To begin where it began—really, it began twice. It began that cold March day in the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster, beneath the drowned saints and the roasted saints and saints in every state of torture. It began that night, when I rose from my bed at four o’clock in the morning. I’m not a true insomniac. I have never tossed and turned night after night or spent weeks in a dreary fug of exhaustion, gray faced and careful. Once in a while I find myself suddenly and inexplicably awake—and so it was that night. My eyes sprang open, my mind sprang into consciousness. My God, I thought, it happened … I went over what happened, and each time I went over it, it seemed more preposterous. I rolled beneath the duvet, the motion heavy, closed my eyes, then opened them immediately, knowing that sleep would not come again for at least an hour. Self-awareness: it is one of the chief bonuses of advancing age. It is our consolation prize.
There is no clarity or insight at that hour. There is only the endless turning and churning of our thoughts, each one more confused and circuitous than the last. And so I rose.
My husband was sleeping soundly, his breathing rasping, harsh. “Men can achieve a persistent vegetative state during the night,” Susannah once said to me. “It’s a well-known medical condition.”
And so I rose and slipped from the bed, the cold of the room frosting my skin, and took my thick fleece dressing gown from the hook on the back of the door, remembered that my slippers were in the bathroom, and pulled the door to behind me, gently, because I didn’t want to wake my husband, the man I love.
There may be no clarity or insight at that hour, but there is the computer. Mine is in an attic room, with sloping ceilings at one end and glass doors leading onto a tiny ornamental balcony at the other, overlooking the garden. My husband and I have a study each. We’re one of those couples. My study has a poster of the double helix on the wall and a Moroccan rug and a clay bowl for paper clips that our son made for me when he was six. In the corner is a stack of Science magazines as high as the top of my desk. I keep it in the corner so it won’t collapse. My husband’s study has a desk with a glass top and white built-in shelving and a single black-and-white photograph of a San Francisco trolley car, circa 1936, framed in beech and hung on the wall behind the computer. His work has nothing to do with trolley cars—he’s an expert on genetic anomalies in mice—but he would no more have a picture of a mouse on his wall than he would have a fluffy toy on his easy chair. His computer is a blank, cordless rectangle. His pens and stationery are all kept in a small gray drawer unit beneath the desk. His reference books are in alphabetical order.
There is something satisfying about turning on a computer in the middle of the night: the low hum, the small blue light that glows in the dark, the action and atmosphere both replete with the sensation that other people are not doing this right now and that I shouldn’t be doing it either. After I turned the computer on, I went over to the oil-filled radiator that stands against a wall—I’m usually the only one in the house during working hours and have my own radiator up here. I clicked the switch to low and the radiator made a clicking and pipping sound as the oil inside began to heat up. I went back to my desk and sat down on the black leather chair and opened a new document.
It is three o’clock in the morning, my husband is asleep downstairs, and I am in the attic room writing a letter to you—a man I have met only once and will almost certainly never meet again. I appreciate that it is a little strange to be writing a letter that will never be read, but the only person I will ever be able to talk to about you, is you.
X. It pleases me that it’s actually a genetic reversal—the X chromosome, as I’m sure you know, is what denotes the female. The Y is what gives you increased hair growth around the ears as you age and you may also have a tendency toward red-green color blindness as many men do. There’s something in that that is pleasing too, considering where we were earlier today. Tonight, right now, synergy is everywhere. Everything pleases me.
My field is protein sequencing, which is a habit hard to break. It spreads through the rest of your life—science is close to religion in that respect. When I began my postdoc, I saw chromosomes everywhere, in the streaks of rain down a window, paired and drifting in the disintegrating vapor trails behind an airplane.
X has so many uses, my dear X—from a triple X film to the most innocent of kisses, the mark a child makes on a birthday card. When my son was six or so, he would cover cards with X’s for me, making them smaller and smaller toward the edge of the card, to squeeze them on, as if to show there could never be enough X’s on a card to represent how many X’s there were in the world.
You don’t know my name and I have no plans to tell you, but it begins with a Y—which is another reason why I like denoting you X. I can’t help feeling it would be disappointing to discover your name. Graham, perhaps? Kevin? Jim? X is better. That way, we can do anything.
At this point in the letter, I decided I needed the loo, so I stopped, left the room, returned two minutes later.
I had to break off there. I thought I heard something downstairs. My husband often gets up to use the toilet in the night—what man in his fifties doesn’t? But my caution was unnecessary. If he woke and found me missing, it would not surprise him to discover me up here, at the computer. I have always been a poor sleeper. It is how I have managed to achieve so much. Some of my best papers were written at three in the morning.
He is a kindly man, my husband, large, balding. Our son and daughter are both in their late twenties. Our daughter lives in Leeds and is a scientist too, although not in my field, her speciality is hematology. My son lives in Manchester at the moment, for the music scene, he says. He writes his own songs. I think he’s quite gifted—of course, I’m his mother—but he hasn’t quite found his métier yet, perhaps. It’s possibly a little difficult for him having a very academic sister—she’s younger than him, although not by much. I managed to conceive her when he was only six months old.
But I suspect you are not interested in my domestic life, any more than I am interested in yours. I noticed the thick gold wedding ring on your finger, of course, and you noticed me noticing, and at that point we exchanged a brief look in which the rules of what we were about to do were understood. I imagine you in a comfortable suburban home like mine, your wife one of those slender, attractive women who look younger than their age, neat and efficient, probably blond. Three children, at a guess, two boys and one girl, the apple of your eye? It’s all speculation, but I’m a scientist, as I’ve explained, it’s my job to speculate. From my empirical knowledge of you I know one thing and one thing only. Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf.
Although the heater was on low, the room had warmed up quickly and I was becoming drowsy in my padded leather chair. I had been typing for nearly an hour, editing as I went, and was heavy headed, tired of sitting upright and tired of my sardonic tone. I scanned through the letter, tightening the odd phrase here and there, noting that there were two places when I had been less than frank. The first was a minor untruth, one of those small acts of self-mythologizing where you diminish or exaggerate some detail as a form of shorthand, in order to explain yourself to someone—the aim concision rather than deceit. It was the bit where I had claimed that I write my best papers at three in the morning. I don’t. It’s true that I sometimes get up and work in the night, but I have never done my best work then. My best work is done at around 10:00 a.m., just after my breakfast of bitter marmalade on toast and a very large black coffee. The other place where I had been less than truthful was more serious, of course. It was where I referred to my son.
I closed the letter, titling the file VATquery3. Then I hid it in a folder called LettAcc. I spared a moment to observe myself in this act of artifice—as I had when I reapplied my lipstick in the chapel. I slumped in my chair and shut my eyes. Although it was still dark outside, I could hear a light chirrup and tweeting—the optimistic overture of the birds that stretch and flutter in the trees as dawn breaks. It was one of the reasons we moved to the suburbs, that peeping little chorus, although within a few weeks I found it irritated as much as it had once pleased me.
A one-off, that’s all. No harm done. An episode. In science, we accept aberrations. It’s only when aberrations keep happening that we stop and try to look for a pattern. But science is all about uncertainty, accepting anomalies. Anomalies are what create us, viz. the axiom the exception that proves the rule. If there was no rule, there couldn’t be an exception. That’s what I was trying to explain to the Select Committee earlier that day.
* * *
There was snow in the air, that’s what I remember about that day, although it had yet to fall. That dense and particular chill the air seems to have just before—the promise of snow, I thought as I walked toward the Houses of Parliament. It was a pleasing thought because I had new boots, half boots, patent leather but with a small heel, the sort of boots a middle-aged woman wears because they make her feel less like a middle-aged woman. What else? What was it that caught your eye? I was wearing a gray jersey dress, pale and soft, with a collar. I had a fitted wool jacket on top of the dress, black with large silver buttons. My hair was freshly washed: maybe that helped. I had recently had a layered cut and put a few burnt-almond highlights in my otherwise unimpressive brown. I was feeling happy with myself, I suppose, in an ordinary kind of way.
If my description of myself at that time sounds a little smug, that’s because I am—I was, I mean, until I met you and all that followed. A few weeks before, I had been propositioned by a boy half my age—more of that later—and it had done my self-confidence no end of good. I had said no, but the fantasies I had for some while afterward were still keeping me cheerful.
It was the third time I had appeared before a government committee and I knew the routine by then—I had been presenting to them the previous afternoon, in fact. At the entrance to Portcullis House, I pushed through the revolving doors and slung my bag onto the conveyor belt of the X-ray machine with a nod and a smile at the security man, remarking that I had worn my chunky silver bracelet on my second day to make sure I would get the free massage. I turned to be photographed for my Unescorted Day Pass. As the previous day, I made the arch go beep-beep and raised my arms so that the large woman guard could come and pat me down. As a pathologically law-abiding woman, I’m thrilled by the idea that I need to be searched: either here or at an airport, I’m always disappointed if I don’t set off the alarm. The guard felt along each arm, brusquely, then turned her hands and placed them in a praying position so that she could pass the edges of them between my breasts. The male guards stood and watched, which for me made the body search more ambiguous than if they were doing it themselves.
“I like your boots,” the woman guard said as she squeezed them lightly with both hands. “Bet they’ll be useful.” She stood, turned, and handed me my pass on its string. I slipped it over my neck, then had to bend slightly to press it against the pass reader that made the second set of glass doors swing open.
I wasn’t up before the committee for another half hour—I had arrived early enough to buy a large cappuccino and seat myself beneath the fig trees in the atrium at a small round table. I scattered a crust of brown sugar across the top of my coffee, then, while I read through the notes I had taken the previous day, ate the remaining crystals by licking my forefinger and sticking it in the small paper packet. On the tables around me were MPs and their guests, civil servants, catering staff on a break, journalists, researchers, secretarial and support staff … Here was the day-to-day business of government, the routines, the detail, the glue that holds it all together. I was there to help a committee pronounce on recommended limitations to cloning technology—most people still think that’s what genetics is, as if there is nothing more to it than breeding experiments, how many identical sheep we can make, or identical mice, or plants. Endless wheat crops; square tomatoes; pigs that will never get sick or make us sick either—it’s the same unsubtle debates we’ve been having for years. It was three years since my first presentation to a committee, but I knew when I was asked to appear again this time I would be rehearsing exactly the same arguments.
What I’m trying to say is, I was in a good mood that day, but other than that, it was really ordinary.
But it wasn’t ordinary, was it? I sat there, sipping my coffee, tucking my hair behind my ear when I looked down at my notes, and all that time, I was unaware that I was being watched by you.
* * *
Later, you described this moment in great detail, from your point of view. At one point, apparently, I looked up and gazed around, as if someone had spoken my name, before returning to my notes. You wondered why I did that. A few minutes later, I scratched my right leg. Then I rubbed at the underside of my nose with the backs of my fingers, before picking up the paper napkin on the table next to my coffee and blowing my nose. All this you observed from your table a few feet away, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t recognize you if I looked your way, because I didn’t know you.
At 10:48 a.m., I closed my folder but didn’t bother putting it back in my bag, so you knew I was on my way to a committee or meeting room nearby. Before I stood up, I folded my paper napkin and put it and the spoon into my coffee cup, a neat sort of person, you thought. I rose from my chair and smoothed my dress down, back and front, with a swift brushing sort of gesture. I ran my fingers through my hair, either side of my face. I shouldered my bag and picked up the file. As I walked away from the table, I glanced back, just to check I hadn’t left anything behind. Later, you tell me that this is how you guessed I had children. Children are always leaving things behind, and once you have developed the habit of checking a table before you walk away, it’s hard to break, even when yours have grown up and left home. You didn’t guess how old my children were, though, you got that wrong. You assumed I had had them late, once my career was established, as opposed to early, before it got under way.
I strode away from the café table confidently, according to you, a woman who was on her way somewhere. You had the opportunity to watch me as I walked all the way across the wide, airy atrium and up the open staircase to the committee rooms. My stride was purposeful, my head up, I didn’t look about me as I walked. I seemed to have no sense I might be being observed, and you found this attractive, you said, because it made me seem both confident and a little naïve.
Was there any inkling, for me, that day, as I sipped my coffee? You wanted to know that later, egged me on to say that I had sensed your presence, wanting me to have been aware of you. No, not in the café, I said, not a clue on my part. I was thinking about the easiest way to explain to a committee of laypeople why so many of our genes are nonfunctioning as opposed to protein coding. I was thinking about the best way to explain how little we know.
Not a hint? None at all? You were a little hurt, or pretended to be. How could I not have sensed you? No, not there, I would say, but perhaps, maybe, I wasn’t sure, I felt something in the committee room.
My presentation had gone according to plan and it was close to the end of my morning. I had just completed an answer to a question about the rapidity of developments in cloning technology—they are public, and reported, these inquiry committees, so they have to ask the questions that represent the public’s concerns. There was a brief hiatus while Madam Chair asked to check her papers to make sure she had got the question order right. One of the MPs to her right—his name was Christopher something, the plastic plaque in front of him said—had been gesturing in frustration. I waited patiently. I poured a little more water into my glass from the jug in front of me, took a sip. And as I did, I became aware of an odd sensation, a prickle of tension in my shoulders and neck. I felt as though there was someone extra in the room, behind me—as if, all at once, the air was full. When Madam Chair looked up at me again, I saw her glance past me, at the row of chairs behind me. Then she returned to her papers, looking up again to say, “I beg your pardon, Professor, I’ll be right with you.” She leaned over to the clerk sitting on her left. I’ve never had a professorship in a British university—the only time I have ever had that title was when I was teaching in America for a year while my husband was part of the USC Research Exchange Plan in Boston. She should have called me “Doctor.”
I turned. In the seats behind me, in two rows, were the MPs’ researchers with their notebooks and clipboards, the helpers, those there to learn something that might help them up the career ladder. Then, out of the periphery of my vision, I saw that the entrance door in the corner of the room was—softly, noiselessly—closing. Someone had just left the room.
“Thank you for your patience, everyone,” said Madam Chair, and I turned back to face the committee. “Christopher, I beg your pardon, you were listed number six, but I have a hand-annotated early draft and misread my writing.”
Christopher whoever-he-was sniffed, hunched forward in his chair, and began to ask his question in a voice loud enough to betray his ignorance of basic genetics.
* * *
The committee broke for lunch about twenty minutes later. I had been asked to attend after the break, although we had covered the bulk of my territory. They were only playing it safe so they didn’t run the risk of recalling me later in the week and paying for another day of my expenses. The clerks and researchers headed out of the door as I stood and put my papers away. Several of the MPs had made for the Members’ exit and the rest of the committee was conferring softly. The sole reporter on the press bench was making a few notes on her notepad.
The corridor outside was busy—all the committees seemed to have broken early for lunch—and I stood for a moment wondering whether to go down to the atrium café or to leave the building altogether. Fresh air would be good, I thought. Eating in the same café as members and their guests had long since lost its novelty value. While I hesitated, the corridor cleared a little, and on one of the benches opposite, there was a man. He was seated and talking quietly into a mobile phone but looking at me. When he saw I had noticed him, he spoke briefly into the phone, then slipped it into his pocket. He kept looking at me as he rose to his feet. If we had met before, the look might have said, Oh, it’s you. But we hadn’t met before and so it said something entirely other—but still with an element of recognition. I looked right back, and all was decided in that instant, although I didn’t understand that for a very long time.
I half smiled, turned to walk down the corridor, and the man fell in step beside me, saying, “You were very articulate in there. You’re good at explaining complex subjects. A lot of scientists can’t do that.”
“I’ve done a lot of lecturing,” I replied, “and I’ve had to give quite a few representations to funding bodies over the years. You can’t risk making them feel stupid.”
“No, I daresay that wouldn’t be a good idea…”
I don’t know it yet, but the man is you.
We were walking alongside each other, as if we were friends or colleagues, and the conversation between us was so easy, so natural—a passerby would have assumed we had known each other for years—and at the same time, my breath was slightly short and I felt as if I had shed a layer of skin, as if something, simply the years perhaps, or normal reserve, had dropped away. Good Lord, I thought, this hasn’t happened to me in years.
“Do you get nervous before giving evidence?” You continued to talk to me quite normally, and I followed your direction.
We descended the stairs to the ground level and, without either of us particularly leading the way, or so I thought, we walked across the atrium to the top of the escalator going down to the tunnel through to the main building of the Houses of Parliament. It was a narrow escalator, too narrow to allow us to stand side by side, and you gestured for me to step onto it first. I had the opportunity to look at you, to observe your large brown eyes and direct gaze, steel-rimmed glasses, retro-ish or perhaps just old-fashioned, I couldn’t decide which, wiry brown hair with a slight wave, a little gray. I guessed you to be a few years younger than me but not much. You were a head taller than me, but then most people are. As I was on the step below you on the escalator, you were a lot taller at that point. You smiled down at me as if you were acknowledging the essential silliness of this. When we reached the bottom, you fell into step next to me with one sure stride. You weren’t notably good-looking, but there was something about the way you moved, a sleekness and confidence. You were wearing a dark suit that looked, to my inexpert eye, expensive. Yes, it was something about the way you held yourself that was attractive, a kind of male grace. Your movements were relaxed, you seemed at ease with yourself—I could imagine you holding your own on a tennis court. I was pretty sure you weren’t an MP.
“So do you? Get nervous, I mean?”
It was only as you repeated the question that I realized there had been a silence between us as we descended. “No,” I said. “Not with this lot. I know a lot more than they do.”
“Yes, I expect you do.” You acknowledged my expertise with a slight nod.
We walked in silence along the tunnel, past the stone lion and unicorn on either side, until we reached the colonnade. It was the strangest thing. We were walking, people were passing, we were relaxed together in a quite familiar manner—still we had not introduced ourselves. No names, no normality—this was the way you knew, I see now. We were skipping stages, establishing that the usual rules did not and would not apply to us. All this I realized only in retrospect, of course.
As we entered the part of the colonnade that is exposed to the open air of New Palace Yard, I shuddered and crossed my arms. It seemed natural to turn left and step through the Great North Door into the Great Hall. It was full, this lunch hour—school parties, students, milling tourists. We were in the public part of the Parliamentary Estate. To our left as we walked across the vast stone hall were the queues of visitors behind ropes, waiting for access to the galleries of the Houses: a group of elderly women, two men in plastic macs, a young couple standing very close together facing each other with their hands tucked into the back pockets of each other’s jeans.
At the far end of the hall, we stopped. I looked behind, at the doorway that led back outside, the white air framed like a picture. How many times in a life does a person get to feel an instant attraction for someone one has just met, the eyes locking, the sudden and overwhelming conviction that this is someone he or she is meant to know? Three, four times, maybe? For many people, it happens only as they go up the ascending escalator at a railway station or in a department store while someone else goes down the descending escalator on the other side. Some people never get to experience it at all.
I turned back to you and you looked at me again. That’s all.
You paused briefly, then said, “Have you seen the chapel in the crypt?” Your tone was light, conversational.
I gave a small shake of the head.
“Would you like to?”
I was on the edge of a cliff. I know that now.
“Sure,” I said conversationally, mimicking your tone. Mirroring, it’s called. We do it all the time.
You bent your head slightly toward me. “Come with me,” you said. As you turned, you placed one hand on my elbow, the most delicate of touches through my jacket, steering me, while hardly making contact. Even after you took your hand away, I felt the imprint of your fingers there. Together, we mounted the wide stone steps at the far end of the Hall. At the top of them, beneath the stained-glass glory of the Memorial Window, was a security guard, a stout woman with curly hair and glasses. I hung back as you approached her. You stooped to speak to her. I couldn’t hear what you said, but it was clear that you were joking with her, knew her quite well.
As you walked back to me, you held up a key attached to a black plastic rectangle. “Remind me to give it back to Martha or I will be in a lot of trouble,” you said.
We turned. I followed you down a smaller set of stone steps and through some black iron railings to a heavy wooden door. You opened it with the key. We stepped inside. It closed behind us with a solid thunk. We were at the top of another set of stone steps, quite narrow this time, which led down a twisting stairwell. You went first. At the bottom of the stairwell was another heavy door.
* * *
The Crypt Chapel is small and ornate, its arches bending over like low-hanging tree branches, its ceiling covered with golden tracery. There are wrought-iron railings in intricate patterns in front of the altar and a decorated baptistery with a font—members are allowed to baptize their children here, you tell me, or get married. You are not sure about funerals. The walls and floor of the chapel are tiled, the columns marbled, it seems like a heavily decorated but secret place—perhaps because it is a church underground: hidden worship.
I walk down the aisle and, as I do, the emptiness of the place dispels any sense of consecration. There are no pews, just rows of stackable chairs. It feels disused. My footsteps echo. The whole point of a church is that anyone can wander in at any time—this is kept locked and opened up for members only. You follow me down the aisle, slowly, at a distance, the soles of your shoes a soft tread. I hear the contrast with my own sharp heels. Although I have my back to you, you carry on talking to me about the chapel, how its real name is the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft but everyone calls it the Crypt Chapel. Its walls were plastered over for many centuries but in the fire of 1834, the plaster fell off and the riches of the chapel’s decoration were revealed, not least the large, carved bosses showing scenes of martyrdom. And there, above us—I still have my back to you but you invite me to look up—one saint roasted, another drowned … St. Stephen, St. Margaret, you say. You point out the pagan gargoyles. Barbarism, I think, medieval barbarism. I remember the holiday my husband and I once took to northern Spain, where every small town seemed to remember the Inquisition with its own, often graphic, museum of torture. Marble, stonework, elaborate tiles, Latin inscriptions, all that High Church ritual—no, I don’t feel any shred of spiritual contemplation here, just a mild intellectual curiosity and—what is that, I wonder, as I spin slowly round on one heel … I realize, as I turn, that I am doing it because there is silence. I am turning because you are not talking anymore; there are no more shuffling sounds on the flagstones. I cannot even hear you breathe.
You have not evaporated. You have not disappeared, or secreted yourself behind a pillar or in the baptistery. You are standing still, and you are looking at me.
I look back at you and I know, without either of us saying anything, that this is the point where the moment will slide.
Your shoes, the sound of the soles of your shoes, moves, echoes, approaches me. As you reach me, you lift one hand slightly and it is completely natural to lift my hand in return. You take my hand in yours. Your grip claims me. You lead me back down the aisle, to the back of the chapel. “There’s something I want to show you.”
We step behind a screen and there is another heavy wooden door, narrow and very tall this time, in an arch shape.
“Go in first, it’s a bit tight in there,” you say.
I open the door—with some effort, it’s very heavy. Behind it is a tiny room with a very high ceiling. Immediately in front of me is a bright blue metal cabinet, like a filing cabinet but with a variety of electrical buttons and lights. Next to it, leaning against the wall, is a dirty mop standing on its handle and a set of metal stepladders. To the left, the thick ropes of dozens of rubber-coated electrical supply cables stretch above, disappearing into the ceiling. “It used to be a broom cupboard,” you say as you step in behind me.
The room is so small, you have to press against me so that we can close the door.
“There,” you say.
On the back of the door, there is a small black-and-white photograph of a woman, and beneath it, a brass plaque. Emily Wilding Davison. I am standing facing the plaque, looking at it with my back to you. You are directly behind me, very close, so close that I feel you even though you are not touching me—what I mean is, I can feel that you are only just not touching me. You bring one hand over my shoulder and point at the plaque. Your breath stirs my hair as you speak.
“She hid here on the night of the census, 1911,” you say, and without turning I say quickly, “Yes I know this story,” even though I can’t remember the details. It’s a suffragette story; it belongs to me, not you. Emily Wilding Davison threw herself beneath the hooves of the king’s horse during the Epsom Derby. She died so that women like me, who live in this country in the early part of the twenty-first century, could take things for granted: that we vote, we work, expect our husbands to unload the dishwasher. We don’t have to give our husbands everything we own when we marry them. We don’t even have to marry them if we don’t want to. We can sleep with whomever we like—within the limits of our own personal morality, of course—just like men do. No one takes us to the village square and stones us anymore, or places metal torture devices in our mouths for talking too much, or drowns us in a pond because a man we rejected has accused us of being a witch. We are safe, surely, now, in this time, in this country, we are safe.
As I turn toward you, your hands go to either side of my head, your fingers in my hair, and I lift my hands and place them lightly on your upper arms as you tip my head back gently, closing my eyes.
We kiss—your mouth soft, full, all the things that mouths should be—and I realize I knew this would happen from the minute I set eyes on you in the corridor outside the committee room, it was just a question of how and when. You step forward and lean against me so that I am pressed against the back of the door. The slow compression of my body by yours: it squeezes the breath from me and I am returned, for the first time since my twenties, to the wild dizziness you feel when a kiss is tender yet so inexorable that you can hardly breathe. I can’t believe I am kissing a total stranger, I think, and know that my disbelief is half the thrill. It won’t be me who breaks it off—I will keep on doing it until you stop, because it’s completely absorbing, this sensation: silent, eyes closed, all my senses concentrated on the grazing of our tongues. I am nothing but mouth.
Then, after a long while, you do something that will endear you to me when I think about it later. You pause. You stop kissing me, withdraw your face, and as I open my eyes I see you are looking into mine. You still have one hand in my hair, your fingers entwined. The other hand is resting on my waist, and you are smiling. Neither of us speaks but I know what you are doing. You are looking into my face as a way of checking that this is all right. I smile back.
I still don’t know who was responsible for what happened next. Was it you, me, or both of us at the same time? My hands move down—or did you push them down?—to where the thick leather of your belt is held by its buckle. I try to extract the belt, but my fingers tremble and the leather is stiff and unyielding, refusing to budge from its clasp. You have to help me. There is another clumsy moment when you tug at my neckline. I am still wearing my jacket and you haven’t realized that underneath it is not a skirt and blouse but a dress. You stop and remove your glasses, dropping them into your jacket pocket, and as you do, I bend and unzip one of my boots and slip it off. Then, bending again, awkwardly because I am still wearing the other boot with its small heel, I slip one leg out of my tights and knickers. When you enter me, the feel of skin against skin is delicate electricity, like the static you get from freshly laundered clothes. The only naked part of us, the only point where my flesh is in contact with yours, is inside me. We say nothing.
Even now, the memory of this moment has the power to freeze me, midtask, whatever that task may be, and make me stare into the middle distance, still astonished at how easy, how natural it was, how something that had always seemed so freighted with taboo or convention could happen at the mere slipping of the physical impediments from our bodies. One minute we are kissing, and that in itself seems extraordinary, the next we are having sex.
I don’t come. I am too bewildered. I suppose I enjoy it, but “enjoy” isn’t the right word. What I feel is the same breathless excitement I imagine people feel when they are on fairground rides, where it is possible to take pleasure in the fear because the danger is illusory; however scared you are, you are safe. I go with you. I follow you. I am scared as hell but I feel completely safe. It has never been like this before.
Afterward, we stand for a while. You are still pressed against me. I become aware that we are both listening. How many keys are there to the chapel, I wonder? We are listening for the sound of footsteps on a tiled floor, or voices. It is silent. Simultaneously, we both give a brief exhalation, somewhere between a cough and a snort of amusement. It expels you from me. You stand back, pressing yourself backward in the tiny space, put one hand in your pocket and recover your glasses, then hand me a cotton handkerchief. You smile at me and I smile back in acknowledgment, put the handkerchief between my legs as you button yourself up.
You have to leave the tiny room first. I pick up my boot and follow you. I make my way across the chapel floor, disheveled and hobbling, my tights and knickers round one ankle, one boot in my hand, a cotton handkerchief jammed between my legs. You fetch one of the chairs for me and sit me down, like a paramedic seating a road crash victim. You step back, regarding me with amusement, your eyebrows raised, and I half stand, dropping the boot to the floor so that I can use both hands to pull my knickers and tights back up, scrabbling a little because the leg of my tights that came off was pulled inside out, and now, of course, I feel ridiculous and am reminded how in all first encounters, the undressing is heated and enticing but the getting dressed again after is usually an embarrassment. It’s so many years since I’ve had a first encounter, I had completely forgotten this.
When I have sat back down again, you kneel at my feet, on one knee, and pick up the boot from the floor—I have a flushed and momentary thought that the tights I am wearing that day are not new—then you slip the boot over my foot, zip it up for me, look up at me with a smile, still clutching my calf in both hands, and say, “It fits!”
I smile back, place one hand on your cheek. I love the fact that you are taking charge because I am trembling now. You have noticed this and I can see from the smile on your face that you like it. You reach up with one hand and place it on the back of my head and pull my face down toward you for a long kiss. It makes my neck ache after a moment but I like it because you are kissing me as though you still mean it and we both know that is unnecessary now.
Afterward, you pull back and say, “We’d better get that key back to Martha.”
I look around for my handbag and realize it must still be in the room—I don’t even remember putting it down. “My bag,” I say, gesturing. You fetch it for me, then stand over me watching as I fumble in it. “Wait a minute,” I say.
I am looking for my makeup bag. I don’t have a powder compact but the very old eye shadow in there, which I never use, has a tiny mirror in the lid. I hold it up in front of me, examine my face in minute circles, as if I am looking for a clue as to what sort of person I am. I find my lipstick and apply it lightly, rubbing my lips together. To emerge from the crypt with lipstick reapplied too heavily would be a bit obvious, I think, and am surprised at this insight. Anyone would think I do this all the time.
When I stand up, my legs are still shaking. All the while, you have been watching me with that wry expression on your face, as if it amuses you to have so discomfited me, to observe how effortful it is for me to recompose myself into the self that feels able to face the outside world. You check your watch. “Time for a quick coffee?” you ask, but the tone in which you say this suggests to me that you are saying it to be polite. I have the presence of mind—and later I congratulate myself on this—to say, “Actually I have a couple of errands to do outside the building and then I’m giving evidence again this afternoon,” and you pull a face of mock disappointment, but then something buzzes in your pocket and you extract a phone, turn away from me, check the screen, press a few buttons … When you turn back, I can tell that for you this encounter is over. The message you just received has made you think of the next thing to be done.
As we walk toward the door, our footsteps loud and purposeful now, the sounds of two people exiting, I say, “Hold on a second.” You are slightly ahead of me, and I can see that the back of your jacket is creased. I brush it down sharply with one hand, two deft, swift strokes. You glance over your shoulder as I do this, give a half smile. “Thanks,” you say, but it is a distracted thanks. You hold the door open as you leave. I walk through it but then step back, to allow you to go up the stairs ahead of me. I need you to emerge into the world first, so I can copy your nonchalance, watch you as you return the key to Martha, then bid you goodbye and turn on my heel. As we climb the stairs, I note that your jacket is still crumpled and think how next time I see a man with a slightly crumpled suit jacket I will be reminded of today and wonder what he has been up to. As it is, the next time I see that same expensive gray suit is in the dock of Courtroom Number Eight at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, EC4.
Copyright © 2013 by Louise Doughty