The Other Woman
By David Gardiner
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Raymond watched his wife attempt to shelter from the rain beneath the gaudy multi-coloured awning, while the two boys tugged restlessly at her hands. Her face was screwed up and angry, partly, he imagined, because she hated getting wet, partly from putting up with the discord of the two dissimilar pop-tunes that were combining from loudspeakers attached to two roughly equidistant fairground rides. He knew that it must be painful to her musician’s ear. Above the babble of the tinny music, the hiss of the rain and the muffled cries of other people’s children he could hear their voices with perfect clarity: "It's raining, Mummy!" Simon was protesting, giving her arm an extra tug for emphasis.
"I know it's raining. I can't help that. There's nothing I can do about it. Now, do you want to go on this thing or don't you?"
Simon grunted in a way that made it clear he did not consider the question worthy of an answer. “I want to go,” Mark assured her in his higher-pitched voice, anxious that there should be no room for misunderstanding in the matter.
Only one man in front of him now. Another harassed father like himself, slowly soaking up the rain in the pursuit of his offsprings' pleasure.
At last, Raymond was at the ticket-window. He looked up and met the ticket seller's eyes, opened his mouth to speak... and froze. For a fraction of a second the pretty young woman behind the window froze too, then an unbelieving, delighted smile spread across her face and she reached down to the desk below the window and wrote something quickly on the back of a little garishly printed leaflet.
"How many was that, Sir?" she inquired with exaggerated casualness. Along with the three tickets, she handed-over the leaflet with her scrawled message. "Enjoy the ride, Sir," she entreated cheerfully, and he fancied that he saw her form the ghost of a kiss with her lips.
"Have you got them, Raymond," Linda demanded from the cover of the awning, more than a trace of irritation in her voice.
"Well for God's sake come on. We're getting soaked here!"
He carefully pocketed the brochure along with his change and handed over the tickets. Linda and the boys hurried off in the direction of the roller coaster without saying a word, while he stood vacantly in the rain and watched the woman in the booth selling her tickets, seemingly oblivious of his presence.
After a few moments, feeling rather foolish, he made his way to the shelter of the fast food counter inside the penny arcade, bought a sad looking coffee in a polystyrene beaker, and sat down. He knew that he wanted to get the brochure out and read the message, but he found that he needed to work up to it. He could feel his heart pounding and a coldness spreading from somewhere in the pit of his stomach. He had so little past compared to most men of his age, and this was the first time any of it had impinged on his present. He didn’t have any coping strategies. He knew what he was supposed to do in theory, of course—tear up the note and throw it into the litter bin—but he also knew that he didn’t want to do that. If his present was different, perhaps, if his life contained anything that really gave him pleasure or satisfaction... but that seemed so unfair. Linda was not a bad wife. The boys were okay. They were not poor. He liked his work. All the elements that were supposed to make a man happy were present, to at least some degree. And yet he knew in his heart that it didn’t add up to anything. They were just two people who had begun to irritate one another, plodding along in a barely tolerable routine. Is that what all marriages become, he wondered, after a certain number of years? Do they have expiry dates, like frozen peas? At the core of his marriage was… what? An empty space, he thought. That was the metaphor that came to mind. For the last few years, everything had been focused on the boys. There was a tacit understanding between himself and Linda that they had had their chance and somehow blown it, and it was the turn of the boys now to try to find whatever it was that had evaded them—the “something” that gives point to human existence.
And into this vacuum, he thought, steps a ghost from his late teens. Almost like a message from on high, telling him that life is always open-ended, that the possibility of change never closes off completely.
He took the brochure from his pocket and carefully flattened it out.
- 0 -
Raymond hesitated at the open gate and tipped his umbrella back a fraction to see out across the muddy rutted field. He glanced down at his neat brown leather brogues. He should have thought of that, he mused. How was he going to explain the mud on his feet when he got back? Oh well, too late now.
A plain white trailer at the far left-hand corner of the field, the note had said. It was getting dark now and the trucks and trailers at the far end were silhouettes against the cascading lights of the fairground, from which drifted a cacophony of brash, distorted music, rising and falling on the waves of rain. True British seaside weather, he thought to himself, as he took the plunge into the godforsaken meadow, trying hard to keep to the firmer patches of ground between the muddy tire-tracks.
He hesitated at the trailer door, furled his umbrella, wondered once again about the wisdom of coming here, and might even have turned to go, had he not been already spotted. The door was suddenly thrown open, bathing him in a trapezium of yellow light. Before him stood the diminutive figure of the woman from the ticket booth, her arms outstretched, her peach-coloured robe allowing the back-lighting to pick-out every gentle curve of her flawless body with absolute precision. Raymond's felt his whole being respond with an involuntary surge of desire. My God, he said inwardly, what a heavenly creature! Without saying a word he stepped up into the van and embraced her. She kissed him long and eagerly on the lips, holding the back of his head as though to stop him from getting away while she did so, then rested her own head on his damp chest. Raymond wondered if she could hear his heart racing, feel his body trembling.
"You haven't changed," he whispered, "haven't aged a day."
"You look absolutely fantastic," she gasped, slightly out of breath from the kiss, "so elegant. I love the suit... let me get that wet coat off you..." She quickly unbuttoned his raincoat, helped him out of it and threw it carelessly over the back of a chair. "You look like a TV newsreader," she said delightedly, "or a managing director or a stockbroker or something? What are you doing now?" as she spoke she led him briskly to the bed, which was almost the only furnishing that the room contained, and drew him down to sit beside her.
"I.... I'm a doctor," he said nervously, "a medical doctor."
"A real doctor! That's fantastic! That's wonderful! Your Dad must be so thrilled with you!"
At last Raymond felt relaxed enough to smile. "Yes, he was quite proud. I'm afraid he's passed away."
She frowned. "Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Raymie. He was a nice man."
"It was... let me see... three or four years ago. He went peacefully."
"So," she smiled a mischievous smile, "you're all alone in the world now are you?"
"Not exactly," he replied sheepishly.
"Was that your wife?" He nodded. "And the two boys?" He nodded again. She looked into his eyes for a moment before she spoke. "It's not working out for you, though, is it?"
Raymond felt defensive. "What makes you say that?"
She took his right hand in both of hers. "Oh, just a feeling. Sorry. None of my business."
"No... you're right, actually. That's why we're here... Linda thought we weren't seeing enough of one another. Needed to spend some time together as a family... but you don't want to talk about that, do you?" She shrugged. "Tell me about yourself, Joyce. What have you been doing? How on earth did you end-up selling tickets at this place?.. Sorry, I didn't mean it to sound like that..."
She laughed. "No, you're quite right. It isn't much of a job. I was a singer for a while... I used to go to Spain and Turkey, work the bars in the summer season. Had a few trips on ocean liners too... holiday camps... places like Margate and Blackpool... It's a long story, have you got all night?" she winked as she said this. "Anyway, I had this boyfriend named Chris, and he got me this job. Because I needed a job. And it's not quite as bad as it looks. I get my food, I get this van to live in, I see different places, everybody's nice to me, I meet lots of people... and it's not exactly hard work. I don't suppose I'll be here for ever, but it suits me at the moment."
He nodded. "Is there... somebody in your life then?" he asked awkwardly. He could tell from her expression that she didn't really know how to answer. He decided to ask something else. "I've often thought about that day in the tent—you know, at Hastings. Do you ever think about it?"
"Strangely enough, yes."
It was Raymond's turn to laugh. "Why do you say 'strangely enough'?"
"Well, sweetie, it may have been your first time, but it sure as hell wasn't mine! It was special, though. It was really special."
"It was... special for me too, Joyce."
"So. Was I the best bit of ass you've ever had?" She said it in the coarsest American accent she could affect. "Tell me, because a girl likes to know things like that."
He laughed. "You were... absolutely lovely. And unforgettable."
She kissed him lightly on the lips. "Always the perfect gentleman, Raymie. Even back then. We were going to go to India together, do you remember?"
“Of course I remember. It was a crazy idea. We didn’t have a penny between us.”
She looked puzzled. “I went. Didn’t you know?”
He shook his head incredulously. “You were always… adventurous. I wish… that you'd waited for me. Sorry, I don’t know why I said that. Crossing continents without any money isn’t really me, is it?”
“I think I was a bit scared of you, you know. I think a lot of the boys were. They used to say nasty things about you. You knew that, didn’t you? But it never seemed to bother you.”
“Why? Did it bother you?”
He grinned broadly. "It wasn't me they were saying it about! No, I suppose if I'm honest I don't care much what people say about me either. We're similar in some ways, aren't we?"
She nodded and looked him straight in the eyes. "Very similar, in all the ways that matter. That's why it was so special for me. And why I was so pleased when I saw you again today. You were the only one, Raymie. The only one out of all those boys... and all the ones since... the only one who was the same as me."
Raymond looked interested. "Can you explain?"
She started to stroke his hair idly. "You and I are exactly the same, Raymie. We're lost souls. I wanted you to come here tonight so that I could make sure that I was right, that I hadn't just imagined it, and now I know that I am. Right there at the very centre," she put her hand over his heart, "where there should be the soul—the driving passion or something—there's nothing. No pleasure, no pain, no sadness, no joy—nothing that we need, nothing that we really want or care about. Just nothing. A missing link right at the very beginning of the chain. Do you know what I mean?"
He looked at her and an alarmed expression darted across his face. "No, I don’t think that I do. Why do you say that?"
"I remember everything about you, you know. I know you better than you know yourself. I knew you would stay on and do all those 'A' levels and get all those degrees. Not because you wanted to, but because other people wanted you to. Your father. Your teachers. It was the path of least resistance for you, wasn't it? I was part of that path too. And your marriage, I'll bet, and your children, and your nice house and your nice car (which I'm sure you've got), and everything you've ever done. You don't make decisions, do you Raymie? You go where the wind takes you. I do that too. It's all I've ever done. I wasn't clever like you. I was just pretty, and I could sing, after a fashion. I could have done more than I did though. Got a better job. Been faithful to one man. Had kids. Done something with my singing career, even. But it never mattered enough. I could never really see the point of any of it. And unlike you, I suppose, there was nobody I was trying to impress. That's what's special about us, Raymie. Right at the centre," she tapped his chest lightly" there isn't anything. Nothing at all."
"No, no, I don’t agree" he protested, "what you're talking about is the same for most people. Nobody really knows what they're after. But everybody's after something..."
"Even you? All right then. What is it that you're after? Money? Fame? Sex? Your wife’s love? Your sons' love? Some sort of creative satisfaction, maybe? Approval? Self-esteem? Pleasure... what? What is it that drives you, Raymie? Tell me."
He looked at her in silence. "That's an impossible question," he whispered.
"It is for us." She waited but he did not comment. "All those men," she drew out the words, her thoughts seeming to carry her off into a daydream, "I lost count years ago. I learned to play so many roles for them. The meek little domestic servant. The woman of mystery. The jealous lover. The sweet, reluctant virgin. The mother with the wide open arms. The damsel in distress. The wholesome girl-next-door. The shoulder to cry on. The best pal. The little whore who can't get enough of it. The big sister who knows best. The ego-inflater-supremo. But you were the only one who was the same as me. Isn't that peculiar? And that's what makes it so wonderful. We don't have to lie to one another. We don't have to pretend about anything. Because we're exactly the same. We can have an affair if you want us to. It probably won't last very long, but it will be good for a little while. And we can really talk to one another. Analyze ourselves. You're a doctor, you know about that kind of thing. Maybe we'll even find that missing link. Are you up for it?"
"Is... is that what this is all about? You want sex with me?" He didn't mean it to sound the way it did—crude, judgmental—but Joyce seemed to understand.
"Not particularly. But I don't mind, and I thought you might be ready for somebody else after all those years with the same woman. Doesn't it get boring after a while? But if you don't want it it's okay. I just thought I would offer."
Raymond discovered that she was making him quite angry. He drew away. "You think you're God, don't you? You think you know what's going on inside everybody's mind. But really... it's just another form of manipulation. You're the same as everyone else. There's something you want and this is your way of getting it." Was it anger or was it fear? He wasn't certain.
"No, Raymie. You're wrong. This one time—that was what Al Pacino said in The Godfather, wasn't it?—this one time, you're not being manipulated. You have to make your own choice. Do you want your wife? Do you want me? Do you want the life you've got? Do you want a different life? Do you just want to go along with everything like you've been doing since you were about ten years old? I don't care, Raymie. I really don't care what you decide to do. But please don't tell me that I'm forcing you to do anything or trying to manipulate you, because that isn't true. And deep down, you know it isn't, don't you?"
- 0 -
He knew that Linda would hear the front door open. She was out of the bedroom before he had time to push it shut behind him, fully dressed, seething with suppressed fury, hissing at him from between clenched teeth, trying to shout and whisper at the same time so as not to waken the boys: "What in God's name do you think you're playing at? Do you know the time? Where the hell have you been all evening? Is this what you call spending time together? Have you gone completely insane? What's that on your shoes? What have you done with your umbrella? Are you drunk? Are you listening to a word I'm saying...?"
He looked at her with a strange puzzled expression, as though he were seeing her for the very first time in his life. The rain trickled down from his hair and dripped from his chin and the hem of his coat on to the soft chalet carpet. The words just kept coming. They started to wash over him, like the windblown rain outside. His face slowly grew calm. He almost smiled. He opened the door again and turned to go. The words stopped. She rushed forward in disbelief and grabbed him by the shoulder, turning him around. Their eyes met and the fury in her face melted into total disbelief. Raymond was smiling. Not at her, but he was smiling, and he was turning and stepping back out into the rain.
In total incomprehension she let his shoulder slip from her grasp and watched as he walked calmly into the fury of the midnight storm. Then he slowly stopped, stood and thought for a few moments, and turned around to face her. "It's all right, Linda," he said quietly, his words almost drowned-out by the hiss of the rain, "I’m just going away for a while. I’ll be back. You see—I've finally discovered something that I want to do myself. It’s never happened before."
“Do you think I’m a fool? You’re going off with that bitch from the ticket booth, aren’t you?”
“As a matter of fact, no. I’m going to India on my own. I won’t be away very long.”
As she looked on, lost for words, he walked slowly into the storm and was soon swallowed up by the rain and the darkness.