Confettied by cherry blossom, I wait for his call. He would laugh at the self-created romantic picture, I think. How I miss that laugh.
Every evening for the past month, my lover has rung between six and ten past six. I save my once-permitted daily exercise for this time. He is always finishing a run, panting when he says hello.
For the past half an hour, I have stared at my mute phone. How much longer? It was hot when I left, this spring’s weather matching the hyperbole of global events, but the sky is chilling. No-one has passed by for a while. I should go home. I should, yet it seems like a bad omen to do so.
The road stretches on, naked as paper. The mountains are behind, the village ahead. I hope I have the energy to reach it.
A man is coming towards me, carrying a newspaper. Joe: a writer of historical novels, short stories and poems. He is on the retreat too. At the embarrassing introductions, going round in a circle, Joe said he had won first prize in the short story competition in which I had come second; our prizes were places on the retreat. When he sat at my dinner table, I felt shy of him: the ‘real’ author. Then I noticed his twinkling eyes and how he listened intently, as if he really cared about what people said. He made everyone laugh, too, in that over-the-top way of recent acquaintance combined with alcohol. Even when he was silent, my eyes strayed to his face, as if to a TV in a waiting room; they also strayed to his fourth finger: bare.
Now, I stand still as Joe moves towards me. He isn’t conventionally attractive: too thin, nose too long, chin jutting, but his dark eyes are beautiful. When he sees me, there is a flash of recognition followed by the instant light of his smile. He says he has been to the village to get the papers. I ask what the village is like. My head is filled with thatched, wisteria-coated cottages and mock-Tudor pubs with horse brasses hanging from low, dark-wood ceiling beams. Joe laughs and says he saw a mock-Tudor McDonalds, a Spar where he got the papers and a posh hotel with Gothic windows. I scrabble around for something else to ask, but he beats me to it.
‘Are you enjoying the retreat, Juliette?’
‘Of course, I’m so lucky to be here.’
It’s true and it’s not true. I am lucky to be here, at this highly-regarded retreat centre where a week’s stay would normally be more than I could afford. The tutors are knowledgeable and enthusiastic; most of the other writers are interesting and friendly. The Grade Two-listed building we’re staying in has the perfectly symmetrical pale face of a nineteenth century heroine. There are views of Snowdonia from the windows. It is a place to write sonnets and ghazals in. Yet it hasn’t ignited my creativity. Weaving together a story has been as impossible as weaving together a rainbow. I haven’t created even one phrase that glows, and tomorrow is the last day.
‘You know what Ernest Hemingway said?’ Joe says. ‘“If I started to write elaborately, I would cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true declarative sentence I had written.” You’ve probably written some great stuff, you just may not realise it.’
‘Hemingway also said, “You shouldn’t write if you can’t write.”’
I laugh, self-deprecatingly; Joe doesn’t. He can write: properly, professionally, not one fluke story. There is a silence, and I smile in preparation for us moving in our separate directions.
‘Have you been to North Wales before?’ Joe sounds as if he really wants to know.
I tell the story of a family holiday to Gwynedd, when I was ten. In the days before TripAdvisor, my parents were told about a farm BnB; we spent seven hours driving there, including the hour of being lost; it was so filthy my parents refused to stay; they went to accost the owner, who was hiding in the pig sheds; we got our money back; found a village pub that rented rooms; it was too noisy to sleep; we drove back in the morning; our next holiday was three years’ later. In my memory, it isn’t really a funny story. Joe transforms it, throwing his head back as he laughs.
‘I booked a holiday in Berlin, once – always wanted to go,’ he says. ‘But I accidentally chose a youth hostel; sharing a room with four Romanian backpackers. My wife didn’t speak to me until day four. Years later, she loves telling that story about her dumb husband.’
Why did I think that because he wasn’t wearing a ring, he wasn’t married? Not all men did; my ex-husband hadn’t.
‘Couldn’t you find somewhere else to stay?’ My smile strains my cheeks.
‘Waste of money,’ he says brusquely.
Have I displeased him? Did I sound too much like a wife; like his wife? I try to rectify the situation. ‘Do you have kids, Joe?’
Joe beams. Olivia and Kirsty are nineteen and sixteen. Olivia is at Cambridge studying English; Kirsty is at a college in Manchester, where they live, taking GCSEs this year. I say that my own daughter is seventeen, in the first year of her A-level studies; we live in London. Joe asks my daughter’s name.
‘Safie,’ I say, ‘after…’
‘The girl in Frankenstein. She makes the monster want to read books. That’s a brilliant name.’
No-one has guessed why I called Safie that before. I had tried to tell Stephen, her father, but he hadn’t been interested.
‘Maria chose our daughters’ names – she said she’d done the hard work, it was only fair.’
Joe has mentioned his wife twice now. Maria: surely a Spanish senorita, flowing dark hair, Mediterranean complexion. Very different to me, with my lily-white skin and dyed blonde hair; an English daisy rather than a rose.
‘Fancy finding a bench and reading these papers together, Juliette?’
We won’t be missed at the centre; when workshops aren’t on, the writers scurry away with tablets, notepads and pens, scribbling as if under timed conditions. I envy their ability to whisk together words. ‘Write a thousand words a day,’ one of the workshop tutors prescribed: full of daily good intentions, I take up my flowery notebook, find solitude, fail to concoct a story and snooze in the flat August sunshine.
Joe and I sit on a nearby bench. On my right is Snowdonia with its centuries of secrets; on my left a man I want to know more about. It’s so peaceful, just us and the birds writing invisible stories across the sky.
‘Which section would you like, Juliette?’ Joe asks.
It is The Sunday Times, a paper I haven’t read since Stephen moved out. My preference would be Style, but I don’t want to appear vain and vapid.
‘Great, then I can have Style.’ Joe grins.
This man will always surprise me. Always? The only time I will see him again after the retreat will be in print.
That evening, I walk into the deep silence of the centre’s library and Joe is there with his laptop. We smile. I look down at my notepad. The nothing on the pages no longer seems like an absence. It is potential. By the end of the day, I have created a romantic short story. Tomorrow, it may feel superficial and inadequate: at the moment, it is lit pink with promise.
One week later
The silence is split by a message notification. Probably Safie. She likes to text from upstairs to request her mother-slave gets something, makes something, does something. For Safie, all my creations are for her. I try to remember selfishness is normal; she is more sensible and less easily led than me as a teenager.
I don’t look at the message straight away; I am editing a journal article for an academic in Taiwan. Seven thousand words about emoticons in retail marketing. The concept, as well as the tortuous syntax, makes me wish I had charged more. Although my freelance work pays little, I am financially stable as Stephen paid off the mortgage and gives me plenty of money for Safie. Considering how he hurt her, she deserves all of it and more. I work so that I can get her things with my money, and so I can fill my time.
An hour later, having made decent headway, I remember the message. I don’t recognise the number.
Juliette, hi! Am coming to London next Tuesday, fancy a coffee? Joe x
My heart pounds: stupid, it’s just a message from a nice man. A nice, talented, beautiful-eyed man. A man who typed a kiss in the message, a cross marking my place in his mind. All the writers swapped numbers at the end of the retreat but I hadn’t expected to hear from anyone. Although I am thrilled to get Joe’s text, I know I ‘should not go there’ as Safie would say. Married men are off-limits. I have been the cheated-upon myself.
And yet, my head spins with Joe x. Men don’t ask women out for coffee with no agenda. Or do they? Despite my romantic short stories – ‘write about what you want’ rather than ‘what you know’ could be my motto – I know little about erotic love; Stephen and I were childhood sweethearts who lasted nearly thirty years before he left me for a woman at work. I tried online dating, as friends advised, met pleasant men who bored me, insincere men who pursued me, and one attractive man who announced over steak and chips that he believed in polygamy.
It seems rude not to reply to Joe. Fifteen minutes later, I have twisted words into place with the same effort used to turn Safie’s rebelliously curly hair into neat French plaits when she was at primary school.
Joe, how lovely to hear from you. Afraid I’m busy on Tuesday, but hope to see you another time. Juliette x
The single grey tick doubles and becomes bright blue, like a science experiment. He has read it straight away. I keep watching for ‘Joe is typing’ to appear. It doesn’t. Have I misunderstood? Perhaps coffee did mean a beverage and not ‘coffee’ with its languorous vowels stuffed with desire. How arrogant to assume that he fancies – a silly, puff-pastry word – me. He’s forty-seven; a professional writer. I am fifty; an amateur. He has a gorgeous, passionate wife and two clever children. My own child would be appalled if I became involved with a married man. Or so I assume, it’s not like I can ask.
A jaunty beep from my phone. Safie wants a cup of tea.
I spend the evening googling Joe, and reading his work online. His style is a bit like Hemingway’s: broad brushstrokes, a lot of action and few decorative flourishes, full of delightful twists and turns. I order his books from Amazon and read every review. When I have devoured everything, I get wearily up from the sofa and head for bed. By the time I turn my phone off at midnight, there has been no message from him. But in the morning there is a reply. Definitely another time. Joe x
My heart in the gap between excitement and fear, I take another slug of wine. I have already got through half a glass.
A hand on my back: I turn. Joe looks handsomer than I remembered, in a shirt the vibrant green of samphire. He kisses my cheek.
‘It’s great to see you again, Juliette.’
It is great to see him, too; greater than I had imagined. I can’t stop smiling, joy lodged in my veins.
‘How was your friend?’ Joe asks, once he has ordered a flashing-red bottle of Rioja. I prefer white wine, but don’t mention it.
‘Annabelle’s feeling better,’ I say. ‘She was very glad I could visit. I haven’t seen her in so long, it was lovely to catch up.’ I am talking too much. I stop, slug more wine. The alcohol has gone to my head.
‘Have you eaten, Juliette? I can order bar snacks. The Hot Wings are pretty good, and the mini-burgers.’
I had assumed he was vegan. The retreat only served vegan food and he’d been full of praise for the meals, requesting that Tim the chef email recipes. Unwise to assume where Joe is concerned: I think of his story about the hostel in Germany.
We order bar snacks; we drink wine. Joe’s dark eyes sparkle. He asks questions about my writing, listening attentively to the answers. I tell him about coming third in another competition, with the story I started on the retreat. His praise and interest are flattering; my family and friends ask few questions about my writing.
I say no more about Annabelle with the broken leg. It is true that she seemed glad I had visited; it had been nice to catch up. But her skiing accident had not been the motivating factor for my trip north. After I had turned down Joe’s coffee, the knowledge that I done the right thing vied with disappointment: disappointment won. I had to see him once more, to get these feelings out of my system. One meeting. I just had to engineer it.
And then, browsing Facebook, I saw a photo of Annabelle with her leg in a cast. She and I had lived together in London in our early twenties; she then married a quantity surveyor and moved to Whaley Bridge, and I married Stephen. I sent a message oozing sympathy for her accident and said that I would be in Manchester for a client meeting, would she like it if I visited? Yes please, she replied. I texted Joe: a good friend had sent an SOS call, did he fancy that coffee? Yes; or a drink (wink face) in Piccadilly before I caught my train home?
Now, the conversation and the alcohol are flowing, the non-vegan bar snacks have been eaten. I ask about Joe’s writing. He’s meant to be working on a novel but only wants to write poems. He is wondering what his agent will say if he gives up with the book.
‘Maybe go on another retreat for inspiration?’ I ask.
‘I did bugger all on the last one,’ Joe says. ‘Couldn’t concentrate.’
We look at each other, and the moment stretches. A new chapter has begun in our intimacy. He does fancy me, I realise, and of course I fancy him.
And then it is time to catch my train. I wonder, for a second, if Joe will ask me to stay: ridiculous.
The pub is above the station concourse; as we descend, I wobble slightly from the wine. The train’s platform has not flashed-up on the departure board. Chivalrously, Joe waits until it does. I thank him for meeting me; stretch out my hand. He puts his arms around my back, and we are knotted together. There will be no way out of this for me, I understand. He has brought my body back to life.
After Manchester, Joe and I fall into a routine of daily contact. He sends a long email at lunchtimes; evening is punctuated by his texts: both quickly become very personal. He describes his parents’ messy divorce when he was a child, and how writing helped him to express how he felt about it; he sends drafts of the poems he is working on, which I praise fulsomely; and he writes about his children, including photos. I say how attractive they are, trying to work out how Maria looks from their faces and bodies. Sometimes she is fitted into a story – he and Kirsty were confined upstairs for a weekend while Maria was sanding the downstairs floorboards; at a dinner party, one of the guests gave Joe a tarot reading but Maria wouldn’t have one. When I discover that Maria is Italian and a paediatric nurse, the myth I had created crumbles. She does seem passionate, but primarily about her job; ‘It’s everything to her’, Joe writes: I can’t discern his tone but assume he feels neglected. I wonder if she reads drafts of his poems; if she feels neglected herself. These jagged words I keep inside me. In my messages, I tell him about my writing, I’m trying to assemble a collection of stories; about Safie (I don’t send photos); about nights out with friends; about articles I have edited. I am creating a portrait of a cultured and popular woman, someone who doesn’t need anyone else in her life. I am aware this is simultaneously to attract him and to protect myself.
Thoughts of sex with Joe circle in my mind like bats. It doesn’t seem possible that it will happen; it doesn’t seem possible that it won’t, after being held in that way in Manchester. The fact that I have to keep him to myself grieves me, but I could confess to no-one. Safie has noticed I’m glued to my phone: I say I’m in regular contact with a group of writers from the retreat.
And then Joe wins first prize in a poetry contest run by a London writing magazine. Want to come to the prize-giving, Juliette? I go straight online to buy a dress.
Alone in a draughty hall, I watch Joe leaning against a lectern and reading his award-winning villanelle. He does so rigidly, and I wonder if he is nervous or just not a good public reader. I want to give him a cuddle. At the end there is polite clapping and he looks relieved, sitting on a chair while the second-prize winner gets up for his turn. I loiter, glass of pricey cheap-tasting wine in hand.
When all the poems have been read, and the competition organiser has given a short speech about this year’s exceptionally high standard of entries from thirty-one countries, all there is to do is drink and eat canapes. I am getting another glass of wine when Joe strides over to me.
‘Oh Joe, congratulations—,’
‘Come back to my hotel, Juliette.’ He takes the wine glass out of my hand, puts it on a table.
I am longing to; I am terrified to. ‘Shouldn’t we get another drink here? Shouldn’t you talk to a few more people?’
‘I only invited you. And I don’t want to talk to anyone else.’
I don’t want to talk to anyone else – I want to live inside those words. We slip away, no-one seeming to notice. Outside, Joe grabs my hand and pulls me around a corner. My body is on fire. We stare at each other and then we are kissing, hungrily, desperately, like teenagers, on and on.
Feeling like a teenager has its upsides and downsides. Life is bright-red, thrilling. Life is painful. The longing for Joe creates an unpleasant tugging in my chest, and has destroyed my sleep. I stop writing romances, possessing no language that will either fence in my own feelings or set them free. I take on fewer editing jobs. Instead I spend hours creating emails to Joe that are erudite, witty, original, sexy, and yet innocuous in case his wife happens upon them. Re-reading one, I recall Gertrude Stein’s words to Hemingway: ‘It’s good… That’s not the question at all. But it is inaccrochable. That means it is like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either.’ All those words, skulking in email inboxes: inaccrochable.
Joe emails frequently: not always every day; he is busy, his agent pestering him for the novel. We speak often, when he is out of the house. We meet twice more: in a hotel in Manchester, in a hotel in London. The sex is good, but it is the intimacy that has hooked me; our words that are the tie. And then we part again and my heart aches more every time. How long this can go on, I don’t know; surely it must change as all things do. Will his wife find out? If she is suspicious, Joe doesn’t mention it. I feel sorry for her, but not enough to stop this.
Then one weekend, the stars are on our side. Safie stays for two nights at her dad’s house; Maria takes the kids to her family in Rome. Joe comes to me from Friday until Sunday. He brings red lilies. I cook a lavish meal, and we drink two bottles of red wine. We tear off each other’s clothes on the living room carpet, watched by the fragile lilies. Afterwards, as I am starting to unmoor into sleep, I feel a shifting and open my eyes to see Joe staring at me.
‘I want to be with you, Juliette. All the time.’
‘Joe, don’t say things like that—’
‘I mean it.’
I stand and move to the window, which has become a dark mirror. It is a windy evening, the trees sounding enraged.
‘If we were together… how about the kids?’
I can’t imagine Joe would want to upset his kids, and I don’t want to be a wicked stepmother. I am in an easier position than him, being divorced, but I can’t bear for my daughter to be hurt again. Safie could be happy for us, but what message does it send her if my relationship breaks up a marriage? I deliberately don’t think about Maria.
‘Our families will understand in time; people are resilient. But I’m not saying it has to happen now. Kirsty will have left home in two years, we can be together then.’
Perhaps it would work. Certainly, I adore Joe. Certainly, I will be lonely when Safie is at university, even though she has been blooming out of reach for the past few years. Then I realise that he hasn’t mentioned coming to London; perhaps he is imagining me moving to Manchester. These are mere details, though; our love story is the most important thing.
All of a sudden, a hole has been rent in the fabric of the world. The virus, the virus, all the news is the virus. Words shoved together for the first time – lockdown, self-isolation, the new normal – become omnipresent and omnipotent.
‘I can’t bear the thought of not seeing you for twelve weeks, Joe,’ I tell him mournfully over the phone. I’m in the garden; he is in his garden office. I wonder how long we can go without being found out in what is repeatedly called an unprecedented time, but don’t want to say that in case he suggests cooling it.
‘It’s a nightmare. Maria is so stressed,’ he says. ‘Scared we’re all going to get the virus; scared the economy will collapse. She sees it first-hand at work, I get it, but it’s driving me and the kids mad.’
I sympathise with Maria, who has been pulled over to work in ICT at Manchester Royal Infirmary. But I don’t want to be drawn into talking about her.
‘How about us?’ I say plaintively, childishly. ‘Everything’s changing.’
‘Juliette, we’ll speak every day,’ Joe says, with a touch of impatience. ‘You’ll see: things will stay the same.’
But things have already changed. My body has a gravity it didn’t before, I am more aware of its vulnerabilities. My dreams are vivid colours, and I am drinking more heavily than I have ever done. Everyone’s life is at a standstill and this is bringing out the best and the worst in people. There are leaflets from people I have never met, offering to shop for anyone in the local area who is unable to get out. But my usually polite, considerate middle-aged neighbours are regularly shouting at each other; I hear them through the wall and over the fence. Safie is always in her bedroom, on Zoom; when she emerges, we frequently shout at each other too.
‘Juliette, did you hear what I said?’ Joe asks.
‘Sorry, darling, the people next door are yelling, I’ll go in a different room.’
‘I’ll go running every evening at six, I’ll call you then. Nothing has to change.’
It is seven in the evening, and I am still beneath the cherry blossom tree, listening to silence. Surely there is no need to worry, I keep telling myself; Joe will have lost or broken his phone, and it will not be an easy task to get it repaired or to acquire a new one. Perhaps it was stolen on his run.
Or, he has the virus. Or Maria is ill, and he is looking after her; or one of his daughters has come down with it. In every phone call, he says how hard it is at home. Maria is stressed; Olivia and Kirsty are unhappy they cannot take the exams they have worked so hard for, or see friends. Joe says how glad he is that I am not being neurotic.
Ten past seven. There are two other possibilities, I consider. Maria knows about us and has demanded Joe end the affair, or he has decided to finish it.
I feel like a half-erased book. If there is nothing left of us, I have to know. I have to know if I have created the idea of his love, if this has been my fiction. But how can I find out? Joe told me not to call or text during lockdown, the virus making Maria paranoid about everything. But in that case, he should have contacted me.
Hi Joe, how are you? Just checking in to make sure you’re well and safe. Juliette.
No-one could be suspicious of something that anodyne. The tick doubles, stays grey. I walk slowly home.
Dinner is made, dinner is eaten. Everything tastes of dust. Safie stares at her tablet during the meal, and I am glad not to have to speak. Afterwards, she goes to her room and I sit at my PC and open my latest story. Yesterday, I was full of enthusiasm for it, keen to talk about it with Joe. Now, the characters seem rigid and lifeless. I close the screen and stare into space. Remember my first conversation with Joe. I have read all of Hemingway’s thoughts on writing since then; what comes to mind now is how he would omit a piece’s real ending to make the reader feel something more than they understand. Is this what Joe is doing? Will I never understand our ending, just feel the pain of it?
No: we have written this story together. I have to believe it will have an end, its lines emerging from nothing, its lovers leaping back to life.
Sam Szanto lives in Twickenham, UK, with her husband and children. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University.
Sam has had a number of stories and poems published, and achieved success in many literary competitions. With her short story ‘125’, she is currently a finalist in the 2020 Literary Taxidermy Competition and will be published in the Regulus Press anthology 124 Beloved, while ‘Ferhana’ was published by Momaya Press in their Short Story Review 2020. ‘Making Memories’ was highly commended in the Michael Terence Publishing Winter Short Story Competition 2019 and published in the anthology The Forgotten. In 2019, she won second prize in the Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition with ‘Letting Go’, published at https://wrekinwriters.wordpress.com/2019/10/01/2019-doris-gooderson-short-story-second-place/. ‘The Yellow Circle’ was shortlisted for the Writers Forum 2020 Competition and ‘The Stranger in My Living Room’ for the 2020 Exeter Literary Festival Short Story Competition. In 2020, she also had stories shortlisted in The Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition and the Pennine Ink Writing Competition and in 2019 in the Henshaw Press December Short Story Competition. Her flash fiction story, ‘The Things that he Gave Me’ was published in Gold Dust magazine.
As a poet, Sam was the winner of both the 2020 Charroux Prize for Poetry with ‘My Son’s Life Story Book’, published at http://www.charrouxlitfest.com/ and the Twelfth First Writers International Poetry Competition with ‘Night-light’, published at https://www.firstwriter.com/competitions/poetry_competition/winners/12thpoetry.shtml and in Issue #25 of First Writer Magazine. She won second prize in the Hammond House International Poetry Competition 2019 with her poem ‘So we will leave before they come with guns’, and is currently shortlisted for the Grist Poetry Prize with ‘Is This How You Stop Them’ and will be published in their anthology Strife in 2021.
Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.