Saturday morning, 2 August, ten days until our holiday. Ruth and I had planned to revisit the place where we spent our honeymoon, indulge ourselves in a little nostalgia and enjoy the tropical island with its white sandy beaches and its lush vegetation.
Our garden looked neglected. Ruth would normally be pottering around outside, weeding, cutting back or spreading fertilizer on the lawn, having calculated the exact amount required per square metre. After I had once burned large holes into the grass by dispersing the smelly nutrients with a generous sowing movement, I readily agreed that she should be in charge of all gardening matters. Where the hell was she?
I watched two blackbirds playing tag on the lawn just outside my study window in what looked like an intricate courtship dance, flapping their wings, dipping their heads and chirping loudly. But all of a sudden the female rocketed up, then swerved, changing direction twice, taking refuge on a thin branch of a cherry tree in our neighbour’s garden. In the end the whole song and dance did not lead to a successful mating.
‘I’m free next weekend,’ Suzanne had said before she left. Why had I invited her to spend the weekend with me? Was this another of my rash decisions, like taking Laila to the Paris conference with me? It was not too late to find some credible excuse.
Cerebral Ruth would have told me that it was naïve to think this would just be a working weekend – she would certainly not have approved! But, for all I knew, she may have already been with her lover for several weeks. If she happened to return this weekend, I could always pretend to have been away on business. Maybe I had misinterpreted Suzanne’s signs and she wouldn’t sleep with a married man, after all. So why not just play it by ear, relax and enjoy the weekend … But what was I supposed to do: book a double or two single rooms? The response to my embarrassing question came back promptly and, despite her neutral-sounding clause ‘I leave the decision to you’, her answer was clear and raised my hopes for an exciting weekend. She had simply appended a poem by Denise Levertov, called ‘Moon Tiger’:
The moon tiger.
In the room, here,
it came in, it is
under and over
the twin beds.
See its small head,
hear the pad of its
large feet. Look,
its white stripes
in the light that slid
through the jalousies.
It is sniffing our
clothes, its cold nose
nudges our bodies.
The beds are narrow,
but I’m coming in with you.
Her response set my imagination on fire. How was I to interpret ‘I’m coming in with you’? Was this the beginning of a romantic relationship or would there be a prowling tiger lurking in the shadows of the moon? Where would it lead? I did not know, or care. I had a vague premonition of problems and pain ahead – to do with Ruth, the children, my career – but I pushed them aside. All my mental energy was concentrated on wanting to live this short, ecstatic dream … just this once.
I left her poem on my screen and went downstairs into the kitchen to make myself a strong cup of coffee. We agreed that I would pick her up from St Pancras next Saturday morning. I found myself closing my eyes as I sipped my coffee, wondering how it would go. I felt young again and excited like a teenager preparing for a date, feeling that newness, that anticipation of new tastes and sweet smells. Would she sleep with me?
We had only met four or five times, and, apart from the residential media training course, talked in drab publishers’ offices. But the atmosphere had always been relaxed and friendly, as between old friends. Even after weeks or months of not seeing each other we could pick up seamlessly from where we left off. There was this immediate chemistry bubbling up, the way a substance changes and reacts with another substance. One of the first things she always asked when we met was, ‘How are you getting on with your book? Have you got any more to show me?’ And when, the last time we met, I said I hadn’t produced anything for a while, was downhearted and prepared to give up unless I had a new flash of inspiration, she shook her head in disbelief.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Tom!’ she said, launching into a lecture, still frowning. ‘Think of all the brilliant books you have read. Do you think they were created in a flash of inspiration; just flowed from somebody’s pen without research, careful planning and construction? Start small, sketch out your ideas for each chapter, use your notebook! Consider everything that happens to you worth exploiting for your work in progress. Be inspired by the places and people around you, their sounds, smells, tastes and thoughts. After I’d read the first two chapters, I felt that the book was well and truly launched, and I always look forward to discussing its progress with you. Believe me, I can be both your “naïve” reader who just reads for pleasure and your literary critic, assisting you with things like plot, character, point of view, as well as other tools of the trade you seem to be picking up well in the process of writing. And, to be blunt, you sometimes just need to “kill your darlings” and start again.’
‘Well and truly launched.’ Crikey! I took that as a compliment. I was extremely grateful for all her help and encouragement. I had found someone to chivvy me along, make me find time and space for writing, which had always been a challenge for me – balancing work, social and family commitments. However, I wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘kill your darlings’, so I Googled it and discovered that this literary advice refers to an author’s reluctance to delete a favourite passage that clearly doesn’t fit into the overall context or style of a chapter. I remember she had marked one of those ‘darlings’ for deletion in chapter eight, a rather raunchy passage about making love on a deserted beach on a Pacific island. Her rare disapproving comment in the margin of the text – ‘Borderline pornographic!’ – took me by surprise, but I guess it was more a matter of style than of substance. She was certainly no prude.
Our country house hotel exceeded all our expectations, a sixteenth-century Tudor gem nestling at the foot of a hill dotted with grazing sheep and surrounded by poppy fields. Inside the half-timbered building were exposed beams and fireplaces with tiled hearths in almost every room, and a wealth of period features.
As we went up to our room the wooden staircase seemed to ache with every step, letting out a dull, creaky groan. My heart began to beat more quickly. I felt my palms prickle with nervous excitement as I let my hand glide over the top of the banister. What was going to happen next? Would there be a passionate kiss as soon as the door closed behind us? Should I make the first move? Would she stiffen and resist? I thought of the romantic chick flicks that Ruth used to watch occasionally, where people rip off their clothes and jump into bed as soon as they enter their hotel room. Unlikely.
‘Very quaint,’ Suzanne said, eyeing up the four-poster in our room. ‘… and very posh! Look,’ she said smiling as she turned round, ‘there are even fresh flowers on the dressing table and a lovely bowl of fruit.’
She dropped her rucksack on to the floor and sat down on the edge of the bed, admiring the carvings on the inside of the bedposts. The bed squeaked as she leaned backwards, stretching out her arms.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever slept in one of these beds before. I wonder why it’s called Himmelbett in German – you can’t see the sky when you lie in it.’
‘Maybe it’s because you feel you are in heaven when you sleep in it,’ I said, trying to keep the conversation focused on the topic of the bed. I sat down next to her, uncertain whether I should put my arm round her. Why don’t you just do it? It’s no good hesitating and faffing about like that bloody blackbird, I thought. Just go for it! She suddenly got up and, as if looking for an escape route, checked whether the window would open.
I followed her to the window and stood behind her. Our room looked out onto the patio adjoining the restaurant, from which sloping steps led to a terraced garden with a gravelled seating area and an immaculately shaved lawn below, enclosed by mature hedgerows.
I moved up closer to her. This time she would not escape. I put my arms firmly round her waist and kissed her gently on the back of her neck. She did not resist but turned her head and body towards me, and without a word we kissed long and passionately. I could feel her whole body from bosom to thigh moulding itself into mine, raising more than my hopes.
‘I brought us something to drink,’ she said, wriggling out of the embrace, as if to say, ‘That’s quite enough.’ She delved into her rucksack and proudly presented me with a bottle of champagne. To tell the truth, I have never liked this expensive, overrated fizz, which gives me heartburn and makes me burp – it certainly never makes me sparkle! My facial expression and my lacklustre ‘Thank you, perhaps later’ must have conveyed my aversion.
‘OK – later if you like,’ she said after a perceptible pause. What followed was an awkward silence, marking a sudden change in mood. Her cheerfulness had instantly evaporated.
‘I’ll just go and freshen up a bit.’ I interrupted the embarrassing silence and disappeared into the bathroom. I emerged a few minutes later, having doused myself in deodorant and cologne, and all seemed well again, I thought. She was sitting on the bed, or rather nestling amongst an array of cushions which she had placed defensively all around her.
‘This place takes some beating,’ she said, leafing through the hotel brochures that were neatly arranged in a leather folder. ‘Did you know that the hotel has been used extensively in TV and film productions, including Four Weddings and a Funeral and the new series of Midsomer Murders?’
‘Really? And what’s it to be today – marriage or murder?’ I asked.
‘Neither, I hope. We shouldn’t rush things. Remember, just like in a novel, careful planning is essential for both. Oh, by the way, it says on this leaflet that they may be filming another one of Caroline Graham’s books here next year, Faithful unto Death.’
‘I see. Talking of murder, I’m famished – could murder a steak.’
‘Very funny,’ she replied as she peeled herself away from the cushions. ‘I’ll go and change for dinner, then.’