A short story from Toby Litt’s new book, Life-Like, published by Seagull Books.
‘God,’ said Agatha, as soon as she was sure May was far enough from the front door.
Paddy laughed. ‘Now that was unexpected.’
They went back down the hall and into the kitchen, Agatha leading the way, still chuckling. Paddy finished loading the dishwasher and Agatha, once seated, finished the Rioja.
‘The food really was delicious,’ said Paddy.
‘She must be so incredibly unhappy,’ Agatha said. ‘To fall for something like that. She’s intelligent. It’s the only…’
‘Is it in her family?’ Paddy asked.
‘Not that I know of, no.’
‘Some people it just gets, suddenly – The Spirit.’
‘But surely she knows. She’s getting divorced. Her life is in bits. A week, two weeks ago, she’d never have said all that. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed?’
‘They wait,’ said Paddy. ‘They wait until people are weak, and then they make their little suggestion.’
‘She had the thing,’ said Agatha, ‘in the eyes. It was a bit scary. And saying that she was happy for what had happened – because of what it had done for her. Terrible things – ’
‘And the children,’ said Paddy, pushing the button to run the cycle. ‘They’re got, too.’
‘At least she says it’s stopped her playing that computer game. She was completely addicted. Hours a day.’
‘Is it better? Isn’t this just another – ’
‘Prop. Yes,’ Agatha said, rising.
They went through into the front room and lay down one on each of their sofas.
‘He’ll be…’ said Agatha.
‘Oh, he’ll piss himself,’ said Paddy. ‘He will absolutely, I mean – Jesus. No mere human replacement for Henry, but Christ our Lord.’
‘It might help her, now, and then she can ditch it later, when she’s stronger.’
‘But they’ll keep her weak. That’s what they do, that kind of church. Once you’re in, you’re in.’
‘If I said anything she wouldn’t listen.’
‘No, she’s beyond that.’
For a while they didn’t speak.
‘He was so stupid,’ said Agatha. ‘It’s such a predictable thing – and she-the-girl clearly wasn’t even interested in him, just flattered, or curious.’
‘I don’t think May is the easiest person to live with.’
‘They lived together before they got married.’
‘But, children. She changed.’
‘Yes, she is more boring,’ said Agatha. ‘But Henry’s more boring, too.’
‘And sex,’ Paddy said. ‘No sex.’
‘Do we want any more?’ asked Agatha.
‘I think so,’ said Paddy. Agatha meant wine. Agatha held up her glass. He had thought, for one moment, she was asking do we want any more children? His voice had gone somewhat overemotional.
‘Sorry,’ Agatha said. ‘Can you – ?’
Paddy went back into the kitchen, which was still fuggy from cooking and talk. There was a greater density of Jesus around their kitchen table than anywhere else in the house. From the wine rack, Paddy pulled a bottle of red – then rejected it because it had a screwtop. This was Saturday night; he was slightly drunk; he wanted a cork and a proper pop; this was a secret celebration. He and Agatha hadn’t got on so well for years. The collapse of Henry and May’s marriage had, by contrast, by becoming a subject, been the remaking of theirs. In such a mood, Paddy thought it would be stupid to tell Agatha about Kavita – about his near-thing fling. But thinking of continuing not-to-confess immediately made him awkward. And when he returned to Agatha, and refilled her glass, he felt extremely middle-aged. The two of them were more boring, too.
Agatha said, ‘I don’t think May ever really liked sex. Maybe God is much better for her. Is there anything you want to watch on television?’
‘You wouldn’t have an affair, would you?’
Paddy needed to answer as quickly as possible, and with a convincing amount of honesty.
‘If I fell in love. If I couldn’t help myself. How do I know?’
‘You’re meant to say No just like you said about the TV. You’re meant to be certain.’
‘You know I’m never certain about anything.’
‘But you wouldn’t do what Henry did.’
‘Do you want to talk about this?’ Paddy asked. He couldn’t any longer pretend to be comfortable lying down, so he pivoted and sat forwards, elbows on knees. ‘Really?’
The wine was now for another purpose.
‘I want to know that you’re different to Henry.’
‘Yes, I’m different. But who knows if I’m better. I have lusts.’
Lusts, though, made no impact; Agatha seemed almost capable of going to sleep. ‘Why don’t open relationships ever work?’ she asked, suddenly clear.
‘For some people they must. Gays.’ Paddy wished he’d said this more tentatively.
‘Not for people like us.’
‘And May and Henry are people like us?’ asked Paddy.
‘Oh yes. We’re very different but they’re still more like us than anyone else is.’
‘What a depressing thought.’
‘I didn’t think any of our friends would get divorced,’ said May. ‘I suppose you don’t, not when you’re going to their weddings all the time, like we were.’
‘That was exactly what I did think about, right through every single service. How much is this costing? How much per future year? Anyway, do you feel like taking the wine to bed?’
Without saying anything, Agatha went to check on Max.
‘Fine,’ she said, when she came back. Then, after a few moments, she said, ‘Are you going to tell Henry – about Jesus?’
‘He’ll find out pretty soon. I can’t see her keeping quiet about it.’
The doorbell rang, and they knew it was probably May, back again. Because it might be a crisis – she might have been mugged – they both went to the door. May was in tears, possibly divinely inspired.
‘Come in,’ said Agatha and Paddy. May, they saw and heard, was hyperventilating, gasping.
‘Pan,’ said May, once in the hall. ‘Tack.’
Paddy went to find a paper bag but they only had plastic. He brought an Ocado one into the living room, where Agatha sat with her arm around May – who was breathing into a softly crumpling brown paper bag.
Paddy looked at her and said, ‘Take your time.’ Then he perched on the arm of the other sofa.
‘I left –’ said May.
‘You haven’t been attacked, have you?’ Paddy asked.
May glanced up with shiny-surfaced eyes, shook her head.
‘Just get your breath back first,’ said Agatha. ‘Paddy, could you fetch May a glass of water?’
While he was in the kitchen, Paddy heard May start to sob. He decided to wait until he was called for. After a couple of minutes, May quietened – but he could hear the two of them talking. Then Agatha came through.
‘Henry’s wedding ring is in our toilet,’ she said. ‘Can you go and get it out?’
‘Down the toilet?’ Paddy asked.
‘She tried to flush it away.’
‘Fine,’ said Paddy, and got some rubber-gloves out from the cupboard beneath the sink.
The wedding ring was dead-centre in the bottom of the bowl, four or five inches of clear water above it. Paddy remembered Veronika’s floater, and her embarrassment. He hadn’t paid the toilet much attention since then. It was going brown with stained limescale. With the rubber-gloves on, he reached for the ring – but it kept slipping away from his fingertips. Next, he tried putting his index finger into the circle and working it up the side of the bowl. This got it out of the water, but when he tried to drop it into his other hand it bounced away. Two goes later, and with his wrists now wet, Paddy decided he needed a tool.
‘Are you okay?’ Agatha asked, up the stairs.
‘It’s a bit tricky,’ he said.
From the wardrobe in the bedroom, he brought a wire clothes-hanger – and, once he’d unwound the hook and part-straightened it out, the ring was caught easily enough.
He took off the rubber-gloves and washed his hands with soap, up to the elbows. Then, with a second lot of soap, he washed the ring, though it looked perfectly clean. He dried it on the handtowel hanging from the bathroom door. This wasn’t like May, this behaviour – but May downstairs wasn’t usual-May. Out of simple curiosity, Paddy tried the ring – pushing it onto his right-hand ring-finger. It fitted, tightly. Paddy held his hands up, side by side; the rings – plain gold bands – were almost identical; Paddy’s was perhaps a touch thinner. What if he were to give May back the wrong one? Would she notice?
‘Is something wrong?’ called Agatha.
‘I’m just cleaning it up.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ said Agatha. ‘That doesn’t matter. Bring it now.’
But the ring wouldn’t come off; not without soap and water and tugging.
‘Just a minute,’ shouted Paddy.
He locked the bathroom door, then quickly lathered up his right hand.
Agatha’s footsteps were on the stairs.
‘Come on, she’s very upset.’
With a sharp yank the ring came off – Paddy feeling his knuckle as gristle.
‘Open the door,’ said Agatha. ‘What are you doing?’
He washed the soap suds away, once more dried the gold, unlocked the door.
Agatha held out her hand. Paddy placed the ring in her palm. Agatha, suspicious, noticed the redness of Paddy’s knuckle.
‘You didn’t?’ she asked.
‘Always comparing size, aren’t you? Just can’t help it.’
‘I was not.’
Agatha made going downstairs her answer.
‘Here,’ Paddy heard her say to May.
‘Thank you,’ said May, sounding calm. ‘I’ll go now.’
Coming into the living room, Paddy bumped May back a step.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘Thank you for getting it,’ she said.
‘Why here?’ he asked.
‘Shut up,’ Agatha said to him.
‘I’ll see you soon,’ said May. She was hunched over with the ring in her fist.
‘Stay a bit longer,’ said Agatha.
‘No. I want to be home,’ May replied.
‘I’ll drive you,’ said Paddy. ‘I’m still under the limit.’
‘You’re not,’ said Agatha.
‘I can walk,’ said May.
‘I can drive you,’ said Agatha.
May looked from one to the other of them.
‘If Paddy will take me,’ she said.
All of them, even May, seemed surprised at this.
His keys were hanging from a hook beside the front door.
‘Okay,’ said Agatha. ‘If that’s what you want.’
They were in the hall.
‘I’ll call you tomorrow,’ said Agatha.
‘Bye,’ said May, who was hurrying.
The car was out the door, left and about twenty yards off. Paddy waited until they were very close before unlocking it – to do otherwise would have seemed tasteless. May got in the passenger side very quickly, as if it were raining hard.
When he’d put his seatbelt on, Paddy said, ‘I won’t speak if you don’t want me to.’
‘You think I’m stupid, don’t you? You’ve always thought I was stupid, both of you.’
‘What’s this about?’
‘I believe in something now, and you’re so patronizing. I bet you couldn’t wait till I’d gone, so you could talk about me. And when you go back, you’ll talk about me all over again, in your kitchen, only this time I’ll be the loonie who tried –’ She stopped talking and started crying. She plucked the brown paper bag from her handbag.
‘Shall I drive or do you want to walk?’ Paddy asked.
May pointed to the steering-wheel and then to the road. He waited, and May repeated the gestures, more forcefully. Paddy started the car.
As they reached the end of the quiet road where Paddy and Agatha lived, May began wiping her cheeks with her fists.
‘I don’t know why I did it at your house,’ said May. ‘It was a stupid thing to do, but I’m not stupid, not like you think. And God isn’t stupid.’
‘Did we say or even hint that God was stupid?’
‘No, you were both very restrained. I could tell you weren’t being honest.’
‘You know neither of us believes in anything like that.’
‘But you disbelieve more than Aggie.’
Paddy was driving more slowly than usual.
‘You’re probably right.’
‘And you did talk about me after I’d left?’
‘You made quite a big announcement. We weren’t going to not talk about it.’
The orange of the street lights made the semi-detached houses look warm and sinister. Young people were waiting at bus-stops. It was all very September.
May asked, ‘Did you laugh?’
‘We were surprised.’
Paddy heard May breathe in and then waited for her to breathe out. He began to count.
‘You’re so smug, in your marriage. What if I called Aggie when I got out of the car? What if I called, before you could call, and told her you grabbed me or tried to rape me? How would that be?’
‘She wouldn’t believe you.’ Paddy was sure of this, so kept calm.
‘She might,’ she said.
‘Is that the kind of thing Jesus wants you do to?’
‘Of course not,’ said May. ‘Don’t talk like that.’
‘May, you’re very upset. We don’t have to talk at all.’
There was no gap in front of her house. Paddy drove on a bit further, until he came to a disabled parking bay.
‘If Aggie wouldn’t believe me, then you could rape me and get away with it.’
‘If I’d really done it, she’d be able to tell. From your voice. This is ridiculous.’
Paddy finished reversing into the space, then turned the engine off. But before he could speak, another car had driven up, and the driver – a black woman – was making angry gestures towards Paddy’s windscreen. He didn’t have a disabled parking permit. She did.
‘Alright, alright,’ he said, and started the car.
‘She would believe me,’ said May. ‘Mrs Steiner. I know her. If I told her you’d attacked me. I know her a bit. She hates men. And the babysitter would believe me.’
‘Perhaps they would, and then you’d have to deal with the consequences.’
‘Don’t talk about me when you get home. Don’t say any of this to Agatha.’
‘We are your friends,’ said Paddy.
‘I know it sounds silly but Jesus loves me,’ said May. ‘Thank you for the lift.’ She pushed open the passenger door and pulled herself out of the car.
Paddy watched her in the rear-view mirror, until she reached her front door. But she didn’t go inside – she turned round and came back.
‘Oh God,’ muttered Paddy, and pressed the button to wind down the window.
‘Hold out your hand,’ said May. Then, when Paddy did, she pressed the wedding ring down into his palm.
Without saying anything, she turned back towards her house.
‘Is this for Henry?’ Paddy shouted. ‘Do you want me to give it to Henry?’
May did not answer.
When Paddy arrived home, Agatha said, ‘May called. She told me you asked her for the ring. If she didn’t want it.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘She said you had it, and that she wants it back. Do you have it?’
‘She gave it to me. She’s lying. In the car, she said she was going to phone you and tell you that I’d tried to rape her. She’s not stable. I told her you wouldn’t believe me, so she’s done this instead.’
‘Show me it,’ said Agatha.
Paddy had the ring in his wallet, among the change. ‘Why would I want Henry’s ring?’ he asked.
‘Why did you try it on?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Paddy. ‘But I did not ask May for this ring. Do you believe me or not?’
The phone began to ring.
They went into the kitchen and Agatha picked up.
Paddy could hear tinny wailing.
After another minute, Agatha understood.
‘She wants it back,’ Agatha cupped the receiver as she spoke. ‘She said she gave it to you. She wants me to bring it back. She says sorry and asks you to forgive her.’
Paddy said he did, then went to pour himself a glass of water.
‘I will,’ said Agatha, into the phone. ‘I will.’
‘You see,’ said Paddy, when the call was over.
‘Where are the keys?’
‘By the door,’ said Paddy. ‘Do you want me to go?’
‘She wants me,’ Agatha replied.
Agatha returned home about an hour later.
‘How was she?’ Paddy asked.
‘Fine. She doesn’t want us to talk about her.’
‘But this –’
‘I promised her. We’re not going to talk about her. At all.’
Then Paddy laughed. And Agatha laughed. Then Agatha stopped. Then Paddy stopped, then started again.
From Life-Like by Toby Litt (Seagull Books – November 2014)