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The Art of Losing

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I cleared my throat. ‘My name’s Nicholas Steiner. I work in the English department. When I asked if you’d read it, it was really just a way of saying hello.’

‘I see,’ she said. I couldn’t read the expression on her face. ‘Well, hello. Nice to meet you. I’m Lydia. I just started here this week.’

‘Great,’ I said inanely. The library walls suddenly felt oppressive and hot, closing in on me. ‘So. I should probably go to my class, but … well, perhaps we could meet up later, go for lunch or something?’

She hesitated and brushed her hair back from her face, and in that instant I saw what I hadn’t before: the pale gold ring on her slim finger. ‘I said I’d meet my husband for lunch,’ she said. ‘He works in the chemistry department. You could always join us, if—’

I was already backing away. ‘No, no, don’t worry,’ I said distantly. ‘I just thought you might want someone to show you round.’

‘Your book …’ she began plaintively as I turned and strode away. I pretended not to hear and battled my way out of the stone doors, back out to the shrieking chaos of the campus. A dense tidal wave of pupils was surging across the square towards lessons, a contraflow to my own intended direction. Nine bells sounded out from the clock tower. I was going to be late.

It took me another week to work out who Lydia’s husband was. I kept myself deliberately aloof from most of my colleagues, and I knew no one in the chemistry department whom I would have trusted to make discreet enquiries. On the face of it, few of the six chemists under sixty seemed like plausible canddates. Ranging from the prematurely aged Henry White, who spent his free periods huddled over textbooks and muttering in the corner of the staffroom, to the cocksure Terry Hudson, who was not long out of university and spent most of his time eyeing up the bustier sixth-formers, they were a singularly unappealing bunch. The front-runner was Simon Shaw, a good-looking, well-dressed man in his late twenties, who wore a wedding ring and who was conspicuous by his absence from the staff dining room at lunchtimes. Over the course of that week I imagined him with Lydia, laughing over their shared lunches elsewhere, enjoying a quiet evening in front of the TV, entwined together in bed … until I became convinced that the unpleasant images I was imagining were fact. Wanting to have my suspicion confirmed, I dropped Simon into conversation with one of the stalwarts of the school, Evelyn, who had been pushing sixty-five for the past five years and who was passionately fond of a gossip.

‘I think I met Simon’s wife the other day,’ I said, gesticulating over towards where Simon was marking some papers in the corner of the staffroom.

Evelyn looked briefly shocked, then amused. ‘Simon hasn’t got a wife,’ she said.

I was thrown off base by this. I assumed she was implying he was divorced. ‘He still wears a wedding ring,’ I pointed out.

Evelyn leant forward confidentially, her bright, ferrety eyes gleaming with the unexpected excitement of imparting knowledge. ‘That’s not a wedding ring,’ she breathed significantly. ‘It’s more … well, how shall I putthis? More of a commitment ring.’ In case I hadn’t picked up on the subtext, she clarified it for me. ‘Simon’s partner is a man,’ she ended in an audible whisper, with a triumphant flourish.

The news jolted me more than might have been expected. It was 1983, and although the gay rights movement was in full swing, there was still something of a ‘not in my back yard’ mentality clinging to me, however enlightened and progressive I may have thought I was. Evelyn was watching me intently as I struggled to keep the shock from my face.

‘You didn’t suspect?’ she asked, a hint of glee in her voice.

‘Really, I barely know the man,’ I said brusquely. ‘I simply must have got him confused with somebody else.’

‘I see,’ she said, her tone implying that she did see, but not in the way I was wanting her to. ‘I believe they haven’t been together all that long,’ she added. She obviously thought I had secret designs on Simon Shaw and had invented a mythical wife under some complex pretext. I battled down the rise of discomfort that such a thought provoked in me. Let her think it, if it kept her in staffroom gossip for a week.

‘Excellent news,’ I said sarcastically. ‘I must just go and talk to him now.’ Somehow, the news that Simon was homosexual freed something up in my mind, made it easier for me to decide to ask him about Lydia. I went over to the corner table, where his dark head was still bent over the pile of exercise books, and sat down opposite him. He shot me a polite glance of enquiry before returning to the books. We had done no more than nod a brief hello occasionally around the campus, after a hurried introduction on his first day several months ago.

‘Sorry to disturb you,’ I said briskly. He looked up again, expectant now.

‘Yes? Nicholas, isn’t it?’ he said. I wasn’t given to stereotypes, but I thought I caught the faintest whiff of something about his manner, something that should have given me the clue as to the true nature of that ring. He was smartly dressed, as always, with a handkerchief tucked into his top pocket. I noticed that his fingernails were very clean, very white and finely shaped.

‘Yes.’ Now that I had begun, I didn’t know how to go on. Instinctively I felt that I couldn’t pussyfoot around the topic with this man. ‘There’s a woman,’ I said bluntly. That got his attention. He put down his pen, a faint amused smile playing around the corners of his mouth. ‘She works in the school library. She’s married to someone in your department.’

Simon nodded. ‘Martin Knight,’ he said instantly.

I took a moment to digest the pill of information, which was even bitterer than I had imagined it would be. I had eliminated Martin from my suspicions early on, on the grounds that he was far too pedestrian a character to hold any allure for someone like Lydia. In his mid-forties, greying at the temples, with a face too forgettable to be termed ugly, he had few obvious attractions. Incomprehension was what I felt, and a petulant, steadily rising indignation.

‘You’re sure you know who I mean?’ I said, just to make sure.

‘Blonde hair,’ Simon said eagerly. ‘About thirty. And, of course, very beautiful.’ He spoke with the detached relish of a professional connoisseur. I wondered whether he was trying to pretend that he himself had some interest in Lydia, to generate some sort of comradely atmosphere.

‘That’s her,’ I agreed. ‘Martin Knight. Well, no accounting for tastes.’

I had taken a risk, not knowing whether Simon and Martin were particular friends. From the smile that broke over his face I assumed that it had paid off, but he said nothing. The exercise books forgotten, he was leaning forward in his seat now, obviously awaiting my next move.

I didn’t like to be toyed with. ‘That’s all I wanted to know,’ I said, forcing a smile. There was no point in trying to backtrack or explain. ‘I trust you won’t mention this to Martin.’

‘My lips are sealed,’ Simon assured me. He hesitated, taking a furtive glance around the room before leaning farther in. His eyes fixed earnestly on mine. ‘So,’ he asked, with no little anticipation, ‘are you in love with her?’

The directness of the question should not have surprised me – after all, I had been the one to break the norms of social convention between us – but for a second it made my breath catch in my throat. ‘Yes,’ I said, entirely without thinking, and saw his face blossom into delighted approval.

Later that day I made a half-hearted attempt to berate myself for my foolish declaration, but I didn’t regret it. I tried to despise myself for falling in love on such scanty grounds; it didn’t fit with who I thought I was, to be so ridiculously besotted over a look and a few awkward words. Try as I might, I couldn’t make myself doubt my feelings, and the knowledge that I was not mistaken made me feel excited, righteous and determined all at the same time. I knew I could take her away from him. I did love her, I did want her, and in that moment, as thereafter, I made no apology for it. Not to anyone.

I struck up a casual friendship with Martin Knight. It wasn’t difficult to do; he was the sort of person doomed to be overlooked and to blend into the background. The unexpected attention I showed him seemed to please him. I started off small – a cordial comment or two around the campus, an offer to borrow my newspaper in the staffroom – then progressed to lengthier conversation, commenting on current affairs or the steadily improving weather. Not forthcoming by nature, Martin nevertheless responded to these overtures with eagerness. Within a couple of weeks he was singling me out in the staffroom between lessons, giving me a brisk, confident wave in the knowledge that we were more than mere acquaintances. I don’t know whether he ever stopped to consider why this unknown colleague, more than a decade his junior, had started to take an interest in him. With all that I came to know of him afterwards, I suspect that the question never arose in his mind. He had that peculiar yet surprisingly common combination, an acute academic brain coupled with a near-total lack of interest in human nature. He would wrestle with the finer points of molecular evolution with all the energy of a genuine truth-seeker, but when it came to emotion, he swallowed all that was told him without further question or argument.

As I got to know him better, I understood that he did have his qualities, however hidden they may have been on first inspection. He was cheerful and sanguine by nature, and spending time in his company was strangely reassuring. He had occasional flashes of quick, dry humour, invariably delivered with a sly look over the top of his glasses. He was automatically generous, often offering me things – a spare snack, a book to read in free periods. He didn’t seem to feel the need to show off or to impress me with his knowledge as so many of my colleagues did. Attractive though these things were, though, none of them made me sit back and think, Ah, so that’s what she seesin him. None of them seemed significant enough; there was nothing extraordinary about him, and I felt instinctively that Lydia deserved, wanted, something extraordinary.

I had decided early on not to mention Lydia until he did, but I didn’t have long to wait. I think it took only two days of desultory chat before Martin dropped the phrase ‘my wife’ into the conversation. ‘My wife always tells me I would make a terrible bachelor,’ he said, in response to some casual remark of mine about living alone. As he said the words, his face was suffused pinkly with something between embarrassment and pleasure. Watching him shift self-consciously in his seat and stifle a smile, I realised that he worshipped her. The knowledge didn’t soften me; on the contrary, it half angered me.

‘Why’s that?’ I asked, biting back my annoyance.

‘Well, I’ve never been very good at the domestic side of things,’ he explained. ‘Cooking, cleaning, tidying,’ he added, as if this needed clarification. ‘Lydia does all that.’

I adjusted my mental picture. I had assumed that she was the sort of woman who sat back and was waited on. ‘She must be very capable,’ I said.

‘Oh, very, very,’ Martin agreed with enthusiasm. I waited for some elaboration, but after a pause he shifted the conversation back to my own living arrangements and Lydia was not mentioned again. Nor was I ever invited along to their private lunches, which seemed to take place every Monday and Wednesday. I noticed that he often came back from these lunches buoyant and brimming with bonhomie, his greying hair ruffled, and I envied him.

One morning we were walking across the campus together at the end of the school assembly, which Ioccasionally attended out of lack of anything else to do. I was holding forth about the latest Thatcher debacle, and I noticed that Martin’s sporadic grunts of approval and murmurs of agreement had abruptly stopped. He was beaming, entirely distracted; I followed his gaze across the courtyard and saw that Lydia was approaching from the opposite direction. Clutching a bulging green carrier bag, books threatening to spill from its confines, she didn’t see us at first. It was only when we were within speaking distance that Martin gave a curious whistle of greeting, obviously some private signal between the two of them. She looked up sharply and smiled as she saw him.

‘Hello,’ she said, and then her eyes flickered to me. Her expression changed in a second, but I caught the signals I wanted: surprise and dismay. In another heartbeat she was moving on gaily, rolling her eyes laughingly at the pile of books in her arms, and calling ‘See you later!’ back at Martin, but I wasn’t fooled. She didn’t want me around her husband. If I had ever had any doubts that that brief minute in the library had stayed with her as it had with me, they were instantly discarded, never to return.

I excused myself to Martin on the pretext that I had forgotten a textbook and hurried back in the direction in which Lydia had gone. At the library, I saw her. She had stopped, leaning back against one of its yellowing stone walls and shifting the bag of books to sit more comfortably in her arms. I walked up behind her and put my hand on her shoulder.

I expected her to start, but she turned round with something close to resignation. ‘Hello,’ she said again. Her voice this time was softer, sadder. Her blonde hair was falling about her face, green eyes peeking up from under her fringe to meet mine.

‘I’m sorry if I scared you,’ I said, though it was obvious I hadn’t.

She shook her head and made an effort to drag some normality between us. ‘I didn’t know you knew Martin,’ she said cheerfully. The false brightness masked something closer to panic; I could see it in the aggrieved set of her mouth, the way she couldn’t look me in the face for more than a second at a time. ‘I assume you know he’s my husband?’

‘Yes. I only found out recently,’ I lied. ‘Not that it matters.’

She frowned, unsure of what I meant and whether to be offended.

‘Well, I suppose not,’ she said. ‘After all, why should you care?’

‘I do care,’ I said. She gave a short exasperated laugh at this, hoisting the bag back into her arms and moving away from me.

‘I don’t know why we’re having this conversation,’ she said. ‘Listen, I’m not stupid. I can see you’re interested in me, but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m married, and even if I wasn’t—’ She stopped short, and I caught the first hint of another of her qualities that I would later come to know well; an inability to give voice to the harsh thoughts that formed so clearly in her head. ‘It’s embarrassing,’ she contented herself with.

Silhouetted against the library, with the sun casting her in light, she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. ‘Well, I’m happy enough to be embarrassing,’ I said. ‘I like being underestimated.’

‘Nicholas,’ she said, and hearing her pronounce my name for the first time set off a strange erotic pang that felt as if it came from somewhere so deep inside I couldn’t locate it. I expected her to follow it with some condemnation or other. I think youshould leave me alone. You’re being ridiculous. I would never beinterested in a man like you. But she didn’t. After a long silence, she just said my name again, softly and caressingly, as if rolling it around her mouth. She didn’t seem to know what else to say.

After that day outside the library, it felt like only a matter of time before Lydia and I began an affair, and yet the next few weeks were the longest of my life. Every night that I spent alone in the flat I had once fancied an artistic utopia, surrounded by the paraphernalia of my suddenly unsatisfactory bachelor life, felt like an affront. At school I continued to spend time with Martin. Often I watched him and Lydia snatching a few moments together around campus, always laughing and joking between themselves, and I couldn’t rid myself of the nasty, gloating sense that things would not always be this way. I didn’t especially like it in myself, but at the same time I felt justified. I told myself that whatever it was between us was bigger than the English custom of stepping back politely at the sight of a wedding ring. Besides, it wasn’t in my nature to forgo what I wanted – not when I genuinely wanted things so seldom, not when I could tell that she wanted the same thing, even if she didn’t know it herself yet.
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