Women Behaving Badly: An uplifting, feel-good holiday read
Alice hurtled round Tesco’s, throwing things into her trolley, with one eye on the time. In half an hour, she was due to pick up Finn from football practice, and then she had to get him home and feed him before she left for her meeting. Baked beans, biscuits, cereal — what kind was Finn into these days? It seemed to change from week to week. Something crisp and chocolatey would probably do. Washing powder, socks — would Finn mind Tesco socks? Probably not. After all, socks were socks, weren’t they? Alice threw in a couple of packs. She would take off the labels, and Finn probably wouldn’t even notice.
At the checkout, Alice realised she’d forgotten the milk. Well, they’d have to make do with what they had. If necessary, they could always borrow some from next door. The woman who lived there kept cats and always had plenty. Alice disliked the cats, who came over the fence and killed birds and dug up her one flower bed. Their owner was sympathetic but said there was nothing much she could do. Cats would be cats. Alice had heard once that in the eyes of the law, cats weren’t possessions; they were “free spirits.” In other words, they could more or less do what they liked. The title somehow exonerated the owners from any responsibility.
If only the same could be said of teenagers.
Finn was fifteen, the age of the ‘great ennui’ as a friend of Alice’s (and mother of three sons) put it. Everything — school, holidays, television, some of his friends and most of hers, even life itself — everything was “bore-ring.” Wherever he was, his gangling frame seemed to fill the house, his boat-size trainers tripped her up in the hallway, his music blared from the open door of his bedroom. He languished across armchairs or along the sofa, his bare (and none too clean) feet dangling, his jaws slowly masticating gum, his eyes either closed or glazed over. He slept for twelve hours at a time and ate enough to feed a small third-world village. The smell of toast would waft up the stairs long after Alice had gone to bed (how was it that a smell could wake one up?), and they were always running out of food. As for his room… well, to use an awful cliché, don’t even go there (Alice didn’t).
But he made her laugh. No-one had ever made Alice laugh the way Finn did. He was an excellent mimic, told wickedly funny stories, and his bagpipes act (an upside down kitchen stool and a very rude “Scottish” song) could make her cry with laughter. His quick ripostes, the little notes he left her (‘out of bread, peanut butter, and chill pills for Mum’), his bear hugs (he was very affectionate), and on good days, his companionship, all made it worthwhile.
Alice would look at this huge, towering boy-man and remember with horror how she very nearly got rid of him.
Finn was an accident. Alice had known his father just three hours (or was it four?). They’d met at a party and ended up in the summerhouse on a heap of rather smelly cushions with a bottle of cheap wine (Alice had been just sober enough to know that the wine was disgusting, but too drunk to care).
Alice was not the kind of person to have one-night-stands. She was organised, disciplined, focused and ambitious. At thirty-one, she had been fully occupied in developing her career as a journalist and wanted nothing to get in her way. A husband and children — especially children — had never been part of the plan. Alice liked men and enjoyed sex, but her relationships, like her work life, were organised, with secure boundaries. She never went out on a date if she had a deadline to achieve, she didn’t sleep with a man until she knew him pretty well, and she never went out with anyone from work. But it had been a difficult week, she’d been tired, the party had offered a welcome diversion (Alice wasn’t usually a party-goer), and Finn had been the result.
It had taken Alice a month to decide what she was going to do. She wrote down all the reasons why she should and shouldn’t continue with her pregnancy; she listed all the pros and cons; she consulted her closest friend. In the end, she decided to go ahead and have the baby. As a friend said, people often regretted getting rid of babies, but rarely regretted keeping them. She might even grow to like her child. Stranger things had happened.
To her great surprise, she adored Finn from the start. Never having had much time for babies before, she put her feelings down to hormones and waited for them to wear off. But the love increased as Finn developed from what looked like a rather surprised baby hedgehog into a plump, sunny human infant, who slept through the night, ate all the right things, and was quite happy to be handed round and looked after by anyone to whom his mother gave him.
Of course, a baby was not the greatest of career moves. The local newspaper for which she had been working was male-dominated, and while she wasn’t exactly discriminated against (that wasn’t permitted), little allowance was made for her new status as a mother. Alice had made her decision, and she would also have to make such arrangements as were necessary to look after her child.
So Alice juggled. She had read about mothers juggling children and careers but had never realised how hard it could be. Even when she was able to work from home, Finn and his needs were a constant distraction, and despite the services of an excellent childminder, things could go wrong. Besides, children didn’t always go according to plan. They could be sick in the night, springing sudden alarming fevers; they could have accidents, the aftermath of which required the presence of a parent. Later on, there were school sports days, speech days and school plays. Finn wasn’t much of an actor or a sportsman, but had still been given small parts requiring a maternal audience (a tree in a nativity play; a reserve for the school second football team), and since Alice was a perfectionist and this now extended to motherhood, life became complicated. But after fifteen years, Alice would have been the first to admit that having Finn had made her a better person. She no longer fretted over a dirty kitchen floor or an unironed shirt, or whether fish fingers twice in a week would permanently damage Finn’s health. There simply wasn’t time. She became more relaxed over her own minor shortcomings and more tolerant of those of other people.
“Welcome to the real world, Alice,” said her mother.
It had taken Alice two years to decide to contact Finn’s father. It had been quite a job tracking him down (the friend of an acquaintance of a friend — that sort of thing) and had required a lot of courage to phone him. At first, he’d been disbelieving, then shocked, and then angry.
“Two years? All this happened two years ago, and you didn’t think to tell me? If I am this child’s father, which I very much doubt. As for you, I can’t even remember your name, never mind your face.”
Alice refrained from reminding him that it probably wasn’t her face that had preoccupied him at the time, and explained who she was.
“A journalist? I don’t trust journalists. How do I know you’re not going to sell your story to some sleazy little newspaper?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. This is strictly between you and me.”
“Well, I’ll need DNA of course. Proof. You can’t just go around telling someone you met two years ago that they fathered your child, and not expect him to want proof.”
“Of course you can have proof. I expected you’d want it, and you can have it.”
“What’s it like, this child?”
“He. He’s a boy.”
“Blond. Blue-eyed. Very sweet.”
“I’ve got brown eyes.” The voice was indignant.
“Well, I’ve got blue eyes.”
“Brown eyes are dominant. Everyone knows that. If it — he — was mine, he’d have brown eyes.”
Alice had sighed. “Let’s just do the DNA thing, shall we? Then we can talk about the colour of his eyes.”
Finn’s father turned out to be an artist of mediocre talent and minimal means. Known to his friends as Trot (something to do with an interest in Trotsky as a boy), he was, Alice thought, pleasant enough, although when they met, she didn’t recognise him at all. He was not exactly what she would have chosen as the father of her child, but she could have done a lot worse. Once the DNA was sorted out (eye colour notwithstanding), he seemed to warm to the idea of fatherhood, and while he made it clear that financial support would not be forthcoming (Alice never asked for any), he did take an interest in Finn. Trot was bad at birthdays and Christmas, but good at exciting trips and occasional surprises, and he and Finn got on remarkably well. Finn never called him Daddy or Dad, and nobody asked him to. He was just Trot. Alice privately thought that Finn preferred to think of Trot as a mate, and that was fine. At least he had a father. What he called him was immaterial. Trot remained single, and this seemed to please Finn, although Alice wasn’t quite sure why.
Now Alice loaded her groceries into the back of her car and started the engine. If she hurried, she would just about make it to the school in time. Finn was a poor timekeeper and was probably still changing out of his football gear or gossiping in the changing rooms. He disliked football but was fond of the master in charge, and the second team was short of players. Alice reflected that in spite of his shortcomings, Finn had a very kind side to him. She hoped very much that he had had a shower.
While she was preparing their meal, Alice asked Finn about his plans for the weekend.
“Fishing with Trot,” was the somewhat unexpected answer.
“Yeah. Trot’s taken up fishing, and wants me to go with him. He’s picking me up from Kenny’s in the morning.” Finn was spending the night with Kenny, a friend of whom Alice didn’t altogether approve.
“Is this another of his crazes?” Trot was given to sudden enthusiasms, which as often as not fizzled out before they’d had a chance to get going. To date, he’d clocked up, among other things, birdwatching (he got bored), horse riding (he fell off and lost his nerve), motorbikes (ditto), and visiting steam railways (Alice suspected that the necessary travelling involved too much effort). Finn frequently accompanied his father on these forays into new, if not always fascinating, territory, and never seemed to mind if they didn’t last. Trot was fun to be with, and Finn enjoyed the fun, if not always the activities.
In some ways Alice was envious of their relationship. While she’d never wanted or expected any help with Finn’s upbringing, she couldn’t help feeling that Trot had all the fun of parenthood with none of the responsibility. She had borne him an intelligent and on the whole rather nice son, and Trot was free to pop in and out of Finn’s life at will, taking him out when he felt like it and yet sometimes not bothering to contact him for weeks on end. Oddly enough, Finn didn’t seem to mind, possibly because Trot had always been like that and he didn’t expect anything else, but Alice found herself minding on his behalf. On his last birthday, Finn had only received four cards (theirs was a small family), and Alice had felt for him. It wouldn’t have hurt Trot to make the effort; he certainly knew when Finn’s birthday was. But as Trot himself had said, he’d never been good at birthdays.
“Birthdays, smirthdays…” he’d mocked when Alice had mentioned it some years ago. “Who cares?”
“Children care,” she’d told him. “Birthdays mean a lot to a child.”
“They didn’t to me.”
“Well, you had a mother and father, and as far as I can recollect, grandparents. I doubt very much whether you went short on your birthday. Would it be so difficult just to send a card?”
“He might expect to find money in it. I’d hate to disappoint him.”
“Well, money in it wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” said Alice, infuriated. “After all, you spend money on him at other times.”
“There you are, then,” Trot said. “I am a good daddy after all.”
“No, you’re not. You’re just another kid. That’s why you and Finn get on so well.”
“I rest my case.”
But fishing sounded like a good idea. It would get Finn away from his computer and out into the fresh air, and as she was behind with her current deadline and was going to have to put in some extra work, they wouldn’t be missing time together.
“Oh, I forgot. Trot asked if I could bring some lunch with me,” Finn said.
“Now you tell me!”
“Just a few sandwiches. I’ll make them.”
“We’re nearly out of bread. I do wish you’d told me this earlier.”
“Sorry. I forgot.”
“And I suppose Trot intends you to feed him, too.” Trot’s domestic arrangements were haphazard.
“As a matter of fact, he did ask. He’s had a busy week.”
“And I haven’t?”
“He’s got an exhibition coming up.”
“Well, not for a few weeks, but he’s busy getting it organised.”
“Well, I’m busy trying to earn enough money to keep you in peanut butter and cornflakes.”
“Twisty Chocolate Honey Flakes,” Finn said. “I like those.”
“Okay, whatever. The point is that I work, Finn. Work. Does that mean anything to you?”
“All right. Keep your hair on.”
“And,” Alice said, trying very hard to keep her temper, “Trot is not busy. Or certainly not as busy as I am. He’s his own boss, he’s got no one else to think about, he can work when he wants, and… and… go fishing when he wants. And make his own bloody sandwiches!” She dumped a pile of folded laundry on the kitchen table. “I wish I had time to go fishing!”
“He’s bringing the drink,” Finn said.
“Oh, just a few cans.”
“Finn, you are underage, and Trot will be driving.”
“We won’t have much, and it’ll have worn off by the time we come home. Trot doesn’t do drink-driving.”
“Well, if you say so. But you know how irresponsible he can be. You’ll have to try to be the sensible one.”
“Aren’t I always?” Finn, who had been foraging in cupboards, piled packets of crisps and Kit-Kats, a bag of tomatoes, some apples, and a large packet of cheese on the worktop. “There. One picnic lunch. I’ll just hard boil a few eggs, and that should do us.”
Alice looked at what amounted to a large proportion of their weekend supplies and bit her tongue. After all, it wasn’t Finn’s fault if he had a feckless father, and a feckless father who was in touch was better than no father at all.
“Do you think Trot would like to come back for supper afterwards?” she asked.
“Really?” Finn beamed. He loved it when the three of them got together, and it rarely happened. “I’ll ask him.”
“It’ll probably have to be something simple as I’ve got this article to finish, but that’s okay, isn’t it?”
Later on, as she set off for her evening with Mavis and Gabs, Alice wondered whether she and Trot could ever have made a go of their relationship. He was personable, amusing, and intelligent, and she could certainly have done a lot worse. But no, it would never have worked. Quite apart from the fact that he wasn’t her type, Alice knew that Trot would have driven her mad within days. It would have been like having another child.
Besides, there was Jay.
Only the members of the Basic Theology group knew about Jay, and of course Father Cuthbert (who no longer counted), but none of her family and friends knew, not even Finn. Especially not Finn. The affair had been going for nearly four years now, and while Alice accepted that there was no future in it, she couldn’t bring herself to let go. She didn’t so much mind not being married to him or living with him; she could cope with that. What she found difficult was the secrecy.
Before their affair had begun, Alice had had no idea how many pitfalls awaited those engaged in an illicit relationship. A car parked in the wrong place, the risk of bumping into someone they knew, the difficulties involved in arranging any time together — there were times when the problems seemed insurmountable. Weeks would go by when they scarcely saw each other, and had to make do with the odd snatched phone call or brief unsatisfactory meeting. And yet in some ways, it was the risk — the excitement, perhaps — that kept the relationship fresh, for it was hard to grow tired of someone when you hardly ever saw them.
Alice had met Jay on a crowded train. Jammed up against each other (there was standing room only), they had struck up a conversation. The train was slow, and Jay was a good listener — attentive without being intrusive — and by the time Alice reached her destination, she realised that she had spent most of the time talking about herself, and that she knew virtually nothing about her companion.
“Gosh. I’m sorry. I haven’t stopped talking, have I?” she said as the train began to slow down. “What must you think of me?”
“Does it matter what I think of you?” Jay had asked her. His tone was teasing, but his expression was serious.
They had held each other’s gaze for a long moment before Alice blushed and looked away.
“Yes. Yes, it does,” she said, wondering that she should mind so much about the opinion of a stranger.
“That’s good. Because — because I’d like to see you again. That is, if you don’t mind.”
And that was how it had started. Afterwards, Alice often wondered at the coincidence of their meeting. If it hadn’t been one of her London days (her job on a Sunday colour supplement enabled her to do most of her work from home); if she hadn’t missed the earlier train; if she had been able to find a seat… all those ifs. But they had met, and before she left the station that evening, Alice knew that her life was about to change.
Their first meeting took place in a discreet coffee bar halfway between their homes (they lived some distance apart), and there was none of the awkwardness that Alice had feared.
“I’m afraid I did nearly all the talking last time,” she said. “Now it’s your turn.”
“What do you want me to say?” Jay had asked.
“Tell me about yourself. After all, you already know quite a lot about me.”
“Well, I live in town, I support Manchester United, I have two black labradors, and I’m allergic to shellfish. Will that do?”
“Hardly. For a start, I want to know what you are, what you do for a living.”
“I’m a medic.”
“That doesn’t tell me much! What kind of medic?”
“Oh, this and that. Nothing particularly interesting.”
“Is that it?”
“Not quite. But I suppose I’ve got out of the habit of talking about it, partly to avoid people asking my advice. If you tell anyone you’re a doctor, you’re considered fair game, even at social gatherings. So I try to avoid it. Sometimes I just tell them I’m an accountant. It seems that no-one’s interested in accountants.”
Alice laughed. “So you won’t tell me any more? Even if I promise never to ask your advice?”
“I hope you’ll never need it. I’m an oncologist.” Jay smiled at her expression. “Cancer,” he explained. “I work at the District General, and I also look after the local hospice.”
“Isn’t that a bit depressing?”
“People do get better, you know. More so now than ever. And if they don’t, well, at least I can help to make things a bit easier. Make a difference.”
Looking at Jay — at his dark, serious eyes and warm, sympathetic smile — Alice could well imagine that he would make a difference. She had only spent a couple of hours in his company, and he was already making a considerable difference to her.
“You wear a wedding ring,” she said now. “You’re — married?”
“Yes, I’m married.”
“And we will talk about it, but not now.”
Alice nodded. A waitress whisked past carrying a tray; two women at a corner table were discussing a party they’d been to. Alice picked up her bag from the floor, and then put it down again. The seconds ticked by.
“I don’t — do this kind of thing,” she said, after a moment.
“Neither do I.” Jay touched her hand. “I’ve never ‘done this kind of thing,’ as you put it, before.”
“Then — why…?”
“I think you know why.”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
For the attraction between them was overwhelming; something Alice had rarely felt before and had almost given up hope of finding again. And while she realised, even at that early stage, that the way ahead would almost certainly be both difficult and painful, she felt powerless to stop.
One of Alice’s rules had always been never to date married men, but she had been completely swept away by Jay, and their affair had developed rapidly from there. Because of the distance they had to travel (given Jay’s work, that was probably just as well), meetings between them were infrequent and not easy to arrange, but they saw each other when they could, and phoned often. It wasn’t ideal, but it had to be enough. Alice considered that it was a price worth paying, and so, apparently, did Jay.
Over time, Alice discovered that Jay was something of an expert in his field, but while he did sometimes discuss his work with her, he was dismissive of any accolades.
“It’s just a job,” he would say. “I’m fortunate to be doing something I love.” And he would leave it at that.
“Am I allowed to be proud of you?” she had asked him on one occasion, when he had been invited to open a new wing of the hospice.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I were — related to you, I’d be proud of you. Of what you do. All those people you help; all those families. Are mistresses allowed to be proud?”
Jay had laughed. “You can be proud if you want to be. Of course you can. But I just do my job. As you do yours.”
Alice knew that Jay’s marriage was an unhappy one, but they never discussed it. It was bad enough to betray another woman by sleeping with her husband; to ask questions about her seemed almost worse. Fortunately, Jay seemed to feel the same way, so Angela remained an unknown quantity. All Alice knew was that after many shared years of trying (and failing) to produce children, Jay felt that the least he could do was to stay with his wife. As he said, if he allowed himself to be free, he might be tempted to find someone with whom he could have a family, and that would be unforgivably hurtful. So in that respect, Alice was a reasonable solution. She didn’t want more children even had she been young enough to have them, and she made very few demands.
Of course, one of the hardest things to bear was that she and Jay could never go public as a couple. Alice had to put up with the pitying comments of married — or at least, coupled — friends. One or two even asked her why she had never married, as though her age had put any marriage prospects firmly in the past. Occasionally, friends would probe, suspicious at her continued single state and apparent lack of interest in the opposite sex, and one or two had even hinted that she might be gay. Alice had fended off any questions as politely as she could, but found their intrusiveness puzzling. Why was it apparently perfectly acceptable for people to ask about her sexual proclivities when they would be unlikely to question her politics? On several occasions she had been tempted to confide in a close friend, but she knew only too well that a secret shared is all too often a secret spread, and she couldn’t afford to take that risk. One day, when Finn was older, she would tell him. But not yet. He was too young to understand, and besides, what with exams and spots and the alarming surges of testosterone that went with being fifteen, she felt that he had enough to cope with.
So she and Jay continued as best they could, snatching the odd meeting, phoning often, and trying to live in the moment. Because that was all they had, wasn’t it? A relationship such as theirs didn’t have a future, or not the kind that could be planned or worked towards. They loved, they laughed, they had rows, and when they could manage it, they had great sex. It had to be enough.
But of course, it wasn’t. Or not always. There were times when Alice ached for Jay’s company, for the feeling of his arms around her, for his smell and the sound of his voice. She longed for the luxury of a night together or simply the exchange of news at the end of a busy day — the ordinary things that so many couples took for granted. Flowers and candlelit meals no doubt had their place — and goodness knows, she’d had few enough of those — but they were fripperies compared with the day-to-day stuff of marriage.
Oddly enough, while she was rarely jealous of Angela, Alice did occasionally envy Jay’s patients. She knew this made no sense, but when she thought of the amount of time he spent with them — talking to them, touching them, looking after them — she couldn’t help experiencing the odd pang. For while Jay did his best to dissemble, she knew how much he cared about them, and she hoped they realised how fortunate they were in having him.
Alice tried not to share these thoughts with Jay. Things were hard enough for him as it was, without her whinging. Besides, their time together was precious, and she didn’t want to squander it on complaints and if-onlys. She had gone into the relationship with her eyes open, she had known the risks and the difficulties, and she had never been one to waste time on regrets.
Did she feel guilty? At the beginning she had certainly felt very guilty, and more than once she had thought of ending the relationship. But as time went on and she became accustomed to the situation, the pangs of guilt became less frequent. Angela had her husband and her home and her career as a solicitor (that much Alice did know), and provided she never found out about the affair, little harm would be done. In a way, they were all three of them victims, and while Alice didn’t try to absolve herself from her own responsibility, it could have been worse. She could have been younger, more demanding, wanting marriage and children. As it was, all she asked for was what she suspected Jay and Angela could no longer give to each other; love, intimacy, and a little happiness. It could even be that her relationship with Jay was helping to keep his marriage together.
Alice was glad that she wasn’t dogged by the Catholic guilt that had beset her fellows in the “theology” group. But then, Alice was not a Catholic. Her attendance had begun purely coincidentally when she had been invited to write a piece on marital infidelity and had been put in touch with Father Cuthbert. Under conditions of strict confidentiality and with the permission of the group members, Alice had been allowed to attend a single meeting, but she had been so taken with the freedom they experienced in being able to discuss their relationships that she had asked — and been permitted — to carry on attending. She suspected that Father Cuthbert saw her as another opportunity for bringing about redemption — and, who knows, even introducing a new convert to the One True Faith — but for Alice, the meetings had been, quite simply, a life-saver. The opportunity to talk about Jay to people who would neither judge nor dissuade her (she didn’t count Father Cuthbert; it was his job to judge and dissuade) was a revelation, as well as an indescribable relief, and she quite quickly realised that she was becoming dependent on the meetings. She would save up little anxieties and other aspects of her relationship with Jay to share with the other members, and she invariably received the understanding and sympathy she longed for.
But now they were on their own, the three of them: Alice, Gabs, and Mavis. Three very disparate women who all shared a very big secret. They had agreed to meet every two months, taking turns to host the meetings, and tonight’s would be their first one.
Alice smiled to herself. Quite apart from the fact that it might provide material for a most entertaining article, she was looking forward to her evening.