And after all she was not a prying mother. She had always respected his privacy, his right to live his own life without interference. She had never so much as passed comment, had she? Well, nothing beyond a mild hint here and there, a light nudge in the ribs; and surely any mother was entitled to that. How strange if she were to show no interest. He was her only child, for goodness sake, and now that Gordon had gone to live with that woman, almost her only family. So why didn’t he see that? Why didn’t he call more often, lift the lid a little? Why must he always play the dark horse?
She hauled her shopping trolley up the steps and let herself in. The cat rose from its basket, arched its back and stretched a rear leg like a ballerina. She bent to pick up the post, the cat nudging her ankles, and noticed immediately the pulsing light beside the telephone. She snapped on the machine. Hi Mum. Why are you never there when I call? Anyway, just making contact. Got some news too. Will try again later. She shook her head and smiled. Never there! So that’s the excuse. Still, a move in the right direction. Yes, speak of the devil. She was inclined to call him back on the spot. But no, be patient. Let him make the effort.
‘You remember Roddy? The guy I met at the sailing club?’ She scratched her head. ‘Anyway, he’s going to move in . . . share the flat with me.’
They were sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee. He’d come round after work to tell her. Yes, actually made the trip across town to pay her a visit. He seemed very excited, as if announcing an engagement.
‘Well, that’s lovely, dear. A bit of companionship and someone to share the rent.’ She hesitated and her brow creased a little. ‘Enough room for both of you?’
He shrugged and smiled. ‘A bit intimate . . . but well . . . you know . . .’
She could recall just three names: Nerys, Pippa, Betheny. None of them had lasted long, Nerys and Pippa no more than a few weeks. In fact, Betheny had been the only one that she had properly met, having dined out with her on one occasion. But the girl was an absolute pain. Couldn’t stand her. Spoke so fast you couldn’t catch a word she said and every remark punctuated with shrieks of nervous laughter till you felt like cracking her over the head with a dinner plate. It had been a relief to hear that he’d dropped her. Still, that was an age ago and for the past few years no new name or girlish giggle had come along to tickle her ear or try her patience.
How would they cope in that small flat, two great hulking lads? Well, okay, James was scarcely hulking at just five foot ten and slightly built, and she knew nothing about Roddy’s corporeal dimensions. But they were yachtsmen, after all, and men of whatever size need space. They’re naturally messy creatures. They don’t use drawers and cupboards; they simply step over things, or even on them. They have no sense of delicacy or things in their place. They spread jam like tarmac on a road and leave lids off jars. She couldn’t see how it could possibly work. The place would be a pigsty within a fortnight.
So she allowed rather more than a fortnight before deciding to drop in. Meanwhile, with no communication of any kind from James, her curiosity, already keen, grew avid from lack of news. Timing was crucial, she felt, so she planned her visit carefully. It had to look natural; there must be no sense that she was checking up. She therefore settled on a Saturday morning, when she could reasonably claim that she was just passing on a visit to the shops. The flat was on the third floor of a large house, and normally, on arrival, she buzzed James on his intercom. But on this occasion she dived in just behind his neighbour, the old lady from the ground floor, who was entering at the same time.
The door to the flat was opened by a tall young man with an exploding mop of spiky blond hair, whose dishevelled appearance – he was wearing nothing but a pair of jazzy boxer shorts that hung hazardously from his pelvis – suggested that he’d just tumbled out of bed. He scratched his skinny white belly, gave a squeak like a chipmunk, and they stared at each other for a few moments with looks of bemused enquiry.
‘Oops,’ she said. ‘Have I made a mistake? I’m looking for James.’
But at the same moment James appeared, holding together the flaps of his dressing gown. ‘Oh crumbs!’ he gasped. ‘What a turn-up!’
She smiled. ‘Well, aren’t you going to invite me in?’
The living room was a mess, as expected. Newspapers littered the floor and a couple of plates bearing the congealed remains of a meal wallowed shamelessly on the coffee table. James, quickly snatching things up, told her to take a seat. Then both men disappeared. She gazed around. It was months since she’d been here, but the place seemed no different except for a couple of additions: a mirror in a pine frame and a stylish magazine rack. Oh, and those two framed photographs standing side by side on the drinks cabinet. She got up to take a closer look. They were snaps of James and the man she’d met at the door, presumably Roddy. In one, they were seated in a boat, gazing at each other and laughing wildly. In the other, they were standing on a beach, grinning at the camera and clasping each other round the neck.
And it was only then, with what she took as the visual evidence before her, that the thought which had been growing in her mind for some time split from its pod, so to speak. She assumed that she was ignorant about this kind of thing, but in fact she knew a good deal from what she’d read. She’d picked up a lot, too, from Annabel, her hairdresser, whose husband had left her for a man he’d met on the common. ‘It’s strange, Marian,’ Annabel had said while snipping away. ‘Sometimes it’s there right under your nose and you don’t spot it.’ Marian studied the face in the photograph and rehearsed the name in her head – Roddy – the name she assumed she would now have to live with. But no, she just couldn’t make it sound right. She disliked these diminutives; they were weak and affected. Why not Rod? She could live with the name Rod; there was something dependable and solid about that.
The two men reappeared in jeans and T-shirts, and when James had made a pot of coffee they sprawled on the sofa.
‘So far, it’s been hunky-dory,’ said James. ‘We’re both thoroughly satisfied with the arrangement, aren’t we?’ He and Roddy threw warm smiles at each other.
Marian watched their interaction keenly. With such fascination, in fact, that she spilled coffee into her saucer while lifting the cup to her lips. Every word, every look, every gesture seemed to confirm the idea that had now lodged itself in her head. And when, having absorbed the initial shock, she began to adjust to the new knowledge, she found herself quietly thrilled by it. James had been a mystery for so long: so cut off, so unknown, so untouchable. This tore down the hedge between them: the hedge that had seemed to grow higher year by year. This brought them together again. She scarcely listened as they chuntered on about their division of labour; her mind was elsewhere. She was already planning to invite them to her place for a Sunday roast or a candle-lit dinner.
After some talk about the sailing club, the neighbours and Roddy’s line of work – he was a marketing manager for a chain of hotels – there was a pause. She glanced at her watch. ‘Look, I must go,’ she said. ‘I’m sure you’ve got things to do and I’ve kept you long enough.’
‘Not at all,’ said James ‘In fact, why not stay for a spot of lunch? A couple of friends are looking in.’
‘Oh?’ she said, her curiosity piqued again. Who could this be? More lads from the club?
‘Yes,’ said Roddy. ‘Caroline and Julia. They’re great company. You’ll like them.’
There was a tight little pause. She glanced from Roddy to James and back again.
‘Oh well,’ she said, her face a mass of confusion. ‘If I won’t be in the way.’
When the women arrived they burst in with noisy excitement like children from a playground. They tossed their shoulder bags aside and kissed the men smack on the lips with a richness that sounded almost lascivious. Caroline was lanky and had long blond hair that cascaded round a radiant pink face. Blooming with health, bouncing with energy, she threw off an air of wellbeing like a figure on a box of breakfast cereal. Julia, on the other hand, was short, dark and petite. She had an elfin face, sharp brown eyes and a permanently ironic expression that seemed to say Come off it, ya wally, you can’t fool me.
‘This is my mum,’ said James.
They beamed. ‘Hello, Mum.’
‘Call me Marian,’ she said.
And they were like lads from the sailing club. They had photographs on a smartphone to prove it. Snaps of themselves in a dinghy, ploughing through ruffled waters on a blustery day, clinging to the tiller in windcheaters zipped to the chin. Others showed them in a pub, lifting pints to their lips, surrounded and regaled by men in woolly hats and thick black sweaters. Marian peered at the screen on the device that Julia handed her, a bemused smile on her lips. To someone like herself, raised in Cotswold gentility, these robust outdoor girls, with their beery pleasures, seemed vaguely improper, as if the world were turning topsy-turvy.
Lunch was a ramshackle business. The various parts – the quiche, the salad, the French sticks, the cheeses – were fine, but everything arrived in haphazard fashion and was badly presented. Napkins were tossed out in the middle of the meal and the dressing turned up in a jug with a chip on the rim. No one seemed the least bit put out, though. Wine – white, red and pink – was sloshed into bulbous glasses and knocked back voraciously, and the women contributed with some bottles of sparkly stuff and a sherry trifle from the local supermarket. The table rocked with the wildest laughter throughout the entire meal.
Marian studied the scene avidly. What was going on here? Caroline had a roving eye, but it always came back to James. Julia, however, seemed much more interested in Roddy. She had a glow in her cheeks, a gleam in her smile, whenever she turned to him. Yes, that was surely it; that was the picture. Marian had them paired off nicely. And the more she watched, the more convinced she became.
Towards the end of the meal James raised his glass. ‘To the holiday.’
‘Oh?’ Marian glanced around with a smile ‘So you’re going on holiday?’
‘Yes,’ said Caroline. ‘We’re off to Dubrovnik . . . In just a few days, actually.’
‘What? . . . The four of you?’
Was that a silly question? She didn’t know where it came from. It just popped out.
‘Oh no . . . Just me and Julia . . . We always go away together.’
‘I see.’ Marian’s mental picture lurched again, but she managed to hide her lack of composure. She hesitated for a few moments, and then: ‘So do you also’ – she simply had to clear this thing up – ‘live together?’
‘Oh no!’ shrieked Caroline, and everyone roared with laughter. ‘We live with our husbands.’
Marian said very little after that and half an hour later excused herself, saying she had an appointment with a chiropodist. Halfway down Hurley Street she turned into Goodison’s Bakery. It was fairly busy, but she found a table and ordered a pot of tea. It was an old-fashioned place with check tablecloths, and its leisurely good manners always calmed her nerves. Life was a trying business; she couldn’t get the hang of it. The visit had dragged her this way and that, upsetting all her notions. She couldn’t decide whether James was nearer or much further off. Roddy seemed nice – well, nice enough – but quite as mysterious as James. And how did those two women fit into the picture? The whole thing was maddeningly opaque. She wanted to talk to someone about it. But who was there? She could drop in on Annabel, but Annabel would be busy with customers. In any case what could she say? She had never dropped a hint to Annabel about any of her concerns, and now they looked like the half-baked notions of a muddleheaded woman. And could Annabel be trusted not to pass on her confidences as gossip?
When she got home she dropped into her easy chair. The cat leaped onto her lap, trod in a circle kneading her skirt and then curled up. She snapped on the radio. Someone was playing the piano: a slow, meditative piece that sounded like Mozart. She closed her eyes. Annabel’s words kept rattling round in her head: ‘Sometimes it’s there right under your nose and you don’t spot it.’ But did it matter if you didn’t spot things? Sometimes you could get into trouble trying to spot things. Sometimes you could just try too hard. She decided that she would invite them to dinner. Yes, all four of them. And she would listen and watch and wait. She would hang around, serenely, for the thing – whatever it was – to reach up and paw her on the nose.