Hot Wings

Nick went to Paris with the club to watch the final stage of the Tour de France. There were four of them – Nick, Pete, Dave and Steve – and they drove to Ashford and caught the train from there. The train was busy and Nick was sitting beside Pete. Dave and Steve sat opposite them. Across the aisle were two women- they seemed to be together although they didn’t speak much. ‘It’s gonna be great,’ said Dave. ‘I can’t wait.’ ‘Who’s gonna win then?’ said Pete. ‘Kittel,’ said Dave. Kristoff,’ said Steve. ‘Cav,’ said one of the women. Nick looked over at her. She was slim and dark and her hair was cut short. A pair of sunglasses was on the top of her head. Nick thought she was very attractive; not pretty exactly but nice, calming and she had a lovely smile; when you saw it you wanted to see it again; she was smiling now. ‘Cav’s not in it,’ he said. ‘He crashed on the first stage in England.’ She looked a little crestfallen and her smile faded. ‘Oh well,’ she said. ‘What do I know, I’m only a woman.’ Nick smiled at her and she gave that same little smile back and then started talking to her friend. ‘Viviani,’ said Nick. ‘I think Viviani will do it.’ ‘Shame about Froome,’ said Dave. Steve opened a bottle of beer from his bag and took a drink. He offered it to the others. They all refused and opened their own bottles. Nick offered a bottle to the woman. ‘Thanks,’ she said and there was that smile again. The train rolled on. Paris was crowded. They disembarked at Gare du Nord and took a taxi to their apartment. They’d found it on Air BnB and it was wonderful; just what they imagined a Paris apartment would be like. Fourth floor, big rooms, high ceilings, doors that opened onto a Juliet balcony, the hustling street below. ‘I don’t need to talk to you,’ Nick’s wife had said as he left. ‘But I need to hear from you. I need to know you’re safe.’ Nick stood on the balcony and gazed over the roof-tops. He could see the Eifel Tower on the other side of the Seine and Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur; it looked just like all the guide books. He sent a text to his wife: “Here. Safe. Love you. Xxx.” ‘Where we going?’ said Dave. ‘I’m starving.’ ‘Yeah, where to?’ said Steve. ‘I could do with a drink.’ ‘You should have got her number,’ said Dave. ‘She was up for it.’ ‘Who?’ said Nick. ‘Listen to him, who? That bird on the train. What goes on tour stays on tour.’ ‘Bird?’ said Nick. ‘Bird? What is this, 1977?’ ‘Tart then,’ said Dave. ‘Tart. You should have got that tart’s number.’ Paris on a Saturday night in July, the height of summer, penultimate day of the Tour de France, the boulevards and cafes crowded, people spilling onto the sidewalk. Nick, Steve, Dave and Pete walked along the Champs Elysees where the barriers were being prepared and stopped at a bar. It was obviously popular with cyclists as there were many standing around in club or team jerseys. Nick didn’t see her at first but then he did and she saw him and she smiled that smile again and he smiled back. He walked over to her. Her eyes were a bright blue and they shone like sapphires. ‘Go Cav,’ he said and she laughed and said her name was Lisa. ‘It’s only today,’ she said. ‘You know that, don’t you? It’s only today.’ ‘Agreed,’ said Nick. ‘Just today.’ They walked along and she slipped her arm into his. ‘Don’t tell me anything,’ she said.  ‘I don’t want a life history and a big story. I know you’re married, I can see that from your ring. I don’t want to know anything about her. And I don’t want you to know anything about me.’ ‘Okay,’ said Nick. ‘It’s a deal.’ They walked in silence. It was nice to walk arm in arm on the Champs Elysees with an attractive woman who wasn’t your wife. They lay together in the bed in the apartment. ‘I love it when you talk about cycling,’ said Lisa. ‘It’s so obvious how much you love it. Let’s just talk about cycling, nothing else.’ ‘I love your bottom bracket,’ said Nick and Lisa giggled. ‘And your saddle is soft and warm and there’s a lovely groove down the middle.’ ‘And the rivet,’ said Lisa. ‘Don’t forget the rivet.’ ‘I won’t forget,’ said Nick and found her rivet. ‘I love it when you’re on the rivet,’ said Lisa. When Nick woke up she was gone. The faint pang of her perfume still hung in the air and the side of the bed where she had slept was empty but still warm. There was a note on the table. ‘Go Cav,’ it said. Sunday, the final stage. Nick, Steve and Pete left the apartment early and walked to the Champs Elysees. Crowds were already gathering, some had clearly waited overnight to get a favoured spot by the finish line or near the Louvre or the tunnel. Nick didn’t expect to see her again; wasn’t sure he even wanted to see her again. They hadn’t arranged anything. Nick had not been unfaithful before but there was always a first time and he was past that now. Maybe when you’d done it once it got easier but he had no intention of finding out. He felt a shaft of guilt and thought of his wife and the children waiting at home. He pulled out his phone and texted his wife. ‘Nice breakfast, walking to Champs, weather fine, love you xxx.’ It was so easy to deceive in a text; too easy. He pressed send and his little big lie disappeared into the ether. A little later his phone vibrated in his pocket. ‘Love you 2 xxx,’ it said. A moment later it vibrated again. ‘Where are you? Lisa.’ It was Lisa. How had she got his number? He hadn’t given it to her; she must have got it from his phone while he was asleep. He texted her back. ‘I thought we had a deal. Just yesterday.’ ‘Just today. Where are you?’ ‘Champs Elysees,’ he texted. ‘Finish line.’ They went to a bar. Nick ordered a beer, Lisa asked for a Ricard. It came on a little metal tray with a small jug of water. She poured the water into the glass and the cloudy liquorice essence wafted around the table. It was dark and cool in the bar. They sat in a booth at the back. ‘You left while I was asleep,’ said Nick. ‘I didn’t think I was going to see you again.’ ‘I know,’ said Lisa. ‘I’ve been naughty. I’m sorry.’ Nick moved closer to her and moved his hand under the table. She closed her hand over his and put it between her legs. He began to stroke her slowly and rhythmically; she squeezed her legs together around him and he felt her heat and her dampness. Her breathing grew quicker and at the end, when it was done, she moved his hand away and leaned against him. ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this,’ she said. ‘This isn’t like me. I’ve never done this kind of thing before.’ ‘Me neither,’ said Nick. ‘But we’re not hurting anyone.’ ‘How can you say that? You are, you’re married. And I’ve got a boy-friend. I’m sorry, I said no personal stuff.’ Nick leaned closer to her and nuzzled her neck. He couldn’t get his fill of her warmth and her perfume and her softness. ‘If you don’t tell and I don’t tell then no-one will get hurt. It’ll be our secret.’ ‘Don’t you feel guilty?’ said Lisa. ‘A little bit I suppose. But not about meeting you, not about being with you. Not about knowing you.’ ‘Oh you’ve known me alright,’ said Lisa. They ordered another drink. There was a television in the bar showing live coverage of the final stage. The riders were progressing at a gentle pace wending their way towards Paris. They were chatting to each other, posing for selfies with spectators and taking sips of champagne from plastic flutes. It was all friendly and convivial; the real racing would not start until they hit the centre of Paris. They walked out to the street. There were crowds of people here, many wearing replica jerseys and Tour caps. It was like a forest of selfie sticks. Nick held her hand as they moved through the crowd. The sun was shining, it was very warm, everyone was happy and smiling. They pushed through the crowd close to the barrier. It was still early; the riders wouldn’t be through for a few hours. ‘We won’t be on the telly will we?’ said Lisa. ‘No,’ said Nick. ‘We’ll be fine. Anyway, we’re not doing anything. We’re just two people in the crowd, nothing suspicious about that. He reached and held her around the waist, hidden by the barrier and the advertising hoardings. She pulled his hand against her and held it there. He kissed the back of her neck. ‘Just two people in the crowd,’ he said again. She pushed back against him. ‘When do you go back?’ she said. ‘Don’t,’ said Nick. ‘We agreed, remember?’ ‘I’m sorry. No-one will see us. Kiss me.’ The peloton came up the road – 50, 60, 70 kilometres an hour. A blur of colour, the sound of the crowd, the roar of the motor-cycles, the clatter of helicopter blades. Was it a touch of wheels, a flaw in the road, a careless manoeuvre? Who knows when it happens so fast. Nick could see a Sky rider sitting against the barrier and holding his arm; broken collarbone inevitably. A Giant Alpecin rider was lying on his side, a couple of mechanics kneeling beside him. An IAM rider was walking around very slowly and gingerly holding his hip. His shorts and jersey were torn and they could see his bloody grazed skin. An Etixx rider climbed slowly onto his bike and pedalled toward the finish line. ‘They have to cross the line,’ said Nick. ‘As the crash happened in the last 3 kilometres they’ll get the same time as the group they were in but they still have to cross the line, even if they have to walk across.’ ‘Who won?’ she said. ‘I don’t know,’ said Nick. ‘I wasn’t watching. I was thinking of you.’ ‘Is this it?’ she said. ‘Is this where we say goodbye? I don’t think I want to.’ ‘Me neither,’ said Nick. ‘But we agreed.’ ‘I know. It’s not fair.’ ‘Life isn’t fair,’ said Nick. ‘Why isn’t it? Why can’t it be fair?’ ‘We promised,’ said Nick. ‘Go on then. You first.’ ‘No, you.’ ‘Will I ever see you again?’ said Nick. ‘I don’t think that would be sensible.’ ‘I’m sick of being sensible. I’ve been sensible all my life,’ said Nick. ‘Sensible is shit.’ ‘I have to go,’ said Lisa. ‘I know.’ ‘I have to. Really, I do.’ ‘I know.’ ‘Kiss me, please.’ They stood beneath a tree with crowds rushing past and Nick pushed her against the tree and kissed her long and hard on the mouth and he wasn’t sure if his tears were her tears. ‘Where will you go?’ Lisa said. ‘Home, I suppose. What do you mean?’ ‘What, home to your wife and kids?’ ‘Don’t,’ said Nick. ‘We agreed.’ ‘I know. Sorry. I …’ ‘What?’ ‘Nothing. I’m sorry. I’ll miss you.’ ‘Don’t,’ said Nick again. ‘I’ll miss you too.’ ‘We agreed, didn’t we?’ ‘We did,’ said Nick. ‘Go Cav,’ she whispered and turned away from him and walked off into the crowd and Nick watched her until he couldn’t see her any more. ‘Where’s she gone then?’ said Pete later as they sat on the train. ‘She’s staying here a few more days,’ said Nick. ‘You gonna see her again?’ ‘No,’ said Nick. He looked out of the window at the country rushing by, carrying him away from a woman he’d loved for 2 days and back to the woman he’d loved for 30 years. ‘What goes on tour stays on tour,’ said Pete. ‘Nice bird.’ Nick walked in the house. His wife was in the kitchen. ‘Good trip?’ she said. ‘It was great,’ said Nick. ‘Fab.’ ‘I saw you on the telly,’ she said. Nick swallowed hard and went to fill the kettle. She couldn’t have. ‘Where was that?’ he said as lightly as he could, his back to her still. ‘Yesterday,’ she said. ‘It must have been a helicopter shot, looking down on the crowd. I saw your top and your cap anyway, so I think it was you.’ ‘It could have been Pete or Dave or Steve,’ said Nick, taking two clean cups from the dishwasher and putting a tea bag and a little splash of milk in each. ‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘You hungry?’ ‘Why don’t I get KFC?’ said Nick. ‘Let’s not cook.’ ‘I want coleslaw,’ she said. ‘And six hot wings.’ Nick went upstairs to change. He checked his phone and deleted Lisa’s texts and messages. It made sense to be careful. They sat and ate their chicken. The chips were a bit soft and bits of the chicken fell off and were left behind in the bucket. Once it got cold it looked more and more unpleasant and inedible. ‘I recorded the final stage,’ said Annie. ‘Do you want to watch it again?’ ‘No, that’s okay,’ said Nick. ‘Maybe tomorrow.’ ‘You sure? Okay it’s up to you.’ Nick wondered if he could see Lisa in the TV coverage. Maybe he’d watch it when Annie went out or had gone to sleep. They went to bed and made love. Nick was glad to be back in his own bed and it was nice to be back inside his wife. When Annie went to sleep he switched on his iPad and found the highlights on You Tube. He fast forwarded the film and slowed it down when it reached the later stages of the race. Frame by frame he watched it unfold; slowly he saw the club top and his cap emerge; it was him alright. Beside him he could see Lisa; they were close together but not touching inappropriately and luckily the camera had moved away before he’d pressed himself close against her and his hot hands had sought her out, hidden by the hoarding. ‘Who’s that?’ said Annie suddenly. ‘You’re awake,’ said Nick. ‘Yeah. Who’s she?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Nick. ‘I didn’t talk to her.’ ‘You look pretty close to her,’ said Annie. ‘Darling,’ said Nick. ‘There’s a big crowd. It’s pretty hard not to be that close.’ ‘I believe you darling,’ she said. ‘Thousands wouldn’t.’ Annie rolled on her side away from him and soon Nick heard her slow, steady breathing; she was asleep. Nick was always reading cycling magazines. They were regularly arriving in the post and Nick read them in bed or while in the toilet; he had a pile on the floor by the bed. Annie had had no interest in cycling but gradually that changed. She was becoming obsessed with Orica Green Edge; she joined their fan club and bought a T-shirt and pinned a calendar on the wall and started to watch the cycling on Eurosport. Simon Gerrans was her favourite; she liked his easy smile, his Aussie accent and his muscly legs and she liked his style and his winning ways. Nick was almost jealous; his thin legs, expanding waistline, South London accent, forced smiles and graceless style was in sharp contrast. So when a copy of Pro Cycling arrived in the post with a picture of Simon Gerrans on the cover, it was no wonder that Annie grabbed it, made a cup of tea and started to read the article. Nick came home early from work. He came in the house and followed his usual routine; removed his jacket, put his wallet, keys and phone on the windowsill by the front door, had a swig of grapefruit juice and tidied away a few things in the kitchen. Annie came in the kitchen and shut the door behind her. She had the magazine in her hand. ‘You’re a cunt,’ she said.’ A cunt and a fucking liar.’ ‘Woah,’ said Nick. ‘What have I done now? What are you talking about?’ She shoved the magazine at him. It was a photograph of the final stage of the tour and the pile-up on the Champs Elysees. Bodies were scattered on the road amid the twisted bikes. An Etixx rider was frozen in time with one leg over the cross-bar. A gendarme watched from behind the barrier. Beside him, wearing a club cycling top and a cap was Nick, his arms around a dark-haired woman, oblivious of the race and everything around them, their mouths locked together. ‘Liar,’ said Annie. ‘Liar.’ ‘It was nothing,’ he said. ‘It was nothing,’ she mimicked. ‘Was it nothing? Was it? Was it really? It doesn’t look like nothing to me. Is that what you said when you got your tongue out of her throat or wherever else it was? This is nothing? Did you fuck her?’ ‘Don’t’ said Nick. ‘DID YOU FUCK HER?’ Annie said slowly, enunciating each word. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Sorry? Sorry? Is that all you can say? After 30 years of marriage? I’m sorry? You’re pathetic.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ he said again. ‘Don’t be sorry,’ she said. ‘Don’t make it nothing. Because if that was nothing, then this is nothing. I’ve been married for 30 years and I’ll fuck another woman but it’s alright, it’s nothing. Make it something for Christ’s sake. Make it something, you bastard. Make it something worth ruining my life for. Make it something.’ ‘Can we talk about this?’ Nick said. ‘Talk? Talk? Oh great idea. Yes, let’s talk. Let’s converse like civilized adults shall we? Let’s have a nice cozy dialogue. I tell you what, I’ll ask the questions and you answer them, that good enough for you? Good cop, bad cop. I’ll be bad cop; there is no good cop.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Stop saying that. If you were sorry you wouldn’t have done it. Let’s start with the basics shall we? What’s her name? How old is she? Where did you meet? How long has this been going on? Is she married, got kids? Or is it just me who’s got ties? And you of course, you had ties. Not very tight were they Nick? Those ties didn’t bind you very tight did they Nick? Actually, why don’t you fuck off? Go for a ride. I want to be on my own.’ ‘We ought to talk,’ said Nick. ‘We’ll talk when I’m ready. Go on, get out.’ Nick went upstairs to change into his cycling kit. He came down and got the keys to the garage. ‘Put some sun tan lotion on,’ said Annie. Nick took his bike down, filled his bottle and found his Garmin. ‘How long will you be?’ she said. ‘Less than 2 hours,’ he said. ‘Okay. Text me if you’re delayed.’ When he had gone she went upstairs, found a suitcase and filled it with his clothes. She took the suitcase down and left it in the hall by the front door. Nick cycled up Layhams and then followed his usual route along the Pilgrim’s Way, past Chevening, up Pol Hill and then down the A21 towards Bromley. It was a clear day and the weather was warm. He made good time and he felt sure he would get a PB on this section. Annie was in the kitchen, looking out of the window and drinking a cup of tea. It had been more than two hours. Just this one time he could have texted to say he was running late. She was on her second cup of tea when the doorbell rang. She opened the door but it wasn’t Nick. Two policewomen stood on the door-step. *  

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