Twelve

I wrote to my mother. She was going to be very surprised. I had only told her that Jake and I had separated. I hadn’t even mentioned Adam before. I wrote to Jake, trying to find the right words. I didn’t want him to hear it from anyone else first. I met more of Adam’s friends and colleagues – people he had climbed with, people he’d shared tents with and crapped with and with whom he had risked his life – and everywhere we went I could feel Adam’s appraising eyes on me, making my skin prickle. I went to work and sat at my desk, loose with remembered and anticipated pleasure, and pushed paper around desks and sat in meetings. I meant to ring up Sylvie, and Clive, and even Pauline, but somehow I always put it off. Almost every day now we would receive silent phone calls. I got used to holding the receiver a bit away from my ear, hearing the raspy breathing and putting the phone back on its stand. One day wet leaves and earth were pushed through our letterbox, but we ignored that as well. If occasionally I felt anxious, the anxiety was drowned out by all the other turbulent emotions.

I learned that Adam cooked great curries. That television bored him. That he walked very fast. That he mended the few clothes he owned with meticulous care. That he loved single malt whisky and good red wine and wheat beer, and hated baked beans and bony fish and mashed potatoes. That his father was still alive. That he never read novels. That he was almost fluent in Spanish and French, the bastard. That he could tie knots with one hand. That he used to be scared of enclosed spaces, until he was cured by six days in a tent on a two-feet deep ledge on the side of Annapurna. That he didn’t need much sleep. That his frost-bitten foot still hurt him sometimes. That he liked cats and birds of prey. That his hands were always warm, however icy it was outside in the streets. That he hadn’t cried since he was twelve and his mother died, until the day I said I would marry him. That he hated lids to be left off jars and drawers to be left open. That he took showers at least twice a day, and clipped his nails several times a week. That he always carried tissues in his pockets. That he could hold me down with one hand. That he rarely smiled, laughed. I would wake up and he would be beside me, staring at me.

I let him take photographs of me. I let him watch me in the bath, on the lavatory, putting on makeup. I let him tie me down. I felt at last as if I had been turned inside out and all my private internal landscape, everything that had belonged only to me, was known. I think I was very, very happy, but if this was happiness, then I had never been happy before.

On Thursday, four days after Adam had asked me to marry him and three days after we had gone to the register office to post our banns, sign forms and pay money, Clive rang me at work. I had neither seen him nor spoken to him since the tenpin bowling, on the day I left Jake. He was polite and formal, but asked me if Adam and I would like to come to Gail’s thirtieth birthday party. It was tomorrow, Friday, nine o’clock, with food and dancing.

I hesitated. ‘Will Jake be there?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘And Pauline?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do they know that you’re asking me?’

‘I wouldn’t have rung you without talking to them first.’

I took a deep breath. ‘You’d better give me the address.’

I didn’t think Adam would want to go, but he surprised me. ‘Of course, if it’s important to you,’ he said casually.

I wore the dress he had bought for me, chocolate-brown velvet with long sleeves, deep neck and slashed, swirly skirt. It was the first time I had got dressed up for weeks. It occurred to me that, since Adam, I had, bizarrely, paid little attention to what I wore or how I looked. I was thinner than I had been, and pale. My hair needed cutting and there were dark smudges under my eyes. Yet I felt, examining myself in the mirror before we left that evening, that I looked beautiful in a way that was new. Or maybe I was just ill, or mad.

Gail’s flat was in a large, rickety house in Finsbury Park. When we arrived there, all the windows were lit up. Even from the pavement we could hear music and laughing voices, and see the shapes of people through the open curtains. I clutched Adam’s arm. ‘Is this a good idea? Maybe we shouldn’t have come.’

‘Let’s go in there for a bit. You can see everyone you need to see, and we can go and have a late meal afterwards.’

Gail opened the door. ‘Alice!’ She kissed me exuberantly on both cheeks, as if we were old friends, then turned inquiringly towards Adam, as if she had no idea who he was.

‘Adam, this is Gail. Gail, Adam.’

Adam said nothing but took her hand and held it for a moment. She looked at him. ‘Sylvie was right.’ She giggled. She was drunk already.

‘Happy birthday, Gail,’ I said drily, and she forced her attention back to me.

The room was full of people holding glasses of wine or cans of beer. There was a raggle-taggle band of musicians clutching their instruments in one corner, but they weren’t playing. Music was booming from the stereo instead. I took two glasses from the table and glugged some wine into them for Adam and me, and looked around. Jake was standing near the window, talking to a tall woman wearing a strikingly short leather skirt. He hadn’t noticed me come in, or he was pretending that he hadn’t.

‘Alice.’

I turned. ‘Pauline. Nice to see you.’ I moved forward and kissed her cheek, but she was unresponsive. I introduced Adam awkwardly.

‘I gathered,’ she said.

Adam took her by the elbow and said in a clear, carrying voice, ‘Pauline, life is too short to lose a friend.’

She looked taken aback but at least she managed to speak. I drifted away from them, towards Jake. I had to get this over with. He had seen me now. He was still talking to the woman in the skirt, but his glance kept turning towards me. I went over. ‘Hello, Jake,’ I said.

‘Hello, Alice.’

‘Did you get my letter?’

The woman turned and left us. Jake smiled at me, and said, ‘God, that was hard going. It’s difficult being single again. Yes, I got your letter. At least you didn’t say you hoped we could still be friends.’

At the other end of the room I saw Adam talking to Sylvie and Clive. Pauline was still beside him; and he was still holding her arm. I saw how all the women eyed him, drifted over towards him, and I felt a twinge of jealousy. But then he looked up, our eyes met, and he gave a funny twisted grin.

Jake saw the glance. ‘Now I know why you were suddenly so interested in climbing literature,’ he said, with a painful smile. I didn’t reply. ‘I feel so ridiculously stupid. All that happening under my nose and me not knowing. Oh, and congratulations.’

‘What?’

‘When is it going to be?’

‘Oh. In two and a half weeks’ time.’ He winced. ‘Yes, well, why wait… ?’ I stopped. My voice sounded too bright and cheery. ‘Are you all right, Jake?’

Now Adam was talking just to Sylvie. His back was to me, but she was staring up at him with a rapt expression I knew too well.

‘It’s no longer your concern,’ said Jake, in a voice that was trembling slightly. ‘Can you tell me something?’ I saw that his eyes had filled with tears. It was as if my going had released a new Jake – one who had lost his mellow cheerfulness and his irony; who wept easily.

‘What?’ I realized that Jake was a bit drunk. He bent closer to me, so I could feel his breath on my cheek.

‘If it hadn’t been for, you know, him, would you have stayed with me and –?’

‘Alice, it’s time to go.’ Adam put both arms round me from behind, and rested his head on my hair. He was holding me too tightly. I could hardly breathe.

‘Adam, this is Jake.’

The two men didn’t say anything. Adam let go of me and held out his hand. Jake didn’t move at first; then, with a puzzled expression, he put his hand into Adam’s. Adam nodded. Man to man. A desire to giggle rose in my throat, which I suppressed.

‘Goodbye, Jake,’ I said awkwardly. I was about to reach up and kiss him on the cheek, but Adam pulled me away.

‘Come on, my love,’ he said, leading me from the room. I sketched a half-wave at Pauline and left.

Outside the house, Adam stopped and turned me towards him. ‘Satisfied?’ he said, and kissed me savagely. I slid my arms under his jacket and shirt and leaned into him. When I pulled away, I saw Jake, still standing at the window and looking out. Our eyes met but he made no gesture.

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