The curtain in the front room shifted very slightly as he pulled the car up in front of the garage door, and he saw her shadow behind it grow, playing in the curtain’s folds, and fade as she moved away. He closed his eyes. She should have been in bed, she never stayed up this late, he cursed silently. He had always counted on that. And, above all, she would never watch for him from the window.
He got out of the car and slammed the door hard, not so much out of inner anger as from a desire to show that he was not trying to hide his lateness from her by sneaking into the house. He hoped the large whisky he had drunk at Karen’s was not lingering on his breath, and made a mental note to ensure that in future he would arrive home having chewed mint-flavoured gum. If there was to be such a future after tonight.
As he put his key to the lock he looked again at the front room window. She was not watching him, the curtain was still now, she was maybe just there waiting. Maybe his fears that he had been caught red-handed were unfounded?
He opened the door and stepped in, setting his briefcase down at the foot of the stairs. As he took off his overcoat he groaned, as if the long hours at the office that he had always used as an excuse had been real. He heard nothing from the lounge, and moved towards the open door, from which the soft pink light of the standard lamp issued into the darkness of the hall.
He felt the question shatter his hope of explaining his lateness away with some rubbish about an overdue report on the Colworth take-over bid.
“Pardon?” he countered, weakly. “I am surprised to see you up, I...”
“How long, you and her? How long?”
He looked at her, studying her face, anxious to determine whether she was bluffing, or if she was certain of herself and her implied accusation. If she knew where he had been, who he had been with, what he had been doing, if she was not bluffing, any attempt at a lie to force her bluff would simply shut the door on any chance of saving his marriage to her. And then again, if she was bluffing, surely he could get away with a lie backed up with an air of bewilderment? He had always been a good actor, but not such a good judge of other people’s feelings that he could decide what role to play now.
She looked back accusingly. The longer the silence lasted, the harder it would be for him to call her bluff, to feign surprise and disbelief at her demand.
He moved towards her, but she shrank back, and turned away.
“Don’t even try! Don’t you dare even try!” she cried at him, her voice quivering with emotion and her eyes blazing. She had been crying, a fact that deepened his conviction that she was somehow aware of his movements of that evening. “I have never felt so... so... insulted, no... degraded,” her voice rose on this last word. “How could you, you bastard?”
He turned and walked to the door, but decided against walking out of the house. Cowardice was not an option, however convenient it began to appear. He put his hand over his eyes, his heart sinking as he began to face what he thought would never happen. To his disgrace, he realised how easily he had never credited his wife with the intelligence to find his infidelity out.
“How did you find out?”
“What does it matter? I found out.” A low sob broke from her.
“You think you can get away with it, deceive and vilify me whenever you feel like it, laugh at me with her from behind my back and then think you are owed an explanation by me?” she screamed. “You utter bastard! You utter selfish bas-tard!” On the last word she dissolved into a fit of sobs which seemed to mount up in her throat and then shunt each other out disjointedly.
He sat resignedly down on the sofa, staring at the pattern on the carpet, a hollowness sucking at his chest. Her angry sobs became more and more frequent, as if whatever had been holding them back had been buffeted aside by the intensity of her despair. The geometrical green and brown pattern on the carpet swam before his eyes, shapes unseen before appearing and disappearing as his eyes focussed and refocussed on it.
“Since Christmas. The office party.” The gruff tone to his voice took him by surprise, and he tried to clear his throat.
Her sobs stopped momentarily, then quickened yet more, before finally subsiding.
He looked up, but not towards his wife. Not towards his wife.
“You bastard,” she croaked, choking on her anger. Her repetition of the word irritated him intensely, not for the meaningless insult it held but for her blind dependency on it as a vehicle for her feelings at a time when mere everyday profanities would never have sufficed for him.
“I won’t say I’m sorry,” he replied after a minute, any hope of salvaging the situation relinquished. “I am just not sorry.” He paused, breathing hard. “But it wasn’t to harm you, I didn’t do it for that,” he added quickly, but then regretted his words, seeing them as an admission that he had always known how much it would hurt her.
“Then why? Why?” The quiet weeping suddenly ceased, her body straightening somewhat from the crouched, foetal position she had adopted. She looked with swollen, reddened eyes at her husband, clearly desperate for an answer, for some justification, something to cling to, some acceptable rock protruding from the flood of dizzy confusion in which her emotions floundered. With a shock he realised how much her little world, the world he had tried to escape from and yet remain part of, had been wrenched apart by the discovery. She was owed an explanation which she could accept, at the very least, if he could adequately provide one. Yet he greatly doubted his ability to do so.
“Exploring.” His gaze returned mechanically to the pattern on the carpet. Almost as soon as he had said it he knew she would never come close to understanding. Never could understand, even if everything depended on understanding.
“Exploring? Exploring? What, for godsake?” She slammed her fist down on the armchair cushion. “I want an explanation. Don’t give me psychology!” She paused, taking breath, and then screamed the word again. “WHY?”
“Exploring,” he repeated. His hardened, defiant tone hurt both their senses, and he softened his voice before adding: “Exploring myself, exploring us, exploring the inexplorable, exploring, for Christ’s sake!!” His anger flared again. “What the hell do you want me to say? What do you want? If you’re looking for me to tell you that I wanted a bit on the side, a young bit of skirt, that I wanted to bolster my ego, you are wrong! You don’t know how very wrong!” Now he stared at her, his welling rage clear in his reddened, bloated face, his fists clenched. “I was in a rut, a rut so bloody deep I couldn’t see over the sides, don’t you understand that?” He unclenched his fists, and put his open, shaking palms to his temples. “And it was getting deeper and deeper. I had to get out. And when I came to an opening, a way out, I leapt with both feet.”
He turned his head away, fighting off the quake of self-pity which he felt developing across his shoulders. He didn’t deserve to immerse his soul in such an appallingly degenerative emotion.
She sat silent, staring at him, her lower lip quivering.
“A rut.” It came out matter-of-factly. “Life is a rut.” She got up, slowly, deliberately calm and went to the curtain, straightening the folds which had first warned him of impending conflict. Although she remained turned towards the curtain, the bitter sarcasm in her voice rang harshly in his ears. “Oh yes! How convenient for you! Life is a rut. And you had to find a way out. Leaving me in it, shattered and stamped into the mud.”
“No!” he countered, the word slamming into her like a physical assault, causing her to turn abruptly. He relented, repeating the denial more softly. “No, it is not like that. I... I...” his voice wavered, strung with pain. “I had no choice. Everything had... I don’t know, gone too far... Karen came just when I was ready to br... to snap.”
His wife’s body jerked taut at the mention of the name, as if it sealed the matter, as if her husband’s lover was in total control of her - their? - lives, as if further discussion were pointless, an exercise in sheer futility, swearing at the sun.
“I needed to get out or I would have suffocated.” He too felt the release Karen’s naming afforded them, and continued more fluently. “I suppose it was mostly self-defence.” He sighed, and turned his gaze away from her, wondering if she could understand that from him.
“That’s spineless,” she spat, “you always were utterly unable to cope with the realities of life. But I am damned if I am going to pay for your mistakes this time.” Her sudden air of resolve rising up from the broken despair of her self-pity shocked him more than anything so far. The fact that she had so quickly come to a decision was what he had least expected.
“I want a divorce.” A calm conclusion. No more sobs, no more anger in her voice. She could have been telling him that she wanted a coffee.
“I understand.” A sense of shock at his own response rippled through his consciousness. He didn’t understand, he had never thought it would lead to this. It wasn’t just too much, it was unthinkable. He may have got out of the rut, but he didn’t want to trip on the edge and find himself sprawling helpless in the mud under the wheels of the cart which had made the rut in the first place.
“Do you? Do you now?” she asked mockingly, and swept resolutely past him, pulling the sitting-room door firmly to after her, as if it symbolised their relationship. He remained seated, unable to identify himself with the scene that he had witnessed and which had overtaken him so suddenly, which had turned the tables on him. The matter of divorce had never remotely crossed his mind, and yet now it was effectively out of his hands. The thought that he had been the one to be out-tricked by his own infidelity started to gnaw at his mind.
The click of the front door barely interrupted his stunned thoughts, and it was almost half a minute before he properly realised that she had left.