They sat on the stoop watching lazy crows hopping along the furrows. Occasional seagulls floated above the flat brown, fading into the clouds. The white gates were closed. No one was coming. It was just them. Beatrice poured another glass of warm Chardonnay and lit another cigarette. “Fifteen years we’ve been coming here and for fifteen years they’ve been coming to stay. Through early marriage years, through pregnancies, through babies and little children. Fifteen years and now, now this.” Beatrice’s voice trailed off.
“Sorry, but I don’t really know what you mean.” Clarissa looked at her new friend trying to work out quite how the conversation got here. They’d been chitchatting about Beatrice’s husband, about how both he and Clarissa are workoholics. They’d just got onto the interesting bit, about how there’s no cure, and now this peculiar switchback detour. Clarissa didn’t really know Beatrice very well, although she had known her husband, Andreas, for many years. A friendship and a business partner. Perhaps there was some weird sort of confession coming on from Beatrice. Clarissa wasn’t really sure if she wanted to hear it. She liked the relationship with Andreas just as it was. She didn’t want to know any disturbing secrets. She didn’t want knowledge about either Beatrice or Andreas that they were not themselves privy to.
Over the years, Clarissa and Andreas had worked together on many projects, exhibitions and the like. He had the ideas, was the investor and risk taker. Clarissa was the risk averse freelancer of choice for project management. And that’s as far as it went. There was no attraction between them, only mutual professional respect. This trip was the closest Clarissa had ever come to Andreas’ family world. And here she was in a remote village somewhere in northern Germany. They’d been working on the next stage of an educational initiative Andreas wanted to get off the ground. It had been a good week, productive. Now Andreas had taken the children back to town for their weekend clubs and to get ready for the coming school week. Beatrice had wanted a break from him and from her children, none of whom she appeared to like very much. She had suggested Clarissa stay on for the weekend and keep her company.
The invitation had seemed like a good idea. Clarissa had nothing waiting for her at home: her little girl was with her father that weekend, the house would bear another layer or two of dust, a few more cobwebs and flies. She was exhausted after a tiring week. Why not stay here in Schleswig Holstein, relax, hang out and eat her new friend’s lovely cooking. The amazing cinnamon buns were an added bonus, as was the excellent cellar.
Clarissa was curiously drawn to this strangely unpredictable woman. On the one hand she went for the supermother gig, and yet she took her work as a museum curator very seriously, keeping both well apart. Clarissa’s parenting style could best be described as intensely loving but sporadic, and she had no interest at all in museums. Clarissa worked very hard, but didn’t necessarily work smart, so she was always stressed. She rather liked it. Unlike Clarissa Beatrice was laid back, a dutiful and dedicated mother, but not particularly in tune with her children. She had no interest in her husband’s business or its workings and when it came to any sort of work was a great believer in delegating, from signage installations to swimming clubs and piano lessons. The two women newly met, shared a mutual interest in their differences, more intuited than expressed.
“Beatrice I’m not sure I understand what you mean.” Maybe it was a language thing Clarissa wondered. Beatrice puffed out her smoke long, dragonlike. She threw back her hair, tucking it behind prominent ears, her cigarette clenched tight to suck in another dose. “I don’t know. Sorry. I am in a state of shock you see. A call. Nothing. It’s hard. I’m sorry. It’s really nothing. Call it the Chardonnay.” This last with a rueful smile. Clarissa looked out at the white gates again, still closed. She was uncertain what should happen next.
Beatrice continued. “This house, this space, it has seen so much, everything, everyone in our lives. It all comes through those white gates. I tell myself, sometimes its good, sometimes it’s bad, but whatever it is, it comes through those white gates. And I think you understand how special this place is to me, to us, to me and Andreas both. And to them too. When they come through those white gates the next time, things will have changed.”
By this time Clarissa was utterly confused and wondering if staying on with batty Beatrice was such a good idea. It was just the two of them, starting now, a Friday evening all the way to Sunday when it would be time to find a train to get Clarissa to the airport. Time that at first had stretched elastic and supple, expansive, generous, was starting to look steely hard, rigid and confining. Roll on Sunday. Clarissa slogged her remaining halfglass and went to get a fresh bottle. She put another in the freezer, figuring it wouldn’t be long before it would need opening.
“Who?” She said as she slumped back down on the stoop. “I am sorry but I don’t understand. Perhaps you want to talk about it?” It wasn’t so much that Clarissa was interested, as the fact that if they were to be alone until Sunday, it would be good to have common topic, some point of reference. Clarissa figured listening to someone else’s problems would be an ok way to spend the weekend, though it had started to feel more trap than relaxing escape. And Beatrice was clearly upset.
Beatrice looked across her glass and nodded. “Yes, you’re a stranger, you know none of these people. It shouldn’t upset you, they’re European aliens in your little English world.” Clarissa wasn’t sure she quite cared for this appraisal but smiled. “Well, I might have a secret of my own to share,” she offered raising her eyebrows and putting a confiding arm across her new friend’s shoulders. The delicate Chardonnay was tickling Clarissa’s throat in a wonderful teasing fizz. The alcohol was relaxing her and the passive smoking was really quite enjoyable.
“You see it’s my best friend. She thinks her husband is having an affair. But she can’t fault him. He’s there for her, for the children, helpful with the house, chores, cooking all that. That may be a reason to suspect, but he’s always been that way. Always.” As Beatrice spoke, brows knitted, words tumbling out between little clouds of smoke, Clarissa was suspicious. She wanted to build a picture in her mind of a mousey sort of man, not browbeaten but diligent, devoted to his family, in love with his wife. “Perhaps he’s just too good to be true? Perhaps your friend is so in love with him, that she’s afraid of losing him?” Clarissa said. “You know them well, so surely you would be able to see any signs of infidelity? Or is it you, you’re talking about? If it is I can assure you… ” Beatrice’s hands flew up to her face “Oh God, not, no it isn’t me. I’m not talking about me, no, not and I hope you don’t think… ” Clarissa stared not sure whether she was being accused, exonerated, or lied to. Silence swelled between them, aggressive, cross.
Beatrice stood up and went to fetch a candle and some cushions. Sitting on the steps was more suited to the conversation than sitting in real chairs would have been. More honest perhaps, more painful, unprecedented, a small foreign space for a small foreign conversation.
“I’m sorry. It’s just hard. It’s nothing to do with me and Andreas. We’re the same as always, both too busy, both waiting for the part of our lives when we are just us again. Neither of us would risk that. But you’re right of course, to wonder” Beatrice said. “I am sure I would see signs in this man, but I haven’t. There was something Andreas said a few weeks ago that made me wonder. But it was probably nothing. I don’t think either of us really knows what the signs of infidelity are. We’ve only ever been with each other. We live such controlled and regimented lives. There’s no room for affairs.” Clarissa laughed, “well I certainly know the signs, and I can tell you they don’t amount to dutiful and attentive. Apart from anything else, if he’s having an affair he won’t have the energy to take care of your friend.” They laughed and instinctively veered away from any discussion of sex, licit or otherwise. “It’s about opportunities and the kind of opportunities he has,” Beatrice added.
Clarissa was able to establish that the company this man worked for had him spending a lot of time on the road, especially recently. He had been away every week in the last two months, sometime just for a couple of days, sometimes over a weekend. Opportunity was certainly there. “He always comes back with presents for her and for the children. But that might be guilt?” Beatrice suggested.
Clarissa was getting tired of this dreary speculation about people she had never met, and was never likely to meet. Boring middle-aged people leading boring middle-aged lives. “Oh for heavens sake,” she said, “you’re weaving a complicated tale out of perfectly normal, conventional behaviour. And you still haven’t let me tell you a) my secret and b) the signs to look for, apart from the energy thing of course. That’s far more entertaining.” Beatrice sighed and tried to put her suspicions aside. “I’m sure you’re right. So what should I look for? And how do you know? Has this happened to you? Is that why you and your husband split up?”
Clarissa’s heart was beating just a little bit faster and she coughed awkwardly waving at the smoke. An unexpected tightness in her throat made it harder to breath. “No. Not exactly. It was more complicated than just an affair. It was about the end of love, at least I thought it was. But then when it was nearly all over, I realised that it wasn’t that either. It was just the end. No drama, just a man too tired to bother anymore. Too worn down with the whole marriage, family gig. Just the end.” Clarissa felt a long lazy teardrop run down one side of her nose. “So how do you know?” Beatrice brushed away the teardrop and waited for Clarissa to start speaking again.
Clarissa’s voice was very small in the dark. Moths and other small flying night creatures were bouncing an insistent percussion on the outside light. “Actually I don’t, I only know what it’s like to be having an affair with a married man. It’s fine for me. I don’t have anyone to keep the secret from. But for him, it’s harder. He has to lie and pretend to care for a woman he no longer loves, perhaps never really did love. It’s a guilt he says he’s hidden for years. I wonder whether he just keeps the two of us in separate compartments in his life. I guess I’m lucky because we can both travel and meet even though we live in different countries. But I do love him, sincerely, genuinely. I’ve never been with a man who is so, well, so very masculine, who makes me feel so much a woman. And the strange thing is, I don’t care at all that he lies. I guess I have no hope that it will ever be anything more than an affair.”
“Your mystery man sounds gorgeous, but so’s my friend’s husband. He’s handsome and very male, fit I think you say.” Beatrice was still speaking in that lazy slow way of hers, but the topic was shifting. Beatrice was more interested in how to spot the signs of a lie. “If the compartmentalising thing was true and how affairs could work for so long, there would be no lies, no visible signs, just mistakes.” she said. “Then it makes sense not just for him, but for his wife, except that she’s only got the one compartment, she’s not having an affair but instead she’s frantically watching his every move, looking for the signs but there won’t be any, at least not until he wants to start signalling an affair? Maybe that’s where the mistakes come in?” It was all getting a little muddled.
Clarissa smiled in the dark, remembering her man, their love, the passion, the unexpectedness of it all. They’d been at PharmaPack in Paris some nine months ago. He’d wanted extra lights in the meeting rooms on his company’s stand. She’d been in sight wearing her organiser’s badge. Andreas had waved across the aisle and he’d waved back. Clarissa thought the handsome man, his hands clutching a mass of cables was waving to her, cables and all. That’s how it started. She shook her head to push out the images. Those eyes. That voice. A smile that held her entire life in its brief moment. Clarissa shook her head harder.
“This whole thing is doing my head in,” she said. “What say we go for the third Chardonnay. It’s in the freezer so it should be perfect? And give me a drag would you, the passive thing isn’t working for me any more.” Beatrice stood up and wobbled inside, bumping in the dark into doors, walls, furniture, and finally emerging with the iced bottle and another pack of cigarettes.” She waved at the moths and sat down heavily, sloping sideways into the handrail and staring out at a glimmer of white, the outline of the white gates. Clarissa followed her gaze, sipping the cold wine. “What industry does your friend’s husband work in?” As she asked the question, she knew the answer. “Pharmaceuticals I think. It’s too cold out here now, let’s go into the warm.” Beatrice stood up, slowly moving indoors. Clarissa sat very still, wine in hand a lit cigarette burning in her fingers, watching the white gates. If she waited long enough she knew he would pass through them.