Authors: Andrea Goldsmith
‘And what were you doing at a bar, Roy?’
‘Can’t let the tools get rusty while Susan’s producing the son and heir. A man could go – wait! Look! over there. Isn’t that Elizabeth Dadswell with Lydia Branch? That Lydia’s got a bit of gall being so friendly with her boyfriend’s wife.’
‘She’s a nice woman, Elizabeth Dadswell, attractive too.’
‘Don’t think that’s particularly relevant, Alex. What do you say, Tony?’
‘I think she’s quite plain.’
‘Of course you would,’ Alex said. ‘Neither taste nor subtlety has ever been your yardstick when choosing women. Elizabeth Dadswell has a refined sort of beauty, it requires a certain sophistication to appreciate it. I’d say Paulé Warby’s more your type.’
Roy was searching the crowd. ‘Did you see the girl Elizabeth was talking to before?’
‘The one with the green turban?’
‘That’s the one. I’m told she’s a lezzo.’
‘Really? No! Couldn’t tell by looking at her.’
‘Yeah, they should make it more obvious. A fellow could get himself into a lot of trouble.’
Elizabeth was scraping fragments of quiche from plate to bin. Kate stood nearby, intrigued by the crowd. She was reminded of a group tango; Elizabeth laughed at the image.
‘Is it always so – so frenetic?’ Kate asked.
Elizabeth nodded. Always.
‘I can’t imagine you enjoy it.’
Elizabeth added the quiche platter to a pile of dirty dishes, she didn’t, but what else could she do? Adrian loved it. ‘You know what he’s like – a few drinks, good food, a large crowd and he’s perfectly happy.’
‘But he must know you don’t enjoy it.’
‘Of course he does, but he says it’s not his problem. You know what he’s like,’ Elizabeth said again, ‘a slap on the bottom, a peck on the cheek, a “Keep your chin up, Liz” and he thinks he’s done his bit.’ She turned to the crowd. ‘Just take a look at him now.’
Adrian was attempting to plait the fringes of Paulé’s shorts.
‘But he doesn’t even like Paulé Warby!’
‘That’s irrelevant. She’s a woman isn’t she? and aren’t all women his domain? It’s his right to seduce them, their responsibility to be grateful.’ Elizabeth took a clean plate and started to arrange chicken wings marinated in plum sauce. Her great-grandmother’s diamonds caught the light and sent an iridescent shower over the food.
Kate was dumbfounded; it was not simply what Elizabeth had said – although that was startling enough – but the fact of her saying it at all. Elizabeth was a reserved and private woman; even during the time of the mothers’ group when days were saturated with emotion, Elizabeth had remained calm. If ever she experienced emotional upheavals no one knew about it. In all the years they had known each other, with the single exception of Ginnie’s second birthday, Elizabeth had never discussed her marriage,
never mentioned Adrian except in the most noncommittal terms, so it had been easy to assume she was unaware of his infidelities. And yet now, Kate realised, she had given very little thought to Elizabeth’s knowledge of Adrian; now, suddenly, it was ludicrous to think that Elizabeth, who shared a house with him, who knew what time he arrived home, who could smell rich restaurant food on his breath, who saw the stains on his clothes, who heard the excuses he made, had lived in ignorance all this time. Utterly ludicrous, especially as hardly a week of their married life would have passed without Adrian’s being unfaithful.
‘And you, Kate,’ said Elizabeth as she nestled clumps of parsley among the chicken wings, ‘what about you, have you slept with him too?’
Kate’s ability to lie was as undeveloped as her sense of responsibility, and all her friends knew it.
‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’
‘But you don’t even like men!’ Elizabeth shook the bunch of parsley at the air, not angrily, more incredulously: if Kate could sleep with him, anyone could.
‘I know, it’s ridiculous, even more so when you consider I’ve never much liked your husband; it’s you I’ve always cared about.’
‘Ah yes, but that’s part of the strategy, Adrian sees it as a duty to sleep with all my friends. I thought he would have failed with you, I know he did with Vivienne; it looks as if she’s the only one.’
‘It was a long time ago – not that I’m making excuses, I haven’t any, I guess it was just easier than saying no.’
Elizabeth laughed in spite of herself. ‘Oh Kate, how very typical of you. And did you enjoy it? Were you duly grateful?’
‘Are you sure you want to discuss this?’
Elizabeth added a few carrot curls to the chicken wings. ‘As long as I keep asking questions you can safely assume I want to know. Now, was he any good?’
‘Well to be honest, no. At the time I was surprised, what with the extent of his reputation, but now I’m a little wiser and I think I understand.’ She touched Elizabeth’s arm. ‘Are you sure you want to know all this?’ Elizabeth nodded, so Kate continued. ‘Adrian’s one of those men who sees sex as performance, as a
display, so a large erect penis with much thrusting from exotic positions is important, while the response of the woman is not.’ Kate paused and watched Elizabeth adjusting the parsley. ‘But you must know this better than I.’
Elizabeth shrugged, it seemed she wasn’t so sure. ‘Go on.’
‘Adrian places a high premium on masculinity. Too high. It seems to me that if he were promiscuous wholly and simply because he liked sex then you’d expect him to do it with men as well as women; I mean, if it’s no more than simple visceral arousal that impels you then you take it wherever it’s offering. But there’s something else operating with your husband, because, as we both know, he does not have sex with men and will not.’ Kate leaned forward, took a chicken wing and rearranged some parsley to cover the space. ‘Do you remember how Adrian responded when Jules told him he was gay?’ Elizabeth nodded, how could she forget, Adrian had been upset for months. ‘Adrian seemed to take it so personally, almost as if his old friend Jules had betrayed him. And do you recall Adrian’s response when you suggested that Jules’ choice was not so different to my preference for women, do you remember?’ Elizabeth remembered all too well: it was different with Kate, he had said, all her lesbianism meant was one less woman to fuck, his mate Jules was quite another matter. ‘He’s my mate,’ Adrian had protested, ‘my mate.’
‘Adrian’s response to Jules was most edifying,’ Kate continued. ‘Sex for your husband involves power, and power as far as he’s concerned exists only in relation to women. Men are his equals, sex between men then is senseless, an absurdity. Remember what he kept saying about Jules: I don’t understand it, how could he? Men you love and enjoy so you don’t fuck them, women are there only for fucking – there’s no other way of relating to them. Indeed, if he were impotent he would have nothing to do with them, except of course to have his socks washed and meals cooked.’
While Kate had been talking Elizabeth had kneaded a sprig of parsley down to the stalk, now she chewed on it. ‘Adrian used to say there was something wrong with me; he said I was frigid.’
Warm, gentle, loving Elizabeth frigid? ‘Adrian’s mad!’
‘I don’t know, I believed him for years.’
‘I’m not so sure.’
Kate leaned forward and smoothed a wrinkle from her stocking. From the level of her shin she asked Elizabeth if she had ever been with anyone other than Adrian. The response was prompt, she hadn’t. ‘And don’t be embarrassed,’ Elizabeth said, ‘I’m not. In fact, while you were talking about Adrian, it occurred to me I’m probably the only person here who’s remained faithful to their spouse. What do you say, Kate?’
‘Undoubtedly! Just have a look at them, there’s complicity in their very wrinkles.’
Elizabeth laughed and spread her arms wide. ‘Kate dearest, there’s nothing complicit in this display.’
And there wasn’t. There were more than a hundred people now, all gathered like shadow puppets in the waning light. It was a jeering, leering, lolling, jelly-like crowd of faces and hands: hands holding drinks, hands grasping food, hands squelching body parts. One man, top hat perfectly cocked, grey morning coat sleek to the calf, was grinding the thigh of a woman with one hand, holding his drink in the other, and carrying on a conversation with Oliver Warby about the profits to be made in pathology. Oliver, tossing his words like a pugilist, followed the progress of his colleague’s hand while keeping his own occupied with the loose change in his pocket.
‘And over there.’ Kate said.
Two men were urinating against a tree.
‘Like dogs,’ Elizabeth said.
A woman returning from the ladies’ toilet stopped and offered to lend the men a hand. Elizabeth turned away.
‘It’s disgusting. Adrian calls me frigid, but it’s not that, it’s simply that I don’t like sex, or at least don’t like this sort of sex. Look what it does to people,’ and again she raised her arms to the crowd. ‘Am I expected to like all this, invite all this, be grateful for all this?’ She turned to Kate. ‘Tell me, have you heard one sensible utterance today?’ Kate shook her head. ‘But I guarantee you’ve had several propositions.’
‘It’s hard to believe that here before us is mankind in all its perfection.’
The lights of the carpark had been switched on and coarse, austere shadows plastered the crowd; colours were tainted with a coppery glow, bones reared and hollows deepened. The false light accentuated what the polite light of day shrouded. Oliver Warby then, had become all mouth: eyes gazing down the nose to the mouth, hollowed cheeks sliding into the mouth, large chin humping upwards to the mouth, long sideburns slicing to the mouth. Mouth gnashing the shadows, filaments of saliva catching the light, stretching horribly between squelching lips; words bashed and torpedoed. And Paulé slouching into Hugh Nethercott’s armpit had been reduced to a skeleton, a skeleton jiggling with affectation. Hands, arms, orchestrated everyone’s words as well as her own, her exclamations and expletives rising above the clamour of the crowd. Pathetic bleatings, Elizabeth thought, but Paulé had been crying for years and no one had bothered to listen.
Paulé Warby had been born Paula Barnes; she was still Paula Barnes when she took a job as receptionist in the gastroenterology department at Northern General. It was there she had met Dr Oliver Warby who was still young enough for people to believe he would outgrow his arrogant ways. He did not, but that could only be known later. Behind Paula’s mask of makeup and cheap clothes Oliver had spied a perfect figure in a five-foot ten-inch frame, blonde hair and lots of potential. By the time they were married, Paula had become Paulé, thighs and cleavage were flaunted, flirting and affectations had become her forte.
Oliver had always said he wanted a wife who was a real woman, one he could show off. ‘Like a handbag?’ Elizabeth had suggested to him, soon after her own marriage to Adrian. ‘Sure, as long as it’s imported snakeskin,’ he had replied. Anguine Oliver checked every now and then that his handbag was in place and continued his life. Within a few short years Paulé’s repertoire of gestures and exclamations was embellished with despair: Paulé was out of her depth. But no one seemed to notice or care – except Elizabeth, who invited her for coffee one day and an opportunity to talk.
But Paulé had little to say. She drank two cups of coffee, ate one piece of home-made almond bread, chatted about the new season’s fashions, gossiped about mutual friends and left after an hour and fifteen minutes to pick up the children from tennis. It was clear Paulé would need to sink lower than Hugh Nethercott’s armpit before she confided in anyone.
‘There are times I feel sorry for Paulé,’ Kate said watching her, ‘and now is one of them.’
Paulé waved her arms and cried out for a while longer and then she did not. She excused herself, pretending to be in need of the toilet. Off she went to the ladies’ where she sat in one of the cubicles for a long time. When it was completely dark she went outside to the pine trees to wait until the party was over. Paulé was fighting with shadows and many years would pass before she stepped into the light.
Adrian remained in the thick of things, charging from one group to the next, filling glasses, bestowing camaraderie on the boys and caresses on the girls. Elizabeth and Kate watched him.
‘Everyone loves him.’
Elizabeth smiled ruefully. ‘I know.’
‘And yet he’s so transparent.’
‘So very slight.’
‘So why do you put up with him?’
‘It’s never that simple, Kate.’
‘Sorry. Sometimes I forget you’re married to him.’
‘And that’s never simple.’
‘But he gives you nothing.’
‘That’s not quite right, through him I’m a wife and mother.’
‘And before him you were a woman and a sculptor.’
‘How odd, Vivienne reminded me of that recently, but it’s difficult to assert the old Elizabeth now, impossible to rely on the person I was a decade ago.’ The carapace shivered, Elizabeth hid her face.
‘I’m sorry.’ Kate said again.
‘Don’t apologise, I don’t mind talking about this, not any more.
I realise I should have done it years ago, although this is not really the best place.’
‘And why now? What’s been happening to you recently?’
‘I’ll tell you another time.’ Elizabeth searched in her handbag for lipstick and perfume and applied a little of both.
‘Too bad a new face is only skin deep,’ Kate quipped.
Elizabeth laughed and returned the cosmetics to her bag. ‘And what about you? Vivienne mentioned you might have a teaching position for next year.’
‘So it seems. In the English Department at Baxter College.’
‘That’s an impressive beginning to your career.’
‘Entirely Vivienne’s work. She knew half the selection committee so made an excellent referee.’
‘And Walter? What arrangements have you made for him.’
‘None at all, his routine shouldn’t change. The head of department – a woman with kids herself which might explain why she was so accommodating – assured me that as long as I agree to take phone calls at home I can leave work at 3.30. And they’ve promised there’ll be no evening classes for at least two years.’