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The Art of Losing

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Over those few weeks I saw Lydia alone only twice. The first time, I sought her out, strolling casually into the library one morning to borrow a book. She greeted me brightly enough, tossing out some cheery query about how my week was going, but once again she couldn’t look me in the eye. As she pushed the book across the desk towards me my hand brushed lightly across her fingertips. They curled back into her palm quickly, too quickly, at the touch, and I saw that the skin on her cheekbones was darkening, flushing into pink. The second time, I came out of a lesson to find her standing aimlessly in the corridor, staring at the mass of leaflets and flyers tacked on to the whitewashed wall. When she saw me, she feigned surprise. I didn’t challenge her, even though I knew that she had no reason to be in the English block. She stood there awkwardly for a few moments, then declared that she had to go. Perhaps as a final gesture of defiance, she snatched a flyer from the wall as she went. It was the sort of gesture that from anyone else I would have found pathetic, but right then it made me smile. Looking after her as she hurried away across the courtyard, I knew that she had given me the nearest thing she could to a signal. It was time for me to test the water.

The next lunchtime, I excused myself from my lesson ten minutes early and went to the chemistry labs. I had reasoned that Lydia might well meet Martin there before their lunchtime dates, and my suspicion was right. She was sitting on a bench outside the lab, her bright blonde head bent over a book. When I saw her, my body went into overdrive, blood pulsing through me and adrenalin spiking my skin, making me feel light headed and delirious. My shadow fell across her as I approached, and she hurriedly tucked the book into her bag, but not before I had seen its title – the Henry James I had plucked from the library shelf on the morning of our first meeting.

‘I hope you’re going to write me a review of that book,’ I said.

‘I like Henry James,’ she said defensively. ‘I would have read it anyway.’

I laughed. ‘Of course you would.’

She ignored me, glancing over her shoulder towards the labs. ‘I’m waiting for Martin,’ she said. ‘We’re going to lunch.’ I noticed that she had a basket by her feet, covered with a cloth.

‘Having a picnic?’ I asked.

‘Not that it’s any of your business,’ she replied. ‘But yes. We sometimes go to the park, when the weather’s good. It’s nice to be alone,’ she added defiantly. ‘To have some time just the two of us.’

I sat down next to her and took her hand in mine. It was hot, trembling in my grasp, but she didn’t pull it away. Closer to her than I had been before, I could smell the scent of her perfume on her skin, a sweet, elusive smell that made me think of apricots and sunshine. Her green eyes were swimming with something that could have been excitement or tears, blinked away by long dark lashes that stood out dramatically against the paleness of her skin. Her pupils were fringed with a fine haze that graded from hazel through to almost gold. I wanted to kiss her, but something told me to wait. If I rushed things now, I could set us back days, and besides, I wanted to prolong the moment, now that I sensed it was so near.

‘Don’t wait for him,’ I whispered. ‘Come with me instead.’

At that moment the bell rang out sharply for the end of lessons. It galvanised Lydia, forcing her out of her seat as she wrenched her hand away from mine. She looked round wildly as the first students started to pour out of the lab behind us, shouting and pushing each other, swarming around us. I could have cheerfully murdered them all.

‘OK,’ I began, holding my hands up in surrender. She seized my arm, and I saw a new look on her face, a kind of fierce, almost angry desperation.

‘Come on,’ she said, looking me straight in the eyes. ‘Quickly, before he comes.’ The words hung between us in the air for an instant. I could see that she was half appalled at hearing them leave her lips; the betrayal tangible now, impossible to undo. In that instant I suddenly knew that all my certainty had been nothing more than bravado, and that deep down I had never expected this to happen. I couldn’t speak. So fleetingly that I barely caught the echo of the impulse, I thought, Stop this. Stopit now.

She was hurrying away from the lab, almost running as she elbowed her way through the spreading crowd of students. I had to stride to keep her within sight, focusing my eyes on the slight but powerful set of her shoulders in their white shirt, her hair drawn up enticingly from the nape of her neck. She seemed to know exactly where she was going. I followed her through the exit at the back of the English block, leading out on to the backstreets that wound towards the river. She weaved through the streets, never looking back, making me feel like a stalker. I was excited now, willing to play her game. I had guessed by now where she was taking me. Sure enough, she took an abrupt right, and the church loomed in front of us. She unhooked the gate that led to the churchyard and slipped swiftly inside, leaving it off the latch for me. Still she didn’t look back. She padded softly across the grass, slower now, taking her time to choose a spot. At last she came to a halt underneath a low cherry tree, masses of white and pink blossoms exploding across its thread-thin branches and casting a rose-tinged shadow on to the grass beneath. I came up behind her, put my arms around her waist and kissed the back of her neck, burying my face in the warm scented sweep of her hair. The touch seemed to flick a switch inside her. She twisted around in my arms and seized my face in her hands, brought her lips violently up against mine. I had thought she would be pliant, beseeching, easy to mould or overcome. Instead, as we kissed, I was shocked to feel the stirring of something strong and defiant, a will that could conquer my own. It was her whose fingers stealthily worked at the buttons of my shirt, her who took my hands and guided them, her who shook her head and pulled me towards her again roughly when I drew back and looked around. I began to speak – concerned someone might stumble upon us, someone might see – but she shook her head, staring at me, and suddenly it didn’t seem important any more. We made love quickly, without ceremony. Her face was pale and transported, her head thrown back against the carpet of blossoms. It couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, but in those minutes everything changed. If any small cruel part of me had thought that once I had fucked her I could forget about her, it shrivelled and died.

Afterwards she was silent, turning away from me and lying on her side, her skirt still rucked up around her thighs. I ran my fingers through her pale gold hair, carefully unwinding its strands and releasing the scattered cherry blossoms that had tangled their way in among them. It was a few minutes before she rolled on to her stomach and looked up at me, eyes narrowing in the sun.

‘I love you,’ I said, because she seemed to expect me to say something, and because I meant it.

She looked more sad than rapturous, bowing her head towards the grass. ‘I can see that,’ she said. It should have sounded arrogant, but somehow it didn’t. As would often come to be the case with her, I had a feeling that there was a subtext beneath her words which I couldn’t catch, but which would always absolve her. ‘I want you to know that this is the first time I’ve done this,’ she continued.

‘Do you love him?’ I asked. I was prepared for either answer, or for the shaky middle ground of uncertainty. She nodded, and that was fine, because I didn’t believe her. ‘How long have you been married?’

She mumbled something I couldn’t hear, so I asked her again. ‘Six months,’ she said, loudly and clearly this time, as if daring me to show any shock.

Despite myself, I was shocked. In my head I had built up an image of a marriage gone to seed. A teenage Lydia married far too young, a few happy years, then a growing sense of restlessness, the realisation of a decision too quickly and impulsively made. Not a cold-hearted newlywed casting round for some spice outside her life with her dull husband.

As soon as I had thought it, I knew I couldn’t cast Lydia in that role. It would ruin everything. ‘Tell me about it,’ I said.

She sighed, scrambling to sit up and leaning her head back against the tree. ‘I was working in a bookshop when I met him,’ she said. ‘He used to come in and browse the science section almost every day, or so he says, but I don’t remember ever seeing him until he came up to me one day and asked me out. I was flattered, I suppose, even though he wasn’t my usual type. There was still something about him.’ She must have seen the incredulous frown that briefly split my forehead, because she rolled her eyes. ‘Men like you never understand what a woman could see in someone like Martin,’ she said. It felt like a rebuke, and I murmured an apology. ‘But he is attractive, in his way. Anyway, we started seeing each other and it was only a few months later that he asked me to marry him. He was much older than me but that didn’t seem to matter. I couldn’t think of any good reason why I shouldn’t marry him. He made me feel safe and loved. We married at the end of November last year. God, it was a horrible day – cold and pouring with rain. I remember shivering in my wedding dress outside the church. I couldn’t think of anything except how cold I was.’ She trailed off for a moment, recalling. ‘Anyway, we were happy. We moved into a lovely little flat. This job came up a little while ago and I jumped at the chance, because I was tired of the bookshop, and it would mean we would see more of each other, and it seemed convenient.’

I was waiting for the end of the story: some catastrophic turnaround from the gentle domestic bliss that she had outlined. When it was evident that none was coming I cast my mind back over her words, trying to find some clue aside from the doom-laden storm of the wedding day, which hardly seemed a valid reason to embark on an affair.

‘So why?’ I asked finally, when I had found none.

Her face was vacant and puzzled. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I really don’t.’ Throughout her speech she had been confident and self-assured, hard even. Now she looked vulnerable, like a child seeking reassurance and comfort. I kissed her, stroking my hand across the curve of her cheek. She responded, but I could tell that her mind was elsewhere.

‘We should get back,’ she said. ‘It’s almost two. I’ll go first, and then you can follow me in a few minutes.’

‘OK.’ I watched her stand and smooth down her clothes. ‘Will I see you soon?’

‘Maybe,’ she said. I must have looked hurt, because she bent down and gave me a brief, apologetic kiss on the forehead. ‘I mean yes,’ she said. ‘But I have to think this through. I’ll see you in a couple of days.’

She hurried through the churchyard, away from me, sunlight dappling her bare arms and legs, blonde hair glinting in a long rope down her back. I felt exhilarated and angry. I knew that she was wondering whether to give me the brush-off, and it irritated me that she could even consider it; it was so plainly impossible. I knew there was nothing I could do to hasten or influence her decision, and it gave me a sliding, nauseous feeling, as if I were playing a game of chance on which everything I had rode.

Later, in the staffroom, I saw Martin, dialling a number on the staff phone and waiting with an air of pinched concern. Relief broke over his face in waves when she picked up. ‘I was worried,’ I heard him say, and then, ‘Where were you?’ Whatever the lie was, it must have come smoothly, because when he turned away from the phone, he was smiling, a huge weight visibly lifted from his shoulders. In the weeks that followed, I was often ambushed by a brief photographic flash of his face as he had sat waiting at the phone. He had looked hunted, haunted, as if he were steeling himself against a blow from which he might never recover. I think he was imagining that she might be dead.

I could easily have sought Lydia out after our assignation in the churchyard, but I grimly resisted the temptation. I had never been involved with a married woman before, but already I was glimpsing the rules: she called the shots and she made the choices, because she undoubtedly had more to lose. It took three long days for her to make up her mind not to write the churchyard off as an insane aberration. On the fourth day, she turned up at the door of my flat after dark. At first I could barely believe she was there and thought I was hallucinating, that my wanting her so much had magically made an elusive image of her appear. She stood at the doorway in a long green dress and gold jewellery, dressed for the opera or a cocktail party. She was breathing heavily, as if she had been running.

‘I got your address from the school files,’ she said. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I was at a dinner party, and all of a sudden I knew I had to come and see you, so I said I was feeling ill and I was going home. I told Martin to stay, but he won’t stay out late, so I probably don’t have long.’ She laughed nervously, giddily. ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ she said again.

I unwrapped her like a present in front of the two-bar fire, glowing in the dark room and subtly illuminating her body. It was slower than the first time, more intimate. She whispered my name over and over again as we moved together, every whisper sending an almost painful reverberation straight to my heart. Afterwards she buried her face in my shoulder and I knew she was crying. I didn’t ask her why, but I held her and stroked her hair as if I understood.

After that we started meeting whenever we could. Most of our meetings were snatched half-hours around the school, at break times and before class. I often went to the library between lessons just to say a brief hello and have two minutes’ worth of chat. The rest of the time I was on call, watching for notes in my pigeonhole written on the trademark yellow notepaper that she used. Some days there would be no note at all, and I knew that I wouldn’t see her. Other days there would be a few scrawled words: Can’t get away. Missing you. Thinkingof you. And other days, less regularly, the notes would take a triumphal tone. M out for the evening! Will come to you atseven. It never occurred to me to rebuff any of her plans or invitations. On the contrary, my social diary was even emptier than it had been before, permanently cleared for Lydia. When we did meet, perhaps twice a week, it wasn’t always for sex. We spent hours talking. She was intelligent, much too intelligent to be wasting time working in a library. I said as much several times, but she claimed she liked it. It went against the grain to think of her whiling away the hours be hind that desk, when she should have been with me.

When I think of the summer that followed, it’s as a series of picture-perfect snapshots, all blurring into one. Lydia on her back in the churchyard, singing with her eyes closed. Her hair, just glimpsed through the darkness in the tower at the top of the library, deserted in the summer holidays, where she waited for me. The two of us trailing our feet in the river, sharing a bottle of wine on a rare Saturday afternoon together. We were happy, as happy as we could be in the circumstances. I never got used to not having her full time, but I accepted it. Sometimes I felt guilty. I had kept up my friendship with Martin, as much out of habit as anything else. The sight of his friendly, earnest face occasionally set off a pang of nausea in me as I thought of how little he knew. I spent very little time with the two of them together, partly because it was simply too hard for me to keep my feelings to myself around Lydia, and partly because it was painful in some nebulous, craven way to see Martin taking such pride in her. He seemed to find every move she made endlessly fascinating. I would catch him looking at her intently in the course of some prosaic task like peeling an orange, and I could tell that he was marvelling at the way her fingers flexed and worked at its skin. He was quick to join in her laughter, even if he plainly did not understand the joke. He praised her dress sense, her skill at cooking, her sensitivity, to me on numerous occasions. It took all I had to smile and nod, and not to shout that he knew nothing, and that his beautiful, talented wife was spending her time away from him fucking the closest thing he had to a friend. Sometimes I thought I hated him. Other times I wished that I had met Lydia first, and that the three of us could have been friends.

Rarely, I wished that I had never met her at all. Once, towards the end of the summer, we were arguing, the same old argument that we always had. I wanted to see her the next night, and she said that it was impossible. I was always chasing her in those days. We were standing facing each other in my flat, both brimming with sour indignation. The conversation was to all intents and purposes over, but I wanted to give a final twist of the knife.

‘It would be better if we had never started this,’ I said. Her head jerked up sharply and I saw the blood drain from her face.

‘You don’t mean that,’ she said.

‘Maybe I do,’ I shot back, unable to stop goading her now that I had got a reaction. ‘It’s not going anywhere, is it? Where could it go? Sometimes I think it’s pointless.’ I couldn’t go on. She had slumped to the floor, knees drawn up to her chin, as if shielding herself against my words.

‘Well, we can stop it, if you like,’ she said, so quietly that I could barely hear her. The words hung in the air between us, and for a moment I thought, yes, this thing has run its course. Leave it now, and maybe you can paper over the cracks and it’ll be as if it was never there. I knew I was fooling myself. In another moment I was at her side, putting my arms around her shaking shoulders.

‘I know this is hard for you,’ she said, her voice muffled by my embrace. ‘It’s hard for me, too. I don’t know what to do.’

It was the first hint she had given that there was a choice to be made. Naively, I had thought that this precarious middle ground could continue. Now I saw that she had gone farther, and that in the not so distant future there were two possible paths calling her; Martin or me. The knowledge frightened me. I couldn’t see how the affair between us could end, but nor could I imagine her standing in front of Martin, peaceable, unsuspecting Martin, and saying that she wanted a divorce.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said then, moving to face her. ‘I was frustrated, that’s all. You know I want to be with you. And if you’re thinking that you need to make a choice, I want you to know that I’m ready to give you whatever you want. If you want us to go away, start a life somewhere new, we can do it. I’ll get a new job, we’ll buy a place, I’ll do whatever it takes. It’s all I want, you know that.’ I was talking fast now, words tumbling out one over the other. ‘I can’t imagine being without you. I won’t be without you. You’re right, we have to do something, I can’t carry on like this.’

We didn’t talk any more about it that night. I knew, though, that the conversation had started off a chain of thoughts and possibilities in her, and that they daunted her. In early September, when we had returned to school, I saw her a few times around the campus, walking with her arms crossed in front of her, so lost in her thoughts that she looked through me blankly. I think she would have come to a decision soon after of her own accord, although even now I’m still not sure what it would have been. In the event, without even meaning to, I pushed her to make the choice before she was truly ready.

We were curled up together in the library tower; it was the Tuesday lunch hour, which we always contrived to spend together. It had been one of our best times, when we seemed to be perfectly in synch, laughing and finishing each other’s sentences like a couple of much longer standing. I remember that it was raining lightly outside, the raindrops making a faint tattoo of noise on the skylight above us. Lydia was lying back in my arms, smiling up at me. I wanted to prolong the mood, and fatally I snatched at something that suddenly struck me as amusing.

‘You know, something funny happened earlier today,’ I said, and felt her squirm in delighted anticipation. ‘I was expecting a bulletin from the head of department, but I couldn’t be bothered to go and check my pigeonhole.’

‘So lazy,’ she said, and swiped her hand up to playfully tap my face. I caught it and bit it, making her squeal in outrage.

‘So anyway,’ I continued, ‘I asked Martin to go and check it for me. But when he was halfway there, I suddenly remembered that you might have left a note, and that he might recognise your writing. I had to sprint over to get there before him and pretend I had had a sudden spurt of energy—’ I was suddenly aware that Lydia had stiffened in my arms. She pulled away, staring incredulously at me. Already I realised my mistake, but it was too late to undo it.

‘How could you be so stupid?’ she whispered.

‘Look, I’m sorry,’ I said hurriedly. ‘I shouldn’t have told you. Listen, it was fine – he didn’t suspect anything. He thought it was funny.’
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