Day 3 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

So, in case you hadn’t guessed, yesterday’s brief was to write truly the worst story ever – I’m hoping that people who saw my effort didn’t think that really was my best work!

Today’s offering follows:

The Importance of Being Honest

“Would you ever lie to me?” I ask.

I’ve always thought that honesty is the most important thing in a relationship – partly because my ex didn’t see things that way at all and seemed to believe it was okay for him to cheat on me as long as I didn’t know about it.

I still remember the gut-wrenching agony I felt when I stumbled across the email he’d left open on his laptop: a lovey-dovey message from a woman named Kath who’d sent him a thousand kisses – yes, I counted every one of them to make sure – and claimed she couldn’t stand being apart from him.

I challenged him, of course: I waited until we were having dinner, just the two of us, and then dropped her name into the conversation ever so casually. He didn’t bat an eyelid: just laughed and made some comment about her being infatuated with him; alleged it was all one-sided. But I knew.

And, once I knew, it was all over. I think she possibly thought I knew more than I did because – when I engineered bumping into her at the gym at just the right time to get chatting – I told her I knew what was going on, even lied and said that Dave had told me it was an affair. By the time she’d incriminated herself – and him – it was too late. I made her give me her phone so I could forward myself all the raunchy text messages he’d sent her. I needed evidence, you see – didn’t want Dave to try to wriggle out of this one.

It was several years later when I met Mark, my current husband. He’d been burned too, just like me; and because we both knew what it was like to be cheated on, we promised each other that we’d always be honest with each other, no matter what. And, so far, that’s worked – until now, that is.

I ask the question again, turning around in front of Mark so he can give me an honest answer. “Do these jeans make me look fat?” I repeat, expecting honesty but wanting something kinder.

Mark doesn’t let me down. “Not fat – they show off your arse, if that’s what you mean.”

It would be far too tacky to ask him whether or not my bum looks big in these jeans; besides, I know what he’s saying is that he loves the sight of my backside and that its size is immaterial.

Mark will always fancy me: I know that as surely as I know that the earth is round or that Teresa May buggered up Brexit; but the reason I’m asking is because I need to know whether or not I’ll pass muster at my upcoming school reunion. Back in the 1990s, I was an awkward, gawky teenager, too self-conscious and shy to attract any attention from boys. Now, just past the big Four-O, I’m far more comfortable in my own skin, actually like the way I look most days. I know I look pretty good compared to most of the people I was at school with too: thanks to Facebook, I know exactly who’s aged well and who hasn’t. The boys, on the whole, are a sorry looking crowd: mostly bald, or overweight, or both; but the girls seem to have invested more time and effort into their appearance, sporting a range of almost natural looking hair colours and make up that just escapes being tarty. I’ve chatted to a few of them on Messenger, ever since Paula set up this reunion page, and realised that we’ve all mellowed and matured with the passing of years so that I now find the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality of ‘cool kids’ and ‘geeks’ no longer exists. Instead, we are bound together by age and era, products of a pre-internet time when children ‘played out’ and a phone was something fixed to the wall in your parents’ house.

*

Twenty-four hours later and the reunion is in full swing. I’ve travelled almost a hundred miles to be here and initially it’s terrifying as I nervously make my way into the cricket club to face crowds of strangers I haven’t seen for twenty-six years.

Luckily, Julie’s by the bar, sipping away at a bottle of cider. We’ve chatted a lot on Facebook recently, both of us commiserating with each other over dead-loss exes and the highs and lows of parenthood. She was always a hefty girl at school and she’s still plump now, but she gives me a massive grin when she sees me and hugs me as if I’m some long-lost relative and not someone who just happened to sit on the same table as her for art lessons all those years ago.

Behind her, Alison and Rosie are catching up on current jobs and partners; and, over in the corner, a group of middle-aged men – who used to be the boys in my year group – are discussing football. (What else?)

I’m just about to order an orange juice when a voice at my shoulder makes me spin round. “Good to see you, Deb. Can I get you a drink?”

Paul Johnson was my first crush, way, way back in Year Seven. My longing for him was hopelessly unrequited: he was already going out with Joanne Stansfield and she had long dark hair and curves whilst I was just a little girl with short hair and skinny legs. After Joanne, he upgraded to Louise Benson and they were pretty much inseparable for the rest of our time at school. I used to think about him from time to time and wonder if the two of them had got married; there’s a ring on his finger now, but I don’t want to look too nosy, so I decide not to ask.

Paul repeats his question. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Just an orange juice, thanks,” I reply absently, cognisant of the fact that I’ll be staying with my teetotal mother tonight and she won’t appreciate it if I roll up drunk or even the least little bit tiddly.

Paul hands me a glass a moment later and I take a deep draught before I realise there’s something else in there besides orange juice. “Is that vodka?” I ask, wondering what he’s playing at.

He gives me an unapologetic grin. “I thought it might bring back a few memories of all those parties in Year Eleven.”

Perhaps he remembers those parties, but I certainly don’t: I was never cool enough to be invited to one of them.

Slightly flustered, I sip my drink, realising that, unlike most of his friends, Paul’s not fallen prey to the same ravages of time. He still has hair, for one thing; and although there’s a slight suggestion of the onset of a middle-aged paunch, he’s aged well for a man in his early forties.

“You’re looking good for your age,” I say lightly.

He regards me hungrily. “So are you.”

Our eyes meet and something imperceptible passes between us. That’s when I know: Paul Johnson, the object of my schoolgirl infatuation, likes what he sees. And I’m damned if I’m going to pass up the opportunity.

*

We spend most of the evening glued to each other’s sides. Paul buys me drink after drink – by now, I’ve stopped telling myself that I’m not going to drink any alcohol and I’m ordering white wine spritzers as if there’s no tomorrow. I’m not going to do anything stupid, I reason with myself: I’m just going to rewrite history a little, give my ego a bit of a boost by flirting with a guy who used to be one of the most popular boys in the school.

It’s ten o’clock and the room we’d booked at the Cricket Club is now officially closed. Paul looks at me. “We’re going to see if any of the old nightclubs are open,” he says. “Are you up for it?”

I can’t believe that I’m actually getting to hang out with the cool kids. It’s not just Paul, but Simon Jones, Martin Foster, Laura Smith and Helen Anderson, all six of us piling illegally into a single taxi that will carry us into the town centre in search of our lost adolescence. When the taxi driver grumbles that the car isn’t big enough to take us all, Paul pulls me onto his knee. His hand on my waist feels strangely exciting, although I can’t decide whether that’s the alcohol or something else making me feel that way.

We reach the centre and tumble out of the cab, laughing and joking as we push our way inside a cramped, dark venue. “I thought this was the Post Office!” I remark with surprise.

Laura lets out a laugh. “Twenty years ago, maybe! They’ve been doing Old School Disco Nights here for ages.”

As we dance to the almost-forgotten tunes of Pulp, Britney Spears and The Spice Girls, the tension that’s been hanging in the air between Paul and me seems to thicken, wrapping itself around us as if urging us together. A half-formed thought at the back of my mind reminds me of Mark, my gentle, patient husband, and of Lisa, Paul’s equally unwitting wife. It’s not that I want to be unfaithful, you understand; it’s just that the combination of wine and nostalgia are taking their effect on all of us. Even as I gaze about me, while Paul holds me close in the swaying rhythm of the music, I can see Simon and Laura enveloped around each other, and Martin and Helen kissing like a couple of teenagers.

But we’re not teenagers any more: we’re past forty and we can’t party all night the way the others used to. Paul looks at me and sighs. “I suppose we’d better make a move.”

We extricate ourselves from the dance floor, leaving the club without any remorse. Martin and Helen disappear into a taxi together and I feel a sudden pang of regret: I know she’s single, but Martin spent quite a bit of time telling me about his wife and his teenage sons. I only hope they know what they’re doing.

I check my purse and I’ve no change left for a taxi of my own. Mum’s house is only half a mile away though, so I reckon I’ll be okay walking – even if it is way past midnight.

“I’ll see you around, then,” I tell Paul as I prepare to wend my way home.

“You’re not walking, are you?” He looks shocked.

“Don’t worry – I promise not to mug anyone,” I giggle; but he frowns and insists on walking with me.

For a while, we walk in silence, unspoken desire hovering around us like moths. I know nothing can happen, and I’m okay with that: I’m going back to my mum’s house; he’s going back to his parents’ – it’s as if we’re still teenagers and he’s walking me home at the end of a date.

We reach the end of my road and I turn to face him. “Thanks for tonight,” I say sincerely. “I had a really good time.”

He bends and kisses me: a friendly kiss goodbye that rapidly deepens into something much more meaningful. My heart flutters; my legs feel weak. This is everything I ever wanted when I was fourteen, fifteen; and now I’m a grown-up, it’s no longer enough.

When he finally releases me, I feel emotionally bruised. I’ve just kissed a man who isn’t my husband – and I enjoyed it; far too much.

“We should have done this years ago,” Paul says, looking as sad as I feel.

And I know that somehow he’ll convince himself that he always had a thing for me in high school, that this one kiss was something he’d always dreamed of, just like I dreamed of kissing him. He’ll tell himself that because it’s easier than the truth: that we betrayed our partners because of wine and whimsy.

I creep back into Mum’s house, feeling slightly ashamed. It’s almost 2am but she doesn’t stir. Silently, I undress in the bedroom that used to be my own, crawl into bed and then lie awake for hours, wondering what I’ll  tell Mark.

*

It’s almost nine by the time I wake up. Automatically, I reach for my phone and click on the Facebook app. There are plenty of photos of the reunion, including some from the nightclub as well. I gaze at a photo of Paul holding me close and think, for just a brief moment, of what might have been. Then I add a comment to the group photo of the Class of ’93: “Did anyone else feel like a teenager all over again, sneaking into their parents’ house at 2am and trying not to sound drunk?”

There’s a message from Paul flashing up on my screen. “Finally up, are you?” Followed by, “I stopped off for a kebab on the way home after leaving you. Big mistake.”

Does he mean the kebab or the kiss?

*

It’s midday before I feel able to get behind the wheel for the two hours’ drive back to Surrey. On the journey, I’m quiet and subdued. I can’t tell Mark about the kiss: he’d feel betrayed. That’s when I realise that honesty isn’t the most important thing in a relationship: it’s trust.

Myriad clichés assault my mind as I drive: ‘What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over’; ‘Ignorance is bliss’; and, finally, ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’. I know I’m making excuses, trying to fool myself that it’s better to hide the truth; but if I confess, will it really do any good? Isn’t it far more likely that Mark will think something far worse happened and that I’m lying if I claim it was ‘just’ a kiss?

*

By the time I reach home, I have a killer headache. (Or is it a hangover?) Mark greets me at the door, wearing a pink crown and with sparkly glitter on his cheeks. It looks like he’s been keeping our six-year-old entertained whilst I’ve been off having extra-marital clinches with former high school hunks. Guilt compounds my migraine, making me wish I could crawl into bed and stay there for a week, but instead I have laundry to do and a kitchen to clean – anything that will take my mind off Paul and the way I’ve messed up my marriage.

By five thirty, I’m dead on my feet. Mark touches me on the shoulder. “Why don’t you go and have a soak in the bath?” he suggests. “I’ll sort out food; you just relax.”

*

Lying in warm soapy suds for the best part of an hour makes me feel much better. When you think about it, I haven’t really done anything wrong. It’s not as if I slept with the guy, for heaven’s sake! It was just one little kiss.

But then I think how I’d feel if Mark was the one who’d been kissing someone else behind my back. Should I tell? Would I be happier not knowing myself?

Wrapped in a towel, I make my way into the bedroom. There on the bedside table is my phone – I put it there to charge before I stepped into the bath. I thought I’d left it on screensaver, but instead it’s showing Paul’s most recent message: “Last night was pretty special.” Winky face.

Mark’s sitting on the bed, staring at the walls, deliberately not looking at me. Without him saying anything, I know he’s seen the message.

“Mark,” I begin, slowly, hesitantly, but he cuts me short.

“Would you ever lie to me, Deb?”

And that’s when I finally tell him the truth.

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