During a school trip Ian had spent a week at Ms Heath's place near Hereford. He had only stayed there for four nights, but he had immensely enjoyed himself - he liked the small village, the cottage Ms Heath lived in, the environs, everything. Ms Heath, who was in her mid-fifties, was a few years his junior, but he thought she didn't look her age at all. When he had arrived she had seemed somewhat taken by surprise. It appeared she generally took in women only; she had not made a fuss over it, though she did tell him she wanted no truck with men. He had tried his best to make his stay a success for her as well, by taking some work off her hands - he was accustomed to doing a lot in the household; since his wife's death he had to do everything himself anyway. They did the dishes together, and he prepared the vegetables for her, and all the while they talked, about books - it appeared they both liked reading a lot, they even shared a liking for reading whodunits for relaxation - and music - Ian was a real enthusiast with a wide taste in music and he looked through her collection of CDs with great approval. He had taken her out to the pub one evening and they had had a very pleasant time together. Jane, as he knew her now, had been single all her life. She had hinted at some failed friendship some time in the past, but she had not gone into the details. Well, Ian had thought, it could not have been for her personality, and not for her looks, either.
Jane had a part time job at an office. She liked her job and looked on her employer as a friend, with whom she shared some girls' talk now and again. Abigail made fun of her sometimes, and when Ian had been there in May she'd grinned at Jane and joked about "her Dutchman." But Jane's hurt expression had caused her to stop and ask what was wrong, and Jane had told her that he wasn't "her" Dutchman.
"Really?" Abigail had asked. "Is it that bad?"
It made Jane realise that she did like this stranger so much that it made her feel both elated and slightly uncomfortable. And yes, of course, she did leave the office as soon as her working hours were over, instead of staying on as was her wont. Four lovely nights... but only four.
Ian had been very sorry when he had to leave again, and so he had asked her if he could stay with her for a few weeks in the summer holidays. She had enthusiastically agreed; the summer holiday arrangement was that Ian would pay for his stay and have breakfast and dinner at Jane's place.
Summer came. Ian, who had been a widower for about a year, could hardly wait for the arranged time. He felt somewhat anxious, though; lots of misgivings about their rapport being gone altogether ran through his mind while he motored through the English landscape that always had such an appeal for him. What if she had found somebody else, or if she had decided that he was no good company after all? When he looked at himself in the mirror each morning he could hardly imagine anyone as attractive as Jane would ever want to look at him twice.
He arrived at Jane's place, to find nobody home. He tried to look inside, but the place seemed inhabited alright, with a fresh bunch of flowers, a cauliflower and a couple of potatoes on the kitchen table. He wondered what was wrong, if anything, and sat down on the doorstep with some writing paper and a pen. It wasn't until well after seven when Jane finally arrived, looking all worked up and deadly tired. She almost fell out of her car, making apologies and she seemed to be on the verge of crying.
"Jane," Ian said as he took her hands, "you don't know how glad I am to see you. You look knackered! What happened?"
"You're not angry?" she asked. "Everything went wrong. It's my day off today, but this morning my neighbour came along because Louise - his wife - you met her in May - was about to give birth, and they have no car, so I took them to the hospital, and John was completely useless, and I had to keep him company and quieten him down, and Louise's labour went on for hours, and now I must hurry to cook our dinner, and - "
"Angry?" Ian interrupted her. "What on earth would I be angry about? How's Louise now? And John?"
"They're alright now," Jane said. "They've got a beautiful baby!"
"Excellent," Ian said. "Look, you're not going to cook anything. There must be some place near here where I can take you for dinner. Right?"
"Do you mean that?" she asked.
"Of course. Come on, I'll be glad to have the honour to take you out!"
"But I so wanted to make a good impression, and - "
"You have, an indelible one at that. Coming?"
"Can I change first?"
Jane wasn't long. She came downstairs again in a long, black dress.
"Will I do?" she asked.
"Wow," Ian said, "you surely look stunning!"
She smiled, still a little nervously. "Thank you," she said.
"So where do we go?"
"I'll take you to Jimmy's," Jane said. "That's where I go to when I'm in money." She smiled at Ian, this time without the nerves he thought he'd seen.
Jimmy's proved to be an excellent little restaurant, with enough peace and quiet to talk. It seemed to the two of them as though they'd last seen each other only yesterday. They talked of their activities over the intervening months, what they'd experienced and who they'd seen . Jane asked Ian about his woman friends; Ian told her the only ones he had were very long-standing ones with husbands and children. No, he had no woman friends, really. After his wife's death a colleague had tried for him but he had told her it would not be honest or nice to either of them; he simply did not care enough for her to make love to her.
And Jane? She shook her head. Same as ever, she said.
After dinner they went to the local for a dram, and then returned home. Ian thanked Jane for the pleasure she'd given him in coming along, and got his luggage from the car.
"Same room as last time?" he said.
The following days Ian got to know the Herefordshire countryside with its villages and nature very well, and his hostess even better, perhaps. They often went to the pub for an hour or so, made long walks in the neighbourhood and talked and talked and talked. They really enjoyed themselves immensely, and Jane, who did not have too much trust in people, decided that Ian really was someone she dared trust.
Jane had taken two days off from work, and that Thursday they drove to the Black Mountains for a long ramble. When they had their lunch Ian eventually ventured to ask Jane what had happened to make her decide to go it alone. She looked at him pensively and said, after a long time, that she would tell him, but that she did not really know how and where to start, and that she needed a little time to think.
They went back home, a little drowsy, and had a drink together in the garden before they called it a day.
The next morning Jane was very quiet. After lunch she said, "You know, do you think a woman should mould herself according to her friend's demands?"
"I don't think so," Ian said. "It sounds terribly unemancipated to me."
"So you wouldn't ask your friend to have breast implants?"
"Certainly not," Ian said. "Did anyone ask you?"
"Er, yes," Jane said. "Curt, my one time husband to be, insisted I should have much larger breasts, so I contacted a plastic surgeon and made arrangements. But our engagement broke off before I could have them done."
"Good," Ian said.
"You don't think my breasts ought to be bigger?" Jane said
"No, I don't," Ian said. "I think you're perfect."
"But I'm not," Jane said. "I'm ugly."
"You? Ugly? Just look in your mirror and think again! I think you're ravishing. Ugly... Well I never!" Ian said.
"But I am," Jane said. "I am ugly and I smell. That's why Curt broke off our engagement. He wouldn't even make love to me - I was too ugly for words, he said."
Ian's shoulders dropped. This couldn't be true. So that was why she was so shy and remote at times. The cad!
"Look here," he said. "This ex of yours must have been an absolute rotter. You're anything but ugly, and of course you smell - everybody does. It's one of the things that form the attraction between the sexes, for crying out loud. And even if you smelled strong, even if it were true, anyone who likes you couldn't care less! You will be both beautiful and sexy in the eyes of someone who loves you. And if this Curt did not like your smell he cannot have liked you, damn him. So there."
"Maybe... He seemed so sweet, at first; we had such fun and he seemed to like me so much... But you know, when we were naked together for the first time he just looked at me and stared, and he said that he'd never seen anyone so ugly. My breasts were too small but he'd already told me so; and when I'm aroused my labia grow large and untidy, and he said I looked horrible, and that he wouldn't touch me..." she gulped, "with a bargepole." She still felt the insult as keenly as when it was made; she had a red flush running from her cheeks down into neck.
Ian sat looking at her wide-eyed. "Of all the nasty things I've ever heard this is one of the worst! I mean - a mean, heartless, little attack at the very place that hurts most. Believe you me, you're nothing of the sort!"
"And then there was one other man I thought was nice; so we started dating, and one evening I invited him over for dinner. And after dinner he wanted to make love to me, and I said I wanted some more time, and he left in a huff. And a little later I got a packet in the post; he'd sent me a vibrator and a note that said, go fuck yourself, you cocktease - I have no time for your kind of bitches."
Ian sat dumbstruck. He shook his head without speaking. Finally he said, "We men do have a lot to answer for."
She laughed soundlessly.
"That's why I gave up men altogether. I couldn't stand being rejected, sneered at or insulted again, you see. So that's why I've always tried to steer away from male contacts - not that were a lot who seemed attractive - and..." She left the sentence dangling.
"Wow," Ian said. "No wonder. I'm glad you don't refuse to talk to me; it would be only too understandable if you did."
"Well," she said, "you're different. You don't make passes at me and ..." She trailed off into silence again. What if she'd met Ian instead of Curt, and that horrible Bernard who had seemed to nice at first? But maybe Ian, too... Then she roused herself.
"Do you want some more coffee?" she said.
They left it at that and went for another ramble. At the next village they had lunch in the pub, and on the walk back Jane asked, "What about you? Did you have a lot of woman friends?"
Ian shook his head. "I got married when I was barely twenty-one," he said. "We had known each other for a few years, and it seemed the right thing to do. Oh well."
"It wasn't, then?"
"No," he said, "not really." He shook his head again, and they walked on in silence for some time.
"Don't you want to talk about it?" she said.
"Well, you see," he said, "I don't want to seem complaining, or bitter... I've kept silent about it for so long now..." He bit his teeth.
"What was wrong then?" she said.
"It was a big mistake," he said. "I simply was much too young and too naïve to know what was what, and too infatuated with my wife to see her for how she really was. I found from the start that we didn't have the right kind of rapport; but I thought that it was just my fault and that if only I tried harder I could thaw her." He sniffed.
"Yes," he said. "Oh, you know, I er... When we had been together for about three months we had sex for the first time. I thought it was wonderful; I even wrote a poem about it. Years later she told me she thought it had been horrible. We never really had any sex life to talk about... She told me I had to get her into the mood - but if I tried to touch her she'd tell me she wasn't a whore, and if I looked at her undress she said I was a dirty old man. I thought she was beautiful, but she said she wasn't. Then she wanted children - and we never got any. We went through the whole rigmarole of hospitals and examinations and attempts through insemination and what not... She was given lots of hormones and we had to have intercourse at fixed dates. Slim chance of it ever working out... She just lay back, spread her legs, and told me to shut up and do my duty - she'd been given the hormones, after all, she said. When all of that proved useless, we adopted children; and that meant that our physical relationship almost stopped altogether..." He made a face.
"I'm sorry, " he said. "It's hard to talk about this, you know. I sometimes felt like leaving her; but then when she was doing things with a group of people, teaching, talking, I recognised the woman I'd hoped to get... Besides, I didn't want to make my daughters feel rejected again - being rejected once seems more than enough."
"But what was your relationship like, apart from the physical thing?"
Ian stuffed his hands in his pockets. He looked away. Then he rubbed his hands over his eyes. "It was really a slow and long disappointment in most respects - apart from the occasional spark. Apparently all she'd told me at first was untrue - she told me she liked books and music, but later she always complained about them; and she simply could not listen. She would tell you exactly what she thought... The children liked her well enough, but they never unburdened their minds to her either. When we were at a low ebb, once, I tried to talk to her about it, but she got incredibly angry; she even slapped my face, hard. I had no answer to that; I don't hit women." He paused and glanced at Jane, afraid she'd look at him the way his late wife used to do, but she looked at him with a half-smile.
"What did she hit you for?"
"I'm not sure," he said, "but I think she saw my attempts as implied criticism - and she could never stand any. When she thought I might say something remotely critical she'd suggest we'd better part, for that was what I wanted, wasn't it? But it wasn't. I simply wanted her and I never got her..." He fell silent and walked along automatically, the long, lonely days and nights his holiday had driven from his mind right back before his eyes.
Jane looked at him. He had had everything she'd always wanted, she thought, and yet -
She put an arm around his shoulder. "We are two of a kind in a way, aren't we?" she said.
Her kindness was too much for Ian. He tried to reply and smile at Jane but he could not stop the tears he'd been repressing any longer. He stopped walking and Jane put both arms around him.
"It's alright," she said, "Just you go and cry." She stroked his back and held him until he'd run out of tears.
"Thank you," he finally said. "That's one of the reasons I never talk about it..." He blew his nose.
She waited for him to get back to normal and smiled at him. "Didn't you have anyone to talk to?" was what she wanted to ask him, but she did not want to push him or let him feel too awful too long.
"You must think I'm an idiot," he said.
"No, I don't," she said. "I do think you've bottled it up for far too long, though. I, for one, don't mind being an ear to your troubles, and there must be lots of other people as well."
He looked at her. "Thank you," he said again.
"There's a lot more I'd like to know about you," she said, "but there's still time enough for that. Shall we go on?" She held out her hand and he took it in his.
He smiled at her, and nodded. "Do let's," he said.
It was Abigail's birthday that day, and she had invited Jane to her party that evening. Yes, it was alright for her to bring that Dutchman along. So Jane had asked Ian if he would like to come with her, and at eight thirty they arrived at Abigail's. Her scrutiny made Ian feet a little uncomfortable at first - but before long he felt quite at home there. The company was small and so there was ample opportunity to talk without shouting. He met a couple of Jane's co-workers and got the impression that they all knew exactly who he was.
"Jane told us all about you," one of them said. She smiled at him and he got the impression that Jane had some very pleasant companions. "So what do you think of our Jane?"
He smiled back at her and said, "I think she's wonderful. But you must have known that for a long time." He looked across the room to where she was standing, talking animatedly to Abigail. "Yes," he said, and smiled at her.
A little later Abigail came over to him. They talked for some time about her firm, and about his work, and she ended by saying, "You like Jane a lot, don't you?"
He nodded. "I do, he said"
"Yes," she said. "I saw you look at her. She deserves someone who loves, her, you know. Please be good to her."
"If I get half the chance..." he said.
The next day was perfect. There had been a thunderstorm overnight and now the sun stood beaming over the green fields that still sparkled. Jane was the first to wake up, a little too early, she though - but the sun through her windows was too good to miss. They had not planned a walk yet, or a visit to a new place, so she showered and dressed in her best clothes - she wanted to look beautiful to Ian, and she knew he thought she was, but she wanted to feel certain of herself.
While she prepared breakfast she thought about the day before. They'd certainly come a lot closer. She had enjoyed holding him on their walk, and she could almost feel his hand in hers still. She didn't doubt his sincerity any more. Ian could never behave like Curt and Bernard had; she felt certain about that. He had told her someone who liked her would find her beautiful; so Ian, probably...
"Good morning, Jane. You make me feel very guilty for not helping you - but I'm afraid I only woke just now," Ian said.
She had been so immersed in her thoughts, that she had not heard him come into the kitchen.
"Hi there," she said. "No need to feel guilty - I love pottering about and I could have a good think like this. Had a good night?"
"Yes," he said. "You were in my dreams."
"You are in mine," she said. "You have been in mine since May - " She blushed. She had not intended to be so open; it just escaped her. But she was damned if she took it back. "Let's have breakfast," she said.
"I'll open the door into the garden first, if I may," Ian said.
They ate in a companionable silence, looking out at the garden and smiling at each other.
"What happened to your wife?" Jane asked when they had finished. "Was she ill?"
"No," Ian said. "It was a traffic accident. A drunken lorry driver broke straight through the crash barrier and practically flattened her car. They showed me her jewellery to identify her."
"Oh," Jane said. "How horrible."
"Yes. The doctors said she can't have suffered much - but she must have seen that idiot coming at her..." He shook his head.
Jane sat thinking about it for some time. "You had been together for years," she finally said. "I know things were difficult, but you must have missed her, anyway."
"Yes I did," Ian said. "It's very strange when suddenly there is no one to talk to any more. Sometimes one of my daughters comes to dinner - but that's different."
"And there must be memories all over the place."
"Well," he said, "a lot of things went to my daughters - her books on knitting and dressmaking and knitting needles, the sewing machine, the clothes they could use - and I threw out a lot of things; her remaining clothes and things she that I had no use for. Most memories are immaterial..."
She nodded. "You didn't miss the little physical contact you had?" she said.
"She was diagnosed with uterine cancer, eleven years ago. The local surgeon who took out her womb and ovaries was very good; the illness didn't spread. But she was given a gruelling radiation course, and she fell straight into the menopause. We never even touched any more since that time." He gave a crooked smile. "One peck on the mouth before we went to sleep and on before we left for work. That was all."