Jen­nifer John­son

The Ar­range­ment

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

There’s some­one in the kitchen. I hear the ket­tle be­ing filled. I look at the clock, it’s not yet seven, he’s up early. He must have wo­ken me, but I don’t mind. I like hear­ing some­one else here, an­other hu­man be­ing. It’s bright out­side, the sun’s up; too bright, makes me think of ‘sun be­fore seven, rain be­fore eleven’. That comes true, more of­ten than not. He doesn’t like me say­ing it, thinks it old la­dy­ish. He teases me, says I’m like his Aunt Joan, say­ing things like that.

I won­der if he’s go­ing to make me a cup, but I sup­pose he thinks I’m still asleep. I get up, slide my feet into my slip­pers and pull on my dress­ing gown, handy on the end of the bed.

As I go along the cor­ri­dor I hear a clink­ing from the kitchen, spoon on mug, fishing out the tea bag. Sounds like twice, good, he is mak­ing one for me. I’m feel­ing happy then, this will be a bet­ter day. I reach the kitchen, the door is open. I walk in to say good morn­ing to Tom and it isn’t him.

It’s a woman.

She’s got her back to me, all I can see is long hair, blondish and un­tidy, and she’s wear­ing one of his shirts, the dark blue one I gave him for Christ­mas, I’m sure it is.

She turns and smiles, say­ing, ‘Hello, you must be Kay,’ as if it were nor­mal for her to be in my kitchen. I see she’s used my green mug too, my spe­cial one for cof­fee.

‘That’s my mug,’ I say.

‘Oh, I’m sorry, Tom didn’t say which to use.’ There’s an ac­cent, some­thing

of the cruel south, Aus­tralia per­haps. Though I con­fuse that with New Zealand and you have to be care­ful not to mis­take them. You can re­ally get off on the wrong foot. Not that I want to be on any kind of foot with this one, I don’t like the look of her. I can see from the roots that she’s not re­ally blonde. The shirt is too tight across her breasts. Tom is quite slim; it’s only a 15” col­lar, that shirt.

‘You have it then. Which one is it? I’ll make an­other,’ she says. Def­i­nitely Aus­tralian. I’ve never liked them. They smile a lot and pre­tend to be friendly but they’ve hard hearts, un­der­neath.

She tops up the ket­tle and turns it on again. It has a blue light as it boils; it’s new, I bought it at Ar­gos last week, and I find my­self just star­ing at that, lis­ten­ing to the wa­ter com­ing up to the boil.

She turns back to me and says,

‘I’m An­nie,’ as if I should know who she is. She’s young, younger than me; I’d say maybe forty, if that. Her nails are painted and her legs are tanned. I don’t like her in my kitchen. I don’t like what she is, what I know she must be.

I take my mug, even though it has tea in it, which it shouldn’t. And I go back to my bed­room and shut the door.

Maybe I was rude but I didn’t know what to say and I think Tom is rude to bring her here, with­out warn­ing me.

I don’t drink the tea. There’s too much milk in it. I wait un­til I hear Tom’s door close, she must have gone back in there, then I hurry to the bath­room. I shower, don’t bother to wash my hair, I don’t want to take that much time, go back to my room and dress. I don’t want an­other meet­ing en désha­bille, no.

I knew there were women; I didn’t mind, why should I? We’d agreed about

it, needs must. Well, there hadn’t been many men for me, so I could have re­sented that; per­haps I did, some­times. But he never brought them here. We’d agreed that too. He’d kept to the ar­range­ment. Un­til now.

I go into the sit­ting room and wait. Af­ter a while I hear them whis­per­ing in the hall, then the front door latch click as it opens. A few sec­onds later the door closes, the loose flap of the let­ter­box rat­tling as it al­ways does. Then the sit­ting room door opens and he comes in.

‘I’m sorry, I should have told you she’d be here,’ he says, but he doesn’t sound sorry. So I ask him, though I shouldn’t, be­cause I don’t want to hear the an­swer,

‘Is this se­ri­ous?’

He doesn’t speak for a mo­ment, as if he is de­cid­ing what to tell me. Then he says,

‘Yes, I think it is.’

I don’t know why I go on; it’s as if I can’t help it, have to hear the worst.

‘Do you think it will last?’

And he looks at me oddly, as if that wasn’t a rea­son­able ques­tion, and says, ‘I do, or what’s the point?’

The point, I thought, is that you and I were go­ing to see each other out. But there seemed no point in say­ing it.

We’d said, Tom and I, if we ended up on our own one day, we’d live to­gether, share a place, as friends. We said it years ago. He’d just been dumped by a girl he thought he was in love with. And I too had come to the end of yet an­other use­less re­la­tion­ship. We got drunk on a bot­tle of some­thing cheap and nasty, all we could af­ford in those days, and we made

this pact, we promised each other that we wouldn’t have to be alone; by the time we were forty, if all else had failed, we’d live to­gether, keep each other com­pany.

I was the first. Three years ago my hus­band buzzed off, as they do, when you start to wear out. And he wanted kids. I didn’t, so he found some­one who did. I moved here then. Tom was mar­ried too. Marty she was called, his wife, and no bet­ter than she should have been. I al­ways think that about her, seems ap­pro­pri­ate, though to be hon­est I’m not quite sure what it means. She died, which was sad, of course, though I don’t think they were very happy, not by the end. She’d taken to re­li­gion, which is not some­thing you can eas­ily coun­te­nance. It’s the cer­tainty they have that’s so off-putting.

That’s when he moved in, and it was so good hav­ing him here. We were like brother and sis­ter, that was it, but with­out all that fam­ily angst and re­sent­ment. We were each other’s best friends, and it was enough for me. I sup­pose it wasn’t for him.

I leave the flat. I walk down to the shops, though I don’t want to buy any­thing. There’s a café there I quite like, the mu­sic’s not too loud and the cof­fee’s rea­son­able. It’s still early, barely nine, so there are plenty of empty ta­bles and I take my flat white to a cor­ner by the win­dow. Re­cently we’d been talk­ing about find­ing a big­ger flat, or even a small house. He was go­ing to sell his place. With that and what I’d get for my flat we could af­ford some­thing de­cent, even around here. Only the other week I brought it up again, asked him if he’d given the tenants no­tice, and he said he would. He might have been see­ing her but he didn’t men­tion it, didn’t say he had changed his mind about liv­ing with me, be­cause I think he must have by then. I don’t think I’m jump­ing to con­clu­sions, no; the way he said that, ‘or what’s the point?’ as if there were no other op­tion.

A bell rings as the café door opens and a group of those moth­ers come in with their tiny ba­bies in enor­mous pushchairs that cost hun­dreds of pounds. They come over to the next ta­ble and set­tle in, so I have to leave, as I know they’ll all be breast­feed­ing and gig­gling. It’s started rain­ing, I should have

known it would, but I was up­set so I’d for­got­ten my um­brella, and the rain runs down my face like tears.

When I get back to the flat Tom’s left for work; he’ll be out all day now. I go to his room. He’s left the door open. I don’t go in, I just stand in the door­way. He’s made the bed and opened the win­dow, but I can still smell her. There’s a trace of a vanilla scent hang­ing in the air. And un­der­neath lies some­thing fainter, an­i­mal, proof – not that I needed it. I’m cursed with an over­sen­si­tive nose. It can be dif­fi­cult.

He’s been my friend for so long, I won­der that I missed it, the im­por­tance of this An­nie. I sup­pose I for­got to be vig­i­lant. I’ve got used to liv­ing with him now, I thought it worked so well. He cooks, I don’t. He moved in with cook­books and spe­cial knives, mine were all blunt and rub­bish he said.

‘What shall we have tonight?’ he’d say as he left for the of­fice, and he’d stop on the way home to buy fresh ravi­oli, or sea bream, or a sur­prise. It was like a ro­mance with­out the pain, a mar­riage with­out the ar­gu­ments. At week­ends we went to art gal­leries or walked on the Heath. One Satur­day we took the train to Mar­gate and walked be­side that great sweep of beach to the new gallery at the end of the prom­e­nade. When we got home he said, ‘That was a re­ally good day, wasn’t it?’

We’d al­ways talked to each other. When we were both mar­ried we some­times met for lunch. We went to the the­atre to­gether too – nei­ther of our spouses cared for it. Marty thought it a waste of money and Lau­rence my hus­band was jeal­ous; he shouldn’t have been. It’s not the men friends who are the danger to a mar­riage but the women, those con­spir­a­to­rial hus­band haters, pre­tend­ing to be dis­in­ter­ested agony aunts. I had one like that, Frances. She met me for lunch at Tate Mod­ern on a Satur­day from time to time. She was the kind of woman who talks about her­self so much that all I usu­ally had to do was lis­ten. That suited me, I was never given to shar­ing con­fi­dences with women. This time Frances wanted to talk about my hus­band.

I knew some­thing was odd as we queued with our trays in the café and she

in­sisted on buy­ing us glasses of wine. We didn’t usu­ally drink to­gether. So I was not com­pletely sur­prised when she said,

‘I think there’s some­thing you ought to know.’

I think there’s very lit­tle one ought to know, and cer­tainly not what other peo­ple think one ought to know; I’d have done bet­ter not know­ing. Know­ing what Lau­rence was ‘up to’, as she put it, turned me into the woman he left. That’s some­thing she ought to know, my ‘friend’.

Tom doesn’t re­turn in the evening. It was hu­mil­i­at­ing to be left by a hus­band; it is dev­as­tat­ing to be left by a friend. I open a bot­tle, but I haven’t the heart to get drunk. We should have stayed as we were; I know that now. I sup­pose his Aunt Joan also said, ‘For bet­ter, for worse but never for lunch.’ We should have kept it at lunch.

He comes in early the next morn­ing. He goes into the kitchen, and I hear him mak­ing tea. Then he taps on my door, as I’d thought he would. I’m sit­ting up in bed, wear­ing a de­cent night­dress and I’ve brushed my hair. I say, ‘Come in.’

‘Peace of­fer­ing?’ he says, which is crass, but I let it pass. He hands me a mug, a tea one – he knows the dif­fer­ence.

‘You’re angry.’ It’s not a ques­tion, it doesn’t need to be; but there is a ques­tion, there are many. Nei­ther of us is go­ing to ask them.

What do I say? I’m dis­ap­pointed? I’d sound like his mother, or Aunt Joan, but I am dis­ap­pointed, and angry, and afraid, all th­ese. He knows me so well, he’ll be aware, he should be. But now he’s some­thing else too, he’s at­tached, to An­nie, al­ready mak­ing plans, imag­in­ing her be­side him. What I feel is ir­rel­e­vant; his aware­ness has an­other fo­cus. I’m not a fool, not in that way, not that blind and in­sen­si­tive, and I can be gen­er­ous, so I am, and I say:

‘It’s all right.’ But both of us know it isn’t.

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