‘He’s grown so handsome recently,’ Penny’s mother said. ‘You don’t agree?’
Penny shrugged. ‘What does it matter? He’s going to Oxford.’
‘It’s Oxford, not the moon!’
‘Well, it’s not like I’ll always be around. You know I plan to travel.’ Penny needed a change of subject, even if it was one her mother disapproved of. Her mother wanted her to train either as a nurse or a secretary. She didn’t understand why Penny kept mentioning her desire to travel to the other side of the world just to look at it. Perhaps suspecting the truth, which was that Penny held a mournful regard for Frank Powell, her mother steered the conversation back to him.
‘His limp isn’t so bad, you know.’
‘Oh, I barely notice it.’ Penny turned away, pretending to explore a scratch on her arm, the cause of which she couldn’t remember. Quietly she fumed that her mother imagined Frank’s limp might dampen her interest, that she might think Penny could only have someone like Frank because he was the discounted version of something she couldn’t ordinarily aspire to. Yet she had to feed the understanding between them of her mother’s fantasy that Penny could have whoever she chose, even though all her mother would say was that she just wanted Penny to do better than she herself had in selecting Penny’s long absent father. Penny’s first ever memory was of her father leaving the house, telling her that her mother didn’t want him around. Penny was convinced in the years to come that her mother did want him around, he just didn’t want to stay. On the rare occasion he came back, it was never to stay. It was to pick a fight.
Penny and Frank had met as teenagers, both living near the river in Hammersmith, discovering a mutual dislike of the other kids who liked to hang out on the benches in the small green area on the north bank, west of Hammersmith Bridge. Penny knew many of these kids from her estate. There were a couple of well-to-do kids who hung around too, some from Frank’s school, who had lured him, shy and prickly, along one evening. These posh kids harboured some fantasy, Penny guessed, of ‘slumming it’, even if they had to pay their way in by purchasing the loose-knit group’s marijuana. All the group seemed to do was work on their throwaway expressions of distaste at everything and the state of their ever-increasing highs. Frank was quickly bored and didn’t hide it. Noticing his boredom, a couple of the younger urchins decided to goad him for his limp. Penny stood up, taller than them by several inches and yelled at them to stop, which they did. It was her first experience of being an authority – and her first of pure rage. Frank noticed her after that, his first look at her filled with wonder at her audacity, her competence – and, she thought long after – that look had some unconcealable irritation. After that, they tended to meet alone. He didn’t advertise it, but she knew he had few friends.
Frank had been born with a clubfoot. Botched surgery had led to permanent disfigurement and a slight but irreversible limp. On the one occasion he introduced Penny to his mother, Mrs Powell said how glad she was that he now had a companion as he loved to walk by the river and she did worry about what might happen if he got into difficulties. Frank scowled at the mention of ‘difficulties’ but Penny saw it was a scowl that slipped on him like a precious coat. He was a worrier and he had learned to worry about himself from his mother. His self-preoccupation, his indignance at the limits of his body might have been tedious in someone else but they suited him like a scent, a pheromone. The care that he needed made him attractive – certainly to Penny. And to others, she feared. ‘He’s the sort of person people don’t like, but love despite themselves,’ her mother had gone on to say the morning she’d asked Penny if she found him attractive, sounding as matter of fact as if describing Frank’s blood type. Penny had rolled her eyes and silently considered the opposite; that her own blood was thicker, less appealing stuff.
On the walks, Penny tried to ignore when Frank complained about how unfair it was that he had been born – and furtherly made - impaired while she was strong and tall, indeed nearly as tall as him. She was tempted to retort that it wasn’t fair she lived in a two-bedroom council flat with her mother – not to mention a brother she had to share a room with - while Frank had a four-storey river view house and two parents who lived under the same roof. But she always caught herself before she said something unguarded to Frank. Spending time with him was what made things fair, the frame she pinned her days on, the thoughts she had during the hours at school in the subjects she didn’t like, such as English and French. Besides, she liked that his house was big and his words long and carefully chosen and his clothes clean and smart. These things suited him and he knew it. Their river walks would start at Hammersmith Bridge and end up sometimes as far as Putney if he were feeling ambitious. Or they’d go the other way on the north bank, heading west to Chiswick. More often than not they’d stop for a cup of tea in a café. Knowing she couldn’t spare money on tea, Frank always paid. This gave her hope at first as it made her feel like the walks could be dates except Frank never tried to impress her. He spoke to her in a tone as relaxed as if she’d run him a bath. Her mother complained Penny never listened but with Frank it took no energy to listen to everything he said. His complaints about his hands being constantly cold in their expensive gloves, the tea he bought them never being hot enough, the sexual escapades of his schoolfriend Parker, a petty reoccurring argument between his parents. He would moan he was getting fat since he didn’t have to do sports at school, or that applying to Oxford was such a hassle. To be able to apply to Oxford! Penny thought but never said. There had been a maths teacher once at her school who had told her she should apply but that teacher had left before Penny had thought to press her about it.
He never touched her, not to steer her away from a puddle or tilt her sunhat before it fell. This is how it will be for me, Penny thought. What I accept and what I will take. If Frank seemed concerned that he might be giving her the impression she had a chance with him, he never revealed it. She wasn’t experienced enough with feeling such joy around anyone to feel much beyond simple gratitude for it and later in life she would look back and be grateful for that naivety itself. She didn’t tell him about the boy she saw from her block who had taught her how to smoke and then to kiss, who she sometimes let hold her breasts in the dark silence as if they were museum curiosities. Nor did she mention she sometimes imagined it was Frank doing the holding, hard as it was to persuade herself that the boy’s large warm hands could be Frank’s slim-fingered, colder ones. She didn’t want to make Frank anything close to jealous and risk being dropped. Her greater fear was the opposite – that if she declared her experience, he would be indifferent to it, even if she was smooth in overturning his assumption (what she imagined would be his assumption) that she had little or no experience. She imagined, fearful to the point of frenzy as if the conversation was inevitable, that he would tell her to look further afield for someone superior to her dropout neighbour, that her experience not only didn’t matter to him, Frank, but was slim pickings from anyone’s viewpoint and therefore cause for pity. Once, she found the courage to invite Frank to a party but he declined, citing pain in his foot and she didn’t repeat the invitation. Frank never introduced her to Parker or anyone else. She imagined herself as a genie, tucked in a matchbox he kept in his pocket.
Still, the walks were beautiful. The slow pace Frank kept meant Penny saw all sorts of things that she missed when she took the same route on her bicycle. Tiny beaches made and lost by the tide. Rowers slicing by with cold faces resigned to the pursuit of speed. Herons and once, the flash of a kingfisher. They went in all seasons for nearly a year, less in winter but still a few times at Frank’s insistence. Penny had hoped the colder weather would lead to an invitation to his home for tea or a trip to the cinema but he never deviated from the walks. They shared forbidden cigarettes and once, a joint. In the summer after finishing the school term forever, the water looked so warm and soft in its ripples that Penny wanted nothing more than to step into it. Except she knew being in it would mean giving up the very sight of the gentle beige-green ripples and not even knowing if she was in those particular ripples if she entered her own vision. Better to watch than to experience. And wasn’t this experience? Slowly, she became aware of Frank watching her, not looking at anything else as she continued to stare, wordless, her focus on the sun-flecked water, light in liquid form as if free of elemental laws, too private an experience even to include him. Then she came back to herself and turned her face to his. Frank gave her a very calm look then as if he knew her entirely, as if looking at her and her looking back were an entire conversation - about what she didn’t know. It didn’t matter. It was the only time he ever looked at her that way.
Then he turned eighteen, then she did, they both finished school and he was off to Oxford to read law. Her Saturday job at a gift shop in Gloucester Road asked her if she wanted to go fulltime. She could find no reason to say no. She saved up her wages so she could go on the travels she had dreamed of, first to Australia and then to Japan. She sent Frank postcards every month she was away and he sent ones from Brasenose College to her home in London, knowing she wasn’t in one place too long. The trips were only enjoyable long after they had happened, serving her best as memories when she was deep in a ward nightshift, thinking of the Australian bush and beaches. But while she was there or hiking in Japan, visiting Shinto temples, her mind was on the river, on the walks. One day she counted them in amazement – there had only been eight in total.
The moment of seeing Frank’s four postcards neatly stacked on her desk, waiting silently for her was shadow-less in its delight, a memory so completely illuminated that it never pained her whenever she resurrected it. That day, on seeing them, she had consumed them and reread them so fast she felt drunk, knowing there would probably be no more. Now she had returned, the impetus to send him postcards had gone and no future reason would present itself when she began training as a nurse. The cards had been fun; it made no real sense to progress the correspondence further. She sat down once with pen and paper to compose a letter and found she couldn’t start writing, not even ‘Dear Frank’. He was the one person in her life to whom she had nothing to say. Could she visit him in Oxford? She knew no one there so she had no pretext for a visit and didn’t have it in her to ask if she might make him the reason. She couldn’t see how the logic in a girl asking someone she desired if she might visit him should apply to her, Penny, and she had no one to discuss it with who wouldn’t tease the whole situation into pretence at something she knew all too well it wasn’t. Anyway, even if she just turned up, she feared Frank would guess her intent and see how easily he could fell her hopes. Or worse, that he wouldn’t – and hadn’t ever guessed. She was glad when her mother told her the Oxford terms were short as that lessened the wait but Frank didn’t always come home when term ended. He went to Paris chasing after a French girl; the next summer he went to Greece for a month with new friends from his college. When he did return home, there were no invitations to take a river walk. He only saw Penny when he ran into her. This was never frequent enough but at least it gave her a feeling of some greater force bringing them together, much as she wanted to – but didn’t – seek him out. Now, when he ran into her, Frank invited her to join him and whatever friends he was with, people she’d never heard of or met before. When she joined, the rowdy jollity overwhelmed her and she could never achieve any real proximity to Frank. Pasting on a smile, she would make her excuses and leave early. She was out of her matchbox now, the genie vanishing like smoke. She took a few river walks alone, hoping to find a sort of romance in him not being at her side, a pilgrimage in reliving the paths trodden together, but the feeling always spoiled quickly. Soon she took other boys instead on walks that were as lust-filled as the ones with Frank had been chaste. Frank, she decided, had been using her for another type of practice – a companionship he had needed and one he might find in a future relationship with someone that wasn’t her. Still, such a relationship would refer to her, remind him of her in some way, she convinced herself and it gave her a thin blanket of comfort.
For the next two decades they stayed in touch on and off, usually because Penny sent a Christmas card or a holiday postcard and Frank would reciprocate. Her holidays were now on English beaches or the occasional ferry trip to France. Frank made sure she was invited to his wedding to Hilda, a girl he had met at Oxford. Penny, living on the outskirts of Battersea and working at St. Mary’s Hospital around the time of the marriage, didn’t come to Hammersmith much but her mother never failed to report whenever she saw ‘Hildie’, a raven-haired beauty with aquiline features who dabbled in acting and modelling via her considerable showbiz connections. The couple were living at his family home while he secured the first meaty client fees as a divorce lawyer that would buy them a flat in Kensington. ‘Wealth marries wealth,’ Penny’s mother remarked in sullen self-assurance, as if knowing the ways of the world were practically as good as having the wealth itself. Penny thought what she really meant was ‘glamour marries glamour’ – a judgment on her daughter’s own lack of it. Still, she hadn’t thought of Frank as glamourous. She associated glamour with words like ‘fast’ or a life on newspaper sheets that ended up wrapped around a fish or lining a storage box. She didn’t attend the wedding but she saw its announcement in the Times, a paper she didn’t even read but one day on a sudden hunch, she furtively leafed through it in a newsagent and there it was.
Penny went on to specialise in midwifery. Once she qualified, she worked hours beyond what her colleagues considered healthy. She was happy to work and put aside extra money, knowing she was too busy to do anything frivolous with it. She knew she brought a swift and calm agility to the job, that competence she’d used on the kid who mocked Frank all those years ago. She enjoyed the challenge of childbirth with its very clear goals and the joy it granted others, knowing she never wanted children herself. Less content were the lost weekday afternoons between night shifts where, stumbling round her tiny rented flat in exhaustion, she fussed with and tidied things that didn’t require attention and ignored letters and calls and messes that did. The air would feel soupy to her and she would find herself standing absolutely still in the middle of the living room for what seemed like hours, as if suspended like a fish in a murky tank. At these times, her other life would stir awake. This was her dream life with Frank, the one where she had gone to Oxford to study medicine and he had been forced to notice her brilliance, take her to the Greece trip with his friends, give in to loving her. Then she would have to sit down just to think of it all. The best was when she fell asleep on the train of these dreams, before jerking awake, instinctively knowing her shift was due.
One colleague remarked that Penny worked too hard, that time would run out and she set her up on a date with a bank clerk called Pete. Pete called her soon after that first dinner and she found no reason to turn him down. Two dates became five, then ten, then Pete introduced her to his co-workers at the bank as his girlfriend. This only fuelled her secret life with Frank more, knowing now what it was like to fall slowly in love, or enjoyment at least, with someone’s certainty that they loved you from the start. She was interested and pained to discover that it both made Pete more appealing to her - and sometimes repulsive. One night he told her he’d been promoted to manager, how this meant in future she could work a bit less, let him show her a good time. Then he announced he had written ten poems and he finally had the nerve to show them to her. Penny, who had found memorising poetry the only enjoyable part of English at school, had to admit they were quite good. When Pete proposed, she said no.
A year later, there was Phil, swiftly followed by Reg. Neither proposed but she stayed with Reg for six years, renting a flat in Wimbledon together for the last three. Reg was a sports teacher and as overworked by choice as she was, which suited her, as did his boxer’s physique and wistful dark eyes, always sad for something before the sad thing came along. For the first time she was able to climax, the orgasm itself blotting out everything briefly in an oblivion as if she were somersaulting continuously without dizziness. Reg liked to drink and sometimes, when he got drunk enough, he’d ask her if she’d reconsider having a baby. She knew that if she said yes, he would marry her and if no baby arrived, they would adopt. She knew that he would spend their money on expensive alcohol, building up a drinks cabinet at home and drink steadily more of it over the years with the odd patch of giving it up entirely. The longer she stalled, the more Reg drank and one day she booked a trip to hike hillsides and caves in France alone for a week. She didn’t tell him of the trip until the last minute. When she returned, the flat was spotless and his things were gone. He had left a bunch of yellow roses and a letter on the kitchen table, full of apologies. The relief was immediate and sweet as a holiday breeze. As if it were waiting for her in the flat, she picked up her unworldly existence with Frank where she had left off, that cool underground river that was always there. As she slumped on the sofa, staring at the roses, all she had to do was turn her head and there Frank was, pouring her a glass of wine, cold from the fridge, kneeling down to rub her well-travelled feet, then rising up to meet her lips, that particular scent of his overtaking her entire consciousness as she nuzzled his neck beneath the soft cotton of his shirt collar, the scent she knew so well from teenage, from which her mind could create a whole existence for the two of them.
She heard about Frank’s divorce not long after her fiftieth birthday. She was now a senior midwife. There hadn’t been anyone significant since Reg and she hadn’t really bothered searching. On discovering the divorce, she wrote Frank the sort of overcooked letter a person might write to someone who has suffered an appalling bereavement, expressing a tactful but persuasive hope that he would find a way through and beyond. The short note he sent back showed her she had misfired. He was thankful but, keen, it seemed, to correct her narrative of his loss. It didn’t match the tone of his teenage postcards which always sought out painful ironies or even Byronic references – a take on life that was louchely pessimistic but also given to acrid humour. In this clanging note that revealed too much - Hilda had taken an outrageous bite of his funds, the harpie! – and also too little of him in its hasty style, Frank sounded like someone else, rambunctious, jubilant even. Had they had children? Penny had never heard mention of a child. Her mind had run through all the fears it could conjure when she’d discovered the divorce, her first being that he might want children after all and therefore would choose someone significantly younger now he was free. They exchanged a few more letters with talk of meeting up which eventually came to nothing - she knew that to see him would require an insistence she was too proud to muster.
The younger woman, when she came along, was twenty-nine years old to Frank’s fifty-three when they married, a gap which shocked Penny in its blunt capacity to outdo her. In spite of this, being completely outrun fed her hope of winning Frank one day as surely a woman so much younger would find the gap too much, the financial security too costly in other ways. Besides, if he had chosen a woman nearer her age, Penny would have taken it as a more personal rebuttal. Once again, she didn’t attend his wedding but the husband of a friend, a lawyer who knew Frank’s practice, gave her all the details whether she wanted them or not. Apparently, the new wife, Grace, wasn’t a silly young thing. ‘He’s picked the opposite of Hilda. This one’ll keep him in check,’ the lawyer said. In check? Penny wanted to ask, but didn’t. Was Frank prone to affairs? Or other weaknesses? In spite of herself, a conversation between her and Frank began to form in her head, one where she gave in to the tawdry inevitable – an affair. Then, overcome with distaste, she would tell herself she wouldn’t have anything so pathetic as an affair, even if it were on offer. Four years later Frank and Grace had one child. Penny discovered it had been via IVF and deeply longed for as Grace had had some reproductive complications, this told to her again by the busybody lawyer when she visited. She wanted to be glad for Frank but she never sent the card she bought for him.
Two more decades passed. She and Frank finally lost touch, in the end not even exchanging Christmas cards. When Penny thought of him, which was rarely these days, it was with frustration at herself for her plunge into absorption when she indulged in a memory. She would think of the look he had given her on that walk when she had been staring at the perfectly lit water, or of the note he had sent her celebrating the end of his first marriage. The thought of the note made her cringe as she still had it carefully stored in an old hat box on top of her wardrobe with other letters from Reg and men she had turned down. When Penny turned seventy-five she considered that Frank too, somewhere in London, must also be seventy-five. No news of him meant he must be doing just fine. And why not? He’d had his fair share of miseries – the bad foot, the ill-chosen first wife. He’d worked hard, earned good money picking apart the unhappy marriages of others. Why shouldn’t he be happy now? She didn’t begrudge him anything and she had long forgiven herself for feeling the way she did about him. If loving him all these years had stopped her being with someone else, if that really were the truth of her life, so be it. She too was doing just fine. If there was anyone to blame for her reticence to marry, she decided, it was her father for leaving. But it was all so long ago - what was the point of blame other than as a maudlin conversation topic over too many drinks with a similarly-afflicted friend? It was always forgotten the next day or remembered in fleeting disgust and brushed away. She had been lucky in other parts of her life, she reasoned. When she stated this, friends called her wise and brave and she knew some, trapped in marriages turned rotten or widowed early in life, were envious of how untouched she was. The only losses she felt keenly were when friends died, which they had begun to do in earnest.
At one such funeral she came across the gossipy lawyer who had used the phrase ‘keep him in check’ about Frank. He told Penny that Grace had died a month ago of ovarian cancer aged fifty-two. For a moment, Penny couldn’t breathe. Then she felt winded yet strangely full as if something had been transfused into her. Full of what? The man, sensing her giddiness, held on to her wrist as if they were both teetering on ice skates. ‘I know, it’s just awful. I’ll write down his number for you,’ he said, fishing out his phone and a pen, deciding Penny’s physical unsteadiness must be due to their shared concern about Frank. ‘His daughter has gone back to America for university and he’s quite alone. Do call him.’ Stunned for the rest of the day, Penny couldn’t help but wonder if the lawyer’s insistence at her calling him meant anything beyond her offering comfort. Once again, she tried to quash such thoughts.
She rang Frank the next morning. Once she’d offered her condolences, they decided to meet at his home in Fulham as he didn’t like to go out really these days, he said, his voice sounding much the same, what with his foot and now a host of other physical problems. Tea rather than a meal. Apart from mentioning he was relieved Grace’s funeral was over, he didn’t say much about her. Penny offered her help – anything, she said, knowing she meant it. She'd cook meals, pack up Grace’s clothes, or just sit with him quietly if he liked. When he suggested she come tomorrow as he had nothing else on that day, she accepted. Once she hung up the phone, panic set in about her appearance. She knew she had aged well, blessed with the long taut body that she had kept in good condition and pale brown hair that had faded to an elegant pewter but she wished Frank had seen her at least once in the decades gone so time wouldn’t be so marked when they met again. She was even sad he had missed her middle years when a sort of handsomeness had come and gone. She went out shopping that afternoon and bought a duck egg blue silk blouse and tailored black trousers.
Setting eyes on Frank blew any panic away. Her too smart clothes were rendered irrelevant, lost on a grieving man whose shirt and trousers had seen better days and she nearly blushed thinking of the money she had spent. In the fifty plus years since they had been in the same physical proximity, his face seemed to have grown oversized - far bigger than she remembered. It was burnished pink and spotted, probably, she thought, from the Dordogne sun where he and Grace had had a holiday home. She could tell he’d been a steady smoker ever since she’d known him. He had no hair left on his mottled skull. Penny had always adored his thick wavy dark blonde hair. His once large expressive green eyes had been overtaken by his excess of face as if, like him, they didn’t wish to venture out or interact much, although their colour was still vivid. He wasn't quite obese but he looked as if his body had half melted like a neglected oven baked dessert and his uncomfortable movements conveyed his dislike and disbelief of it. In her mind she had aged him according to the build and features she remembered but this was a completely differently constructed man. If he noticed her surprise, he didn’t let on. Sitting down to drink the tea he had made for her, over-brewed and then over-milked when he tried to correct it, she started to get her bearings. He told her she looked good, expressed indignance on her behalf that she hadn't married with a little more bafflement than she would have liked, so she described a few dismissed suitors from long ago that had come after Reg and then wished she hadn’t.
Returning home that evening she was almost unsteady on her feet in her own living room; she felt as if she had been away from her flat for a month. She looked around at the carefully arranged bookshelves with the TV and DVD player nestled in the middle, her classical vinyl collection and trusty record player next to the antique side table by the living room’s opposite wall, the majestic rubber plant and tradescantia positioned just so, the balcony where she liked to read on summer afternoons. These things are still all real, she told herself. Meanwhile, hope reassuringly began to simmer deep within her. Finally, Frank had been forced to note the other men in her life. Surely his expressing disappointment on her behalf had to be his way of saying that he would sign the paper in return for those casseroles she would bring round and then eventually make in his kitchen, the order she would impose on the house where young and preoccupied Grace had been less industrious, the devotion she didn’t care to hide any longer. Like a long taxed lump sum, the love she had saved for Frank was still passably intact, just enough to see her through. Now the flat was a place she might leave, it felt different, a replica of itself that she was seeing on a guided home tour of someone deceased. Frank's house was about four times the size but badly needed redecoration. She'd make that house sing with his money.
They married a year after Grace's death in Chelsea Registry Office. It was a small, sombre wedding. A few people whispered during the ceremony, hands rising a little too late to hide amused or disturbed looks that sprung now and then on their faces and Frank's unsmiling daughter kept tapping at her phone but Penny ignored it all and contained her precarious ecstasy within her as if she might combust. After the wedding, she threw herself into fixing up the house. Everyone agreed with her that she had long needed a project since she’d retired and that Frank needed new memories in the home he had shared with Grace. Once the house was done, the garden was next. Then, since she had proved herself so capable, Frank asked her to help his daughter buy a flat for her return from the States. In a brisk email, Frank’s daughter made it clear that she was grateful but had to focus on her studies. They could buy whatever they wanted as long as they didn’t overly involve her. Frank took a similar stance to his daughter, allowing Penny to take full charge of the project. ‘I trust you,’ he said. ‘You’ve always been far better at these sorts of things than me.’
Had she? How could he know? He didn’t know Penny had never owned a flat in her life. She was privately thrilled at him passing a judgment on her, a positive one, if not one that made her feel particularly alluring. She also felt embarrassment at how easily he assumed things about her, given how little he knew of what her life had been. In fact, he knew nothing beyond the basic facts of her career. He didn’t know about her long-continued love of walking and travel or much about the men she had turned down. He would never see her flat and the nice things in it, arranged by someone who had an eye where he did not. At least he was now surrounded by what her eye was able to achieve – the Edwardian green she had chosen for the living room, the occasional daring piece such as the mango yellow velvet chaise longue. Flat viewings took over her diary, offers fell through, paperwork mounted up, money sluiced in and out of bank accounts. As if conspiring, their broadband developed a line fault suspending them from the internet for days and then the downstairs toilet needed urgent replacement, even though the bathroom was new. She continued to cook all meals and tidy up after them both. At first, she enjoyed the challenge of trying to keep it all up. Then, seeing that was impossible, she descended into a constant festering anxiety. She developed a cold sore which could not be saved by even the most judicious make up. Once that was gone, tendonitis flared up in her left arm. It seemed to her that even her busiest shifts on the ward hadn’t been so stressful.
‘I don’t like you like this,’ Frank said one day, after overhearing a particularly fractious call with an estate agent. ‘It won’t all fall apart if you dare take a rest, you know.’
She wanted to snap at him, no, she didn’t know. Instead she wrote a note in her appointments diary to rest that weekend, in a place where he could see her resting such as on the chaise longue (which neither of them seemed to use), so he couldn’t accuse her of not resting. Except she wouldn’t rest. She already knew that when he nodded off under his Sunday paper after lunch, she would get out her phone and email the surveyor. Then the solicitor. A slat in a bedroom window shutter had shifted out of place so she had to make a note to email the manufacturer, possibly the whole shutter would need replacing. Friends joked grimly to her that this was marriage. One woman told her to arrange something special that would remind him why he had married her. ‘It doesn’t have to be a weekend in Venice,’ she said, ignoring the fact Frank hardly left the house.
One afternoon she suggested dinner in the garden to Frank, making it sound like she had thought of it just that day. It was a warm June night after days of unseasonable cold and rain. The garden was extra fresh, as if the air itself had been washed. She placed everything on the new glass table she’d bought for the patio - indeed for this purpose – spices in tiny ramekins for sprinkling, a potted basil plant for a fresh garnish, salt and pepper decanted into the silver shakers she’d found hidden in bubble wrap in a drawer. Salad dressing in a porcelain jug rather than the jam jar she’d mixed it in, a glass jug of ice water with floating spirals of cucumber and mint leaves, even a bunch of sweet Williams from the garden.
‘You’ve gone to so much trouble!’ he exclaimed when he saw the table. He wasn’t smiling.
‘Not at all,’ she replied swiftly. The fingers of her left hand ached from popping ice cubes out of their moulds, rushing to finish everything before he came downstairs. It took him time to get downstairs so she had to call him before dinner was fully ready so as not to keep him waiting too long. They had made it into a little game.
‘Do you remember?’ she asked him, as she dressed the salad. ‘Do you remember, when we first met, those romantic walks we used to take?’
Frank took too long to answer with his eventual 'yes'. He didn't even seem to be searching his mind for memories.
‘And then you went away to university. But we had those walks.’
Frank nodded slowly, appearing confused. ‘They were romantic.’
His lilt on the word ‘romantic’ was so unclear Penny couldn't tell if he was agreeing with her or querying whether they were romantic at all. And if that were the case, was it because things had been ambiguous between them at the time or because his memory was failing? His short and long-term memory both seemed to be flagging recently. She didn’t want it to be a question. She stared at him, willing him to speak.
'Yes, Penny, I suppose they were rather romantic. The river could be quite dramatic sometimes, if I remember rightly.' He sounded like an actor struggling with lines in a stilted radio play.
Now she wished she hadn’t brought it up. She was just starting to remember how on the later walks she had stabbed her thumbnail into her palm so she wouldn’t well up when he used to talk about girls he hoped to run into at Oxford once he started there. But the picture of them - a boy and a girl walking slowly along a tree-lined river - that was romantic whether he liked it or not, wasn’t it? When someone had flitted past them, she had loved it as she could assume that stranger, flying by on a bike or reigning in a dog, would view them fleetingly as a couple. On one walk they had discussed everything from the cosmos to the quality of Penny’s intelligence even though she wasn't going to university. He had called her absence from Oxford a crime. He had paid her many compliments that walk. The compliments of someone who saw her better than she saw herself. She blinked and looked at him, willing herself to the present, summoning words.
'It's wonderful we have each other now, Frank.'
Looking at his plate, Frank nodded slowly, a rocket leaf sticking out of his mouth. He took his time chewing. She waited for him to comment but he didn’t. Stop, she told herself.
'Frank, I mean it. Those walks with you. Those days were magic.'
Frank smiled sleepily as if he had done her a great favour long ago, as if he were a bestower of favours but praise tired him these days.
‘Oh, Penny, let's not live in the past.’
It was said in a throwaway tone and she didn’t respond. She began to gather the empty plates off the table. As well as a salad, she had made Chinese style duck pancakes with hoisin sauce and as Frank still refused to get a dishwasher, she had to soak the plates or the sauce would be particularly sticky to get off. She couldn’t bear what he had just said. He had just made it sound like they had had so much life together they’d rather forget, instead of nearly nothing. She took the plates in, laid them in the sink to soak and came back with a second bottle of wine, cold from the fridge. She hadn’t expected them to get to a second one yet – or at all. Was Frank drinking more these days?
‘The past, the past. Perhaps those were our best days together,' she announced as if they were still in conversation.
'Tell me, did you make a dessert?' Frank grinned. For a moment his glinting eyes, with the naked greed of a domestic animal, disgusted her.
'Yes, of course. Passion fruit syllabubs.'
She shouldn’t have made the ‘best days’ comment. Or any comment. She shouldn’t have started any of it. But now it was too late, could he not do this one thing for her? Help rewrite those walks in her mind so they could sew their experiences together for the sake of the years to come? If he believed, she could too.
'Passion fruit syllabubs!’ He said each word slowly, relishing them. ‘Clever girl. Did you know Grace hated to cook?’
I never knew Grace, she wanted to say. Instead she said ‘Oh?’ as if she didn’t know and it didn’t matter. Which, of course, it didn’t have to. Except he did mention Grace every day. Friends told her this was natural, part of his bereavement.
‘I do appreciate it, you know. All that you do for me. If it's ever too much, if you're ever strained, just say.'
They drank a little more wine and complained to each other about the difficulties of buying a flat. Then she went to fetch the desserts from the fridge and arrange them on a tray. The whipped cream of the syllabubs was a little sunken – she should have waited until the last minute to drizzle the passion fruit flesh over them - but she ignored this. The word ‘strained’ lingered in her mind. She knew he meant that he would hire someone to help them. A fulltime housekeeper rather than just the cleaner and gardener. For she would have failed, both in her duties and in her demeanour. But him! He didn't know how to cook to save his life. He had never had to win someone's love or semblance of love by learning such a skill, or any skill. But there was a further insufficiency beyond mere laziness. He didn't see that even a half-hearted attempt on his part would at least be perceived as a kindness, an acknowledgement that privately he might pity her for being the one in love but outwardly he could meet her halfway, reassure them both that this was better than the alternatives. Make the Ocado order himself if she was away on a trip – and her trips were shorter and far more infrequent these days. Water her plants when the cleaner didn’t manage it – even if it took him half an hour to get around the house. Perhaps he envied Penny her feelings for him, her desire to please and the motivation it still granted her. No, she decided as she served the desserts and watched him spoon cream into his mouth. He didn't envy her. If he felt anything, it was a mild affection, accompanied by a restless pity. She was finally ready to see that now. She was right, she thought. The teenage days had been the best of something which phrases like ‘best times’ or ‘worst times’ made a joke of. They were married companions now who could take care of each other in however long they had left. There was nothing special about their union. Just her wait for him and him alone. What would happen if she were to leave? She told herself it was just a thought experiment, not one she should worry about cradling in her mind. Particularly as she knew she wouldn't. She was too proud to have a failed marriage at this juncture. And Frank’s third marriage coming to an end? It might kill him. She had a job now - to take care of this man who couldn't take care of himself and his money would take care of them both. She would have to learn not to press him. That way, when he thought to dole out his kindnesses, real or merely dutiful, she would be truly deserving of them, having never, in all the time she had known him, stooped so low as to ask for what should be freely given.