by Lyla Harling
Editor’s note: I’m getting fed up of this instalment method of publishing Lyla’s Harling’s Turn Left at the Nasturtiums, and so, I imagine, are the readers. I’ve been unable to sustain regular bi-weekly instalments, and am discouraged the limited feedback; the reader must be frustrated and dissatisfied by being unable to control how much can be read at one sitting and when the next episode appears.
The only advantage of this publication-by-blog exercise is that the job is getting done, and I will continue to the end – as quickly as possible. Then the plan is to gather all the chapters into a single file that readers can download, and which can be placed on a ‘crowd-editing’ scheme. – Gilly Cameron Cooper, editor
Three weeks passed. Conrad rang Kate regularly. Helena didn’t make progress, but she didn’t regress either. Conrad had all but moved in with his mother; it was a time of nervous waiting and watching, illuminated by an even greater closeness. Helena had never been clingy, but now she fretted if he wasn’t within call, at least in the evenings. I wouldn’t be much help, Kate lied to herself, Helena wants Conrad, not me, but she only half convinced herself and hated the half conviction. The minute they need me I’ll go back; I can be home in a day. Thus she sought to bury her unease.
Angela and Kate now spent a great deal of time at the little Hydra house, which Kate had made up her mind to buy. It had, as estate agents say, great potential, and Kate liked the sound of that. Angela had only really used the house as an overflow for the children and their friends, so it was pared down to basics. A perfect place to write, Kate thought – a point she’d made to Conrad, several times. He’d replied with perfect truth that her large, quiet study at the back of the house in Holland Park was also a perfect place to write, and had been for fifteen years. There was no satisfactory answer to this, other than the fact that London was full of distractions, and both Kate and Conrad knew that Kate’s self-discipline, when engaged on a book, was equal to any amount of distraction.
It was now the beginning of August and the heat had a new, throbbing intensity. Kate wrote in the early morning: letters first, and then the book about Hydra. Twice she had abandoned what she had written and had started again. On more than one occasion she had asked herself why she was writing it. Was it therapy, or a genuine desire to garland the island, to celebrate it because of the pleasure and peace of mind it had given her? That was the reason she had given Sam, and was still valid. Had she thought that the book would be easy (it wasn’t), or at least easier than a novel, and a stepping-stone from a bankrupt mind to a rich and fertile one? Maybe it was just providing an excuse to stay longer. Robin had said she should experience autumn and winter on the island, the drawing in, the digging in, after the yachts flying the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes flounced out of the harbour, leaving only the caiques with their blue and white Greek flags. And Robin was right. But there was still a half-finished manuscript waiting her attention in London. Sam would be pleased if she came home to complete it. So would Conrad.
Then Luke rang. Kate had persuaded herself that he wouldn’t, and had persuaded herself that she was glad. Felicity’s confidences, unwanted though they were, had struck a dissonant chord that continued to resonate. There was no possible comparison between Luke’s single lapse and Conrad’s compulsive flirtations. To Conrad, compulsive flirtation was as easy and as necessary as breathing, whereas Luke’s lapse would have been accompanied by the tiring emotional baggage of guilt. But pain was pain, and Kate had no wish to inflict it, or rather would have preferred things to be ordered differently so that there was no need to inflict it.
“Hello Kate. How are you?” That well-remembered staccato voice.
Kate had been expecting a call from Nell, who had been ringing a lot, as the wedding was planned for October. It was to be very informal at an Edinburgh registry office. Remembering her own stylish marriage, Kate had a moment’s regret that there was to be no big event with orange blossom and confetti, three-tiered wedding cake, interminable speeches and an over-excited best man, but a moment’s rational thought dismissed the notion. She couldn’t imagine Conrad giving the bride away, and Nell would be much happier spending on enlarging the hotel kitchen than on satin and lace. But whatever happened, Kate was going to Edinburgh in October.
She sat down on the floor by the telephone. Her voice sounded less than gracious, but perhaps better that than shell-shocked:
“I was expecting a call from Nell.”
“I hope I’m not a disappointment.” Laughter…and the sure knowledge that his call wouldn’t disappoint.
“No. But a surprise.”
Kate was surprised. She was being neither shy nor disingenuous. She had thought Luke far away on Mykonos, with Felicity, Jamie and the girls. Long scorching days on the beach; early supper for the younger children, supervised by Felicity; a leisurely later dinner with Luke; Priscilla wanting to go to a disco. Family life.
“Felicity went on ahead with the children. I had a couple of things to finish up in Athens for a few more days.”
Kate waited. Not helping.
“… and I wondered what my chances were of getting into the Miranda again.”
“Slim, I should think. But you could try the Orloff, or I could try for you.”
It would give her time to think, ringing the Orloff, ringing him back.
The Orloff was, of course, fully booked, as Kate knew it would be: in August, Hydra was as full of people as a ripe fig is full of seeds. Robin and Angela would be happy to put Luke up; Robin would think nothing of it, but Angela might begin to wonder about a third visit to the island without Felicity. Or there were her two empty bedrooms here. That would be playing with fire. No, playing with matches, which could be put down, blown out…
After she had spoken again to Luke, burning her boats and offering a bedroom, Kate sat on the terrace. There’s only one possible outcome, she thought, unless I’ve utterly misread the signals. Fifteen years of faithful marriage, and now, at the age of fifty, I’m about to deceive Conrad, betray Felicity, compromise my friendship with Angela (if she should happen to find out) and amuse Anna (if I should choose to tell her), thereby compounding my betrayal of Felicity, who has this exasperating notion that we’re sisters under the skin. Perhaps that’s partly why I’m behaving so badly. Kate watched Grubby watching a lizard. Grubby pounced. The tiny dragon of a lizard darted off.
Later, in bed, Kate made a list in her head of those of her friends who would approve of what she was doing, or planning to do, and those who would deplore it. The ayes had it by a large margin.
Living with Conrad for so long had gone some way towards making Kate aware of her appearance. He expected, and got, a tremendous attention to detail which hitherto Kate would have felt unnecessary: clothes that fitted to perfection, colours that flattered instead of being chosen at random because she had a sudden fancy for orange, bespoke evening wear if the occasion demanded them. It was to flatter herself, but for comfort, too: the ease of silk-lined coats and jackets and skirts; cotton and linen, certainly no synthetics – Conrad didn’t like the feel of them. Kate’s taste and style had been well-formed when she married him. She had been thought, had indeed thought herself on the right side of chic, but Conrad had added the polish, the difference between looking really rather nice and standing out in a crowd. It wasn’t that Conrad attended fittings or fussed about the quality of her clothes in any noticeable way, but he had an unerring eye and Kate just knew when she’d got it right. Or wrong. Inevitably Helena had had a hand in his sartorial education. Not in any conscious way, but he’d absorbed it by osmosis from an early age.
For all her confidence, the evening Kate was to meet Luke she changed her clothes several times. Not that Luke was in Conrad’s class – he wouldn’t know a Jean Muir from a Christian Lacroix, or care. As she pulled off a plain black vest top and pulled on a plain white one (Vogue had said that this summer you couldn’t go wrong with a plain, dazzling white), Kate pondered the reason for the pile of discarded clothes on the floor and on the bed. Luke had seen her sandy, salty and dishevelled; Felicity wasn’t in any sense a hard act to follow; she knew herself to be in good shape for her age. But therein lay the problem: fifty-year-old bodies weren’t thirty-year-old bodies. Kate was concerned at the thought of taking her clothes off in front of a man who wasn’t Conrad, however critical Conrad might be. Time had laid a discreet finger on her. It was the lightest possible finger – no cellulite, sagging flesh or flaccid muscles – but there were the beginnings of softness in her skin that spoke of ripe fruit passing its peak.
A certain amount of self assurance could be gained by painting her usually unadorned toe-nails a lively scarlet, hanging long, freshwater pearl and rock-crystal ear-rings – intricate flowers that danced and swayed against her brown, satiny cheeks with every movement of her head. These had been one of Conrad’s many presents. Kate preferred semi-precious stones, and Conrad sought out unusual pieces to please her. Just before she went to meet Luke, Kate removed them. She replaced them with heavy gold hoops she had bought herself. It was a ridiculous nod in the direction of marital tact that made Kate impatient with herself. Conrad would have been the first to laugh at such sentiment. She slipped them out and reinstated the others.
At nine-o-clock in the evening, the last Flying Dolphin of the day was already creaming towards Spetses and Kate was on her way to meet Luke at the restaurant they’d been to before. She was regretting the choice before she was ten minutes into the walk to the little harbour. If this was a lovers’ meeting, and what else could it be, she didn’t want to arrive dripping with sweat, eye make-up one way, lipstick the other, damp patches on the back of her top. It would have been so much better to have met at the house, watched the sunset from the terrace, drunk wine that was properly chilled, eaten better. Kate arrived with heat-induced resentment only just under control. There was no sign of Luke; there wasn’t even a free table.
Kate sat in a chair by the kitchen door, kindly offered by the owner of the taverna, accepted a glass of cloudy retsina, and wondered what on earth she was doing. I’ll give it twenty minutes, she thought, quarter-of-an-hour. If he’s missed the last Dolphin he’d have rung long ago. She had an acute, half remembered sensation, not felt for many years, of outraged incredulity followed by the shame of having gone to so much trouble. I bet this never happens to Conrad, Kate gloomed; it was unthinkable that he should be kept waiting. His victims probably arrived a good half-an-hour early, and hid in the cloakroom. A party of English people, pink with sunburn and not yet keeping Greek hours, left their table. Kate was collected from her seat by the kitchen door and settled – the owner of the taverna now knew her by sight. Kate attempted “I’m waiting for a friend,” but couldn’t remember the word for friend, and didn’t want to say “I’m waiting for a man.” She decided she wasn’t cut out for adultery, hoped she looked perfectly happy with her solitary state to the other diners, and faced up to the fact that her disappointment would be intense if Luke didn’t come.
Three hours later, Kate and Luke were swimming in a star-spangled sea alive with phosphorescence. They went off the rocks where she usually swam with Angela. The lack of bathing suits was several glasses of wine and a couple of brandies away from mattering. They slipped out of their clothes and slipped into the water. Not for the first time on the island, Kate felt fifteen again.
“Swimming in stars?”
But before the swim, surrounded by the fishy debris of their supper, Kate learnt more about Luke, peeled off another layer of onion skin. And after they’d got back to her house, she told him more of her life with Conrad. It seemed to Kate that this exchange of confidence was a rite of passage, something that needed to be said and done. It prepared the ground for what was to come. My characters don’t perform this delicate mating dance, Kate thought, during the latter half of dinner: advancing and bowing and backing off. A verbal pre-mating ritual. Perhaps it’s something to do with age. Most of her characters were well under fifty and well used to changing partners.
A surprise was Luke’s version of events regarding his affair, or perhaps even the fact that he talked about it at all. Obliquely, it probably prepared the way for their starry swim.
“It happened at a time when Felicity was at a very low ebb, both physically and emotionally. I wasn’t proud of myself, but that didn’t make the slightest difference, of course.”
Kate had told him she knew of the affair half-an-hour earlier – it seemed pointless to conceal it, and underhand, too – almost like watching someone who was deeply asleep, which Kate had never liked doing or think of anyone doing it to her. People always looked so defenceless in their sleep that it seemed an intolerable intrusion to stare, however lovingly.
“I don’t suppose you gave Felicity much thought. One doesn’t, I gather, in such circumstances.”
Luke glanced at her. “Miss Prim.”
“I can’t speak from experience,” Kate smiled. “Call me names if you like, but I can really only speculate. ”
She wondered if Luke was about to ask her if she’d ever deceived Conrad, or even why she’d never deceived him. She had hoped he wouldn’t; it was a banal question, usually asked by women, and one she had tried to answer, so many times. Men, on the whole, were happy to accept the comfortable myth that nice girls didn’t. Luke was silent. He fiddled with a piece of melon rind, fretting at the edge with his knife, miles away, intent on what looked like an intensely painful remembrance of things past.
“She never knew what tipped me over into adultery,” Luke finally said, still fiddling with the melon. “Perhaps I should have told her, but it would have been damaging to hear. Partly it was an irritating list of little things, I’m ashamed to say how little some of them were, but collectively, they all added up.”
There followed the smallest litany of Felicity’s failings, but hitherto Luke had been so loyal, there had been barely a crack in the facade except the fact of him being here, without Felicity, for the third time. That was a considerable crack, a crevasse… Luke continued:
“She thinks I was pursued and pounced on. I wasn’t. I did the pursuing, and it wasn’t just for sex or a new face on the pillow. I was in search of freedom, of ideas, for one thing, but freedom from the rituals and tyranny of marriage. A comfortable tyranny, maybe, but one that’s regulated by school runs, baked beans and trips to the dentist for yet another set of braces.”
Luke glanced at Kate again, pushing aside the melon fragments.
“She didn’t live by the clock, except her own body clock. In some ways she wasn’t unlike Claudia. Not as beautiful and considerably brighter, but they both had a life-force that’s lacking in Felicity. Maybe hers is all channelled into the children. Anyway, it was very heady at the time. And it was definitely me who made all the running, no doubt about that. Felicity always believed it was the other way round, which was convenient for me, and for her. I was pitched as the hapless victim of a predatory colleague. It was a convincing excuse, with not a word of truth in it.”
“Did it run its course?”
Luke sighed. “No, it didn’t. Felicity pulled a flanker. Not intentionally, I’m sure of that. She had some sort of gynaecological trouble, and the stress blew it up into a real problem. Or that was the story I got, which was more or less supported by her doctor, and presumably true. It was thought that she’d have to have a hysterectomy; as it was she lost an ovary.”
A hysterectomy, even the threat of one, for someone like Felicity would have been desolating, thought Kate. Earth Mother losing her magic and her fertility before time. It must have really knocked her off balance.
“It really knocked her off balance”, continued Luke, picking up exactly Kate’s thought. “She was ill for a long time afterwards. Not so much physically, but she just gave up for a bit. The children were affected, especially Jamie. So it was goodbye silken dalliance and errant husband for me, and return to dutiful husband.”
“Hag-ridden-with-guilt, since you ask.”
“But still looking over your shoulder?”
“Well, you know – forbidden fruit is a potent diet.” Luke got up to go to the lavatory.
So Felicity retreated into illness too when it all got too much for her, Kate reflected, just as I did. Neither of us engineered our breakdowns – my shingles, her hormonal upheaval. But my drinking and obsessive slimming were self-inflicted and selfish; Felicity was at least protecting her young and securing her mate. She still is hog-tying the already hag-ridden, though I doubt whether she knows she’s doing it. Luke does, though, and is finding it hard to live with.
Luke sat down again. He looked strung-up by memory. “Have you mended your fences, then?” Kate asked.
“As you see, a bit of baler twine here and there. All marriages need a bit of baler twine now and then.”
Was he being defensive? The fences hadn’t really mended. Kate took a cigarette from her packet and Luke lit it. His hands cupped hers – completely unnecessarily, as there wasn’t a breath of wind. Most of the other diners had left, apart from a table of fishermen whom Kate had seen there before. They drank beer followed by ouzo, and the scent of their strong tobacco hung pungently on the air. As usually happened, one started to sing and the others joined in softly, respecting other diners, but totally absorbed. The owner of the taverna was sitting with them.
Kate waited for Luke to speak. The ‘as you see’ had been ambivalent and almost teasing; a challenge. He can pick up his own gauntlet, she thought; and after a moment, he did.
“Felicity doesn’t have many fall-back positions, only contingency plans. And that’s my role: in any contingency, I’m expected to be there.”
Such is the story of many a marriage. It’s not quite as clichéd as staying together for the sake of the children, but with the wearing off of any gloss there once may have been, respect, responsibility, old affection and seeing the young safely launched become the bread-and-butter ties that keep couples together. That form the concrete between the cracks. When the young leave the nest, often enough the habit of loving takes over. But the habit of loving, in Luke’s case, was beginning to seem threadbare.
He’d never loved Felicity, he insisted, not in the true, deep sense of the word. Not like the gut-wrenching affair with Claudia, when they’d spent as much time amiably arguing – about books, painting, work, people and what motivated them – as they’d spent in bed. With Felicity this was impossible – she didn’t have a discursive mind, she didn’t read the sort of book that sparked discussion, and regarded speculation about people and what made them tick as a waste of time. The children and their development took preference, and precedence: Jamie’s asthma, Priscilla’s puppy fat. Latterly, the main topic was how soon did Luke think it would be before they could start thinking of leaving Athens and returning to London?
“You’re obviously bored with fish fingers, dental braces and the problems of puberty,” Kate said. “It’s all so long ago for me I can hardly remember.”
“Felicity deals with most of that. It’s what she does best.”
Kate forbore to say “and it’s all she does.” She sought to strike a balance, to strike a small blow for Luke’s wife, albeit a bit late in the day.
“Nell was such an easy child. And of course I only had the one. She ate adult food from the time she was fifteen months, never had a serious illness or a tantrum in her life.”
“Does she look like you?”
“She’s taller, and her skin is fair. But we have the same beaky nose, and the same ears – very flat against the skull.”
“I’ve never noticed.”
“That’s because they’re hidden by my hair.”
“I must have a look. I’ve never known a woman with flat ears.”
Luke swung one of her flowery ear-rings, moving it carefully with one finger so that pearls and rock-crystal glimmered in the now half-light. A degree of intimacy, mislaid for a while, was re-established.
Their departure from the restaurant was late. Most of the fishermen had left. The owner of the taverna talked briefly to Luke; there were smiles and laughter. The bill was large – they had eaten platefuls of Barbounia, deliciously fresh and firm red mullet, which although locally caught is expensive in the over-fished Mediterranean. Then down the steps they went, past the pots of basil and the sleeping cats.
“What did he say?” Kate didn’t entirely want to know, but the faint frisson of male complicity was irritating. They could, of course, have been discussing politics – most Greeks were willing to discuss the iniquities of the government, any government, at any hour of the night or day.
“What was all that about?”
“The price of fish. We were discussing the price of fish.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Luke laughed, refusing to be drawn.
Looking back, Kate couldn’t remember who had suggested the midnight swim. She thought Luke. It was still breathlessly hot, barely cooler than it had been when she set off for Kamini. The rocks were warm, the sea was silky. Kate kept on her ear-rings, glad that she’d changed from the plain gold hoops – pearls and rock crystal made her think of ‘full fathom five’ and the magic Shakespeare wove into The Tempest. Perhaps she was suffering a sea-change… She raced away from Luke, phosphorescence following her like a comet’s tail. She had thought he would come in pursuit, but he didn’t.
Side by side, feet in a rock pool, smoking cigarettes with damp fingers, there seemed little to say or that needed to be said. There’s no chance for last-minute modesty now, Kate thought, no drawing back. You can’t sit skin to skin, without a stitch on, alternatively revealed and concealed by thin scarves of cloud that drift over the moon, and then close the bedroom door in a man’s face. Luke’s face. Even if you wanted to, and she didn’t want to. The shyness had gone, alcohol dissolved, in part. She recalled the feeling of acute panic when Luke was late, when she’d begun to think he wasn’t coming. It was perverse – an hour before that she’d been having a low level panic attack about the way she looked. Kate glanced down at her body – in a sense she felt almost fully clad, stitched into a garment composed of deeply tanned skin. One pale triangle revealed how very deeply tanned she was.
“Show me your ears.”
“Not lend me your ears?”
“You’ve been lending me your ears all night. Now I want to see them.”
Luke pushed her damp hair back and traced the rim with one finger. “Slightly pointed too. You’re a faerie child. A Belle dame Sans Merci, bewitching me.”
“Of course,” Kate smiled. “What did you expect?”
Luke hadn’t kissed her. The evening was beginning to take on the aspect of some subtle game. A delicate, drawn-out pre-mating ritual. Luke re-arranged her hair, taking his time. Then he kissed her salty shoulder. He gave it a little lick, as Grubby sometimes did in one of his moments of affections.
“Grubby does that. When he’s feeling fond.”
“Grubby’s a sensible fellow.”
On the way up to the house, after the salty lick (which wasn’t repeated), Kate had thought of Conrad. Her thoughts had been detached, as if seeing him through mica: I’m on the point, the very brink, of doing something I never dreamed I’d do. I’m compromising my own position, taking just one step out of line will effectively and irretrievably scuttle any high moral tone. It didn’t seem to matter any more – Luke claimed to be bewitched by her. She was bewitched by the island and on-course to being bewitched by Luke; it couldn’t have happened in London. As they walked and star-gazed and leaned on warm walls, Kate at last talked freely and in some detail of Conrad. Luke asked and Kate told him. She was still telling him as they sat on the terrace. It was an odd sensation, talking to someone who didn’t know Conrad, who had never been exposed to his charm. For Conrad charmed men as well as women. Sam had always acknowledged his skill, but now Kate found that explaining her husband’s singular gifts to Luke was like wading through thick honey. She felt that Luke was being deliberately obtuse, and she felt absurdly protective of Conrad.
“I’ve always distrusted consciously charming men. It’s bad enough in women.”
“Conrad isn’t consciously charming. He doesn’t have to try, he just is.”
Luke looked unconvinced. “There was a boy in my form at Repton who could charm his way out of the trickiest jam. All the rest of us were thumped practically senseless on a very regular basis, but never Stickland. Though he did end up in a Colombian jail.”
“Being winsome through the bars?” Kate was amused by the hint of jealousy in Luke’s voice.
“The point is he wasn’t popular – at school, anyhow. People distrusted him, in spite of his charm.”
“Well, Conrad’s very popular, and people do trust him; especially women, oddly enough.”
“No, but I have particular reasons not to.”
Back at the house, Luke brought a carafe of chilled retsina from the fridge onto the terrace.
“Retsina doesn’t count.” Luke poured.
Kate leaned back in her chair, her turn to be intent on memory, conjuring up the faces of Conrad’s conquests, each one a reason not to trust Conrad. Imogen, known as Immy, Georgina, Celia, two Carolines, and Sophie, of course. Rosanna had been the only dark one; all the others had been as fair as Helena. And these were just the ones she was certain about – there were many other suspects. The girls would ring the house number, and most hung up when Kate answered, although not all; some wanted to talk. Kate remembered describing their tell-tale, love-sick voices to Anna, Rose and Felicity. She told Luke about them, keeping her tone light, wary of pity.
“They were all vey pretty and appealing, but Imogen was a real beauty: a rare and irresistible combination of blonde hair and big, brown Bambi eyes. I couldn’t altogether blame Con in her case: I could quite see why he couldn’t resist her and didn’t even begin to try.”
“You are amazing.” Luke poured more wine. “You describe her almost lovingly. Most women would be finding the flaws, not chalking up the assets.”
“Perhaps it was a way of assimilating what was happening to me. If I understood why, could see them through Conrad’s eyes. ”
“You never made a scene? Compliant Kate, over all those years?”
As he asked, Luke was remembering Felicity’s distraught, pink-nosed, disintegrating face. Her tears seemed to wash away her features. Redheads shouldn’t cry. It wasn’t Felicity’s fault, but the ruin of her face felt like a tacit bid for sympathy. Luke remembered his revulsion, his pity and contrition, but most of all, his revulsion.
Kate shrugged. “It’s difficult to have a scene with Conrad. Usually he just slides away from them. If I persisted, he managed to make me feel like a fishwife – so no scenes.” She smiled ruefuly: “He was good at turning the tables. Has to be…”
“I’m beginning to loathe the man.”
“You’d like him, I can practically guarantee it.”
Kate chirruped to Grubby who was lying by her chair. He stretched, jumped onto her lap, then jumped straight off again and disappeared into the shadowy garden.
“Of course we had fights; I left him twice. I couldn’t go home to Mum because she was long dead, but I fled to friends, who couldn’t resist saying ‘I told you so.’ I was always glad to get back to him. Until now.”
Kate and Luke sat side-by-side, bare feet up on the wall, the bottle between them. Luke took her hand and played with her rings while she told him about Sophie, pregnant with Conrad’s child. She described her own ignorable sense of betrayal and the aftermath, how it had been the reason for being on Hydra, and the long chain of events which had led to drinking retsina on the terrace in the early hours of the morning with Luke Waterlow. Kate didn’t dwell on the grimmer details – the neglect of herself, the boozing and the bingeing. She felt it inappropriate for the circumstances, which finally seemed to be reaching some sort of climax. Luke had listened in silence, and then, again in silence, he carefully unhooked her ear-rings. Kate tilted her head towards him to help.
“There.” Luke laid them on the table. “That’s a start. I’m not very good with hooks, usually.”
“How are you with zips?”
“I’m ace at zips. Are you, pretty Kate?”
How many times in literature, or in real life, has the shrilling of a telephone interrupted or postponed or just put a crimp in passion? In literature it was a useful device to move on the action, or help the writer whose nerve failed outside the bedroom door. In real life it was nerve-jangling and mood-destroying and caused Kate to remove herself from Luke’s arms with more urgency than elegance. Nobody rang up at that hour for fun or for no good reason, usually dire. Would it be Nell, Conrad, a crisis with Helena? Sam occasionally spoke to her quite late, but never this late.
It was Felicity, from Mykonos.
The sound of her tear-stained voice was an irritation and an anti-climax. Kate had been keyed up for drama, a crisis. What she got was pathos and rising panic. Kate lit a cigarette and sat down, waiting for Felicity to draw breath, resigned to boredom, furious at the unexpected interruption, thankful for the lack of crisis, really, and thankful all that there was no internet video to capture the scene. Luke was still on the terrace, affecting lack of interest, an attitude that was abruptly abandoned as soon as he realised the identity of the caller. It wasn’t difficult – Felicity’s voice was naturally pitched high, and it became higher and more penetrating when she was upset. Finally Kate was forced to interrupt.
“Felicity!” It was difficult not to sound impatient. “It’s almost dawn. Not that I mind, particularly, but I can’t understand why you’ve rung me.”
The relief of talking to somebody released more tears, louder sobs. Snuffling and nose-blowing blurred what Felicity was saying. At last it emerged that Luke wasn’t at home and hadn’t been home all evening. It was hideously hot in Athens and it was just possible that he had gone to Hydra for the weekend to do some sailing. Had Kate seen him or could it be that Luke was up to something again, what did she think? Kate, ended Felicity, was the only person she could talk to. There was no apology for the lateness of the hour.
“He’s probably out with a friend, a male friend. Isn’t that possible? Luke plays backgammon, doesn’t he? (It was extraordinary how Kate’s innocent lies came with no previous practice). “They’re probably sitting in some all-night kafeneon playing backgammon.”
“He’s been teaching Jamie to play. The girls aren’t interested. ”
“There you are, then”
“But it’s five past four.”
“I know it’s five past four, Felicity.”
A note of apology now. “Were you asleep? Did I wake you? You answered very quickly.” She sound less tearful now, almost curious.
“It’s an impossibly hot night,” Kate improvised. “I wasn’t actually in bed. I was sitting on the terrace. With Grubby,” she added, glad to include a fragment of truth.
“It’s stifling here too, and full of gays. I wish we’d come to Hydra now, at least it’s quieter. Jamie’s very off-colour again.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s unsettled, missing Luke, and it always goes straight to his stomach. Luke’s such a wonderful father.”
The L word. A trigger for more tears – Kate wondered for a brief moment if she’d been drinking. Did Kate think he could possibly be seeing someone? Not that woman – Felicity happened to know that she’d moved to Istanbul or somewhere. But once a man started that sort of thing…
Embarrassed for and by Felicity, Kate now wondered how much Luke could hear as Felicity sobbed on. Is it having the same effect on him as it’s having on me? It’s too bizarre, she despaired: on the edge of well-deserved adultery, for the first time in my life, and I’m forced into the role of confidante to my lover’s wife! I should never have answered the wretched telephone and I bet Conrad wouldn’t have done so. He’d have let the message recording do its stuff, let automation take care of his conscience, and called it getting his priorities right. But I’d have worried if I hadn’t answered.
What was Felicity saying now?
“It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, just like you said. Why shouldn’t he have a night out with the boys? Poor Luke, stuck in Athens. I’m sorry about the hysteria, Kate. It’s the heat: I just can’t sleep.”
She sounded calmer, thank God, convincing herself that all was well. All is well, Kate reflected crossly: mood ruined, conscience pricked, Cupid caught napping. First round to Felicity.
She carried on for some time, relaxed now, inclined to be confidential. When Kate again protested the lateness of the hour, Felicity promised a postcard from Mykonos, and at last there was silence.
Luke was no longer on the terrace. She found him peeling a fig at the far end of the garden, out of ear shot.
“Thank you.” Kate bit into the dense mass of honeyed, sticky seeds, with the most sensuous, translucent flesh of lychees and the silkiness of mangoes.
“I couldn’t bear to listen to Felicity in full flood,” Luke said. “I felt as if I were a ghost at a confessional, or a spy.”
Luke held out a hand, and Kate touched it briefly. She recalled him playing with her rings, her ear-rings; their closeness; the delicate, delightful game of attraction. It seemed a long time ago, and irretrievable, after Felicity’s intrusion, and her distress.
“Shall we go out and come in again?” Luke was watching her, unaware of the strength of the mood swing.
“No. I think I’ll go out and stay out.” Kate began to strip another fig with nervous fingers. “It’s impossible, Luke, now.”
“What’s this? First night nerves?” Luke was smiling.
Disappointment had made Kate cross, like a thwarted child. She read it as a misplaced, over-confident ‘you can’t possibly resist my blandishments’ sort of smile. Whatever it was, it was misplaced and tiresome.
“She was sobbing her heart out. I can’t believe you didn’t hear.”
“Felicity’s good at sobbing her heart out.” Luke shook his head as if he was trying to disassociate himself from what he’s just said. “But you shouldn’t have answered.”
“Could you have let it ring, at that hour?”
“Very easily, given our circumstances. Most problems will keep for a bit. I tried to stop you, but you were in such a hurry you didn’t notice. I grabbed your skirt. I wish I’d pulled it off…”
In spite of herself, Kate smiled. “How undignified. My skirt round my ankles and dashing to the telephone in nothing but my knickers”.
“Don’t be too sure about those either.”
“Well, you didn’t manage to stop me.”
“I wish I had.”