Encounters – A

Trisha was tall, blonde and pretty. I used to cross the busy Canterbury Road and wait on the opposite corner for her and her husband Ian to give me a lift to work.

One morning Trisha wasn’t in the Vauxhall when Ian picked me up. He drove on not saying much, just glancing at me. We were five minutes from work when he drew up onto a grass verge, leaned over, took hold of me and kissed me hard. It’s not easy to forget a kiss like that, at that time of the morning.

I breathed in his aftershave, concentrated in the confined space of the car. He felt good. He kissed me again, held me tightly, ruffled my hair.

Finally I broke away. We sat back, minutes went by. I reached for my make-up. He straightened his tie in the rear view mirror.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said, his eyes avoiding me.

He started the car. We fixed our eyes on the road ahead and didn’t talk. I relived what had happened, again and again I thought about those crazy fiery moments for a long time afterwards.

“I don’t know what to say” -he’d said. And nothing, nothing was ever said. Nothing was said, least of all to Trisha. She and I remained the closest of friends for months before I left Brighton. Then we lost touch.

I heard the news a few days after it had happened-: a car accident. New Year’s Eve. They’d rushed Trisha to hospital but it was too late. I remember her voice. She was so young.

I’d just about kept in touch with Ian and one day I called him.

“Yes, come and stay, you can have my room” he laughed then said.

“It’ll be great to see you”.

I hung up and repeated the words-: “It’ll be great to see you”.

On the train to Brighton my mind drifted into fantasy. He’d be so pleased to see me. We’d hug, that would do for the time being. I’d get to know Amy his little girl, she’d be about three I guessed. Later in the evening we’d get a takeaway, there was a bottle of Ian’s favourite Merlot in my bag. I’d let him talk if he wanted to. I’d cook for him, really get to know Amy, bring her little things girls like. Time would pass and I’d be going down there every weekend. Then we would see.

I got to Brighton in time for lunch. Ian’s house was on a modern estate. Sunlight streamed through the French windows and the room was bright and airy, with toys everywhere.

“Tea, coffee?” Ian put mugs on a tray. Then she walked in from the garden.

“Oh Jinny, this is Freda.”

He turned his back on us leaving us staring at each other.

“Nice to meet you Freda” I said.

“Please sit down” Freda gestured towards the dining table. “Ian’s said so much of you. Excuse my English, I don’t speak very good.”

The room went quiet.

“Sugar, Jinny?”

“That’s Amy out there isn’t it? She’s beautiful. No to sugar, thanks”.

“Yes and Magda. She’s the same age.”

Ian sat opposite me at the table. Freda sat beside him.

“You must be wondering how we met? Ian gave me a nervous smile. I listened, not looking at Freda. “Freda’s a single parent like me. Gingerbread brought us together”.

“Gingerbread?”

“They bring single parents together.”

“Oh, I see.”

But I didn’t. I didn’t look at Freda.

Ian attempted to take care of lunch leaving Freda and me to talk. We tried but our conversation sounded as if we were interviewing each other for a job.

Between chopping vegetables Ian tried to add to the chat, or what there was of it.

“Is Magda okay with carrots?…I’m making a mess of this, should have stuck to spag bol” he muttered.

The noise of children playing came from the garden. In the kitchen Ian banged the dishes. Freda and I were stuck at the dining table. I let her ramble on about herself, giving me time to take her in. Some might have called her pretty but there was hardness in her face, thin lips, very red lipstick with a big line of black roots at the parting, her hair hang lankly, hiding some of her face. She was short. She should never have worn a skirt four inches above her knees; it drew attention to her fat legs.

“Shit, this is going wrong.” said Ian.

“Hey, I help” said Freda, escaping from the dining table. “Let’s see, this is it.” She held up the recipe and squinted at it. I stood up and looked out at the children. Magda was holding a sieve and Amy was pouring sand through. I almost missed the sight of Freda and Ian standing close together at the work surface, Freda stirring something. Ian putting his arm round her waist. He took it away quickly when he saw me looking.

“’Bout time for a drink, isn’t it?” All this hard work in the kitchen!” He mimed flicking sweat from his brow.

The afternoon drifted on. More wine! I concentrated on keeping Ian talking about people we’d known in the past and what they were doing now, reminding him of fun times we’d shared with Trisha. Anything to shut Freda out.

I must have overdone it. Freda got up, saying it was time they were going.

“But you said you’d stay for dinner?”

Ian looked at me as if he expected an answer. Freda glared.

“No. You two have so much to talk about.” She brushed past him, shoving into me.

“Oh sorry. I thought I heard crying.”

Ian stood like a rabbit in the headlights. Amy ran in.

“Daddy, can Magda stay the night? Oooh please Daddy!”

Freda spoke to her child in German, holding out a big bag, stuffing toys into it, mumbling to herself. Picking Magda up in her arms she marched out, Ian followed them to the door, Amy close behind. When they came back into the room Amy was crying.

“I didn’t want her to go, Daddy!”

“I know. I know” He knelt down and hugged her. “Let’s go and put that sandpit to bed shall we?”

I helped with bath and bedtime. Amy sang to her bath toys making the most of all the attention. Ready for bed she ran into her room, and came out with a book.

“You read.”

Amy pressed the book at me.

“That’s her favourite” Ian smiled.” I’ll see your downstairs. I’ll be up to say ‘night ‘night, Amy.”

I tidied the bath toys and tucked Amy up in bed.

“Shall we go to see some animals tomorrow, on a farm?”

She nodded, giving me her enormous smile.

Street lights shone through the kitchen window. Ian drew the blinds and walked towards me.

“After that disastrous lunch, how about takeaway?”

“Great idea, I have wine.”

He took the bottle of Merlot from my wine bag.

“Hey, you remembered!” He kissed me.

The empty wine bottle sat on the coffee table in front of us. The takeaway boxes smelled. The TV was off, silence hung. We were at opposite ends of the sofa. I saw no sign of him moving nearer me.

“Well, lovely to see you Jinny. Think I’ll go up. Or would you like to use the bathroom first?”

“Okay, thanks. It’s been so nice to see you happy with Amy.”

I leaned closer to make it easy for him.

“Yes” he said, getting up and clearing the table.

I smiled, gave him a peck on the cheek, said “Goodnight, see you tomorrow” and went upstairs.

He’d put a vase of tulips on the chest of drawers. I lay on the bed listening, waiting for him to go into the box room, opposite the bedroom he’d given up for me. I’d left my door ajar. The hall light went out, but the cracks of light round his door stayed. I lay on top of the bed wearing the new black robe I’d bought, the silkiness of it felt good against my skin.

I waited.

I don’t know for how long, but then the hall light came on, here was my chance.

“Ian” I called. Nothing. I called more loudly. “Ian!”

Slowly, my door opened. I could see his shadow.

“You okay Jinny?”

He came nearer.

“Sit” I patted the bed.

Ian sat a little distance from me, the hall light picking out the contours of his face.

“I couldn’t sleep. Too much going on”. I said

“I know.”

I hugged my knees letting the robe slip away. He moved closer and folded his arms around me.

That was the start of things.

The next day he called to see if I’d got home safely.

“Come again soon, won’t you?”

“It was good to see you Ian.”

“Make it soon Jinny.”

I held the mobile to my chest.

A few weeks went by then I found myself visiting every weekend. I could feel us getting closer each time we met. Christmas was almost upon us.

“We could take Amy to see Cinderella. I told you about it. Shall we do it soon? Should book, you know it gets crazy around Christmas.”

But when I went down the next weekend he hadn’t booked the tickets.

“Do you want me to book Cinderella?” I asked, “Before they sell out? Come on Ian!”

“No.” he said “I’ll do it Monday.”

Ian was distant that weekend. I knew he had a lot on at work.

“You okay Ian? Anything you want to talk about?”

“No, I’m fine.”

He turned away from me and went into the study.

The following week began well; I was promoted and there was a promise of a Christmas bonus.

I didn’t make plans knowing I’d spend the break at Ian’s. We’d spoken tentatively about New Year’s Eve but I didn’t pursue it, I knew it must still be hard for him.

We called each other almost every day. But now it was Tuesday and we hadn’t spoken since the weekend.

No worries. I’d wait until he’d put Amy to bed and we’d have a nice long chat. I poured myself a glass of wine, made myself comfortable and picked up the phone.

Answer machine. I hung up and rang his mobile. It went to voice mail.

Strange, I thought.

I drank a couple more glasses and tried again. Answer machine. This time I left messages on the landline and the mobile.

“Hey it’s me! What you up to? Out on the town? Call me when you come in okay? Kisses for Amy.”

It was quarter to eleven: still no call. I tried again. Same thing. Left another message saying I was a bit worried, please call. Drank more wine.

I called my best mate Susie, she picked up straight away.

“Could be his mobile? Or maybe he’s gone to sleep? He’ll call, don’t worry. Anyway, it’s never worth it. Have more wine! Go to bed!”

It was two a.m. I thought of getting into my Audi and driving to Brighton. I was convinced there was something wrong but something in my alcoholic blur told me not to go.

Five a.m. I hadn’t slept much and hadn’t undressed. I had a coffee and jumped into the car. There had to be something wrong. An accident? Should I have called the hospitals? I could do it in two hours. My Audi was new so I put it through its paces.

I was still driving fast as I came into Brighton, whizzing past houses, catching sight of Christmas tree lights, morning delivery people, a couple staggering home, a cat tearing across the road; back to its warm cosy house where it would sit outside on the mat. Patiently the cat would wait for the lights to come on, which meant only one thing, it would soon be fed.

I turned the heating up. Roads sparkled with frost. Nagging little voices came, suppose he was okay? Suppose he was dumping me? But no that simply couldn’t be true. Everything was going really well.

Tears welled up in my eyes. What was going on? I tried his mobile again, still on voice mail. I turned into the road before his and pulled over, switching off the engine. Suddenly I was scared. Of what?

I got to his house. His Merc was in the driveway. I pulled up behind. It was just before seven.

There was a light on in the hall and one in the kitchen too, Amy must have woken.

I rang the bell, the noise breaking shrill and loud into the dawn.

The door opened and there she was.

Freda.

She looked a mess and stood for a moment, her mouth open, then pulled her tatty robe round herself and half closed the door.

“I’ll get Ian.”

He came out but I was already back in my Audi and starting the engine.

“Jinny, wait!” he shouted, rushing to my car.

Too late, too late. I knew she’d been there. She’d been there lots, he didn’t have to tell me.

I don’t remember the journey home.

When I got in, the message light was flashing on my phone.

It was Ian. A very long message saying sorry, sorry, sorry, I don’t know how many times.

I pressed delete.

I’d left a few things at his house. They could stay there.