You first caught my eye in Poundland. You were walking out as I was walking in. I forget what I was going to buy. Something bright and inconsequential no doubt. Something cheap and cheerful. What else do you buy in Poundland? I smiled and then you smiled. It was a Poundland kind of a smile. Cheap and cheerful. Bright and inconsequential. Superficially friendly.
After that we'd always smile and say hello when we saw each other on the street. You must have been in your early twenties at the time. Dark skinned and oriental looking, with a rounded, friendly face and a turned up nose. Freckles. Dark eyes, deep and unfathomable. I was attracted to you. Later on we began talking. Just this and that: "how are you, what are you up to?" The usual politeness'. This went on for several months until eventually one of us invited the other round for tea. I think I went round to your house first. Tea and digestive biscuits. Or maybe it was Hobnobs. We lounged around in the garden under the fruit trees drinking tea and dunking digestive biscuits, hobnobbing with the elves. But there was always an odd crackling in the air, a tension, something awkward and strange. We talked about this and that in low voices under the shifting leaves.
You were an artist, at the local Art College. I was just a bum. It wasn't what was said that mattered. It was what was not said. The air grew warm about us, warm and moist, laden with unstated thoughts.
Unfortunately you had a boyfriend. You often spoke about him. He lived in another part of town and only visited now and again. His name was Martin. One day when I was visiting you became agitated. You bustled me out of the house. He was on his way round and you had to cook his tea. You were making him beans on toast. Or maybe it was sardines, I forget.
Another time I was on my way round to see you and a man stopped me on the corner. He placed his hand in front of my chest, palm outward, like a policeman stopping traffic.
"Leave my fucking girlfriend alone," he said.
"What, Maria you mean? Are you Martin?"
"Yes I'm Martin. Leave Maria alone. I don't want you seeing her anymore."
"I think that's up to Maria, don't you? Anyway, we only talk..."
"I don't care what you do. Just don't go round to see her anymore. And stop feeding her all your liberal Marxist bullshit."
He seemed like some sort of a control freak to me. I had no idea what he meant about my liberal Marxist bullshit. I only remembered hobnobbing with the elves. I suppose it was because I talked to you as an equal and didn't expect you to cook my tea.
Then you fell pregnant by him, and we had another source of conversation. I would ask you how it was going and you would let me feel your bump. You would guide my hand and hold it there, on the side of your stomach. I could feel the warm skin beneath the tickle of your cashmere sweater, taut as a drum. I wanted to lift the sweater and feel the skin beneath, to feel the taut smoothness stirring with life. I wanted to stroke your skin and smooth it, to feel its warm silkiness, to caress you there, where life gives life to life.
You had your child. You would go on long walks pushing the pushchair. I would see you here and there around the town, straining with the weight on the hills, putting your back into it. We'd stop and chat occasionally. You were always kind of sad, kind of lost, as if there was something important you knew you had to find, only you'd forgotten what it was. There wasn't much I could say really.
Then you had another child. I said, "you're always having babies."
"I know," you said.
You looked even more burdened now, head down, back bent, labouring through your life with a double buggy in front.
One day I bumped into you on the street. I'd just bought a dirty magazine from the newsagents. I'd tucked it under my shirt, so that it slid, guiltily, against my belly.
You were on your own, without the children. You said, "I'm going away. I'm leaving town."
"Yes. I want to go somewhere else. I'm moving to where my sister lives. She has a house in the Midlands. I won't be seeing you again."
I said, "you'll have to come round and see me before you go. You'll have to say goodbye."
You said you would.
And then you came round. This was only minutes later. I had time to flick through the magazine briefly and then there was a knock on the door.
We sat in the front room on cushions on the floor, drinking tea, you on one side of the room, me on the other. Sunlight streamed in through the bay window bathing the air. I didn't know what to say.
Eventually I said, "do you want to see the rabbits?" I had rabbits in the back.
You said you did.
So we went out in the back garden to see the rabbits. They were in a run-down run made of scrap wood and chicken wire by the vegetable patch.
"I'll miss you," I said.
"I know," you said. "I'll miss you too."
I moved to kiss you. Just a little goodbye kiss on the cheek. But you turned your mouth to meet mine. And then we were kissing, longingly and deeply, open mouthed, succulently, warmly, embracingly. You dropped your hand, and your fingers brushed my groin. You moaned. I moaned. Your hand stayed, as if my accident, as my leg pressed back against the chicken wire, buckling it beneath the strain.
"Oh God," I said. "Why are you going away? Why haven't we done this before?"
"I don't know," you said. "Maybe we shouldn't be..." And you pulled yourself away and left.
It was some weeks later that the longing for you became unbearable. It was one of those nights, long and hot, full of salty imaginings. I'd been to a party. I'd had a few drinks. I couldn't sleep. I lay awake all night, thinking of you. It was about four in the morning, just beginning to get light. Fingers of light brushed against the window pane, highlighting the dust. I knew where you lived. We'd exchanged a letter or two since you'd gone away. I decided I was going to pay you a visit.
I dressed in the same clothes I had on the night before and went up the road to the traffic island. There I stuck out my thumb. A lorry stopped. It was the first vehicle to pass. I told him where I was going. He was going there too. It was a journey of some one hundred and fifty miles.
I don't remember much about the journey. I was still half drunk from the night before. I guess the lorry driver asked why I was travelling all that way, and at that time in the morning. I guess I must have told him. "I'm going to see a woman," I said. I guess he understood. He dropped me off by a bus stop and I caught a bus into town.
It was about nine o'clock when I turned the corner into your street. The sun streamed down like warm milk. Yours was the first house on the street. I looked down the alleyway by the side of the house, and there you were, putting out the rubbish. You were wearing a loose black top like a vest. You lifted the lid of the corporation issue bin and swung the plastic bag inside. As you did your breasts swung loosely beneath the top.
"Maria..." I said.
You looked startled and bemused. I laughed. We embraced. We kissed politely. My lips brushed your cheek. You guided me indoors.
"What are you doing here?" you said.
"I've come to visit you."
The older child was hanging on to your leg. The baby was in a high chair. You swung the baby from the chair onto your hip. It was clinging on to the vest looking at me with impenetrable eyes. A black cat stalked the kitchen table and you swatted it off with a teacloth.
"Get down!" you said. "Would you like some tea? I've got fruit tea. I expect you'd like ordinary tea."
"Ordinary tea would be nice."
So we drank tea at the kitchen table and I laughed and you looked at me and we talked about this and that and time moved and the black cat washed itself on the kitchen floor and the older child whined and climbed onto your lap and the baby reached out from his perch and banged the table playfully while you struggled to hold onto the two of them, and the older child gave me a hostile stare and I looked at you and you looked at me and then we both laughed bashfully while the clock ticked and traffic went by on the street outside.
"Aren't you glad to see me?" I asked.
"I don't know," you said. "Come on. I'll show you round the house."
You put the baby back in the high chair and we looked around the house. It was a little two-up two-down terrace. You took me up the stairs and into the kids' bedroom. You swung around. You had glazed eyes, head lightly inclined to the left. Your arms moved to cross your breasts. You were embracing yourself. You reached out, and one of your breasts fell out. It swung loosely from the side of your vest, dark and swollen, inviting me to you. I reached towards you and then we were kissing, glued in a tight embrace. My head moved down to your shoulder to smell the salty tang of your skin, and then on to your breast. We were heaving in unison, locked together in a panting tangle of breath and excitement. Then the older boy came scattering up the stairs, calling out.
"Mom!" he cried.
"Excuse me," you said, and pulled away, simultaneously slipping the loose breast back into its cottony pouch. "I... I've got to..."
"Later, later," you said, while turning towards the whining child as he clattered through the door. "Later."
And that's how it was for much of the rest of the day. We kissed, we pressed, we embraced in odd moments when the kids were occupied, and then we broke off again when they saw what we were up to. Snatched moments of passion in a sea of domesticity, me with a hard-on all day.
The older child clung like a leech to your leg, still giving me these hostile looks.
We were downstairs in the kitchen again when the phone rang.
"Yes?" you said, answering it. "Yes." And then you looked at me. "Yes." The telephone conversation went on for some time, and you were clearly agitated. "That was Martin," you said, when it was over. "He knows you're here."
"Does it matter?" I said.
"No." You looked at me pointedly. "What do you want? Why have you come up here?"
"I dunno," I said. "I wanted to see you. Maybe I should move. I want to be near you."
"I don't want you to move. I don't want you to be near me. I want to fuck you, that's all. I don't want any commitments. I already have enough commitments."
Eventually the children fell asleep. You lay down on the bed in your room with the older one, while the baby was in the cot. Then you called me in a whisper. I lay down next to you on the bed and we kissed. You pulled off your top and your jeans and we made love quietly, like the swell of the tide on an oceanic night. Then we dressed and went down stairs and waited for the children to wake up. After that you asked me to leave.
We never made love again.