses. ‘No wonder they couldn’t get their leg over,’ she had thought. And it had never progressed to more than a first date. They had been keen. Felicity was still one desirable woman, but they had all had character traits that wouldn’t be accepted in a horny tomcat. Egos as big as an elephant’s fart, but ugly, fat and lazy enough to have competed for an entry into the Guinness Book of Records under the ‘Useless Dicks’ category. Words still failed her.

So she had given up all hope of catching up on variety in bed, until, that was, the research institute where she worked as a chemist had gone through a major reorganisation. One day she walked in to find the empty desk opposite hers, taken by Ray, from the, now disbanded, ‘Special Products’ unit.

She had worked at the site long enough to know who Ray was, but had never changed a word with him; not even over lunch in the canteen. It had been a small-minded piece of snobbery on her behalf, and had occurred, because, as a rule of thumb, one dismissed everyone from Special Products as a useless item. So she did, too, fired on in the knowledge that Special Products had never produced a product, special or otherwise.

Special Products were the violas in the orchestra, the full backs in the football team, Bing Crosby at a Led Zeppelin concert. The list went on. They were like a joke about the Irish before it became politically incorrect. The Green Tiger economy had emerged to silence many second-rate comedians, but Special Products had never silenced anyone.

She hadn’t known how to greet Ray at first. He sat there, smiling, at her, charming the woman who had ignored him for ten years. What could she do, apart from smile back – charmingly? Then, lunchtime arrived. She could not avoid inviting him to join her for lunch.

She had tried to be aloof, but to her embarrassment, the conversation had flowed. She giggled at his jokes. Worse still, she began flirting with him when no one was looking. What was happening?

Back in the lab she was faced with a lazy afternoon. The hydrolysis reaction she had put on in the morning was to run until six o’clock, and then had to be worked up before the product deteriorated overnight. This meant she had time to do some library research or the crossword in her paper. She took the crossword to the library and settled in a hidden corner. She needed to think through her behaviour at lunch. She felt herself redden. She had behaved impossibly. The clue to six down was, ‘High calorie lover.’  The solution leapt from the page and she gingerly inserted the missing letters. It built ‘INFATUATED’.

‘Oh my Gawd, Felicity girl,’ she remembered she had muttered. She cosseted a truculent strip of lead for the nth time, without paying real attention to it. Her reverie was in full swing.

‘And at your age,’ she said, louder than intended

Ray had followed her to the library and stood behind her.

‘Did you say something?’

She hadn’t been able to answer, but had gone as red as a beetroot. The embarrassment! Her cheeks nearly the colour of her amazing copper tresses, which were still showing only the occasional hint of grey.

They had finished the crossword together, amid much giggling.

And another thing! She felt shame as she recalled it. What an awkward and unreasonable bitch she had been, and all because she wanted to show off to Ray, at the expense of her assistant. Her technician, Billy, had announced at four, that he had a hot date and would be off on the dot at five-thirty. She would have to work up her own reaction. This, she knew, would keep her at work until nine; no big deal. But if her technician left at five-thirty, she would be alone in the lab. It was company policy, for health and safety reasons, not to work alone in a lab after hours. The reaction had cost the company thousands that day, just to get it that far. Either her technician had to forgo his date or....?

She drew breath in front of the leaded panes, much as she had done that afternoon in the laboratory, when she had decided to spring the bad news on him. Why had she done it? She could have asked security to look in every ten minutes. That would have been enough. But no! She had been determined to show who was in charge and all because Ray was within earshot. How childish she had been? But, if hormones are the domain of silly teenagers, what is there to stop one behaving like a teenager? The hormones were up over the breakwater, crashing on to her shoreline! She remembered the proverb, ‘When an old house burns, no quenching helps.’ She shivered. There had been no excuse for her next line!

‘You knew we had this reaction on today. Why make a date?’

Billy had known what was coming and why. He knew, she was showing off to the new guy. There had been a momentary standoff. Just as well. Her rage had been all-consuming. She feared he would advise her to stuff her hydrolysis where the sun don’t shine – the separating funnel had roughly the shape - but before Billy had managed to reply, Ray intervened.

‘I’ll stay. I’ve nothing on tonight,’ he had called across and added that smile of his, as ever, with perfect timing. And it had been a wonderful three hours, talking chemistry, politics, TV shows and wives and husbands. It had included the odd neutralisation and extraction, followed by a very tricky re-crystallisation, involving an ethanol/ethanoic acid pairing, adding water to get the precipitation.  Billy had the knack of getting the temperature spot on and adding just a drip of water at a time. She was always too hasty. She knew her own character well enough, and she would add too much water, or not get it cold enough. She would pray for the white needle-shaped crystals – she was Dr Precious, the boss – but titles didn’t help. She often ended up with a sludgy oil, or worse, an emulsion. Why hadn’t she admitted that to Billy at the time? He would have felt valued and enjoyed hearing the truth. It would have confirmed how good he was, and she may have got her way. He may have stayed late for her. As it was, she reaped the worst of all worlds. She had annoyed her best and most able assistant, and she would mess up the recrystallisation in his absence, waste thousands of pounds of company money and all that in front of the man she wanted to impress. Sounded like Special Products on a bad day.

The bad day had been saved. Ray, bless him, had taken the mixture out of her hands and used the moment to stroke her wrist affectionately. Then he’d cooled it a little more, a drip of water and presto; it worked first time. She had been able to filter off and dry beautiful, white, needle shaped crystals and send them for analysis the next morning. The assay revealed unprecedented purity and the department was showered with Brownie points. What a star Ray was?

Now her Ray, her lover, was imminent. No time to unpack again. She had thrown the suitcase in that ubiquitous space under the stairs, and started a rapid if desultory window clean. She had been over the windows once from the inside, pushed the lead down, dusted the frames and sills and still no sign of him. Next door continued weeding, hoping this sham activity covered his constant glances in her direction. She knew him too well to be fooled by a bucket of weeds. Dandelions were the last thing on his mind. He was snooping again.

Starting the windows from the beginning was not an option, would be interpreted as suspicious – a sign of insanity, or, worse, of a bad conscience.

Her consternation was heightened by the fact that her lover wasn’t her lover – not yet. They had been sharing lunchtimes together in a pub local to work, and exchanging outrageous flirts whenever they met on the corridors between the laboratory and the washrooms. But it hadn’t progressed any further and today was to be the day. She had never done adultery and no one was more surprised than she, that it had reached this point.

Hiding their intentions at work had been easy. No one took notice of two sixty-somethings flirting. It was inconceivable to younger colleagues that an erotic flame could still burn beneath comfortable bellies. Since getting up that morning, she had regretted her own courage. Forty years of monogamy made this first step into betrayal a big deal. She assumed that Jack had a little knocker somewhere in Berlin. Why else would he keep going there? That didn’t make her feel comfortable with her decision to try out infidelity.

She picked up her cell phone to tell her approaching beau that she had changed her mind. The phone was switched off. This was a safety measure, in case Jack phoned and the Westminster chimes on the hall clock gave the game away. Then he would know that she was not in Switzerland. She would have told him the truth. That much she knew. Lying to the neighbours was one thing, adultery much worse, but then lying to your man of forty years was unthinkable. Hence, she reasoned, it was better not to get caught, and then she wouldn’t need to lie, would she? She was proud of her female logic.

She started fumbling with her phone, trying to switch it on in a hurry, but the gate squeaked and there he was, walking up the front path. Too late! She ran to the door, pulled it open, grabbed her new man and once over the threshold, French-kissed him in a way she hadn’t done to anyone in a decade.

‘Wow,’ she thought. ‘Hormones can still rage!’

Felicity caught herself ripping Ray’s jacket from him.

‘Steady woman!’

They stopped for an embarrassed moment, but broke the tension with loving grins.