It is the second day of August when Sara and her husband Richard go to the funeral. It is desperate. The woman had died suddenly from a cerebral aneurism leaving a shattered husband and two early teenage children. Despite being barely forty, the widower looks a hundred years old as he bravely, stubbornly, tries to eulogize a woman who he is now talking of in the past tense.
Sara is dressed in black for mourning but there was something practical about even that. A brief glance leaves a feeling that life has all but defeated her. Besides her, Richard’s eyes are red with tears. He is a studious looking man and like his wife is unremarkable. When he reaches out for his wife’s hand he doesn’t see how something, someone, across the Church has caught her eye.
The congregation is in an L shape around the coffin and half hidden – but directly in her line of sight – is a tall man with a badly scarred face. One eye has no, or little lid, and his hair rises from his forehead as though it has been dropped casually on his strangely grey skull. He would be repellent if he didn’t exude such ease. The look that flicks between him and Sara is tiny but absolute.
Later, at the wake, the atmosphere is taut. Young death makes everyone edgy and Sara and Richard try to find the right tone of voice but are self conscious about appearing too downbeat. The house is inner city and has a small terrace and as the house is crammed people have come outside to get air, to smoke, to talk. Momentarily alone – Richard is talking to a bereaved relative – Sara makes her way through the double doors and walks straight into the scarred man. Even taller than he appeared in the Church he is relaxed and charming. He is showing one of the dead woman’s teenagers how to deal with a fox that is causing havoc in the garden at night. August, he is saying, is the time to close down the lairs as the young spread out and occupy new territory. The older ones are exhausted from raising the young and are just beginning to anticipate the winter and another year ahead.
He introduces himself. Niall is more shocking close up. One hand is so badly burnt that he only has stumps where his fingers should be. He is wearing an open shirt and the scar disappears under it, all over his body. But he laughs easily, seems more relaxed than anyone else at the wake, even helps open a bottle for another mourner with his ‘bad’ hand.
Sara tries to disguise her feelings when he looks at her but is certain they are utterly and transparently visible. She feels fear, pity, but most profoundly desire. It churns in her lower abdomen like vertigo, but is an itchy urgent call, also.
His smile is peculiar, his lip rises high over his gum on one side. He knew the dead woman well, better than he knew her husband. They were old friends and the way he talks leaves Sara wondering whether they were lovers. With a smile he goes back into the wake and a moment later Sara sees him chatting to the widower. He appears to be offering some practical help; but also saying something intimate, kind.
Later, Sara is collecting an umbrella she left in a room off the main hall when Niall comes in. She moves fast, explains the umbrella as a symptom of an over cautious personality, tries to leave though desperately wants the door of the room to close and being trapped with Niall amongst the few coats that are left. He says nothing but raises his stumpy hand to her lips. She is startled and says as much. She’s not been kissed by anyone other than her husband, or child, for nearly twenty years. He smiles. They hadn’t kissed, yet. His strange hand was so close to Sara’s mouth it forces mind to leap – to become garrulous. She turns away from him. The garden outside the window and beyond the terrace is overgrown. The dead woman was an assiduous gardener but in the time between her death and funeral it has run out of control.
Niall closes the tiny distance between them and kisses Sara’s neck. He then laughs warmly and says now she has been kissed. Without another word he goes back to the mourning and the curling Pret A Manger sandwiches that someone had bought as an afterthought.
She receives a text the day after the funeral. It is simple, bland to an outside eye, leaving a number. Sara ignores it for a day before, finally, looking at it again on the tube back from work.
From the outset their affair is extraordinarily sexual. They meet in hotel rooms – he always pays – and for an hour or so enter a world that is utterly contained and without rules. Niall is a powerful lover and although Sara is very cautious – terrified – she finds something about the way he is relaxed with his badly scarred appearance, and his confidence, liberating. He is strong but also palpably, visibly, damaged and frees her. Alone with him, it is as though she is leaving one personality behind and rehearsing living in another.
But Sara is shocked – almost tortured – by what she is doing and after the fourth hotel room is determined that it is over. She had never planned, or even dreamt, of what has been happening and cannot bring herself to accept that what happens between her and Niall has any right in her existence. Staggered by what feels like a new part of her biology she still says, as she means, that it is over.
The room is mute as Niall turns (he was pulling on his shirt) and says that he understands. He is sad but resigned and doesn’t put up any fight.
Sara goes home in the rush hour on the tube. Faces around her gleam with sweat. The odour of people invades her.
Sara, Richard and Craig, their seventeen year old son, live a comfortable life and there is nothing about her husband that ‘deserves’ her betrayal. He is kind, considerate, even tempered. Craig is something different and at times both parents have wondered at how they could have produced a child that appeared to love them so little, or treasure his conquering independence so much.
Guilty, riven, Sara throws herself back into her marriage. She tries to find a hint of what she feels with Niall in Richard but can’t. And, she knows, it is not that she doesn’t love Richard it’s that with Niall’s scarred body something passionate is happening: something that defies her sense of ageing, her changing body, the gravity of life. At home she’s sometimes dismayed, sometimes euphoric as she tries to flush herself clean.
They had promised – as a family – to help the widower with his two teenage children and so decide to make a day trip to the seaside.
Sara, Richard, even Craig, are stubbornly upbeat but the family are raw. Then, setting up the picnic, Sara is alone with the widower for a moment and casually asks about the extra-ordinary man at the funeral: the one with the horrible burns. The widower finds a smile. Niall was really a friend of his wife. Sara can’t read the way the widower won’t return her look: is he implying that Niall and his wife had an affair? (And she is shocked by how jealous she feels.) Attempting a casual tone she asks about Niall’s injuries. The widower carefully adjusts some detail about the picnic as he tells her that Niall was something covert in the first Iraq war. There was a helicopter crash that he was very lucky to escape; even with eighty per cent burns.
Richard is leading Craig and the two teenagers back to the picnic when the widower turns and says that he thinks Niall is a damaged and dangerous man. Sara flushes, startled and wants to ask what he means as Richard flops down besides her. The breeze off the sea is warm.
A few days later Sara is leaving work at lunchtime when she hears a loud, familiar laugh. Niall is across the street from her office and talking animatedly to another woman. The City at lunchtime is busy and in the summer heat people throng the pavements. Sara follows Niall and the woman until, quite suddenly, she loses them. It is as though they had been consumed. Then just as Sara starts to realise how desperate the hunt has been, and senses the heat of her emotions, she feels an arm around her waist and turns to see Niall, close, laughing. The woman stands behind him in the doorway, happily smiling at Niall’s trick and lightly reprimands Sara for being so ‘serious’.
Niall introduces the woman: she is an ex-colleague. Sara’s objectivity has slipped and the idea that there is something between Eliza and Niall tightens in her like a knot. But Niall appears bemused by Sara’s tension and relaxed between the two women. His bad hand rests for a moment on Eliza’s shoulder but when Sara declines his invitation to join them for a bite to eat his lips brush hers intimately.
Sara doesn’t go back to work that afternoon but follows Niall and Eliza. This time she doesn’t lose them and when they eat together they seem relaxed. Sara is startled by how relieved she is to see their friendly, not amorous, kiss as they separate.
And so when he is alone Sara approaches Niall. She is raw with desire and insists they take a hotel room. For a moment, in the street, Sara thinks that he is weighing his options: measuring her and her desire before he nods, smiles and turns. He leads her through streets to a hotel.
When they are alone he binds her wrists above her head – he knows how to tie knots – and then covers her eyes with something. Despite her unease, not fear, she becomes profoundly aroused. Bound, blind, his hands on her, him in her, her entire body seems to convulse and flood.
Afterwards Sara is shocked. Niall is easy and tender again. That confident smile; the weird patches of skin that seem welded to his skull. His matter of factness in contrast to her sense that everything about him seems to not quite add up. Finally, dressing she asks him about the burns. She stumbles saying that she doesn’t want to intrude, says it is fine if he doesn’t want to discuss it. But Niall’s reaction is warm. He was in an apartment with a girl-friend in Amsterdam, he says, and went out to buy some late night groceries. When he returned the place was an inferno and he could see the girl screaming for her life on the second floor. He describes pushing through the small crowd that had gathered and how they warned him not to go into the burning building. He tells Sara how the stairs were beginning to go below him as he ran up and how, unable to save his girlfriend, the last thing he remembers was a huge ball of flame rolling forward towards him.
When he is finished, Sara blinks in confusion. He was never in the army? No, says Niall, almost scorning the idea.
At home Richard asks her about her day at work, and his mood is subdued when they eat together. Finally, a little later he opens up. He’s worried by life, generally. His work is not going well. A university lecturer he feels he is being marginalised by the Head of Department. Sara is comforting and relieved to be able to focus beyond herself.
Later, in bed, Richard slides beside her and starts to caress her. She turns on her side and barely thinking pushes herself back onto him; sliding him in and out, in and out. She feels his warmth but the explosive energy, the snapping of boundaries, that she feels with Niall is like an ancient memory; even though it is only a few hours earlier. Richard inside her doesn’t feel like a betrayal simply because it feels to be happening to an entirely different person.
However when it is over, Richard asks if she made love to him because she felt guilty? It is a casual, general question. Guilty of what? He’s clear: for letting their marriage atrophy. For letting the days and months go by? For letting age tighten its hands around their throats.
Sara had known for months that Richard’s depression was hovering around him again. It was an odour he carried. So when, now fretful, he declares he is going to sleep in the spare room she is not surprised and drifts asleep. Later, she wakes with a start smelling burning and goes carefully around the house to check that nothing is on fire.
The next morning Sara is resolved. She has to know more about Niall and picking up on something Eliza had said tracks her down. Of course they can have lunch. Tomorrow? Nothing would be nicer.
However, when Sara returns to work one of her colleagues whispers that she just saw Richard outside on the street. He didn’t see her but was surprised – surely he should be at work? Sara appears to be blasé about him being in the City but is mystified. And at home that night the undercurrent of tension is increasing. Craig has invited his friends around for a ‘pre-lash’ and soon the house is swamped with teenagers. Both Richard and Sara feel dispossessed.
She goes to have a bath and lights candles to put the day behind her but she is startled when Richard comes in. The bath is customarily her private time – a chance to take the weight off her feet, relax in the hot water – and when he offers to wash her back she feels uneasy. Why is she tense, he asks. What has she to be tense about? Something to do with work, she says, inventing. But when he is soaping her, his hands move from her back towards her neck. The skin on his hands is soft but just for a nano-second it feels to Sara that her husband is going to strangle her. Nothing about him, about his stroke, changes and yet Sara feels deep horrible fear naked in the bath.
Then, something downstairs, a crash followed by a carefree laugh, breaks the moment and as soon as Richard is out of the bathroom she bolts the door.
Lunch with Eliza, Niall’s ex-colleague is fun and a relief. She laughs easily and seems confident in herself. She flatters Sara about her looks, which surprises the older woman. Of Niall, all Eliza can say is what a good a practical friend he is. How caring he was during a ‘dark time’, how understanding. Sara asks about Niall’s burns but Eliza is vague. She never really asked: felt it was a story he would share if he chose to. Where does he live? Eliza doesn’t know. They met through work. Sara disguises the importance of her question well: are they lovers? Eliza laughs: NO! He is just one of those guys. A go to man when the going gets rough. And then she says something that unsettles the lunch. Niall hadn’t been around for a while and the day Sara saw him in the street was the first time he had shown up in ages.
Back at work Sara can’t concentrate and is distracted when her manager wants a word. His office hums with a hired air-conditioning unit. She missed an afternoon without permission the previous week and has been unfocussed. Normally an exemplary employee, he says, he wants to know if everything is alright? He is careful, and kind. The firm prides itself on being caring. Is Sara having problems ‘at home’? If so, she should talk to Personnel: get time off in lieu. Sara doesn’t know what to say. What has made him think there are problems? The manager smiles understandingly and then explains that Richard came into the office at lunch-time. He became very distressed that she wasn’t there. Caused a stir. Distressed some of the younger staff.
Sara apologizes profusely and then, as she walks through the office back to her work station feels her colleagues glance at her: some smile embarrassed encouragement, others pretend not to see her. Finally, in the loo a floor down, she calls Richard. He doesn’t pick up.
Later she is leaving work and is surprised by Niall. He has to see her. He is more focussed and passionate than before. He talks about his intense desire, his need. Sara goes with him to another hotel. It is in a busy street but Sara feels dry and tense. She is worried about Richard, but confronted by Niall – knowing some of the things she has felt with him – and sensing that time is running out she tries to accept what is happening as they stand beside each other in the small and noisy lift.
The sex is uneasy and Niall seems cool and surgical. He never has seemed much concerned with his pleasure but more with hers. However every part of Sara feels resistant. It’s not fear but something close to it. What she can’t stop is how deftly he dominates her. This time he ties her face down to the bed. She can see nothing, again, but only hear his voice and feel his touch when it comes. Confused, despite herself, despite struggling she can’t stop the waves of orgasm that overtake her.
She feels humiliated by her pleasure: it’s become now a force on its own.
At home Richard has made supper. They talk about work. It is easy, surprisingly light and Sara feels relieved to be home. Craig sits with them and she finds herself staring at his hand as he serves himself salad. That her body could have produced a man like her son, with a hand and a wrist that has dark hairs against its dusty pink skin amazes her. She loved this man-child of hers but now knows he is long gone from needing anything from her other than a memory of sustenance.
Sara at first doesn’t hear Richard talking about the crowded street in Marylebone that Niall led her through only a couple of hours earlier because she is watching Craig, with wonder. But when he mentions the hotel she turns to Richard. He is breezy. Would they like to go there at the weekend? For a night or two away? Craig, Richard says, would love to see the back of us; wouldn’t you Craig? Their son has almost finished his food and barely raises his eyes from his plate but even he can sense something in his father’s tone. He shovels the rest of his food into a bin and drops the plate, knife and fork into the dish-washer and goes. Not a word.
Richard is still smiling. What about it? Sara snaps. Of course they don’t want to go to a hotel in London for the weekend. Besides, she says, what is he talking about? Where? Richard describes it again. The street. The hotel. He might as well have included Niall walking a pace ahead of his wife for local colour but simply puts his glass to his lip and sips some wine. Furious now, Sara stands. What the fuck is he talking about. What is going on? She says. Richard shrugs. He clearly thinks he is in command of everything now. Well, she says, I have no idea what you are talking about.
Later Sara is in her dressing gown and is running the bath. She hears feet on the landing outside and is just about to slip the lock on the door as Richard comes in. He is calm and carefully shuts the door behind him. To make the bathroom they had sacrificed a bedroom but when it became clear that Craig was going to be their only child it seemed a pleasure worth having. Richard walks slowly across the room – as though he is careful to make no noise – and sits in a cane chair by the window. Again, Sara had lit candles around the bath and his movement makes them flicker. For a moment neither says anything. Sara can’t imagine taking off her dressing gown and slipping naked into the bubbly water but it does seem the only logical thing to do.
Richard speaks: “What are you doing?”
Sara realizes that she is frightened. Not of Richard but of where they have got to. Where she has led them. She can see the myriad of possibilities she has created for them. She speaks, but doesn’t look to him, busying herself adjusting the hot tap.
“What do you mean?”
“What is going on? I know what is going on. I know. Please…”
“Nothing is going on.”
And then Richard stands. He is slightly stooped now, she notices. He speaks quietly. He saw them go into the hotel, he says, he saw them come out. He saw how she followed him. He says how the women he saw wasn’t his wife. It could not have been.
“Nothing is going on, Richard. I don’t know what has got into you…”
He points at her. His finger has a slight tremor but then he moves forward. He is not a strong man but when he takes her hand Sara suddenly feels powerless. Nothing, she keeps saying. Nothing. But he has her wrist and is pointing at a soft bruise that runs around it. Nothing, she says again but the mark is there. It is as though a tiny drop of Niall’s burnt skin has rubbed off on her. It is indelible.
“What” she says quietly “do you want me to do Richard?”
He looks at her. He hasn’t taken his eyes off hers.
Far from going into a violent rage or storming Richard speaks quietly and carefully:
Doesn’t she realise that the thoughts, the feeling, she had at the funeral were no different than his? Doesn’t she think he wants to open his mind, his body before it is too late?
Can’t she see that he is as bored, as warn by the “slow-motion-shot-blasting” that is time, as she is? His words come out like a speech. His mouth is dry, when he finishes.
Sara had agreed to see Niall the next day at the Marylebone hotel and when, the next morning, Craig has gone to College (seemingly oblivious to neither parent coming down for breakfast or even switching on the morning radio) Sara gets out of bed. Richard had again slept in the guest room and it isn’t clear whether either know what the other is thinking but both listen for clues, movement on the stairs, a door softly opening and closing.
Sara has just begun dressing when Richard comes into the bedroom but she doesn’t turn from the mirror as he sits so carefully it is as though he wants to make no sound. She sees his reflection but he might as well be a spectre. Although she is not accustomed to painting her nails they are now red with glossy paint. Without turning she puts on her nicest underwear: nothing spectacular. Then a black dress – the same one she wore the funeral – and finally some business-like heels. She leaves the bedroom, goes down the stairs and leaves the house. She seems oblivious to Richard following her.
Sara goes down into the tube, her husband is a few paces behind. Strangers. She sits on the train, he gets into the same carriage but through another door. He stands, half turned from her but every antenna is aware of where she is, how she has poise and anticipation.
When she changes train, Richard follows. This time he gets closer. This carriage is full and they both stand. He can smell the powder she has used on her body, he can see how she slightly extended and sharpened the line of her lip with lip-stick and now she looks at him. No but they know what the other sees: but she is breathing deeply to calm herself. His hand tensions around something in his pocket.
She emerges from the tube in Marylebone into the hot summer air and walks directly towards the hotel. Opposite is the café Richard spent the afternoon in the day before. He recognises the young woman who served behind the counter as you might remember an accomplice. Amidst everything she seemed to read his desperation and smiled at him. Nothing much seems to have changed. The afternoon light, the heat and the shadows are almost the same. And he knows what she is going to do. He knows where she is going,
However the moment before she goes through the hotel’s revolving door she turns. He feels giddy – her look is such a challenge: so defying. You have made me do this, her look seemed to say, you have made me this. And then she disappears through the door. The glass reflects flashes of light back at him as just the hotel is blotted by the crowds on the street.
Ignoring the noise, the traffic, Richard follows her.
She takes the lift to the room on the 7th floor, believing that Richard is now in the lobby watching the numbers jump upwards.
She lets herself into the room with the pass key Niall gave her yesterday. The bed has been made immaculately, the towels replaced, even the two bottles of Evian have cards around their neck explaining just how much they each cost. But Niall isn’t there yet and for the first time that day Sara feels a shiver of hesitation. Her purpose is replaced by feeling the orderly dullness of the room. The sense that rooms like this had all held so many people like her: uncertain what they were doing. Chasing something that was everything and nothing.
Richard is in the lobby. Time is only now. There is nothing that has happened, and nothing that will happen. Then through the door comes the man. Richard doesn’t know his name but sees how glances bounce off him. How people are shocked by his appearance and politely look to the carpet, or each other. He strides easily through the people who will ask each other – “What happened to him?” “Can you imagine?” – and goes into the lift.
Richard imagines a body that is so familiar arching back as the man pushes between her. He imagines the scarred, burnt, man thrilling her in a way that he could never. He imagines her, usually so conservative, slamming her arse, her cunt, her breast, her mouth onto him.
She enters the lobby. Not a hair is out of place but her confidence has ebbed away. She seems bruised by having desired something so violently and it not having happened. She barely looks up as she goes through the revolving doors into the hot white afternoon.
He is in the corridor. He taps on a door.
Sara calls in sick for a few days (there is going to be an issue about a doctor’s note) but on the day she finally returns to work she sees Eliza on the street. She looks forlorn and distracted and when Sara crossed the street to talk to her it seems she may turn and go the other direction but in the last instant concedes and faces her. Sara looks like a different woman now – she stands heavily on the ground, has lost the energy she had she is so pleased to see Eliza and is mid what about lunch –
When Eliza twitches, physically, her face hard like ice. Has she not heard?
Sara nods ‘no’. Heard what? Niall, the other woman says, thick oily tears forming in her eyes, is dead. He was found dead. Sara nearly faints.
Where? What? She asks barely audibly. In a hotel room, says Eliza. Where? Eliza gestures towards Marylebone and the hotel but it is clear she wants to go; indeed is going as she pulls her sunglasses over her eyes and scurries away.
A few days later Sara sits in the back of the Westminster Coroners’ Court. A couple of policeman had interviewed her two days earlier as they had seen her on CCTV in the hotel. It was routine, they explained, because the deceased had been found the day of her visit but the police seemed only interested in her comings and going. There was no suggestion that she was a suspect; nor would they tell her exactly how Mr Cavendish had died.
And when they asked her what she was doing there she said something about her husband. Far from being at the centre of the story the policemen saw her as a walk on part, a bit player.
Every joint is hurting now. She feels three times her age and going up the steps into the Court she could easily be mistaken for an elderly lady. Inside she sits at the back and tries to remain alert as two other untimely deaths are processed. All she can feel and hear is how life hangs by the tiniest thread. A fifteen-year old boy had been knocked from his bicycle and had landed oddly. He, it seems, then fell onto a misplaced paving stone. Had the fall been different, had the paving stone not been slightly crooked, had he been luckier, his parents lives would be bearable. Now they aren’t.
Finally, they get to Niall James Cavendish of Elgin Gardens. There are three or four other people on the public area of the Court and a few journalists. First called is a young WPC. Reading hesitantly but with the clarity of training she describes how she had proceeded to enter room 712 after being alerted by the hotel staff that a body – the deceased – had been discovered by, she refers to her notes, a chamber maid. She was distressed, the young WPC says, ‘unsurprisingly’ so.
The room showed signs of a struggle. Furniture had been tipped over, a mirror was shattered and the shower curtain pulled down.
Mr Cavendish was found clothed but in a bathroom painted red in his gore. He had multiple cut wounds. His torso. His right – burnt – hand was nearly severed at the elbow as he attempted to defend himself. His back has slash wounds as he had turned from his assailant (s). He had struggled to staunch the bleeding with towels but the pathologist, who gives evidence next, says he had probably lost consciousness after a few minutes and died from shock induced by blood loss.
The woman from CID, reassure the Coroner that they have identified a potential suspect and will be in a position to make arrests shortly. Asked about the delay she talks about records, broken cameras, and mentions a witness from a café that faced the hotel.
Sara has her umbrella and when she emerges from the Court is glad she brought it. Early September has brought rain and big drops thud pleasingly against the cloth. Richard is waiting in the car – screw the congestion charge he had said earlier – and as soon as she gets in besides him he fires the ignition.
A few days later Sara stands in her small garden knowing that Niall’s body is being cremated. Eliza had telephoned her wondering if she’d like to come to the funeral. She said no.
It is the first cold evening of Autumn. Craig has just finished his dinner and is, as always, rushing to leave the table. When the doorbell chimes he is convinced it is for him and is surprised by the two men, and a policewoman asking if his parents are in.
Paul Unwin 3rd August 2012