Imogen’s idea of a party was getting as many people as possible into her house, and playing music so loudly that no-one could hear what anyone was saying. The only contact possible was physical, and that was what most of Imogen’s guests were intent on. It was Imogen’s party: she was celebrating being appointed a ward sister at the maternity hospital.
Imogen was wearing a dress that would be a little black dress if it was black, but it wasn’t. Black was not Imogen’s colour. Her hair was brown, as were her eyes, so black didn’t suit her. Her dress was green, and a classic shape, modest, her breasts hinted at, but not revealed. Her dress tantalised, and Adam, her husband, looked at her, and wondered which of the men at this party she would go to that night.
Couples were dancing, an excuse for an illicit intimacy. Dark corners were occupied by couples intent on dark deeds, and Adam knew better than to go anywhere near his bedroom. He could see Imogen flirting with Karl, one of his medical students. Poor guy, Adam thought, he wouldn’t know what was happening; probably couldn’t believe that his registrar’s wife was behaving like this.
The door bell rang, and it was Millie.
‘I didn’t know you were coming,’ Adam said. ‘Typical of Imogen to invite you and not even tell me.’
‘Shall I go away?’ she asked. ‘I nearly didn’t come, but then I thought, she’s only asked me to make me worry about whether I should come or not.’
Millie was Imogen’s cousin. They had a long history of psychological warfare. Millie’s parents died, and she was brought up by Imogen’s parents. Imogen and Millie were both only children before that, and living in the same house was a disaster. They looked alike, straight brown hair, brown eyes, tall, and, even now when they were older they were often mistaken for twins, which they resented. When they were teenagers boys often mistook one for the other. They didn’t resent that, they exploited it. Imogen discovered that the shy boy she was beginning to get to know was tearing her clothes off. Millie found her boy apologising for the way he had behaved last time, telling her that he didn’t deserve her. She never found out how he had behaved.
Millie was wearing what Adam thought was called a shift, a very dark red, almost purple. It had no shape, no waist, was gathered round her neck from which it fell straight to mid-thigh. It made her look even taller than she usually did. Her hair looked bronze against it. Adam felt the usual stirrings.
‘I shall stay until everyone has gone,’ Adam told her. ‘If you’re not doing anything, let’s go for a meal.’
She nodded, wandered off, and danced with some of the men she knew. Adam danced with Imogen’s staff nurse and one of his students. Millie and Adam didn’t dance together.
What were these people doing, he wondered. What was wrong with his consultant’s wife that he was caressing one of the radiographers while his wife sat out, holding a drink, smoking, trying to look bright, unconcerned, so drunk she could hardly put two words together? She came to Adam, fingering the buttons on his shirt, but Adam managed to extricate himself. Dear God, he thought, is this what it has come to? How had it come to this?
You meet a woman, get to know her, and one thing leads to another. You’re never sure afterwards how it all happened. Imogen hadn’t been all that keen to begin with, and for a long time he wasn’t enthusiastic himself. She had been playing the field, and he had seen what she was like. But one day, he had seen her, unhappy, and pity had been his undoing. They began to know each other, and she was interesting and lively. They had married, done the usual things. Found a house, swallowed hard and took out a mortgage. Talked about children, and decided that they couldn’t cope with children at that stage in their careers, and put it off. And then the fatal act that had altered their life together. She had introduced him to Millie, her cousin. He learned that Millie was married, and Adam expected to meet her husband. Then reality intruded, her husband in hospital seriously ill with mental and physical problems, hardly knowing Millie, hardly knowing who he was himself. Millie had captivated Adam; he hardly noticed that Imogen was straying, and he strayed himself. Could he have made it all unhappen at some point? What if he had told Imogen to pull herself together: of course she was unhappy running after married men. What if he was leaving when Millie arrived, and all he said was ‘Hello, nice to meet you’, and left? And if he had done so, would it have settled his fate forever? Or would there have been other occasions when the tears in Imogen’s eyes would have worked the same magic, when Millie had said some clever, witty thing that caught his attention?
The party was starting to break up, and Imogen was telling Adam that they were going on to the new bar on Castle Hill. She was leaving with a doctor from her hospital, and while she was getting her coat he asked Adam how he knew Imogen, but didn’t wait for an answer, assuming it was somehow through the hospital, and said that Imogen had a lovely house. Karl was hovering. Poor kid, Adam thought.
He ushered the last guests out, and made sure no-one was left in any of the bedrooms. Millie was moving towards the door, and he followed her. Outside it was peaceful: what a blessed relief. He looked around for Millie, and there she was. She pulled him into an alley nearby and they kissed.
I’m as bad as they are, he thought. What am I doing?
It was a warm evening, early September, the street lights were gentle, shedding pools of light, darkness between them where lovers could stop and renew their promises. Millie’s dress was, he found, backless. He hadn’t seen that at the party. He caressed her back, and Millie took his hand, moved it away.
‘Not yet,’ she said.
‘No, not yet.’
‘Why did Imogen invite me?’ she asked. ‘I wondered if you would be here. I thought you might have found an excuse not to be.’
‘I did think of it, but I was glad I was here when you arrived. How’s Peter?’
‘Just the same. Adam, it’s awful. He looks at me, and it’s as if there’s something there, but then he looks away, loses interest. Well, it’s not interest; I don’t know what it is.’
‘I don’t know how you can bear to go on seeing him,’ he said. ‘Why do you go to see him? You’re just tormenting yourself. If he doesn’t know you he wouldn’t miss you. I always know when you’ve been to see him. You don’t have to tell me.’
‘Adam, don’t, we’ve been through this before. I can’t come to you, I just can’t.’
‘You can’t live with me, but you come to me for comfort. Sorry, Millie, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m glad you do. It’s not all I want, but I’ll settle for what I have.’
He could see them going on, year after year, until they were nothing more than habit.
‘Come on, what about that meal,’ he said.
She smiled, that wonderful smile that he remembered when he wasn’t with her, and she kissed him again, his face between her hands, his hands running through her hair.
They went to Taverna Eudaimonia, their favourite Greek restaurant. It means happiness, success. To them it meant bliss, and a meal there was often a prelude to just that. The menu was unchanging; that was part of the attraction, a stable reassurance in their uncertain life. The music was quiet, those plaintive songs that reminded them that they must not expect too much happiness.
They could smell oregano, thyme and rosemary, reminding them of a holiday in Greece, their boots crushing the herbs as they walked over the hills together. They had promised each other that one day they would go back and drink retsina in the pine woods, and sit in those tiny churches. They kissed the priest’s ring, he blessed them, and his wife gave them the Easter sweets. The priest thought they were man and wife, and Adam wished.
They talked about what they had been doing. Millie told him that she had a contract to translate a new Italian novel and he asked her what it was about.
‘Adultery,’ she said. ‘Modern Italian novels always are. Well, at least I have the vocabulary. The vocabulary of sin. Listen to me, what a silly cow I am. It’s been denounced by the Vatican, so it’s bound to sell well. So, what have you been doing?’
‘Nothing as exciting as that. Although I heard this week I passed my MRCP exam.’
‘It seems a bit strange, still doing exams at 29.’ Millie said.
‘Yes. This is the last one. Thank God. And I’ve got a travel grant to go to Madagascar to do some research on children with a genetic disorder. One of my patients, his grandfather came from Madagascar, and there’s a cluster of similar cases there. The people in Madagascar want to collaborate. Millie, come with me, we can make it a holiday.’
Millie smiled. She didn’t need to say anything. He knew she would go with him.
She turned away, looked out of the window at the street, where it was now raining.
‘Oh, Adam,’ she said, and put her head in her hands, resting her elbows on the table.
‘What is it?’
‘Nothing. Adam, I shouldn’t be doing this to you, you should find yourself a woman who will be a proper wife to you. But I don’t want you to do that. I want you for myself. Dear God, I am a bad woman.’
‘It’s a good thing I like bad women.’
But he didn’t, and she wasn’t a bad woman. She was the most moral person he had ever met. A very moral adulteress.
After dinner they went to the Clarebrook Hotel. It was small, comfortable, and they had a jokey relationship with the manager.
‘Ah, Mr and Mrs Smith,’ she said. ‘Haven’t seen you for a time.’
It was last week, but they kept up the pretence.
They were comfortable together. Their love-making was gentle and relaxed. The windows were open, and they could see the last of the sunset, the rain past, the sky clearing. They lay together contentedly as it grew darker, their bodies moulded together, and they slept.
They had breakfast in their room and read the newspapers, reading bits out to each other, laughing over the idiocies of some cabinet minister.
‘Adam, I must go home,’ Millie said. ‘I shouldn’t be wasting my time here with you. I really must get on with my translation.’
‘Well, if you think being here with me is wasting your time, you’d better go.’
‘Adam, I must get on with it.’
‘When can I see you?’
‘I’ve told you, I can’t.’
‘What, not ever?’ he said.
‘You are a shit. You think you can always get your own way, don’t you? And don’t look at me like that.’
‘Millie, it was a joke.’
‘Sorry, Adam. I’m such a bitch, aren’t I? What about Tuesday?’
‘Sorry, Tuesday I have a visiting American, I’m taking him out to dinner.’
‘Please yourself,’ she said, and walked out, banging the door.
Oh God, why does she have to be like that, he thought.
He decided to look in at home, to make sure Imogen had got back safely. He didn’t know why he thought he had to do that, and when he got home he regretted it. Imogen had left the door of her bedroom open, there was a man in her bed and they were asleep. He couldn’t see who it was. He stood there looking at Imogen, her hair spread out on the pillow, and he remembered her hair falling across his face as she kissed her. She was my woman then, he thought, and then the thought that always followed, what a mess his life was. And the guilt at the possessive: my woman. Was it really that, or was it the woman he wanted to be with?
He went to the hospital, and Karl turned up later. When Karl came in he was greeted with cheers. The students forgot that Adam could hear them in his room next to the clinic office, and one of them asked Karl if he liked living dangerously, and perhaps he’d better get some advice from the boss about personal relationships, so he wondered if it had been Karl in bed with Imogen. He told himself he wasn’t worried about Imogen, she could take care of herself, but that he did worry about Karl. Did he really not worry about Imogen? He didn’t know.
The telephone rang. It was Millie. He shut the door; he didn’t want the students hearing how hopeless he was. Or, even worse, the nurses.
‘Adam, I’m sorry. You ought to find someone who won’t always be looking for quarrels. Why am I like this?’
‘Never mind,’ he said. ‘We don’t make it easy for ourselves. Millie, will you really come to Madagascar with me? I’ll understand if you can’t, because of the novel.’
‘Yes. I can bring the novel, work on it in the mornings. I shall be able to make a good start. And you can have me all afternoon.’
‘What about the evening?’
‘That’s when I have you.’
They had a house on the beach in Madagascar, cooking fish on an open fire, fish straight from the sea that fishermen brought. They soon learned which was the best, Capitan fish, roasted with oil, salt and lemon, melting in the mouth, and there were delicious crayfish.
Women came past with baskets of fruit, paw-paws, tiny bananas, and guavas, which they had never eaten before; the women’s smiles as attractive as the fruit they sold. Adam bought more fruit than they could possibly eat, enchanted by their smiles. Adam and Millie were sitting on the beach, eating the fruit, and the ring-tailed lemurs were watching, waiting for scraps. Millie had eaten half her mango, and threw the remains to the lemurs, who dashed towards it.
‘Look, Adam, that lemur has a baby.’
There was a lemur with a baby hanging on to her fur, and the mother was biting bits off the mango and giving them to her baby. The other lemurs were watching her, and she yapped and lunged to keep them away.
‘Isn’t that nice of them to let her have the mango for her baby,’ Millie said.
‘They’re not being nice, she’s the boss. In a lemur troop the boss is always a female.’
‘Good for her,’ Millie said. ‘That’s how it should be.’
At that moment a young female approached the mother, was stroking the baby. The mother didn’t attack or yelp at her, and after a moment handed her baby over.
‘Oh Adam, how nice. You see what it would be like if women ruled the world,’ Millie said.
Another female lemur approached, and was immediately attacked by the mother, and severely bitten. The attack was soon over, and the second female was sitting at the edge of the troop, licking her wounds.
‘Well, perhaps not,’ Millie said.
They watched the lemurs, and the mango was soon gone.
‘I wonder if I shall ever have a baby,’ Millie said.
Adam didn’t know what to say. What was she saying to him, that she wanted to have a child? He hadn’t dared to raise it with her; she had often spoken bitterly of how motherhood consumed a woman, destroyed her independence, handing the patriarchate another weapon in the fight to suppress a woman’s freedom. He knew what he wanted, a child, but he wasn’t confident that he and Millie would always be together. To bring a child into his life with Millie, not knowing if they would be together next year, or even tomorrow, he knew he couldn’t bear that. If they were not together Millie would have the child. He had seen the sadness, and the anger, of fathers separated from their children, even if a stepfather was not usurping his place. This longing for a child was growing, although he kept it from Millie. He stood up and walked down to the sea, stood in the shallows, looked towards the reef where the rollers were coming in. He could be with Millie, or not be with Millie, and the rollers would go on breaking on the reef. But he would be changed, if he wasn’t with his child. He didn’t have a child, he thought, and probably never would have.
He turned and walked back to Millie, kissed her.
‘I saw you looking at that girl who brought the mangoes yesterday,’ Millie said. ‘Bad Adam.’
They swam, hired a sailing boat, and sailed out to a small island where they made love in the shade of some rocks. Only the seabirds saw them.
‘The birds are envious,’ he said. ‘We can make love all year round.’
That did it. Millie was frantic, mounting him, screaming at him.
As they lay there, recovering, Adam reached out, starting to stroke her arm, and Millie pushed his hand away, stood up, put her clothes on.
‘What is it?’ he said.
‘Nothing. Come on, let’s get back.’
His talks with the local doctors about the genetic disorder were interesting, and there were twenty or so patients with the disorder, enough to make an investigation worthwhile. There seemed to be quite a bit of inbreeding. Adam put together a family tree, and was puzzled. It didn’t make sense. He showed the doctors his family tree, and they smiled. When a man calls a boy his son, they said, he could be his brother’s son, or even his cousin’s son, taken in after some family tragedy. They could sort this out with DNA analysis, Adam realised, but what about the ethical issues, informed consent? The doctors shrugged, and Adam was not very happy, but he hoped that the patients would be helpful. Children with this disorder could be helped with advice about diet. The parents were grateful, and brought him gifts. Many of them were fishermen, and he went back to the house with some wonderful lobsters and fish that he had never seen before. He asked how to cook the fish, but he couldn’t understand the patients’ French, and the doctors did not understand the Malagasy cookery terms. One doctor told him he should speak to his wife, the doctor’s wife, that was, but she was in Boston, doing an internship in trauma surgery. There are not many women surgeons in Madagascar, the doctor said, but that means there is a lot of trauma, and laughed. It must be a Malagasy joke, Adam thought. Perhaps a rather intellectual Malagasy joke.
Millie worked on her novel and after he had finished at the hospital, Adam was a househusband, bringing her cups of coffee and drinks of water, getting their lunch ready. After lunch, while it was still hot, they lay contentedly together, hardly touching in the midday heat, but when the afternoon breeze started up and it became cooler, they joined together, celebrated what we could give each other.
‘If only we could stay here forever,’ Millie said. ‘This is the Garden of Eden, eat the apple I give you, and be as a god. I wonder if I would have loved you if your name hadn’t been Adam.’
She had told him that it was doing Italian at university, The Divine Comedy, that made her a bad woman. That and her tutor, who, she claimed, seduced her. He wondered: for there to be seduction shouldn’t there be a presumption of innocence?
‘All the great lovers were in Purgatory, they really should have been in Hell. They reached for Paradise too soon. Dante couldn’t bear to put them in Hell, he was a lover himself. “A great flame follows a small spark,” that’s what he wrote. Burn me up, Adam.’
The next day, there was a different mood; they were talking of a friend who had ditched his woman, and Millie was singing about yesterday’s girl.
While she was singing, she was smiling at him. He could hardly bear to look at her.
She smiled, but then the smile went, and she was looking away. She walked out of their house, walked off down the beach, and he watched her. She stopped, put her hands over her face. Then she looked back, she must have seen Adam looking at her, and walked off into the trees.
They drove to a town and wandered through the bazaar, pursued by offers of discounts, cut price, special offers. The traders knew all the English words. They had started with words in French, German, English, but soon detected, from the reactions they evoked, that Adam and Millie were English.
‘The only thing they don’t seem to have is buy one get one free,’ Millie said.
‘Free is a foreign concept in a bazaar,’ he said.
Millie saw an Indian woman coming out of a stall wearing a shalwar kameez, that wonderful combination of tunic and trousers that is supposed to hide a woman’s body, but frequently enhances it, a scarf draped over her hair, hardly covering it. Millie must have a shalwar kameez herself. She spent a long time looking at what was offered, and in the end chose the most expensive. They were not good at haggling.
‘Let me buy this for you,’ he said, and was rewarded. The woman in the stall had included a headscarf to clinch the sale, and showed Millie how to wear it.
‘For the mosque, like this,’ she said. ‘But for the husband, like this.’
The rest of the holiday passed, and they lazed on the beach in the shade.
The agency that let their beach house had a message: Millie’s husband was unwell. Millie was distraught, turned to Adam for comfort, frequently told him that she shouldn’t have come with him. They managed to change their flight, and, sitting on the plane, Millie asleep on his shoulder, Adam wondered what their life would be.