Story Six - Everything changes but you
"Emily, will you marry me?" asked Victor from his down-on-one-knee position. Her response was to fling her arms around him so forcefully that they both almost tumbled to the restaurant floor. The other customers cheered and the manager supplied a bottle of champagne. Everyone was sure they would have their happy-ever-after.
Five years later, Emily sat staring glumly at the contents of the CD rack. She was sorting their modest collection into 'yours', 'mine' and 'ours'. The 'yours' and 'mine' piles were, obviously, the easy part. The difficulty would come when they had to negotiate the 'ours'. Would he let her take the 'Phantom of the Opera' in exchange for three Terry Pratchett audio books? What the fuck did it matter, anyway? She hardly ever listened to music, certainly not a full album at a time. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, she added all of the 'ours' pile to the 'yours'. After a moment's consideration, she added the 'mine' pile, too.
She had been dreading sorting the CDs. That was why she had set aside a whole afternoon while Victor was at work so that she could do it properly. And suddenly, it had taken no time at all and she was left with a free afternoon. Standing, she looked around the flat and realised there really was nothing that she wanted to take with her. It was time for a completely fresh start, uncluttered by possessions. Her smartphone caught her eye but that hardly counted as a 'possession'; it was almost an extra limb!
Instead of picking over the bones of the life she had built with Victor, she would spend the afternoon packing her clothes and toiletries and stuff. Then she could be gone ages before he got home and start her new life.
A couple of days earlier, Victor was driving carefully through the hometime traffic wondering if Emily would have started tea or if he would get to give her yet another dazzling display of his cooking prowess. Pulling up at the lights, he began to mentally sort through the contents of the fridge and cupboards, already composing an amazing culinary concoction in his head. Perhaps he should text Emily and tell her not to start anything?
His reverie was interrupted by a thump on the side of the car. Startled, he looked to the left and found himself staring into the startlingly bright eyes of a cyclist who had veered into him. She held up her hand to show that she was alright and he nodded; the lights changed and he drove off. But he could not get the sound of that thump out of his head. She had really slammed into the car. A quick glance in his rear-view mirror revealed that she was still at the lights.
He pulled over to the kerb, got out of the car and hurried back to the lights.
"Are you OK?" he asked the cyclist, who was crouched down examining her front wheel. He found himself admiring the shape of her legs revealed by her black leggings.
She had taken off her helmet to get a better view of the damage and now he could see her thick, wavy hair pulled back into a pony-tail but threatening to burst its bonds at any moment. At the sound of his voice she glanced up, squinting against the glare of the late afternoon sun. "Oh, yes, really... It's just a slight dent. It was my own fault; I just wasn't looking where I was going."
When the silence had dragged out to two seconds he realised that he was staring idiotically at her. "Well, if you're sure...?" He started to turn away but then had an idea. "Look, can I give you a lift anywhere? Just to the next bus-stop, even?"
The look in her eyes was wary, to say the least. Suddenly he saw himself through her eyes, a strange man offering her a lift; what did he really want from her?
"Ah, well... Stupid idea, right? You don't know me from Adam and... Well, if you're sure the bike's OK?"
"Yes, yes it is. And your offer was very kind but..."
"Oh, no need to explain. Safe journey!" And then he did leave, climbed back into the car and drove the rest of the way home. The meeting with the nameless cyclist was the brightest thing that had happened to him all day and he replayed it over and over in his mind, wondering what would have happened if she had accepted his offer of a lift. He was still thinking of her eyes, framed by their thick, dark lashes, when he opened the front door of the flat.
Emily was just finishing off her 'special speg bol' in the kitchen. "There you are! I was just going to start ringing round the hospitals."
"You're half-an-hour late. You're almost never late. And when you are, you ring or text to let me know."
"Oh, yeah. Sorry."
"Good grief, Victor! What's got into you, tonight? I was worried about you. You might have had an accident..." There were tears in her eyes, now, the worry of waiting spilling over in the relief of seeing him safe.
The wooden spoon she was using to stir the sauce clattered to the floor. "Oh my God! Victor, are you OK?" She rushed over to him, wrapping her arms around him in a way that suddenly seemed unbearably clingy.
"Stop fussing, Emily, for God's sake!" he snapped. He pushed her away almost roughly, ignoring the pain and confusion in her eyes. There was something different about her; she seemed drab and humdrum tonight, such a contrast to the bright, vibrant cyclist. Suddenly it hit him - it was not Emily who had changed, it was him. That random meeting with a stranger had flicked a switch in his psyche, one that could never be switched back.
"But... but what happened?" demanded Emily, still largely oblivious to the collapsing of her world.
He almost felt sorry for her. She was safe for the moment from the truth but it would break out on her soon, so soon. And she was totally unprepared. "I've met someone else," he told her, matter-of-factly.
"What. The fuck. Are you talking about?" she asked. "I thought you said you'd had an accident."
"A cyclist bumped into the car. She was the most beautiful woman I've ever met in my life."
She laughed, then, a high-pitched wail that grated on his nerves like nails on a blackboard. "Some random cyclist bumps into the car and suddenly you're in love? Is that why you're so late? Did you take her home and screw her? You could manage that in the half-hour..."
"Don't be disgusting. Of course I didn't... And I'm not in love with her, that would be ridiculous. But I'm not in love with you, any more."
She gaped at him, struck dumb as much by the flat, careless tone in his voice as by his words. At last she found her voice but he wished she had not. "I don't... understand... Is this some kind of mid-life crisis? You're only thirty-two! You're pathetic, you know that? Mooning over some girl you've never even met before and probably never will again."
"I'd rather be pathetic than deadly dull."
"Dull? DULL?! Since when am I dull?" Her face was an almost comic mask of incomprehension.
"Ever since I first tried you're 'special speg bol'. There's nothing special about adding a few chilli flakes and chorizo to a fucking speg bol!"
His wife was still staring at him, uncertain how to proceed with this new Victor who did not want her speg bol, or her blandly pretty face, or anything else about her.
"I'm going out. Don't bother to wait up."
That night, he got totally slammed and picked up a girl who reminded him of the cyclist. The next morning he had to ring in sick using her 'phone. When he got back to the flat, Emily had already left for work. There was no trace of the speg bol, for which he was grateful.
He ran himself a deep, hot bath and sank into it with a sigh. It was a long time since he'd had a bath. He searched his memory and found it. Emily had prepared it for him as a 'treat' - the kind of treat that she wanted him to give her - lots of scented bubbles and candles everywhere. He had almost burned himself on the damned things. But, of course, he had taken the hint and done the same for her a couple of days later.
Why could she never just ask for what she wanted? Why this rigmarole of hints and suggestions? Still, when you looked at her passive-aggressive wreck of a mother, it was a wonder she had turned out as normal as she had.
Thinking about her reminded him that she would want to 'talk it all through' when she got home. The mere thought of analysing what had happened made him feel ill. There was nothing to analyse. A chance meeting had shown him that his life was solid and perfect and dull. There was no excitement in their marriage and he could see no prospect of them ever finding any. At least, not with each other.
He paused for a moment. Perhaps he should give their marriage a chance? Book a skiing holiday or a trip to Australia? Go on a real adventure with his wife. But she hated the cold and she would be terrified of being fatally bitten by some creepy crawly. No - Emily's sense of adventure would always end at the camp site in Brittany where she had gone every summer with her parents before she was married and every summer with him since.
When she got home that evening with a take-away from their favourite Indian and a nice bottle of red, he almost wished he could tell her that everything was going to be OK. But it was never going to be OK for them. He had changed and she was just the same.
They balanced their plates on their knees and he tried - God how he tried - to explain it to her without insulting her. She could not help who she was; it was unfair to blame her for being herself. But there was no nice way of telling her he could not bear to be in her company.
She listened calmly to everything he had to say, without interruption. When he had finished, she took the plates out to the kitchen and brought out the rest of the red.
"Aren't you going to say anything?" he asked at last, bothered by her continued silence.
She drained her glass and refilled it with the end of the bottle without even offering him any. "Oh, I'm fine," she answered. "In fact, it's a bit of a relief. I've been wondering how to tell you, you see?"
"Tell me? Tell me what?"
"Well, I've been having an affair for a couple of months, now and... well... It's been getting more and more serious. He's asked me to leave you and move in with him but I just didn't know how... I knew you'd be so hurt. But, well, now it's OK, isn't it?"
"You've been... having an affair? With who?"
"Does it matter?"
He opened his mouth to speak and then realised that, no, it did not matter in the least.
"I thought not. I'll clear my stuff out by the end of the week." She drained her glass again and went to bed, leaving him with the washing up and the couch.
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