‘If our husbands die before us,’ Jude says. Uncorking a bottle of wine as we sit down to our egg-and-tuna sandwiches in the middle of an incoming storm.
‘Of course if. I am not suggesting we murder them,’ she says gaily. ‘I’m just saying if they happen to die before us, you and I should set up house together.’
I am too busy eating to respond right away. Jude makes the best sandwiches. The wind is cold here on the deck. We’re wearing scarves and coats. Distant black clouds are tumbling our way, but for now the sun holds its own, warming us whenever the wind catches its breath.
‘It’s nice of you to say,’ I tell her. Jude is wolfing down her food and I know in a minute she will get up and fetch more. Yet she is skinny, with long legs and a boyish chest. I have always been on the heavy side, and now, twelve years after having Beth and ten after Georgia, I am bigger than I have ever been, with a body I neither recognise nor like.
‘We should,’ I say after a while. My fingers are stiff holding the glass and I can feel my cheeks burning, though whether it’s from the sun or cold I can’t say.
I think about Vincent back home with the girls. It’s been a week now since I found the texts on his phone and found out about the affair. Seven days of wondering what I am going to do and how I am going to survive. Seven days of trying to get on with the girls as though nothing is the matter. The trip with Jude was planned long ago and so I went. It was a means of getting out of the house for two nights.
Jude doesn’t know.
‘Most people drive me crazy,’ she says, with a frown on her face. She is forty-two, just three years older than me, with short black hair. She has the careless elegance that comes with having money.
I wrap my scarf tightly around my neck. Jude gets up, disappears into the house for a few minutes and returns with another sandwich.
‘Yesterday I was getting a coffee on my way to work, the guy who took my order managed to irritate me and all he did was ask me how the new job was going,’ she says.
‘How does he know about that?’ I ask.
‘Oh you know.’ Jude looks shifty all of a sudden.
‘No I don’t know. Do you fancy this guy?’ I ask.
‘Of course I don’t fancy him. Do you think I’d lust after a guy who works out at the gym every day of the week and whose idea of reading is to have girlie magazines on his bedside table?’
‘Sounds to me like you know a lot about him too.’
‘What I was trying to say, May, is that I seem to get grumpy very easily these days. I can’t be bothered socialising. I like my own company. With you I don’t get quite so irascible.’ She glances at me. ‘Except for now, that is.’
Jude’s husband is ten years older than her and they have no children. She says it simply didn’t happen. I have trouble understanding the randomness of this. Everything in my life has been carefully mapped. I always consider the ramifications, I am always prepared. Obviously, I wasn’t prepared for the latest events in my life. The girl is barely twenty-one, she babysits for us. She looks anaemic and bites her nails. What does Vincent see in her?
‘Might be time to go inside soon,’ Jude says, looking up at the sky. It’s as though someone has pulled a sheet over the sun. I feel my eyes clouding over, and brush my fingers against them. Jude peers at me, thoughtful. ‘You OK?’
‘Yes, sure. Come on then,’ I say, and move past her into the cabin.
The place where Jude and I are staying is two hours’ drive from the city. The cabin is a hundred metres from the beach. From our living area, you can’t quite see the ocean. There are six cabins here and this weekend only one other is occupied, by a family with four children. Looking out the window, I can see a couple of the younger children running down the sandy path that goes in a straight line from the cabins to the beach tucked behind the dunes. Their backyard is filled with the usual paraphernalia, balls, scooters, toys. I can remember when it was that way for Vincent and me. The endless preparations before each trip that made us wonder whether it was worth going at all.
After lunch, we clear the dishes and finish our wine in the kitchen. Jude does the dishes and I put away the remains of the tuna, throw the eggshells into the bin. I put the kettle on for coffee.
Since they were born, the girls have spent most of their time with me. Vincent always travelled a great deal. Six months ago, I started going away for the weekend with Jude, once every six weeks. It seemed a fair exchange. At first, I fretted about leaving the girls. But I got used to it and so did they. By the time I head out the door they have already forgotten me, they’re either sitting on the floor arguing over what music to listen to, or fighting for the Playstation controls. They compete for Vincent’s attention and he is flattered.
‘Fancy a game of Scrabble?’ Jude asks. We sit with the board between us, coffees in hand. I can hear the wind lashing at the walls and at the roof. We drink our coffees and listen to Johnny Cash singing about Hurt. It’s Jude’s turn and she dwells on her letters, muttering, ‘There is surely a seven-letter word here, Christ, why does my brain refuse to function!’ and I meanwhile make a list in my head of all the words I know that have the letter z. For once I would like to put down a word other than zit.
‘A-ha!’ cries Jude, and she sets her word on the board with a smug look on her face. I turn my head sideways to see what she has put down. Thicket, on a double-word score.
‘Great. Well done.’ Jude has had a streak of good fortune lately. She got a job she really wanted, as creative director for a small, successful advertising company. She and Ted are going to the Maldives next month.
‘What prompted it?’ I asked, when she told me a few weeks ago.
She shrugged her shoulders.
‘He complains we never spend any time together. And it’s true. We don’t even sleep in the same room, because we keep each other awake. He snores, I kick.’
I think about how upset I get if Vincent so much as suggests staying up to watch a TV show without me.
‘So the Maldives next month?’ I say, putting the word zit down because all of a sudden I can’t be bothered trying to think of a better word. The z is on a triple letter score at least.
‘Zit. Classy,’ Jude says, writing down my score. ‘Yeah, the Maldives. Only get this, Ted’s mates are coming with us. You know, the lawyer and his girlfriend with the big jugs.’
‘How did that happen?’
‘Just did. What’s that word that means someone who doesn’t have a clue?’
‘No the other one.’
‘Thick? How about clueless.’
‘Never mind.’ She puts the word ‘space’ down, adding her ‘s’ to my ‘zit’ to make it plural, and looks at me.
‘I don’t really care whether we go to the Maldives or not, to be honest. I just can’t be bothered. I’d rather be home catching up on sleep. I’m knackered.’ Jude has always worked long hours and claimed the job demands it.
In the end I win at Scrabble as I always do. We put the game away and sit for a while with our books, facing each other. Jude’s latest love affair is with David Mitchell. She says Ghostwritten is the best book she has read in years. I don’t always share her tastes but I like her house with its shelves packed tight with books. While Jude sits enthralled by Mitchell’s new novel, I am halfway through Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, which I am attempting to read for the third time.
‘Why do you bother? There are so many books you could be reading instead.’ Jude said this to me the last time she saw me with the book, and now when I pick it up to read she snorts.
‘What a masochist you are.’
‘I don’t think I’ve given it a proper try,’ I tell her as I did the last time.
‘If we end up living together, we’ll need plenty of shelves,’ Jude says after a few minutes. When I look up I realise, with a shock, that my face is wet.
‘Are you going to tell me what is bothering you?’ Jude asks.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to have deep and meaningful conversations about what may or may not be bothering me. If that’s not too much to ask.’
Jude is looking towards the window behind me, avoiding my eyes.
‘Good. Thank you.’
‘I’m just worried about you.’
‘I know you mean well but really.’
Jude glances at me with a look that says she knows. Has always known, in fact, and understood, the way things are for me.
The place we are in is functional but cosy. There is a log fire in the living room. It is restful, being in a place with just enough things to get by. The only disorder is what we have brought with us, our books and CDs, our clothes. On the wall there is a painting of the view as seen from our window. The undulating dunes and the straight path cutting through them. Seagulls floating above the horizon.
‘You know, when Ted told me those friends of his were coming on this trip, I couldn’t believe it,’ Jude says, as she gets up to fetch biscuits from the cupboard. ‘I meant what I said, I don’t really feel like going at all, but when he told me –’ she laughs, sounding surprised, and shakes her head. ‘I don’t know why we bother, sometimes.’
Jude places the biscuits on the table and pretends not to notice my blotchy face. I blow my nose while she heads to the bathroom. When she opens the door to the hallway the air is suddenly cold and I can hear the wind, beating at the front door.
‘I may end up staying, and let him go with his buddies,’ she calls from the corridor.
Sitting here in the stillness and quiet that is the opposite of the mess I have left behind, I can see quite clearly that it isn’t going to be possible for me to go back. Not right now. I am thinking of Jude possibly cancelling her trip to the Maldives, and I feel so relieved that suddenly I am almost happy.
‘If one day we are widows together,’ I call out to her. ‘This is what I want. A place by the sea.’
‘Done,’ she says, buttoning up her trousers on her way back.
We read for a while longer, and I think of the girls and whether they would like to come to this place with me sometime, or another like it. They are at an age where they would still rather be near us than with their school friends. Sometimes it gets to me, the way they shadow Vincent and me and want to know what we are talking about. I find myself getting irritated. Yet I should be treasuring the cloying nature of their love. Soon they will grow secretive, distant.
I sit back in my armchair with my feet tucked under me, wishing for a moment that I could stay here forever, with my back to the world, with just these four walls and what they hold to contend with. I hold my eyes to the blazing fire. Jude keeps it going. She throws a log into the flames and steps past me to the window.
‘Perhaps I do fancy that fellow at the coffee shop, just a little,’ she sighs. I laugh and poke at her hip as she walks past.
Tonight we will go to sleep in our separate rooms and wake up to good weather, bad weather, who knows, and it doesn’t matter in the least. Together, we are on an even keel.
‘I don’t believe it,’ Jude says. ‘Look.’
Outside the black clouds have rolled right past us and the sky is untroubled. When Jude flings the door open, I can hear children laughing and the rasping breath of the sea. Jude picks her coat up from a chair and heads out the door, then turns to look back at me.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I follow her.