Clement Attlee

  Her hair was long and brown and straight, parted in the middle and it swished around her shoulders when she shook her head, and if she was nearby it brushed your face and was warm and fresh and clean and you wished it would always be there. She had pale green eyes with long lashes and a small straight nose and soft lips and she was slim with narrow hips and small breasts which I could see in faint outline beneath her sweater. Her eyes were clear and direct and warm and when she looked at you, she held your gaze and you didn’t want her to look away. She had long legs and always wore jeans, at least for me, and she had small hands and neat nails and I thought she was lovely but so far away, until that changed, and she got too near and I never wanted to leave. She had two children – little girls, I forget their names or their ages – but I didn’t care about them, I only cared about her. I suppose that makes me a bad person, but I didn’t mean to be. And she was married to my favourite teacher and she was the first woman who ever loved me. He had got a new job teaching in a town in the Midlands and came back at the week-ends. So, she was alone during the week, except for the two girls. And me. I left school in the summer – 18 – and like every 18-year-old, I thought the world was fresh and exciting and new and mine for the taking. But some things you shouldn’t take. I wasn’t planning to go to university; I’d read too many books by Leonard Cohen and Jack Kerouac and done too much studying and I thought that manual labour was noble, and the Spanish Civil War was still a suitable destination for a vaguely socialist middle-class boy. My teacher was a socialist and maybe it was his teaching about sharing stuff that made me think I could share his wife – I don’t know. I worked in a hospital to earn some money and in the spring, I went to Israel and spent three months on a kibbutz, picking bananas, working in the fields and the factories, strangling chickens, washing dishes, travelling around and sleeping on beaches, and desperately, and unsuccessfully, trying to lose my virginity to one of the other volunteers or anyone else who would have me, which, as it turned out, was nobody.

*

Back in England, foot-loose, restless and rootless, I got a job in a metal-casting foundry; but 45 hours a week of wearing ear defenders and eye protection amid the flying aluminium, roaring furnaces and crashing sounds soon taught me that office work or a career would not, after all, be the total betrayal of my pretend working-class destiny. I kept in touch with some of my old school-friends – some were mathematicians, some were carpenter’s wives, I don’t know how it all got started, I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. I also kept in touch with my favourite teacher and in the early summer he invited me and a few other former pupils round to his flat for an evening of alcohol and reminiscence about the old school days. I don’t remember if I had met his wife before – if I had, she had been ‘teacher’s wife’ and so not a real person and maybe that was also in the days when I was too shy to look a woman in the eye. Whatever the truth, I saw her now for the first time and with my now 19-year-old eager, desperate, eyes. And was it my imagination, or did her eyes linger on mine longer than was strictly necessary and did she try and sit next to me on the sofa? And when we said good-bye that night, did her fingers hold my hand just a little tighter?  Maybe, and maybe time plays tricks on your memory. He went away the next day and she invited me and a few of the others to come round in the evening. I stayed behind after the others had left. I knew she wanted me to and I wanted to too. The girls were asleep in bed in their room and the living room was warm and cosy and we were alone and we both knew why we were there and what was going to happen and it was natural and inevitable and perfect and we were powerless or unwilling to control it and nothing else and no-one mattered; it was just us together, alone in that room, lost in each other’s arms and I was young and innocent and naïve and it was the first time I had seen a woman who was naked just for me, (it was the first time for lots of things that night, but it wasn’t the last), and I wished I had died before then but it was too late, it was always too late, and I should have stopped her and she should have stopped me, but we couldn’t and didn’t want to and didn’t and nothing would ever be the same again. ‘You have to go,’ she said, early in the morning. ‘The girls can’t see you. But I can’t stand to see you go.’ It was very early when I left the flat. It was still dark, but the faint touch of dawn’s early glow was poking its pink fingers above the roof-tops. It was cold, but I wasn’t cold. I felt like I’d starred in my own movie. I was the subject of every love song – I’d slept with a married woman and somebody loved me. We met almost every day and in the evening after the girls were in bed and I stayed the night and left early in the morning before the girls awoke. There were a couple of occasions when one of the girls awoke and called for their Mummy and she had to go to them, and I hid beneath the bed-clothes until she came back and joined me in the bed and we shut the door and resumed what we had been doing.

*

In the autumn, I went up to university. My gap years were over, my working-class experiment was finished, and it was time to discover if three years spent drinking and taking soft and occasionally hard drugs was the ideal foundation for the career that so many seemed to believe it was. She visited me once in the first month. She told her husband that she was going to see a friend for the week-end. I don’t know if it was then that it all began to unravel but once those threads came loose, the whole carpet didn’t take long to fray. We had a lovely week-end. I had a room in halls with a single bed but as we spent most of the time lying on top of each other, the space was sufficient. We held hands and walked on the campus. I introduced her to my friends; she was so much more sophisticated than them (and me) and it made me so proud that she was mine. But possessions are cruel. On the Sunday afternoon, I waited with her at the draughty bus station. It was cold, but I opened my great-coat and folded her in and she put her warm hands around me and we stood at the bus-stop and I buried my face in her hair and she buried her head against my neck and I knew that my world was going to end.

*

He sent me a letter. This was before the time of mobile phones and computers and email; this was in the days when a letter was the preferred means of communication between people – particularly for what he had to say. He asked me to meet him as there was something he wanted to discuss. He suggested Westminster Abbey. I suppose I guessed why he had chosen that location; maybe he didn’t trust himself. I was nervous on the train to Victoria and walking along Victoria Street. I still wasn’t sure if he was going to hit me. I decided to offer him one punch; I’d seen that in a film once – one punch and honour would be satisfied. I wondered where he’d hit me; would it be in the face, nose, jaw, stomach? I knew I didn’t want a broken nose. The jaw was risky though; it looked easy when you saw it in films, but it was possible to do more damage to your own hand than you did to your opponent’s jaw. Stomach, then? But that could be dangerous – didn’t Houdini die from a punch to the stomach? Outside the Abbey was a souvenir stand and a cart selling guide books and toys and Houses of Parliament fudge. There were lots of people milling about – mostly tourists. I wondered how many other people were there to meet the husband of the woman they’d been sleeping with, or was it just me? I walked inside and walked slowly down the long nave, past the ancient pews and found him by the altar. He wore his usual blue check three-piece suit. The waist-coat was tight across his big belly. He had a big shock of thick wavy, red hair and a full jutting beard; his pot-belly and his beard pushed in front when he walked. He reminded me of a clown. I tentatively held out my hand. He looked at me and then looked at my hand and then reached out and shook it. ‘Let’s walk,’ he said. Tourists and tour guides wandered past. It was late morning and the bright sun illuminated the stone floor. We stopped by the grave of Clement Attlee – one of his vaguely socialist heroes. ‘We need to talk about M,’ he said. ‘How did you know?’ ‘I didn’t,’ he said. ‘Not until just now. Anyway, not for certain.’ I cursed my stupidity, my naivety, my teenagery. ‘What are your plans?’ he said. ‘Plans? How do you mean?’ I said. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘You’ve been sleeping with my wife. I just wondered what you were planning to do? Were you intending to continue with that?’ ‘Um,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure.’ ‘Do you love her?’ ‘I think so,’ I said. ‘Yes. Yes, I do.’ ‘That’s a shame. Well, obviously you can’t continue. It’s going to have to stop.’ We carried on walking and stopped by Chaucer’s tomb. There was a big group of American tourists with a guide who was telling them who Chaucer had been. The Americans looked as blank as Chaucer’s verse. ‘We need to decide how to do this,’ he said. I nodded. We were two conspirators – Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby – hiding in the shadows of that massive church and furtively plotting together the best way to ruin his wife’s life. I hated him then, more than I’d hated anybody, before or since. He’d won, and he knew it and he was going to make sure that I knew it too. We walked on and stopped by the memorial to John Keats. I thought of his many lines of love, of the passion in his words and of his early consumptive death. ‘This is what we’ll do. I need you to end it,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to tell her.’ I winced at that “we,” but I couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘It has to be your decision, though. You’ll need to have a reason. What’s your reason?’ ‘I suppose I’m too young,’ I said. ‘I don’t have a job, I don’t have any money.’ We were at the memorial to Neville Chamberlain, the weak-willed, well-meaning arch-appeaser. I felt that I resembled him in my own little, ineffective way. ‘You’re not having second thoughts, are you?’ he said. ‘You know you have to do this?’ ‘I know.’ We stopped by Wordsworth’s tomb. The light drifted through the stained-glass windows and made ghostly coloured patterns on the floor. He stopped and looked at me. ‘I’ll say one thing,’ he said. ‘What’s that?’ ‘I admire my wife’s taste in men.’ ‘Thank you,’ I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. But it was the way he said “my wife” that really hurt. Possessions can be cruel, and I knew that she was mine no longer. We walked out into the sunlight in front of the Abbey. Everyone seemed to be going about their business; groups swirled around us, busily photographing and buying and waiting for the open-topped sight-seeing bus to come by. ‘Good-bye,’ he said and held out his hand. ‘Good-bye,’ I said as I shook his hand. I watched him stride off down the street, his check suit shimmering in the sunlight. I headed back to Victoria station.

*

We sat in her ancient beige Mini on a quiet side street in South Croydon.  She switched off the engine. I don’t recall the season or the time or much about the weather. But I remember her. ‘Do you have something to tell me?’ she said. I couldn’t look at her. ‘Look at me,’ she said. I couldn’t look at her. ‘Look at me’, she said again. I sat there in my big great-coat and looked at her. Her eyes were dark and smudged from tears and her long hair had lost its shine. She squeezed the steering wheel; those hands that used to hold me. ‘You want to end it, don’t you?’ she said. ‘I…” ‘Say it,’ she said. ‘Go on, say it. I want to hear you say it.’ ‘I…’ ‘Say it, why can’t you?’ ‘I…I…Yes,’ I said finally. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Why? Tell me. Tell me honestly.’ ‘I’m too young,’ I said. ‘I’ve just left school, I don’t have a job, I don’t have any money. I’m at university. I can’t do this anymore. You’re married, you’ve got two kids.’ ‘Don’t mention my kids,’ she said. ‘Don’t blame my kids. Say it. I want you to say it. Look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t love me. Go on.’ I looked her in the eyes and told her the lie that I’d rehearsed with him; the biggest and worst and cruellest lie I’ve ever told anyone and I knew that whatever happened in the years to come, I would never be forgiven for that lie. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I don’t love you anymore.’ ‘Have you met someone else?’ ‘Yes,’ I lied, and didn’t believe that I wanted to, or would, meet anyone ever again ‘I still love you,’ she said then, simply. ‘God. Even now. Even now. God, I love you.’ ‘I love you,’ I said. ‘No, you don’t,’ she said. ‘No, you don’t. But it’s all right.’ ‘I can walk from here,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t going to give you a lift,’ she said. And then, ‘One day this will happen to you; I don’t want it to, but it will. You shouldn’t treat people like this, it’s not fair. One day you’ll learn that.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I opened the door. ‘Can I have a last kiss?’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. Just, you know, to remember.’ I reached for her and we kissed long and hard on the mouth. I felt her slippery tongue, that tongue that had known every part of me and I her. Her tears were damp on my face and mingled with my own. She still had her smell and her warmth and her green eyes and her brown hair. After a while she released me and pushed me gently away. I got out of the car finally and stood on the pavement and watched as she drove away. Through the rear window I watched as she lifted one hand and waved it across the rear-view mirror. And then she was gone. It was cold, and I felt the cold. I fastened my great-coat and put my hands in the pockets and turned and walked away.

*

I never heard from, saw, or spoke to either of them ever again. I did hear from one of my friends, I can’t remember who, that she contracted a serious illness; I don’t know what it was or what happened, or what the outcome was. I’m much older now, happily married and with children of my own, but sometimes when it’s late or I’m bored at work, or feeling sad or lonely or curious or feel that the  time has come to make amends to those I’ve hurt along the way, I search for her and sometimes him, but mostly her, on Facebook or Instagram or Friends Reunited and I play with the Google search page and sometimes I think I see her, or she comes to me in dreams and she’s so real that it hurts. But then I wake up or a person turns around or the light changes or a bus or a train or a taxi moves on and I see that it isn’t her and it wasn’t her and it won’t be her and it will never be her and I know that she is gone. And I know that it’s my own fault.                                                

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