It was New Year’s Eve and she had invited them over for dinner again. It was like she knew and she was feeding on my guilt. Jesus, maybe she did know. Maybe she wanted to see me squirm; watch me panic. Choke. Or maybe I was paranoid, and she just liked Tom and Helen, and she thought she’d be neighbourly and invite them over.
See, that was probably it. But they were over every fucking weekend like she was trying to prove a point, and I’d have to sit opposite gobshite Tom and listen to him talking about what a big shot he was. I’d have to listen to him take the piss out of me, watch him eye Mandy up when she took off her apron and leaned over him to pour the wine, sit and let him talk to Helen like shit, and watch her feel like shit. And feel like shit myself. And all I really wanted to do was scream: ‘I’m screwing your wife’, just to see the look on the arsehole’s face.
I thought I’d get through dinner first. If I could handle the guilt, that was. Helen kept giving me that look. She was driving me crazy. I could barely keep still and each time I felt like I was about to lose it, like I was seconds away from bubbling over, Mandy rested her gentle hand over mine between laughing at their jokes and asking me what I thought of the lamb, and I seemed to simmer down again – marinating in the guilt.
She was a good woman, Mandy. She was nothing but good to me, and people can go their entire lives and never find a woman as good. And that’s why I’m such a selfish son-of-a-bitch. I just, got bored of the lamb, I suppose. It happens doesn’t it? But after twenty years of marriage, should I have told her the truth, or just kept on playing footsie with Helen whilst Mandy’s hand rested on my own?
I mean, I could have left Mandy but I didn’t want to. I could have broken it off with Helen, but god I really didn’t want to.
Now, I’m not saying I loved two women, I just couldn’t stand that chickenshit of a man.
I can’t remember exactly when it was – the first time I mean. I’m not saying I don’t remember it but I don’t remember when. Seven years ago, maybe? I know it wasn’t long before Ruby left home. She and her mother were out shopping. Could have been shoe shopping or food or… I don’t remember. They were gone a while.
Tom was at work and I had heard his big drunken gob the night before screaming at something.
I had been up late watching shitty old films and I heard him kicking off through the walls. I thought I’d pop over there with some chutney that Mandy had made. It could have been jam. She had been meaning to take it over but I was curious about the night before. Mandy always did call me a nosey old twat. You’d often find me peeking through the living room blinds if there was noise in the street. I suppose I needed excitement in my life.
Basically, she was a right state. Helen, I mean. But she looked like she was pleased to have company, and she was always polite.
She invited me in. I gave her the chutney; she gave me a cup of tea. I saw bruises on her arm; she saw me looking. I asked her where Tom was; she asked where Mandy was. I asked her if she was okay; she told me she was stuck in a loveless marriage and she needed to feel something again. She leaned in for a kiss; I walked away. I went home.
I remember sitting in the arm chair kicking back in front of the fireplace that afternoon. I had the newspaper in my hand and I kept re-reading the same line over and over again. God, if only I cared about a car collision on the B600 last Wednesday night, then maybe I wouldn’t have been having such a hard time getting Helen out of my mind.
Helen, with the bruises on her arm and her black night-dress covered by her dressing gown, rolled up at her wrists.
It was that night actually that Mandy invited them over for dinner for the first time. I remember completely shitting myself. Not scared of Tom or Mandy or even Helen but scared of my thoughts. I had never thought that way about anyone other than Mandy. Of course I had seen other women and found them attractive but this, with Helen, was out of character for me.
They came over. We had dinner, and she gave me that look. That playful, naughty stare, and somehow only I noticed.
Tom was being a giant jackass. I don’t know what he was talking about but he was doing a good job of making everyone feel like shit and at some point during that night I know he said something like ‘you had low standards. If you hung in there and turned on the charm, you would have scored a bird like my Helen’.
Oh how I wonder if he meant that as a compliment. Still, what a jackass.
Then, that night I was lying in bed, still bothered at what he had said to me, however he said it. And it was late. After all the wine he drank at dinner, he passed out. I could hear his snores vibrating through the wall. That pissed me off even more. So when I went to the window for a smoke and I saw their kitchen light was still on, I snuck round.
I screwed Helen on the sofa.
Then I went home and I finally read the paper. To my surprise, nobody was seriously hurt, on the B600 anyway.
So, at the dinner party on New Year’s Eve, I was feeling nervous. Excited. Guilty. I felt like shit actually, and maybe I liked feeling like shit. Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s why I kept doing it to myself. To Mandy.
But, oh my god she wouldn’t stop with the looks she was giving me and somehow nobody noticed. Would she have cared if they did? I wonder if she ever felt guilty that even her eyelashes alone were enough to break me with a single blink. I wonder if she ever felt guilty that just her presence meant that Mandy must continue to ask if I’m alright, because my hand was sweating profusely in hers.
I think I went out for a smoke then, and Helen followed. I don’t know where Tom and Mandy thought she was. She doesn’t smoke – as far as they know, anyway. She probably lied and said she needed air. I felt bad not only for being outside with Helen but also leaving Mandy with gobshite Tom.
But god I wanted her.
It was dark out there, and she was being subtle. She rubbed her arms along my arms, put her soft hands in mine, and sneakily took a drag of my cigarette. It was sexy. She was sexy.
When she finished, she blew out the smoke, stomped on the nub, crushing it into the dirt. She grabbed my hand and led me round the side of the house where it was even darker and more secluded, before swinging her arms around my neck and driving her tongue into my mouth.
My back was forced against the wall, my arms wrapped tightly around her waist. We kissed for a minute or two, then she bit my lip as usual. That’s sort of how she ends her kisses. They were great. She was a great kisser.
Mandy was too. Just, in a different way. Hers were full of love, sweetness, gentleness. Helen’s kisses were full of want, passion, risk.
At around that time, though, I was kissing Helen more than Mandy. That’s when I know it had become something else. A mistake or a bit of fun had become a second life and it was getting more and more difficult to be a part of both.
When she bit my lip that time, I knew it was different. She said ‘I’m leaving him, for you.’ her hands still wrapped around me. She didn’t move away to speak. We were pressed so closely against each other that I tasted her words. I said she couldn’t, because I don’t how I could leave Mandy. I said that I couldn’t do it to Mandy. It would kill her. And she asked if I loved her back, because Helen was sure she loved me. I said yes.
‘Let’s tell them tonight,’ she said. She was ready. She was sure it was time to sit down and talk about it. Be honest. Tell Mandy, and Tom the truth. And although I liked the idea of Tom finding out, the idea of Mandy finding out was terrifying. ‘No, Helen,’ I said. ‘Not this way’.
Eventually she agreed with me, and when the kitchen light flicked on, almost revealing an intimate Helen and I, making breaths float in the cold, she hurried back inside. It’s not like it was suspicious, though. We were all good friends. Supposedly.
When we went back inside, we noticed Tom was alone. Mandy was seeing to dessert in the kitchen. He had managed to get through his entire glass of wine in that short amount of time. This set off alarm bells. Tom was always an even bigger jackass when he was drunk.
We got through Mandy’s homemade Tiramisu, and then he started. One minute he was saying stuff like how much he wanted to get Helen home and rip her clothes off and the next minute, how she had managed to put on a few pounds over the last few weeks and she needed to watch how much she was eating.
I’m not sure if it bothered her or not. Her face was neutral, but she put her foot on top of mine again as if to say ‘please, Ed. Let’s just tell them so I can be rid of this bastard,’ and I just felt guilty by ignoring her and letting her suffer in silence with him, until I was ready to grow a pair and tell Mandy the truth.
I think I asked him politely at first: to be respectful of both his wife and mine or to leave. As you’d expect, he didn’t like that. Tom was telling me about how Helen was so much more exquisite than Mandy, or some shit like that.
Mandy left the room whilst things simmered down. She was obviously hurt.
I think at that point I offered to walk him home, but he refused. Instead, he kept drinking. I told him to stop. He kept drinking.
I took the bottle of wine from his grip but he snatched it back and threw it. He called Helen a whore. I hit him. He fell to the carpet, in the spilt wine and broken glass.
Mandy came back into the room. She checked Tom was okay then looked at me in disgust. I hadn’t hit a man since college. I hadn’t needed to. I was nothing like my dad.
Mandy hadn’t even seen that side of me. She was looking at me, as if waiting for an explanation. The best one I had was, ‘he deserved it,’
She said ‘he’s just had too much to drink, Ed’ and ‘How could you, Ed?’.
I just came clean, then. I said ‘because he belittles me and disrespects you, and he’s a jackass who treats everyone like shit, Because he’s been beating the shit out of Helen for the past seven years since they moved in’ I wasn’t done but she cut me off. She couldn’t understand. I suppose they always did seem like a happily married couple, just with the usual middle-aged drama of dealing with snores and the extra glass of wine.
‘He doesn’t do that, does he Helen?’ she said. Helen was crying, but she nodded, ever so slightly and looked at me. She was shaking. She wondered how I knew, and how long I had known.
Helen told her that it wasn’t important anymore. They weren’t in love. She told Mandy she hadn’t loved Tom in a long time.
Helen looked over at me. So did Mandy, but it was Helen that rushed towards me and grabbed my arm in her hands.
Time stopped then – it all became clear and there was nothing I could do.
Tom said ‘Keep the whore. You deserve each other.’ and he grabbed Mandy’s tiny hands between his. She looked at me, into me, right through me. And we stood there, for a while – the four of us. Helen had her arms wrapped around my bicep, and Mandy and Tom had their hands linked into one another’s. Nothing could be said.
They just left in silence, but they didn’t go back to Tom and Helen’s. All the lights were off, and I’m sure I heard Mandy’s car start. I didn’t bother to look. I suppose I was shocked.
I sat in front of the fire in my armchair with whiskey instead of wine. I needed something stronger.
Helen sat opposite me on the sofa. Neither of us said a word, and somehow, she didn’t seem so attractive anymore. She cried for a little while, then she must have stopped and gone to bed. Or left. I watched the fire dance and listened to the clock tick, between pouring more whiskey and looking at old photographs of me and Mandy. I missed her. I hadn’t been without her in years.
I was lost. I missed her.
They’re still together by the way – Tom and Mandy. It’s been eight years now. I haven’t spoken to Helen, at all. Not since that night. I haven’t seen her either. She left a note. It said ‘it was all a mistake. I’m sorry. I’m moving back to London with family. Don’t come looking for me.’
I screwed the note up as soon as I read it. I didn’t look for her. I didn’t’ miss her. I don’t miss her.
I see Mandy all the time. We’re good friends. Tom’s okay. And he’s sober. He hasn’t touched a drop in years. It’s been a shitty ride but they’re happy. It took me longer to be happy, but I think I’m there.
Not to mention, George is at the pub tonight so Darcy from work is on her way over. And apparently, she isn’t wearing any underwear.