Tom is watching a movie with his mistress when something in the story-line touches him, and breaks through his well-constructed façade. His defences breached, he thinks of his son and his small daughter. He begins to cry soundlessly. When his mistress realises her lover is upset, she tries to be kind, but her kindness makes the guilt worse and Tom snaps at her. She doesn't understand.
They see out the film, leave, go to a restaurant. The waiter is an old friend, and Tom nods to him, orders garlic bread, then fresh Turbot. He also orders a litre of red wine, and a malt which he will drink while he waits for the bread. His mistress is tentative. She takes one glass of the wine and nibbles at it. When Tom has drunk his whisky and a glass of wine he reaches out a hand to her and she takes it. Tom squeezes her hand and he mouths, "I love you." He means it absolutely.
When they leave the restaurant Tom and his mistress walk a short distance arm in arm; to a little and expensive Victorian town-house. Inside, the door barely closed, they kiss and things progress. They fuck royally on the lowest stair but only when he has virtually eaten her, and she has mewed her delight, and he has felt so proud.
But then, when they go up to bed, Tom's mistress says nothing. She knows that every gesture of affection and any word of love can remind him. Sex is their shield. Tom's mistress walks a razor's edge but where it is sharp their life is still tremendous. They still lust after each other, like neither has ever lusted before, and when they reach their bedroom, still silent, she strips naked, stands above him, then drops down. She swallows him whole and tastes herself, then she climbs aboard him, controlling, to rock him to sleep. Afterwards, he slides into a special darkness which does not quite satisfy. He will not remember his dreams.
Tom's mistress would like to cook for him, but Tom doesn't like to stay in. Instead, they eat in good restaurants and joke with waiters. Once Tom loved the meals his mistress prepared, their quiet nights, the candle-lit nights, but now he doesn't want her to cook, he doesn't want to soften. And when his mistress dresses or undresses, though Tom is aroused and desperate, he prefers her simple, the lights dim. And when they play music, let it be the CDs they bought together, nothing older, HMV, Virgin, their times away in London, Paris, Amsterdam.
They never watch television now. Occasionally he will read and his mistress will curl up with the telephone, whisper to a friend, sometimes laugh. He pours her wine, himself a whisky.
He had realised long before it finally happened, but he loved his children almost as much as he hated his wife and he had thought himself capable of control, of strength. But then one day he was walking with his mistress, who was not then his mistress, towards Margaritas, for yet another lunch-time pizza. Innocent of course. They were walking behind a friend called Mike and some lady called Pauline down the crisp off- white pavement by the park.
He spoke quietly. His hand was inside her elbow, gently slowing her. He watched the back of the other two. Mike was happy, his arms everywhere, telling another outrageous joke.
Tom felt mature. He said, "Claire, I've got a problem;" then he hesitated and for some reason changed sides, moving outside her, nearer the road, "Claire, about lunches, about spending all this time with you. It's not just lunches now. I don't think of you as just a friend any more."
She had taken his hand. She had squeezed it, lifted it to waist height with a second firmness, then gently released him.
"If you want to stop going..." he said weakly.
"I don't," she whispered, "let's just carry on."
The lunch was a dream and when Tom spoke he heard himself. He had sat the same side of the table as his mistress, now his mistress, the inches closer that couples sit, sensuously, in each other's private space, their arms brushing, their thighs achingly close, shared moist air between their separate bodies.
By dessert he was turned towards her. He had a foot on the rung of her chair, his knee up as he talked lightly and sipped a liqueur. Occasionally, as she talked to the others, she would rest an arm or a hand on the muscle above his knee.
Later, when they had returned to work, he made mugs of coffee and scattered them round the office with precision. Claire got hers last. She was typing like a machine gun and breathing deeply, sensing him, waiting for him to come near.
He had rehearsed casualness. "Coffee, no sugar," he said close to her ear, but it sounded more like, "I love you!" His mistress took the mug and clasped it two-handed in front of her face, steam rising from it to lick around her glasses. Tom left and went to his office but his voice fluttered when he phoned and spoke to clients.
He fought for a fair time, aware he had fortitude but neither real courage nor strength. He knew he could no more avoid being with his mistress than he could give up loving his children, but he could, for a hopeful, self-deluding while, avoid fucking her, as if this act of non- action somehow excused him from the everyday crime of loving her and hating the mother of his children.
But oh, how he dreamt of his mistress, avoided her! How in the pinewet dripping forest he ran too hard, so long, so punishingly that his feet bled! And how he painted things, built things up, took things down, and read and argued and drank and sang, anything, anything, but spare himself the dark imagination, the scent of her, the eventual deep heat of her, the suicide, the giving up.
And he knew he would know the look, that look in her eyes, the timid power blurred by tears, that massive victory, that, he would remember. The late explosion, when it eventually would come, would be a comma not an exclamation, and he would remember only falling.
It was winter when Tom and his mistress finally got together. One night, she had cried, and he had simply not gone home. The next day, by phone from work, he told his wife. He was ashamed, and on the following Saturday his wife met him with his children in McDonalds. He couldn't speak without shaking. His wife explained in front of him, that Daddy would be away this week, then she said they had to get back to the car and to hurry and kiss their father goodbye.
She left him an alarm clock, clean underwear, shirts, and a photograph of him with the kids. When the children hugged him, behind their backs he saw his wife's face, the cruellest victory barely masked, a whirling, bursting joy at his terrible mistake, so filling her up he thought she would explode into laughter.
That night, that first night, when he and his mistress had made love, if you could call it that, on a borrowed blanket on a borrowed floor, by a dying fire, in the cottage of her friend who suffered their mistakes and didn't like him, it was love, at least love was there, but her partner had hovered, his wife had hovered, and the friend's bedroom had creaked. The love act, it was something that had needed to be done, so had been done, some rubber-stamp, some symbol, an act to parade, a red flag to make something elsewhere absolute. He knew he had wanted to make himself leave.
Of course there were times, sober, quieter times, when Tom tried to explain to his mistress why they no longer laughed. At first he thought to blame the business, how, raging with success like a rampant cock he didn't have the time. And the money, the power, the two of them, drunk with the blackness of it all, driving through the ruins of the half-lives of others, ignoring amber lights, the warning signs, getting things done, all that, he said, didn't leave room for the petty, mere laughter.
"But," he said, "I love you and I could not love you more."
And they settled, they found a one-bedroomed place and he found whisky. Then one night, her face dark red, she screamed that he disgusted her and that he was fat, and he stopped drinking whisky and went jogging. The next night, when they made love he was cruel and hurt her and she told him she loved him and nothing, nothing was as good as this. And they took another holiday. When they came back they found the Victorian cottage, bought it quickly, then bought a good stereo system, talked about another holiday.
That weekend, Tom's children visited the new house. They were polite and they shook his mistress's hand. Then she went shopping and Tom's son played with the new stereo. When Tom's mistress returned the children had gone. Tom said he was thinking of taking them to Disney World. His mistress nodded. She cooked him creamed chicken and rice but didn't eat hers. Afterwards, they drank two bottles of ice-cold white wine and sat in the dark, listening to Elton John. They went to bed. In the morning she told him the holiday was all right with her, but one week, not two and he said a week was lousy value for money, but OK.
Orlando was hot, Disneyland crazy, and he was ardently foolish, dressed down to be like his kids, trying every ride, eating lunches at The Hard Rock Café, pizzas at night. His mistress swallowed her pride, fought the tears and laughed, went brown in the sun, went swimming with his boy, took photographs of the three of them, made love silently in the night. But when Tom was alone with his daughter, his daughter would shake her head, pull up her knees and ask, "How Dad? Why? She is so ugly!"
And Tom would shake his head too, and then smile sadly at his daughter and explain yet again that his mistress did not cause him to leave their mother. He just fell out of love, that was all.
But his daughter knew different.
After Orlando, Miami, even hotter - they had compromised on ten days - and in the islanded Keys he was wilder, even more child-like trying jet-skis, deep-sea fishing, even a barn-storming red biplane that sprayed him and his son with a faint film of hot oil. And for the first time she mentioned the money that poured through his fingers and his voice was raised in anger, not sadness and he said, "I love my kids, is that so hard to understand?"
And she looked at him differently, paused, then said, "Yes." At the airports she walked fractionally behind the three of them, and she flinched when she heard Tom say they had to do it again. For the first time she wondered about David and how once upon a time, her life had been so simple. She had to remind herself that it had been unhappy too. She looked at Tom. Vaguely, she considered what having his child would be like, but as she looked at the back of his head she knew it would never happen.
Then one night Tom explained. He loved her absolutely. It was not them. He had never loved anyone so completely, so deeply. It was not them, it was the shadows, the others, the shadows of the things he had once created, the echoes, the ripples, the whispers; his wife's parents, her friends, his friends who liked her as much or more than him, the prickled skin of his children, the politeness that burned and left the air tainted with civility. He wanted to relax. He wanted to relax, that was all; he said. He hadn't known that love could be so painful or so wearing.
And he thought, "This is because you are my mistress, this is what they see. They don't see you, not the woman. You are a thing, a thing set apart, the cause of others' pain."
Then he spoke aloud, "But you're not, Claire. It's not fair. We fell in love, that was all. It was nobody's fault."
"Not what?" she said.
"It doesn't matter," he said.
And slowly she began to bend under the weight of his family, her bright, proud head lower, her eyes faintly dimmer. And though they still fucked well, and though they still fucked often, it was all of a sad darkness now and the explosions were painted red, and she began to wonder, could she walk away, even now, even after this third anniversary, could she walk away? And she thought, only if I can make him angry, only if I can make him say it, and she started to ask it, "Are your children more important than me?"
And every time he would say no, and they would drink and hold each other, and she would dream dark dreams and he would think I must suffer being in love still, and though he contemplated his own death he knew he could not accomplish it, not until the children were sixteen, and instead, he would whisper her name and slip his hands between her legs, and on the lower stair they would fuck again and he would sleep a while.