A widow in her sixties is given a lift home from a party by a mysterious stranger. She wonders what will happen when he stops the car in a quiet lane well past midnight.
I AM CONSCIOUS OF THE SILENCE but I can’t think what to say to this man I hardly know.
At two o’clock on a Sunday morning, there is only sporadic traffic but he has driven slowly. The flattering thought that he might want to prolong the time spent in my company excited me briefly but more likely he is trying to avoid interest from the police. In the half an hour before we left, I saw him drink the best part of a bottle of wine. Who knows how much he had before? As we approach North Sheen, I realise that, within a minute or two, I’ll have to ask him to take a left and then, after a couple more turns, we will arrive in my street. The evening will be over. He will disappear from my life. I may never see him again.
Should I invite him in for a coffee? Wouldn’t it be rude not to thank him for the lift? What if he misunderstands, laughs at my audacity or spurns what he might see as my presumption? At sixty-five, I should be beyond such concerns but I feel as socially gauche as when I was an adolescent. So much for age removing inhibition. I’m as shy as I’ve always been. The only difference is that I’m better at pretending.
At least I don’t have to worry about Martin; he must be tucked in bed by now and even if he isn’t, he’s unlikely to be peering through his window on the off-chance there might be something interesting going on in front of my gate, two doors down the road. But what if he does catch a glimpse of my late-night visitor? What would he think of me?
I am being ridiculous. It’s three years since Bill died. I am entitled to a private life. It’s none of Martin’s business. He could hardly object if I offered a coffee to the person giving me a lift. After all, this man, Jon – or is it John? – is making sure I am safe; he has driven well out of his way. I can’t treat him like a taxi driver. Martin would agree; he wouldn’t want me to be rude.
But, is it proper, at this late hour, to encourage – encourage? Is that what it would be? – a man I met only a few hours ago? What would he take me for? Patricia would know what to do; she is more than au fait with the etiquette of dealing with strangers in the early hours of the morning. I’ve already changed my mind five times and now the car is about to turn into the street leading to mine and in a few minutes, I will have to direct him where to stop. And when he does, should I wait for him to say something? But what if he doesn’t? What if he stops the car but leaves the engine running as if expecting me to get out without any further ado? Or, even worse, if he parks and turns the engine off? Would I have to invite him in then? Or should I be affronted by his presumption? But now that the seed has been planted, saying nothing is hardly an option.
Hang on! What seed? Excitement? Expectation? Get real, Jane, what are you thinking about? You are sixty-five. Sixty-five but thinking like a teenager, and a silly one at that.
The party was Millie’s idea.
‘You must start socialising; it would do you good to meet new people. It’s unhealthy to be alone all the time.’ But I’m not alone. I see Martin every day. Millie seemed to read my thoughts: ‘Martin doesn’t count. He’s an odd sod, an old misanthrope. You will grow strange like him.’
Why not, if I am happy like that? Besides, Martin’s been a most caring friend. But I knew better than to argue with Millie. I had to go to the party with them, I had to accept it was going to be a long night, what with the concert before. At the concert, I thought I would make my excuses, say I had a headache or something, but my friends wouldn’t hear of it.
‘I can see you getting cold feet. Come on, Jane, make an effort. You’re too young to wait for death shuffling around in your slippers. A party, that’s what you need,’ Millie said.
Typical Millie, always knowing what I needed. Unfair to boot. I have a busy life. I work. I go out with Patricia, I have walks with Martin and Poirot. I never miss a major exhibition, I see a lot of theatre, films. But I didn’t say anything. Okay, I have dropped my reading group but only because it was dominated by that boring man who tended to impose his choice of novels about grumpy old men fearing death.
Sitting in the car, next to this man, whose profile – a strong, slightly hooked nose and a prominent chin – I have been admiring from the passenger seat for the past half hour, I’m beginning to wonder whether Millie has a point about the importance of meeting other people. I sense something mysterious about this man, something that intrigues me, something that makes him unlike anyone else I’ve ever known. And then a thought comes to my mind that I may never see him again and I’m gripped by a feeling of loss and I know I need to act and act urgently, say something, prolong this moment. I think he likes me, at least enough to flirt. But what if he is one of those men who flirts with any woman and is just being kind in offering me a lift home? Either way, I can’t trust my judgement.
As soon as we arrived, Millie and Max disappeared and I was alone in a crowded room where I didn’t know anyone. A few nervous approaches resulted in one-minute stilted exchanges before the other person excused themselves and rushed off to whoever they ‘had to talk to’. I felt lost and regretted giving in to Millie. The concert was brilliant but the uncomfortable atmosphere at the party was ruining the elation I felt from watching the pianist’s fingers in their elegant dance across the keyboard. Why had I let myself be persuaded to go to the party? It wasn’t as if I needed anything else to make my evening. It was good to share a drink with Millie and Max during the interval but afterwards I felt like going home and curling up with a book. I should have been more assertive. I wanted to call Patricia, both to cheer myself up and to give the impression to everyone else in that crowded room that I was alone because I was making a call rather than because no one noticed me but then I realised that I had left my mobile in my jacket in the hall and couldn’t face fighting my way through the chatty crowd to fetch it. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get through anyway. To most of these people I was invisible; they were unlikely to make way to allow me to pass.
Glass in hand, I wandered through the French doors into a garden lit by lanterns hidden in the bushes. The air was saturated by the scent of fruit trees in blossom but my urban nose failed the identification test. I was wearing high heels and after leaving the patio, I wobbled along the narrow, cobbled path that wound its way down the garden, as far as a stream that cascaded over a small waterfall. I sat down on a wooden bench, barely a yard from the edge of the stream; the party was a distant murmur, lost in the splashing of the water against the stones. I closed my eyes. It was relaxing; that water music allowed me to dream. I was somewhere else, not trapped by a group of loud people I didn’t know. I felt light-headed; that image of the pianist’s fingers flashing across the keys made me dizzy with envy. I wished I still had the ambition of youth, and the drive to practice. Could I have been like him? Or perhaps it was always written in my stars to end up as a piano teacher.
I didn’t hear anyone approach and had no idea how long he had been standing behind me. A voice asking, ‘would you like another drink?’ brought me back from my reverie but it took me a second or two to realise that he was addressing me. I turned around and, against the lights from the house, made out the silhouette of a tall, gangly figure. Had he followed me into the garden?
‘Are you expecting someone?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said quickly, having no idea what he meant. ‘Why would I expect anyone?’ Immediately, I regretted the hostile tone.
‘A tryst in a dark corner of the garden.’ His voice was serious, despite the irony. ‘I saw you walk out with determination. I was sure you had an assignation, a secret assignation in the bushes.’
Was he being serious? ‘I didn’t realise it was that kind of party,’ I said smiling, pleased with myself for being able to sound casual and project a level of self-confidence, even though a tryst was the last thing on my mind.
‘Every party is that kind of party if you want it to be,’ he said and waited for me to respond. When I didn’t, he changed tack: ‘Would you like a top up? Your glass is empty.’
‘Thank you. I think I’ve had too much already,’ I said.
‘How puritanical of you.’
‘How sensible of me.’
‘You don’t like the party?’
‘Well, it’s…’ I wondered how close a friend he was of the hosts.
‘May I?’ he said and sat down next to me. I noticed that he held a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. He steadied the bottle on the ground between his feet.
‘I don’t blame you. This lot are terrible bores. They all have their freedom passes but their parties are no different from what they were forty years ago. Only the décor has changed, and they drink from expensive glasses instead of plastic cups. The conversation is as trivial and pompous as when they were students. They’ll be putting the Rolling Stones on in a minute.’
Wow. He had a lot of baggage. ‘What do you like to talk about?’
‘I don’t know. Things that matter. But not whose child has bagged which job and what they are buying their grandchildren for their next birthday.’
‘You don’t have any grandchildren?’
‘God, no! You have to have children before you can have grandchildren and I’ve managed to avoid that particular misfortune. I was a wise young man, even if I’ve turned into a foolish old one.’
Was he a genuine cynic or was this his party piece, something to wheel out with strangers?
‘Aren’t you going to argue with me?’ I had to laugh. ‘But you do disagree, don’t you? You think grandchildren are sweet, or cute; isn’t that the word they use?’ I shrugged, unwilling to play his game. ‘I bet you have a few. Cutie-cutie little ones,’ he sneered. ‘Here comes Granny,’ he chirped.
‘No, I don’t have any grandchildren.’
‘One on the way, then.’ I couldn’t see his face but the mocking tone was clear.
‘No. I don’t have any children either.’ Was this the first time in my life that I could say it without feeling the pain?
‘To a fellow soul, a sensible soul,’ he said and raised his glass.
We listened to the water. I felt the night chill and wondered if Millie and Max were ready to leave. Turning towards him, I said was going to get my jacket and look for the friends who had brought me. It was well past one o’clock. I didn’t want it to be too late to speak to Nick before going to bed. Our late-night calls were part of the routine we have established and I was keen not to break it even though after knowing him for six months it was clear that the relationship wasn’t going anywhere. I had to accept he didn’t desire me. There could have been no other reason for him not to raise the question. As for me, no, I could never start a conversation about sex.
The man asked who my friends were. ‘Millie and Max? The crusty couple? I saw them leave half an hour ago.’
They must have thought I had gone already when they couldn’t find me in the house. That was fine; I would call a taxi.
‘I ought to be going too. I’ll give you a lift.’
I didn’t want to impose. Richmond was hardly on his way to Hampstead. He didn’t so much insist as assume he would take me. In a matter-of-fact voice he said that it would be good to drive through West London late at night. I didn’t ask what he meant.
That was more than half an hour ago. ‘We’re almost there,’ I say. ’It’s been very kind of you.’
He doesn’t comment.
‘If you could turn left after the church on the next corner, please.’ But he can’t. The road is blocked and the police direct us to a diversion. Four fire engines stand ready but there is no visible sign of smoke.
He slows down when we reach Petersham Road. ‘I used to love the view from here,’ he says, his head gesturing towards the river bathed in moonshine. ‘The way the river loops, just like a Constable painting.’
He seems almost dreamy but then checks himself. He turns towards me and says with more emphasis than is needed: ‘Not that I am a fan of Constable.’
I think the real Constable view is from up the hill but before I can point that out to him, he adds: ‘When I was young, they had cows grazing in that field.’
‘They still do.’
‘People used to say that when those cows sat down, it meant rain. Silly, really. I don’t know why I remember that.’
‘I’ve heard the same.’
‘Did you believe it?’
‘Of course. I always believe what people tell me.’ I sense that is what he expects to hear and it amuses me to play along.
‘I thought so.’ I knew he would fall for it. A simple woman, that’s how he sees me. ‘Would you care for a walk?’
Ignoring my surprise, he parks off the road, next to a tree. We sit motionless in the car and stare ahead. Once again, I wish I could think of something to say but in front of him everything that comes into my head seems banal. I wish I knew what’s on his mind.
After a few minutes, without saying a word, he turns towards me, his face expressionless. As if in slow motion, he places his hand on my chest, just above the neckline. His hand on my bare skin feels cold and bony. The hand remains still, as if he is trying to assess whether I mind. My heartbeat accelerates. A lump appears in my throat. He strokes my breasts through the dress, moving his hand very gently, barely touching the material. My whole body tingles. I take a deep breath. Slowly, his hand moves under the neckline of the dress, slips under my bra and cups each breast in turn. He holds them as if measuring their weight. A moan escapes from my mouth.
Later, I will consider his audacity and wonder if I had unwittingly transmitted signals during the journey. I will realise that he is one of those men whose confidence is entirely internal, fed by his own importance and so strong that it borders on arrogance. But now, I’m startled by the speed at which things happen, disconcerted by his dexterity in moving over the gear box with one elegant swoop of his body, and almost instantly releasing the handle that allows him to push my seat back and create space for him to sit astride me. He is considerate enough to keep his weight on his legs, quite a feat for someone of his age.
His kisses are deep and overpowering, like warm waves entering my mouth; they leave me short of breath but I don’t want them to stop. Not that he is giving any signs of getting tired: he carries on kissing me as if he has been starved of affection for centuries. Then, he is quick with the zip on the back of my dress and expert at releasing the hook of my bra but he needs help removing my tights. I think quickly: it is enough to bare one leg and slip the knickers over. I come almost as soon as he enters me but his fingers continue sliding against my clitoris. I throw my head back, drunk with the excitement. I envelop him tightly, my fingers sliding down his back. He moves inside me until I feel his body stiffen and he is spent.
As soon as I am breathing more steadily, I become aware of my surroundings. Has anyone been watching us? A policeman perhaps; we could be arrested for gross indecency.
I can see the headlines: ageing piano teacher in car sex frolic. But he doesn’t seem in any hurry to move and, despite my anxiety, I’m grateful to him for holding me gently in his arms like no one has held me for years. He plants soft kisses on my forehead, and I wonder whether he is trying to mitigate the sordidness of our encounter.
When he moves back to the driver’s seat, I fumble with my clothes. Without saying a word, he hands me a box of tissues. Does he keep it in the car for such occasions?
Vesna Main’s recent publication is a collection of short stories, Temptation: A User’s Guide (Salt, 2018). Forthcoming: a novel, Good Day? (Salt, 2019), and autofiction Only A Lodger…And Hardly That (Seagull Books, 2019).
Born in Zagreb, Croatia, she lives in London and writes in English, her second language.
Purchase Temptation from Salt Publishing.
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