Partners

“Where were you supposed to be today?” Adrian regretted the question immediately; they were both increasingly sensitive about the subterfuges and lies involved in their meetings. Saoirse turned on her side to face him, unsmiling.

“Tennis – you obviously missed the large sports bag with a tennis racket sticking out the end by the door."

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“If it’s actually bothering you that much, maybe we should do something about it.”

“No, listen, I just wasn’t thinking.” He raised himself on one elbow and pressed his forehead against hers. For a moment he thought she was going to turn away, get up and leave but instead she put her arms around his neck and snuggled into him.

“Sorry that was waspish. The emotional cliché has it right; I wouldn‘t like you if you weren’t bothered by it, but please let’s not talk about it now.”

He hoped he could exorcise the spectre he had carelessly conjured up in a white hot blaze of sex but the flames faltered and died. She pushed him gently in the chest and sat up.

“Time,” she said, sighing. It was true; he had already missed the 7.16. Things seemed all right again between them but then he thought he noticed a tiny hesitation, a consciouness, as she picked up the sports bag on her way to the door. She blew him the usual kiss as she left though.

On the way home in the train he found himself brooding, first over his clumsy mistake and Saoirse’s reaction to it and then over the guilt that had prompted it, the growing complication of the lies and excuses they had to tell, which in turn started him worrying about his reception by Penny at home, late back again, and what he would have to invent for her. He had missed the children’s bedtime again. He realised he was just making himself miserable and tried to do some work, but couldn’t concentrate. He had a bit of a headache.

Missing the earlier train meant there was no bus for nearly an hour and he decided to walk. It was a fine evening; the sun was already down below the hill on the other side of the valley but it wouldn’t be dark until he was nearly there.

The countryside was at its most attractive; there was steeply sloping pasture dotted with sheep and in the woods further on he could see a mist of bluebells in the growing darkness under the trees. The birds were a constant,twittery commentary, interrupted from time to time by a series of startlingly resounding flourishes from a nearby blackbird or thrush.

By the time he arrived his mood had improved and it was fully dark. There didn’t seem to be any lights on in the front of the house and when he let himself into the hall it was pitch black.

“Hello! Penny?” he called but there was no reply. There didn’t seem to be any lights on at all. He thought he could just make out the doorway into the dining-room, a faintly lighter narrow rectangle over to his right, and made his way carefully towards it, one hand outstretched in front of him. He reached the door, stumbling over something unexpected just before it. He pushed it open. The dining-room was dark too and he stood in the doorway for a moment to get his bearings. Then he saw a flickering light from further within the house, from the far end of the kitchen he realised.

“Hey!” he called, “Who’s there?”

There was a small shriek, which sounded very much like Penny, though she wasn’t much given to shrieking.

“Penny?” he ventured.

“Adrian! Finally! I’m in the kitchen.”

“Sorry. I thought you were a burglar until you shrieked. What’s going on? What happened to the lights?”

“I had to turn the fuse out for downstairs. The washing machine’s flooded the kitchen. There was smoke coming out of the power socket. Luckily the kids are asleep. Where have you been?”

“Sorry, meeting, missed the train, no bus.” He walked gingerly forwards towards the kitchen.

“Turn on your phone light before you come in, for heavens sake. There’s a lot of water.”

Adrian stopped in the doorway and shone his phone about the kitchen. It was a scene of devastation. Not only was there half an inch or so of water sloshing about but there appeared to have been a minor earthquake which had scattered ingredients and devices around the floor. He recognised a large bag of flour, some upside down scales but there were various sodden piles he couldn’t work out. Penny was standing near the back door into the garden wearing wellingtons and carrying a mop.

“Don’t stand there gawping!” she said. “You’d better put on boots like me and we could do with a better light – there are camping lanterns and torches in the shed somewhere.”

“OK!” he said, “I’m on it.”

After he came back with his boots on and a camping gas lantern Penny explained somewhat bitterly what had happened. The kids had been “helping” her with the preparations for Malcolm’s birthday party the next day (which he had forgotten about) and they had got most of the ingredients out on the table and work surfaces ready for her to use after they were safely in bed. The washing machine had suffered its terminal fit while she was upstairs reading the bedtime story. Before it flooded the place it managed to shake half the stuff off the surfaces as the spinning drum tried to break free of its bearings.

“Didn’t you hear the noise?” he had asked, unwisely.

“Of course I did but it didn’t sound much worse than usual. I wasn’t expecting a flood as well. Anyway I needed to get them settled before I went down – nobody else around, I noticed. ”

It took them about half an hour to clear the floor of the debris and another twenty minutes to mop up the water. Adrian then squatted down and unscrewed the faceplate of the mains socket, examined it and the wires, wiped everything dry and they agreed to risk turning the power back on.

With the lights back on Penny did an inventory of the damage.

“I have more flour but the bread has dissolved and the icing sugar is mostly glue. I really need to make the sandwiches and the birthday cake tonight.”

Adrian looked a question at her.

“I’m working until three tomorrow. I’ve no other time. The party’s at five.”

“I could pop up to the garage and get bread. I doubt if they’ll have icing sugar though.”

“I think you’ll have to. I’ve got a bit of icing sugar left in the cupboard and I can make some more in the grinder. Get me some ordinary granulated and white and brown sandwich loaves.”

So at 9.30 he found himself driving the couple of leafy miles to the local garage. By the time he got back Penny was in the midst of cake making and he, under direction, started on the sandwiches. It was well after one by the time they were finished, the cake iced and the sandwiches clingfilmed in the fridge. They did a final tidy up of the kitchen, wiped the floor and the surfaces one last time and made their weary way to bed.

Adrian felt a wave of tenderness for his wife as he climbed into bed next to her. They had overcome the disaster; they made a good team and he was glad that the party was now under control. He turned towards her but hesitated, remembering with a pang that he had forgotten to tell Deirdre about having to go home early because of the party. She hated his muddles. He saw Penny had turned over the other way and seemed to be resolutely asleep. He felt forlorn. He lay there and tried to arrange himself comfortably for sleep but it was slow to come, despite his exhaustion.

The next morning he just had time to take part in the breakfast present giving, organised by Penny, before leaving. He promised his son that he would be back in time for the party but Malcolm didn’t seem that interested. His bus (Penny needed the car to ferry the kids) was a little late and even later by the time it reached the station so he had to run for the train, which was even more crowded than usual. There was no seat and no chance of doing any work so he was left with little to do but think. The prospect of explaining to Deirdre why he had to cancel was far from pleasant. He would have to phone her at home, a thing that was against their rules; she wouldn’t probably mention it but the arrangement with her friend that allowed them use of the room was only possible by careful planning. Sudden changes endangered the whole thing. He realised he was dreading the conversation almost as much as not seeing her until the following week. Both made him acutely miserable in very different ways. It seemed a bit harsh that he should be feeling dread both on the way to work and the way home.

----------