‘Jamie,’ I call her name; the sound rolls off my tongue so easily. It’s a name I’ve used silently in many solitary conversations. This talking in your head is necessary when you only meet with someone occasionally.
I’ve taken the liberty of strolling into Jamie’s garden unannounced. We’ve grown close over many years, in a slow, clandestine, alfresco way, long before our children ceased to be children. Family life was always my defence – it provided a cushion of excuses, a place where I could tread a circular path of half-truths. Then one day – bang – it happened, not by any conscious design but by the need to change the realities. I met Jamie, who was in an instant, fascinating and beautiful.
She is just someone I wanted to know.
We created an exotic, alfresco, half-life. Our separate married lives a natural barrier that enabled us to be together without commitment. We touched of course, not so far as to be adulterous. Although how celibate are thoughts? You can’t censor thought, and the longing has never ceased.
There’s an expectation to seeing her as I fiddle with a patch of stubble on my chin that I must have missed with the razor. Perhaps I should have phoned before coming; but phoning was the way I usually contacted Jamie before our alfresco meetings, and for me to be here at her new home isn’t usual. Now that she lives alone she could entertain me if she so wished, but she’s never invited me, and I never wished to intrude.
After so many years I should have been more at ease with her, but a restrained and cleverly managed distance has always kept the risks to my homelife benign. There was a purpose though to this visit, more than – ‘just being in the neighbourhood and thought I’d drop by.’ I’d had time to think, if men do – think, that is. If I’d telephoned first she may have put me off, or not been in. Then I wouldn’t have come, leaving my intentions to precipitate by the lack of communication. Suddenly my thoughts would have become irrelevant, and another year would have gone by.
Her door is ajar and I knock softly. It’s a simple wooden chalet standing in its own grounds, with a steeply sloping roof and a triangular gable end like an old American church. One imagines a vaulted beamed roof space inside. It has the air of unconventionality. From her description it was as I imagined. Jamie always said she wanted to live this way.
I never understood her daring to live alone; and I never understood how her husband could have become so blasé about her. It’s harder though for a man to show what he really feels. No, to recognise what he really feels. I think the fear of regret is driving me now.
I wait – politely, curling and straightening my fingers in my trouser pockets. Definitely an alfresco day I think, looking up at the intermittent blue sky. A sunny cloudy day, not too hot with a sharpish wind. Perfect really; but then we’d always manage to hit on days like this in our times together. Our alfresco meetings. Not many days. Not enough.
Still waiting, I try to see through the crack in the door, then look through windows surreptitiously. The order inside struck me – how tidy and uncomplicated. Nothing like the home I remembered her living in with her husband and children. There it had always seemed dishevelled – untidy, decorating unfinished, screws missing from door handles. I’d always assumed this was her – how she liked to live; but maybe it was really someone else’s life.
She’d had no hesitation in inviting me into her world then, maybe to assuage the guilt that her feelings caused; to pretend we were just good friends. Maybe it was because we were on an equal footing then.
There’s a cat asleep on a chair. Suddenly it looks up towards the window sensing my presence. Will Jamie hear me? See me peering through the window like a thief. I remain still. The cat becomes languid again; slowly blinking its eyes shut before settling.
The chair, with the cat, is in the kitchen, making me realise that I’d never made her tea. I’d thought about it many times, just doing this one thing. Something intimate. Domestic. Something that has nothing and everything to do with touch.
I didn’t even know how she’d like her tea. Whether weak or strong. Milky?
I thought I might just go in and put the kettle on. I could justify this in my head. For me it would be an act of giving, when I’d given so little. Not through choice. If I’d had the choice I would have given more. But then I hadn’t allowed this choice to be mine.
I can’t see any more of the inside – not discreetly, so I turn and walk back to the door, standing with my hands in my pockets jingling some change, contemplating the peace and quiet. All I can hear is bird song and the rustle of the wind through the trees. I begin to think that If I went away without seeing her, I would at least be able to visualise her movements in her private space. I was losing my nerve, imagining that I could just take a quick peak and be off. She need never know, and we could carry on as before. It was the carrying on though, that had ceased to satisfy.
I wonder what Jamie will think of me turning up here? What have I really got to say that she hasn’t heard before. I haven’t moved or changed – I’ve done bugger all.
Sometimes, when Jamie and I talked, I’d prattle on about where my supposed position in life was. A look would come across her face – she wouldn’t speak – wouldn’t say anything. I always broke off and told her she wasn’t being helpful, but only because it made me dig deep inside and exasperated me that she saw so much.
What might she really be thinking even if she smiles?
‘You imbecile – you complete and utter moron?’ But will she? Perhaps I just think I know her well?
I picture her in my mind’s eye turning her face to the wind so that her hair streams out behind. She shuts her eyes and revels in its caress.
The image of her makes me smile to myself. I’m beginning to relax in her absence, hoping that she’s just popped out for a moment, and that she isn’t in her bedroom with a lover. Would I feel betrayed? I wonder. Jealous, certainly. I don’t hear any sounds of love though. I’m glad of this.
‘Jamie’ I call her name again more loudly this time, out of agitation. She appears like a wonderful apparition from some unseen part of the garden, drenched in sunlight and flowers. Last time I saw her she was in black, indicative of a mood that showed her impatience with me. She’s in jeans now with a pale blue jumper that clings to her shoulders then falls. She seems more delicate now, thinner maybe; I can tell by the way her clothes hang. Her collarbones are visible and her long slender neck. Perhaps it’s the stress of change. I feel the urge to touch her, to run my hands under the softly draping blue. I feel aroused and have to breathe deeply.
‘I wanted to make you tea’ I say. Pratt, I think; am I really going to account for myself? She stops for a moment – a picture – she’s lovely and I want to kiss her all over as I always said I did, and couldn’t alfresco; but actions speak louder than words. She knows that.
She shakes her head slowly, perhaps in disbelief. Have I been so audacious? I haven’t come to take advantage; she can tell me to leave if she wants to. She looks directly at me with a sort of smile on her face like the Mona Lisa. I think she’s surprised, and I wonder if her hearts beating as mine is.
Would the teacup tremble in her hands?
‘I’m sorry’ I say apologetically – ‘I didn’t mean to intrude. I’ve been thinking – and wanted to come.’
She smiles her smile and I think it’s all right.
‘You don’t usually think too much,’ she says, her tone mildly sardonic. This mockery is an irritation, and I purse my lips. Turning I begin to walk away, as though I can walk away. Just to let her know that her derision is out of place. I hear the song of a skylark in a distant field; a sound that intervenes and extenuates the space around us, giving me a momentary vision of lying in a meadow with the sound of waving grasses and insects flying by. I feel stupid and melancholy; all hope seems to ebb away. Hope of what? I wonder. Hope that she might see my presence as a genuine attempt to give more than I have…
I wanted everyone to be ordered into my life so that I could feel in control. I wanted it all. But the control isn’t mine any more. I need to make a choice, to take a risk. If I really think about it my alfresco meetings are more to do with me than anything else I’ll ever do.
I turn back to her. ‘You’re not being very helpful,’ I say, keeping my eyes locked into hers. A steady penetrating – I’m not going to back down – sort of stare.
‘Do you need help?’ She enquires, staring back every bit as defiant.
‘Don’t be too hard on me, I was in the neighbourhood and thought I’d drop by,’ I lie. She shakes her head again; she can see straight through me.
‘I thought there might have been another reason?’ She says, ‘especially as you didn’t ring first.’
She’s standing so close now that I can smell her clothes faintly, and the warmth of her, from her exertions in the garden. I lower my eyes. I can feel the loose change in my pocket. Then I look at her again, giving her an expression that says she’s got it all wrong.
I shake my head, ‘no other reason,’ I say.
I don’t know why I behave like this? I’d like her to know the truth – that I care. That I care enough to take a less benign risk, but one step at a time.
She’s rushing me.
Suddenly she holds out her hand. I drop the change in my pocket and tentatively enfold the tips of her fingers. It feels wonderful this touching; to know that her generosity of feeling obviates the first risk I’ve taken.
‘Come on’ she says ‘come inside and I’ll make you tea.’
I loose her hand on the threshold and plunge it resolutely back into my pocket. She pushes the door open and walks inside. Glancing up I see her bed upon a gallery floor in the vaulted beamed roof; it’s more a barn than a chalet.
I watch her walk to the kitchen through a large living space that I hadn’t seen. In one wall, glass doors that open out onto the garden and a view across fields.
I follow her slowly, stopping to look out over the vista while she busies. It’s beautiful, solitary, and all I can think of is coming back again, because I’ll have to leave; but not for long.
She brings in a tray with tea and biscuits. The sun streams in. She slides the door open, then turns and smiles at me.
‘Outside’ she says, inviting me into the garden, standing half in – half out. Alfresco I think, and shake my head sitting down in a sofa, feeling the gentle breeze and sun. Sipping. Thinking next time, I’ll make the tea.