You gaze at the man lying next to you – the perfect husband; the father of your children – and suddenly you realise that you don’t know him at all.
She wasn’t prying when she discovered the email. He’d left his laptop lying open again and she went to shut it, before the kids could touch something and delete an important work file – and that’s when she saw it.
It’s so hard not having you here all the time. When you come round, I think this is what life is supposed to be like, and then you hurry away at the end of the evening and I’m all alone. Get here as soon as you can tonight. Missing you already xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
The knowledge was so unexpected that it caught her off-guard. Was that where he was every night he said he was ‘working late’? How long had it been going on for? Her fingers trembled as she scrolled up the screen to see how many other emails there were from this unknown woman and the sick feeling at the back of her throat intensified.
Last night meant so much...
I wish you could hold me forever...
Can you get away for a weekend? I really want to be able to wake up with you.
She’d thought that knowing would help her understand: instead, it just made her feel worse. He loved someone else, was spending evenings with her instead of with his family. Large, salty tears rolled down her face as she wept for what she’d lost.
Women! Why did they have to be so emotional?
You think you’ve got it all figured out by the time you hit thirty: you’re married; settled – then along comes someone who wants you so much that you can’t help straying. After all, it’s flattering to be the one being chased. It’s every man’s dream, isn’t it? To have an attractive woman practically throwing herself at you every time you see her?
Of course, the first time he’d met her, he’d had no idea what would happen. She was a new client and he’d been sent round to do her taxes. He didn’t normally make house calls, but she was paying a lot for the firm’s services – and that meant a substantial percentage for him.
It had seemed quite innocent at first. She’d offered him a drink when he arrived and, despite his better judgement, he’d accepted a glass of wine, telling himself that he’d be okay to drive by the time he’d finished checking her accounts.
Her fingers had touched his as she’d handed him the glass. Startled, he’d looked up, detected something in her eye that suggested she might be interested in more than business. Responding to an unspoken question, he’d followed her into the bedroom and towards the large, unmade bed whose rumpled covers hinted at what she had in mind.
Afterwards, as he dressed hurriedly, she watched him from the bed, her face flushed, her eyes sultry. “That was an unexpected treat!” she murmured.
He said nothing, guilt already choking him. What had he been thinking? He couldn’t let it happen again.
But he did.
How did you let yourself get into this mess? she wonders. Before him, it was all so simple. You never let your heart get involved.
She’d thought at first that he would be like the others: a brief interlude of pleasure to break up an otherwise monotonous day. When you worked from home, running your own business, it got pretty lonely. She could have hired an assistant – someone for companionship more than anything else; but she was too paranoid of having her ideas stolen. Freelance design was a poisoned chalice: if you weren’t careful, it would destroy you.
Now she realises that he’s just as dangerous. Her heart used to be intact: these days, it’s just a collection of fragments and each one has his name written on it. She’s a stick of rock, stamped all the way through with her love for a man she can never truly have. Why are you torturing yourself like this? she asks herself, hearing the answer in a whisper: ‘Because half a relationship is better than no relationship at all.’
Last night, he didn’t come home until almost midnight. By then, you’d read all the emails, waded through all the heartfelt emotion poured out on page after page. You’d torn at your heart by counting all the kisses, listing all the times she told him she loved him.
And now? Now it feels like there’s nothing left. This man is a stranger. You’re suddenly afraid.
I think she suspects something. Last night, she was asleep when I got in. It wasn’t that late – only eleven or just after. This morning, though ... She’s lying there, watching me, pretending to be asleep. My eyes are closed, but I can feel the disapproval radiating from her. Maybe I should just confess – get it out of my system; clear the air.
But what if she kicks me out? Or, worse still, asks me to choose ...
Choose! I can’t choose! How do you make a choice between two things you want equally? It’s like asking someone to choose between eating and sleeping, drinking and breathing.
No, better to say nothing, to let her think she’s imagining it. I can’t give either one of them up. I shouldn’t have to.
She wakes, as usual, in a bed empty of anyone other than herself. Every morning it’s the same: the night before always feels like a dream, an illusion. Greedily she clutches at any lingering moments that glitter like dewdrops on the spiderweb of memory, but the mirage melts in her fingers and she is left lonely and bereft.
When he isn’t here, the ache in her heart is so strong it feels like her soul is being ripped out of her body in a grotesque parody of giving birth. I’m pregnant with misery, she thinks sadly, knowing that he’ll never give her a child when he has a family of his own already.
She spotted them in the park once: he’d foolishly told her he was taking the children out for the afternoon on Sunday. He didn’t know she was there: she sat, stalker-like, swathed in scarf and woolly hat, peeping out at them from behind her copy of ‘The Telegraph’. Was that why these papers were so large? So people – spies, rejected lovers – could hide behind them whilst on stake-out?
She’d planned, at first, to wander up casually and say hello. A part of her was curious to see his children up close, to ascertain whether they looked more like him or Her.
She couldn’t do it. This was a part of his other life: she couldn’t intrude.
Bitterly, she wondered why it was that men could compartmentalise so easily: a box for work; a box for his wife and children; a box for his mistress. What was it Byron had said? Something about love being only a part of a man’s life but being “Woman’s whole existence”. And Byron should know! she thought grimly. Didn’t he have something like sixteen illegitimate children? He was definitely the ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ type.
Long after they’d left the park, she still sat there, her fingers freezing in the cold. But they weren’t as icy as her heart.
Looking forward to seeing you tonight. I can’t believe how much I miss you when you’re not here. My bed feels empty without you in it.
He stares at the email, his heart thumping. She knows.
“Do I need to show you the rest?” Her voice is tight; she’s holding onto self-control by her fingertips as if it is a clifftop and she is clinging to the edge.
He doesn’t answer, so she continues to scroll through every damning scrap of evidence:
The first time I saw you, my heart swelled with the crescendo of violins. You are all I can think about, day or night. I love you. I love you. I love you. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
I’ve missed you so much these past few weeks. It’s been the longest fortnight ever. Come round as soon as you get back. Love you xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
All is not lost, though: he’d prepared for this eventuality, deleted his own emails so only her side of the conversation remains.
“She’s a client with a crush on me,” he says confidently. “It’s all one-sided, I promise. Look, all the emails are from her – I haven’t encouraged her.”
She’s less certain now, wanting to believe him – if only to save her marriage; dreading the consequences if she lets him get away with it.
He takes hold of her shoulders gently, twists her round to face him as deftly as he manipulates her with his words.
“Would I really be stupid enough to leave the emails on my laptop if I was having an affair?”
Now he says it, it all sounds so preposterous that she almost laughs. Almost. Not quite.
“What about the email with a thousand kisses?” she asks in a small voice.
He feigns surprise. “Really? I had no idea. I haven’t read any of her messages – she’s obviously deluded.”
“A thousand kisses,” she repeats. “I counted them all. That’s a bit over the top if it’s just one-sided.”
“There’s nothing going on – I promise.”
And his eyes are so sincere, his tone so heartfelt that she starts to wonder if he’s telling the truth.
We sit in still proximity as the evening draws to a close. The words you’ve told me are still echoing in my mind; half-empty wineglasses pressed to our lips.
“You always knew it would be over if She ever found out,” is what you say at last, and I nod dumbly, unable to protest.
I’ve already taken you to my bed – ‘break up sex’, that’s what they call it these days. Ironic, isn’t it, that an act of closeness should be the way to say goodbye.
By now, I know She’s seen the emails and that you’ve covered your back by lying. Technically, we could carry on as before – She’s not really any the wiser.
That’s not what you’ve decided, though: even a ghost of suspicion is enough to make you terminate this contract and take your business elsewhere.
“I’ll pass you on to one of the other accountants.” You’re looking down as you say it; won’t let me catch your eye. “Will’s good – and he’s single. You never know: you might hit it off ...”
Beneath the bravado, behind the façade, you hurt as much as I do – only you’ll never admit it.
Time ticks by slowly: each second an unbearable lifetime. The evening’s turned into tomorrow – and instead of making love, we’re waiting for you to go.