The Neapolitan Question

bySara2000Z©

'Ells, can I ask you about Janey?' I ask.

'Sure. What?' she replies, her interest piqued.

'Uh, well, she just seems -- I dunno -- quieter than I remember? Is that just because she's been ill, or is there something else?'

There's a long pause before Ellie replies. I hold my phone out to check we're still connected.

'Aside from her dad dying last year, which definitely took the wind out of her, I don't know what else there might be, Frankie. But --,'

And there's another, longer, pause.

'But,' she continues, finally, 'I do think she's lost her confidence over the last few years. I'm not sure why. Maybe a relationship went bad there, somewhere, but she's always been so private I don't really have anything to base that on. She's never confided anything like that to me.'

'Mm. It's like she doesn't want to let me in, when I talk to her, you know?'

'Ah, your irresistible charms proving resistible for once?'

'That's not what I mean, Ellie, and you know it.' I say it more sharply than I mean to.

Another pause.

'Huh. Well anyway, I can't imagine being surrounded by teenaged girls all day every day can do much for anyone's self-esteem, can you? Let alone being a live-in house mistress for them, or whatever the proper title is,' Ellie finishes.

I snort. 'Sounds like my idea of hell, but I'm not a teacher, just a bloke with a healthy phobia of any girl between the ages of twelve and twenty.'

We laugh together, bridging the thousands of miles between us, and I feel my chest tighten up, as it always does when I'm reminded how much I love my sister.

'Love you, Ells,' I say impulsively.

'I know you do, Frank,' she replies, surprise in her voice.

'I'm just grateful for how you treated me when we were growing up, you know?'

'Oh God, Frankie, don't do this to me, please. I'm already bloody wrecked, with little Frankie's operation, and how upset George is about us not being able to fly today, so don't go giving me something else to cry my eyes out about, will you?'

'Sorry Ellie, I didn't --'

'Oh fuck off will you, Frank? Love you and goodbye,' she sing songs and I stare at my phone as she rings off.

Right at that point, Jane appears in the kitchen, looking sleepy and cute. Cute. Another flash of tension shoots across my chest, which I try to dispel with some deeper breathing.

'Is everything ok?' Jane asks anxiously.

'Yes. Frankie's fine,' I reply, wondering why she's looking at me like that.

'Oh. Ok. You just -- it's just that --,' she tips her head to one side, her hand hovering close by.

'What?'

'Nothing. No, nothing.'

+++

On Sunday, I spend most of the day in the kitchen, alternating between cooking and working my way through a long, tedious report for another client of mine. Janey wanders in and out, but mostly seems to be sitting out on the terrace in the shade with a book. I wonder if she's also drowsing out there, she's sitting so still. By mid-afternoon I realise I've been leaning on my hands, watching her through the big kitchen windows for what might be more than fifteen minutes. It agitates me how quiet, how still, she is. I remember a woman full of life and laughter and sass. Teasing me, sharing jokes with Ellie, showing sweet kindness to dad when he was still alive.

When I walk out onto the terrace I see her eyes are open, and she's gazing out over the garden.

'Hi, you ok?'

She nods, not saying anything, heightening my anxiety about how quiet she is.

'Want something to drink? I made some fresh lemonade?'

'Really? Did you?'

'I did, yeah. Want some of that?'

I go back inside, fill two tumblers with the lemonade and add ice. Pinch a couple of leaves from the mint planted just outside the kitchen doors.

'Want some mint in it too?'

She smiles, and I add the mint before handing her a tumbler.

'This is wonderful, Frank. Sweet and sharp to just the right proportions.'

'Thanks.'

I drop into a chair next to her.

'I hope you're hungry. I've made a mountain of food today.'

'Oh gosh, you must think I'm utterly rude, letting you do all the cooking. I just -- I don't know what's got into me.'

'You've been ill.'

'Yes.'

She sighs. Nearly as impressively as Ellie.

'I've just got no energy. I feel as if I'm seventy-five, not thirty-five. It's bloody depressing.'

'It's a matter of time, isn't it? And good food, sunshine and a bit of exercise. Isn't that why you're going to be here all summer, and maybe longer? To just do that. Concentrate on that?'

She turns her head to look at me and breaks into one of her loveliest smiles.

'You've always been a thoughtful man.'

I watch her, delighted to see her smile like that, so it takes some time for her words to sink in.

'Thoughtful?'

'Mmhmm.'

I twist my mouth. 'I don't think my ex would agree with you about that.'

'Really? I can't imagine why not.'

I stand up, thinking about the waste of words already expended on me and Cate, and am determined not to add to it.

'Want to help chop up some salad?' I ask, impulsively holding my hand out for hers, jumping at her touch. I pull her up and divert the conversation away to other more frivolous things while we wash and dice vegetables.

+++

Dinner is good. I watch Jane eat more than half of the food on her plate, but don't push her. Not until I bring out the rhubarb pie I've made and show it to her. The wide smile she gives me makes it all worthwhile.

'Do you remember teaching me to make pastry?' I ask her, genuinely curious to know if she does.

'Of course I do, Frankie. That was the first time I came to stay at your house.'

'Yeah. That was the best time we'd had at home since mum died.'

'I know.' She reaches her arm out, as if to touch me, but we're sitting too far away.

I slide the knife into the pie to cut us both a slice.

'I could see what a difficult time you were all having. But at the same time, you had so much love for each other. It was -- uplifting.'

'Uplifting?'

I stare at her, and know I've got the same look on my face as when she caught me at the end of yesterday's call with Ellie.

'Yes. I can see it sounds strange to you. But I remember that feeling so well. You were kind to each other. And very loving. You have to understand my rather frigid Scots Presbyterian upbringing, Frank.'

I forget to reply, mesmerised by the way her brown eyes are softening, lightening, almost.

'Are you going to give me a slice, then, or was it just for show?'

I flinch, sending a plate skittering over the table and onto the floor, where it smashes into two even halves. Janey's gracious enough to laugh as she picks the mess up and brings a clean plate to the table.

'It's wonderful, Frank. And how lovely of you to make it.'

Now it's my turn to just nod. Vocabulary, sentence structure -- all appear to have fled. I focus on what's on my plate, hardly tasting it, but glad to have something else to look at. Something safer than Janey's eyes.

My outer silence doesn't stop me from having some sharp words with myself on the inside. Along the lines of getting a grip and stop thinking like a teenager consumed by a massive crush on the woman sitting with me at this table. About the inappropriateness of it. She needs time to get better. Good food, fresh air and sunshine. Not some idiot mooning around after her.

Especially not an 'emotionally unavailable' idiot like me who is 'more turned on by spreadsheets than a woman's body'. And yes, I'm quoting from the counselling sessions with Cate again. I really need to stop doing that.

The splashing of more wine into my glass drags me out of my muddy thoughts and back to the table.

'Let's sit next door, shall we?' Jane's asking, picking up her own glass and moving into the sitting room.

The furniture in here is almost as old as the house. Huge, baggy sofas covered in a dark red velvet, heavy wood side tables and a gracious gilt-framed mirror over the huge brick fireplace, stained by generations of open fires every winter. Jane switches on the standard lamp and drops into the nearest sofa, the yellow light pooling over her dark hair as she tucks her feet underneath her.

She looks even smaller like that.

I sigh, sitting down on the sofa opposite.

'Tell me, Franklin, how are you? Really?'

Well, I hadn't expected that. I gulp at the wine. Unsurprisingly, Jane finds something cogent to say before I do.

'It's just you've seemed a little bit preoccupied since you got here. But just tell me to shut up if I'm being too nosey, won't you?'

Fortunately, we're not sitting close enough for me to see her eyes that clearly from here, otherwise I'd be totally incapable of saying anything at all. I open my mouth, owing a reply of some sort, and to my surprise, find myself telling her something real instead of the usual brush-off.

'I had a girlfriend -- Cate. We split up about six, seven months ago now. I can't seem to shake it off, if you know what I mean.'

Jane watches me from her sofa. After a few seconds, she leans forward.

'Who chucked who?'

'It wasn't like that.'

I take a breath. Am I really going to tell her? I slide down the seat, pressing my feet flat into the floor as if that will stabilise me.

'She miscarried. Last spring. We hadn't planned it, but as soon as we'd started getting used to the idea, seen the first scan and all that, she miscarried.'

I'm bludgeoned by the memory of that morning. A bright, May morning last year, pink and white blossom petals scudding along the roads in huge clouds as we'd raced to A&E in an Uber, the driver babbling at us, wide-eyed, in Urdu and English, while Cate had cried and cried into my chest, shivering under her coat, still in her bloodstained pyjamas. The flat vowels of the doctor who'd told us we'd lost the baby and that it'd be easy for us to just 'try again for another' in a few months or so.

'And it finished us. We couldn't grieve together. We just couldn't seem to do that.' I shrug, tipping my head onto the back of the sofa, blinking hard.

'Oh Frankie. Oh Frank, I'm so sorry. I had no idea. How terrible for you.'

I stare at the ceiling -- this one considerably more charmingly decorative than mine at home -- and chew at my bottom lip.

'I thought Ellie might've told you?'

'It was at pretty much the same time as my father died, so she probably thought I didn't need to hear about other people's heartache as well.'

I blink harder.

'But I wish she'd told me, Frank.'

We let the quiet fold around us. The shutters rattle. There must be a breeze tonight.

'Did you get some help? Counselling or something like that?'

I lift my head to look at her. She's moved, both of her feet back on the floor and leaning towards to me, elbows planted on her knees. I get an intimation of how she must be as a house mistress in that girls' school she works at, listening with such careful attention.

'Yeah. We went to counselling together, but -- I think it was too broken by then. Neither of us had the heart to carry on. Or the bravery, or whatever it was that we lacked.'

She hesitates.

'Surely it's not a question of what you lacked? Grief is unpredictable. And it must have been especially hard to grieve if the baby hadn't been --umm, expected.'

'We lashed out at each other, instead of sharing how we felt with each other.' I clear my throat. 'Not that I think we were, you know, "meant for each other". I don't think either of us thought that way, but when we found out Cate was pregnant, I think we both decided to stick with it.'

'It sounds terribly painful, Frank.'

'Yeah.' I break away from her gaze; pick up my wine glass to drain it.

She seems to slump back into the sofa. She must be tired. This is the latest she's been up since I got here. I stand up and reach for her glass.

'Come on, it's late and probably time you got to bed.'

Yes, now I'm closer to her, I can see she looks tired.

'How about going for a walk tomorrow morning after breakfast?' I suggest and am happy she nods in agreement.

I hear her climbing the stairs as I clean up in the kitchen, pouring myself a rather large measure of whiskey to stand in the kitchen windows and watch the squall outside gathering strength, flashes of sheet lightning flickering in the distance.

I'd allowed myself to start imagining bringing the baby here, to this house, this summer, to meet his or her cousins. That's what's eating at me, now I'm here. The ghost of an alternative present. Me; Cate; our new baby the centre of attention. I finish off the whiskey, swilling it around my mouth, feeling the burn. Turn off all the lights, bolt the back door, and make my way as quietly as I can to my room. Lying in bed, it's the first time since arriving here I'm not having to deliberately think my way out of erotic fantasies about Jane.

+++

'Here you go. My patented, top secret, salad dressing. See what you think?'

She crinkles her nose at me, flashing a smile, then dips her head to help herself to the food we've laid out on the table for lunch.

I dip my finger into the jug of dressing and lick at it.

'Oh, now that is good. What is that taste? Almost lemony.'

She's beaming at me, her dark hair burning in the bright sunlight streaming in through the French windows behind her.

'Did you hear the key words "top secret" just then?'

I'm forced to laugh. 'I guess I didn't, no.'

She's getting to be more like the Janey I remember. Day by day, she's gaining in energy and humour and weight. The latter of these is a good thing. She no longer quite looks as though she could snap in half in a light breeze. Still a long way to go before I'm prepared to give her a clean bill of health, but it's a definite improvement.

Our days mostly follow the same pattern. Breakfast, followed by a walk around the garden then down to the village and back. Reading or, in my case, some work, then one of us makes lunch to eat outside on the terrace. Janey takes a short nap, shorter now than when I first got here, after lunch. More reading, sometimes a dip in the pool (no bikini -- a sensible one-piece under a t-shirt -- I'm still not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed) and then a pleasant slide towards dinner. I've slotted work and a daily run around these fixed points.

'What are you smiling about? It's not going to persuade me to give up the recipe, no matter how much of the charm you turn on,' she teases, biting into a cherry tomato, pressing her lips together to catch some of the juice.

I get a little growl from the base of my spine and do my utmost to ignore it. Instead, I pretend I'm a grown-up, and reply in my most level voice.

'I'm just happy to see how much you seem to be improving every day.'

'Yes, I am feeling better, you know? As if someone's started reconnecting all my circuitry.'

We smile at each other. We sit closer these days. I'm not sure when that happened. I both like it and hate it. It means I have to remind myself more often to behave. To resist the temptation to stroke her wrists, to reach up and tuck her hair behind her ear. That sort of thing.

'And what did Ellie say just now?'

I glance at my phone on the table.

'Another week, then the doctor will probably allow Frankie to fly.'

'As we thought, then.'

'Yes.'

'Poor Ellie and the kids. They must be so disappointed.'

'Now Frankie's obviously on the mend, yes, I think they are fed up being stuck in Singapore. But she thinks they'll definitely make it out here in time for his birthday next month, so that's something.'

'And you're stuck with dull old me for another week at least. You must be going up the wall with boredom.'

'No. Nothing could be further from the truth, Janey.'

I chew at my lip, hoping she's not looking at me. I'm torn between wanting her all to myself and diluting the tension with my unruly mob of nieces and nephews running riot around us. I want them to get here before I make a complete idiot of myself with Janey. But I don't want them to come at all, to give us more time.

Time for what? What do I think is going to happen?

'Anyway, I was thinking we could visit Herculaneum one day soon? Reckon you're up to that?'

She's twisting her hair through her fingers but looks pleased at the suggestion.

'Good, let's do that, then. It's years since I've been and I'm sure they've excavated more since then. I've always thought it's a more interesting site than Pompeii. Have you been?'

I blether on, filling the air with words and ideas as far removed as possible from those that are really coursing through my mind. And body. I shift around on the chair trying for a more comfortable position without being obvious about it. We finish eating and she clears the plates.

'Crossword?'

That's another thing we've included in our routine. Doing The Times crossword together. Well ok, it's not setting the world alight, but it's a nice way to spend time together. She's much, much brighter than me, but she's kind and only obviously outshines me when it's absolutely necessary (often).

'Sure. After you come down from your nap?'

She nods. 'Ok. I might get in the pool later too. It's so much hotter today.'

I incline my head to let her know I've heard her. And wait until she's left the kitchen before getting up from the table. Because the erection I've been trying to calm down through most of lunch is stubbornly resistant. Not helped by Jane's comment about the pool. I press against my cock, almost laughing with the frustration of it. It's as if I've reverted to that thirteen year old; helpless and hopeless in the presence of beautiful Janey. I break into a light sweat, fighting the same old fight with myself. Relief or stoic abstinence? Thing is, I'm not thirteen anymore. So the idea of wanking while Janey's upstairs feels totally ridiculous. Grown men don't do that. Do they?

I'm so self-absorbed I don't hear Jane until she's in the kitchen, the sound of her scraping one of the chairs on the floor startling me so much I step backwards and bang into the fridge behind me.

'Sorry, did I catch you unawares?'

'You have no idea, Jane,' I murmur, low enough I'm not sure if she hears or not.

She holds up her book.

'Forgot this,' she chirps and is off up the stairs before I reply.

+++

Fortune smiles on me for once, today's crossword being one I find answers for more easily than normal, and it's a most helpful distraction from Jane in the pool. I still steal looks at her when I hope she won't notice, using the crossword as cover, pretending that's what's really holding my attention, or boasting to her about another solution I've found whenever I think she's caught my eye. But my diversion runs out of road eventually. The crossword is done, and Jane stands over me, dripping, checking I'm not exaggerating my claim to have finished it correctly.

'Time for you to take a dip in the pool as your reward,' she smiles.

On another woman's lips, it'd sound coquettish or downright suggestive, but Janey's not like that. She's got some sort of innocent aura. Almost girlish. Not immature. But -- what am I saying? I'm losing my mind. The vibes I'm getting from her are plain confusing. One minute I think she's flirting; the next I realise she's doing nothing of the sort. My fault for wanting something that's just not there.

I scratch at my hair, pull my t-shirt up over my head, dump it on the ground and dive into the pool. It's beautiful in the water. Just the right temperature. I float on my back, listening to Jane swim more slow laps. I ran a long way this morning so I've no desire to swim.

The sky is an almost perfect cornflower blue. Not a cloud to be seen.

I think about George's fearful splashing around in this pool last summer. And roll over, face down, before hauling myself out. No more self-pity, I think to myself. No more. It's done. Cate and me are over. We didn't have a baby. It's done.

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bySara2000Z© 22 comments/ 26914 views/ 48 favorites

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