We stood in silence and gazed into one another's eyes. Then he sat down on the chair by the window and looked away to the fading, grey winter day and the silhouetted London skyline. He was my guest and I expected him to behave impeccably, which he did. Our conversation stumbled along, neither of us confident enough to talk uninhibitedly but each mindful of the other's nervousness. I had always felt uncomfortable in the presence of men, but the exchange between us was carefree and happy.
I told him of many things, my father's indifference to my career, how I dealt with my mother's gradual memory loss, about how rude my sister had always been to me, the time I drove my little car into a ditch, and how my old fashioned Roses bloomed each summer despite my garden's wet soil. We talked of books we had both read, and some that we had both read twice. We exchanged views on the economy, the government and the declining state of the world's rainforests. We conversed without endlessly defining and certifying our opinions, and we accepted our conclusions with grace and civility.
As the evening drew on, and after our second bottle of wine I dared to tell him about the first time I had seen him and how I thought I had fallen in love with him. I told him how guilty I'd felt because of it and how I'd never intended it to become anything serious. I spoke of the times I watched him from my lounge window, how I'd wanted to shout out to him, and how I imagined us lying in each other's arms on the deep rug in front of my fireplace. And as my drunken mind lost all logical reason, I told him how I'd dreamt of lying with him in my bed, and how all the mistakes of my past must have been necessary to make this present possible. I picked up my glass and sipped rather than gulped the dregs of wine. I looked to the floor, embarrassed by my own admission.
He took my face in his hands and told me how he'd seen me watching him from the window and how desperately he had wanted to turn and wave. But that he was always a man in a hurry, chasing the day and it's endless chores. He told me of the times he had tried to catch my gaze and fix it solidly in his memory so that it could never leave. And he told me that when he closed his eyes he could imagine me forlorn and alone, and how he had pictured tiptoeing up behind me, quietly put his arms around my waist and kissing my neck.
The wine was finished and the bottle stood on the table between us, a testament to our mutual confession. I worried that the next time we met we would have to avoid each other's eye, and that we would have to appear cold to one another. And it troubled me that he would have to leave his house and travel for days without seeing me, when I knew he would be thinking of no one else.
I stood in the hallway, my hand resting on the door handle. He smiled as he passed me and I felt the sleeve of his jacket brush my arm. We didn't say much apart from something about a dinner party, and then he left. I turned and went back into the lounge, sat down on a chair and then stood up immediately. I looked out of the window and watched him cross the road willing him to look back but I knew he wouldn't. A small girl pushed a toy pram along the pavement, her mother was close behind, her hair pulled back in a tight bun, a hand-rolled cigarette drooping from her lips. I sat on the floor with my back to the wall and stared at my hands for a while, then stretched myself out on the carpet and closed my eyes. The wine had made me feel sleepy and I gave into it.
The prospect of making small talk was unbearable and I knew the effort required to avoid his gaze would be agonising. Would he be able to talk without looking straight at me, would he find that easy? I didn't know. I knocked on the door. I wanted to be anywhere else, somewhere I wouldn't have to suffer any sense of responsibility or obligation..
The caffeine had made me jittery but I still felt tired, I'd been up most of the night rearranging my books and drinking coffee. For many hours I'd tormented myself by the thought that I was still awake, until finally I'd dozed off sitting upright on a chair in the kitchen.
I'd assumed that it would be him that answered the door, he usually did. But it was his wife. She had the advantage of two brick steps and she glared down at me.
"How lovely that you could come," she said.
"Been looking forward to it," I said.
I squeezed past without touching her and went into the dining room where he came to greet me with a hug. I closed my eyes and let him squeeze me and then he stepped back and smiled.
"Thanks," I said.
He went over to the window and looked out at the day. I looked around the room at all the things that were theirs. A green dish with pot-pouri, a wooden sideboard with brass handles, a small glass pot full of marbles, a picture of some mountains. I knew everything about the place already but now it felt dishonest to be a part of it.
She came into the room carrying a bottle of wine and a dishcloth.
"Our favourite wine," she said to both of us pouring three glasses.
I wondered how he held her, did she fit herself tightly into his hugs? Did he kiss her neck in the way I wanted him to kiss mine? Did she abandon herself to him completely while he thought about me?
I didn't know how to behave here in his house. There was no blame for me to assume in the way that blame should be defined. I wasn't flagrantly and remorselessly having an affair. I endured many emotions, love, longing, intense shame, but nothing blameful. I never wanted more than I had, and certainly hadn't ever intended to upset anyone, or allow a bitter, sulky version of myself to cause any harm. I experienced guilt but had allowed it to evolve into regret, that way I felt I'd absolved myself from blame. Although if things had been different, another place or time maybe, then I could have pushed the boundaries, abandoned myself to the thrills and temptations of lust, and been a slave to my longing.
I thought of him, paralysed by guilt, living with the whole thing as if it were a sentence. I didn't wish that upon him though. I imagined that he considered me off limits, his virtual mistress. I didn't want to cause him to feel any sense of regret or guilt. Self-deceiving desire should have been enough for both of us, there was too much at stake for it to be anything more.
She finished pouring the three glasses of wine, mine predictably lower in the glass than the others. I took it from her without question or suspicion as I knew I would. I'd become used to the little ways she'd assert her authority over me. How she had always challenged my arguments, confidently choosing words that supported her view whilst outweighing the credibility of mine. Finishing my sentences for me but changing their meaning with a skilful and well practised change in intonation. These things I had become familiar with, they were so predictable and rehearsed that I expected them.
But there were other practical things that I found exasperating, namely the way she'd arrogantly display her possessions. The first edition books displayed alphabetically on a shelf by the television. The limited edition Lowry prints that lined both sides of the hallway which I took to be a snobbish acceptance of her ancestry.
But worse of all I hated her continual teasing about every one of my shattered relationships and the fact that I'd never marry. I had experienced a few affairs over the years but none had ever proved to be more than superficial friendships, outwardly sincere but essentially quite shallow. This I found cruel and hurtful, if there was a button to be pushed this was the one, and she knew where it was and how hard to press it.
As he began to cross the room a floorboard creaked and I looked up. Our eyes met but only for a second because I turned to look at the array of dishes on the table. It was awkward with my back to him and so I began to talk whilst picking at the food. I desperately wanted to look into his eyes, smile at him and let him smile back. This was how it been for years, fleeting glances and stolen touches. It had been safe, we both knew the rules well enough to be able to maintain the innocence that we both pretended to be happy with. It had always been a harmless affair that rambled along on the other side of life, never injurious or upsetting. Although sometimes I imagined smashing it all to bits.
It might have been the wine that pushed me over the edge. The half-inch difference in the levels of the liquid, the subtlest little act of aggression that even now I think could have been a genuine mistake. But then, at that moment it might as well have been a glass of strychnine.
There was no reason for it all to have come out at that particular time, apart from the issue with my wine glass I could think of no specific cause. I sensed an atmosphere between them both though, something that hovered just beneath the surface of the calm, composed way they had with each other. I wondered if she knew about us, maybe she'd seen him cross the road at a different place when he'd left the house for work, or perhaps she'd smelt a trace of my perfume on his clothes. I didn't know, and there was no time for thinking, a storm was building within me and I somehow knew it was a critical moment.
It spilled from me in floods. A deluge of ferocious, vicious words that besieged the three of us. Once I'd dared to launch the first sentence into the room I had set in train a series of outrageous accusations. I remembered the time she'd cut my hair the day before we went back to school after the summer holidays, leaving the fringe skewed so that I'd have to suffer the heckling and mockery of my school mates. The time she'd forgotten to tell me our father wouldn't be able to collect me from school so I had to walk home in the dark. How she'd told our uncle how infrequently I visited mother in her care home, and so had to suffer not only the brutality of his rage but worse, his disappointment in me. There were so many more things I wanted to say, for the first time in my life all the uncertainty and misgivings, all the humiliation and indignity and all my hatred had been let loose.
I continued, my outburst gaining momentum with each subject. When the force of my tirade had begun to peter out I dropped my head and drew breath. I waited for her comeback to patch the mood but she said nothing, absolutely nothing. I wanted her to tell me not to be so foolish, that I'd exaggerated things, embellished them so they appeared to be more important than they actually were. I wanted her to express surprise, to stagger from the enormity of my accusations and then to come back with a rant so fierce I'd shrink right back into that harmless version of myself that had suffered the same criticisms for years. But she appeared to take it all for granted.
I knew her silence was confirmation that I'd hit some sort of weak spot, but which particular part of my dialogue of resentment had upset her remained personal. At this point I was completely at her mercy, but I knew from experience that it would come to light soon enough. I considered every possibility, every option that lay open to her. Cunning silences, nervous remarks, shrewd questioning. All the tools she had at her disposal. But I wasn't prepared for the ingenious and sly way she directed resentment away from herself and towards me.
" I do love you," she said
At this point, during the silence, he crossed the no-man's-land and stared at his wife. I wondered if he was going to take sides or remain impartial, I suspected the later. I think his reaction was based more on his sense of panic than a desire to protect me. But still, he had a lot more to lose than I did. There may have been a very brief moment when I thought he'd laugh, perhaps even turn the whole business into some sort of joke, but he simply laid his hand on my shoulder. I pulled away from him a little so that his hand dropped back down to his side but he moved it back onto my cheek. I scowled at him as an attempt to convey my uneasiness, but instead of pulling back, this time he kissed me on my lips.
She remained silent, but stunned. Her mouth fell open and she looked firstly at me, and then for a considerably longer time at him. I could sense the words forming in her mind. Her eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth as if to speak but something prevented her from saying anything at all. I visualized the processes at work in her head, the jumble of sentences that formed and reformed, the words that lay so shallowly beneath her anger. And I watched her familiar face turn bitter with uncertainty.
I had threatened the very thing she held most dear, nothing in her world provided her with so much. The house (his), and everything in it suddenly became inconsequential. Her reputation would be torn away, her status would become as insignificant as that of her most marginal and distant friends. I had never seen such fury in her before.
"What are you trying to do to me?" she whispered. "Hurt me, insult me, test me?"
I didn't have the courage or energy to answer.
"What do you want?" "Do you want to destroy me, is that it?"
She had started to shout, her words rising on a repetitive note. A part of me had tricked my own fear, and the discovery that I could do it gave me as much satisfaction as seeing my sister struggle with the enormity of what had happened.
He came back to my house and we talked for hours leaning up against the walls in my study. I was in too much turmoil to apologise, my only concession to his silence being my pretence at reasonableness. My anger had gone and in its place came the inevitable remorse. I told him how I'd never intended things to turn out the way they had. I had detected a change in him though, something that I couldn't quite put my finger on. His face remained expressionless.
He kissed me very gently and told me it would be for the best if we didn't meet again.
Perhaps, from the very beginning it was doomed. I thought I loved him, and I still believe he loved me. But we would never know. Who could know?
I would never see my sister again.