Nobody, Jess thinks morosely, should be forced to sit in a car with the boy you’d had a crush on in high school and his wife – especially when the three of you were going to a funeral.
Even now, she can’t quite believe how this had all happened. She’d planned the day meticulously: leave at nine, drive a hundred miles to the venue, arrive in plenty of time to park and get a good seat in the church, leave at three, straight after the buffet and back in time to watch the next episode of that new thriller she’d been getting into. That was before she’d realised that her car wouldn’t start. She’d rung her mother in desperation, hoping to borrow her car for the day, only to find that Lily had plans of her own – plans that could not be executed without a set of wheels.
“Why don’t you try that nice couple on your road?” her mother had suggested brightly. “He seemed ever so charming when I called round last week. You were at school together, weren’t you? Isn’t he going to the funeral?”
From his position at the wheel, Robin turns his head slightly. “You sure you’re okay on your own in the back? Maggie can swap seats if you like.”
“I’m fine, thanks.” Her guilt is keeping her company for the time being.
“It’s a good job I gave your mother that business card the other week,” Robin continues chattily, “or she wouldn’t have been able to let me know you needed a lift.”
Maggie looks less enthused than her husband by this.
“It was really kind of you to offer,” Jess says desperately. Please stop talking, Robin, her mind begs.
Meanwhile, Maggie adjusts the volume on the car radio. The sound of synthetic pop blasts out of the speakers, surrounding the three of them in lyrics that are almost more painful than the previous silence.
A week earlier.
“I didn’t expect you to call round today,” Jess said, greeting her mother with a hug as she entered.
“I’ve been baking,” Lily explained. She deposited a Tupperware container on the kitchen counter. “I didn’t know you had company,” she said as her eyes flicked over Robin.
“I live down the street,” Robin explained, offering his hand. “My wife and I moved in about a month ago. It’s a small world – Jess and I were at high school together.”
Lily’s face fell at the mention of a wife. Jess knew that her mother had been viewing Robin as a potential son-in-law and felt irrationally irritated. There was nothing wrong in being a single woman in your thirties.
“So, Robin, what do you do?”
“I’m in insurance,” he said, handing her a card. “In fact, I was just talking to Jess about getting her a better deal than her current policy.”
Lily beamed. “That’s what good neighbours are for,” she said happily. “Now, Jess, what about a cup of tea?”
They’ve been driving for almost forty minutes when the snow starts: great, feathery flakes that settle on the windscreen, nudging the automatic wipers into a frenzy of activity. Robin swears. “Can’t see a bloody thing!” he complains.
“Didn’t you check the weather forecast before setting off?” Maggie’s voice sounds brittle, as if Robin’s inadequacy as a husband runs to many volumes.
“We’ll be fine,” he assures her.
Maggie taps away at her smartphone. “The M6 is completely blocked from the next junction,” she reports. “We could be stuck in traffic for hours.”
Robin swears again. “Sorry,” he says a moment later. Jess wonders who his apology is meant for.
“That’s it, then,” Maggie says as the car grinds to a standstill only minutes later. Vehicles surround them on every side and the snow continues to fall. Jess looks at the blizzard outside – but it isn’t the snow that’s making her feel trapped.
Six weeks earlier.
“Jessica? Jessica Landry?”
Jess spun round at the sound of her name. A good-looking man in his mid-thirties was staring at her across the vegetable aisle.
“It’s me, Robin. Robin Brookes.”
Her old high school crush. She’d fallen for him at the age of twelve and loved him hopelessly for the next four and a half years, but he’d never known she existed.
“What are you doing here?” she asked stupidly.
He waved a hand at the produce. “Shopping?”
“No, I mean here, in Little Chidford. I thought you lived further north these days.”
“Been stalking me on Facebook, have you?” he teased.
She blushed, unwilling to admit that he’d guessed right. Well, not stalking exactly, but from time to time, she’d clicked on his name, just to see what he was up to.
“I moved back recently,” he told her. “Grant and Foster gave me a promotion. I’m back where I started, but this time, I’m running the office.”
“Congratulations,” she said automatically, noting that his eyes had been undressing her since he’d said hello.
“You look good,” he said softly; and that was how it all started.
They’ve been sitting there for close on an hour now, the tension in the car almost unbearable. To begin with, Maggie had sniped at Robin, blaming him for this fiasco. She didn’t go as far as claiming he’d caused the weather, but she found fault with just about everything else he’d done – not just today but within ten years of marriage.
“If you’d checked the weather before setting off – like I told you to …” and
“This is just typical of you Robin: I ask and ask, and you always promise to do things, but they never get done.”
Now she looks at her husband, her face etched in hatred. “I don’t know why we’re even going to this funeral. You’ve never mentioned this guy before. Oh, wait a minute – you didn’t ask me to go, did you? Well, I know exactly what goes on every time you go away ‘on your own’. There’s always some tart involved …”
“Maggie!” Robin pleads whilst Jess sits there uncomfortably, “You’re embarrassing Jess.”
“Am I, Jessica?” Maggie demands. “Am I embarrassing you by talking about my husband’s infidelity?”
”I …” Jess begins.
“Or would you prefer me to come straight out with it and ask you when you started sleeping with him?”
Five weeks earlier.
Jess stared at her phone screen. “Maggie says would you like to come for dinner?”
She should never have given Robin her mobile number, but she’d been blindsided by seeing him so unexpectedly – in her local supermarket of all places; so when he’d asked, she’d acquiesced, telling herself it was all fairly innocent – after all, he was married.
She hadn’t expected him to contact her immediately for ‘coffee and a catch up’, but she’d gone anyway, despite his wife, because he was Robin Brookes and she’d had a crush on him for years at school. It seemed poetic justice, somehow, to let him lust after her for a change, knowing that nothing would ever happen.
They’d flirted with each other of course, but it hadn’t gone any further. She wasn’t a marriage wrecker – it was just nice to know a man found you attractive.
Now she stared at the text, wondering how to reply. Did she really want to meet Maggie? She’d seen her rival on Facebook: she was a dark-haired woman who was slightly overweight and had a rather long-suffering expression. But it would be the grown-up thing to accept, wouldn’t it? And it would certainly make sure that nothing untoward happened with her and Robin.
Jess stares at Maggie in shock.
“I beg your pardon?” she says at last.
“Oh, don’t play the innocent with me!” Maggie snarls as Robin simultaneously bursts out with, “Maggie! How can you say something like that?”
“Well?” Maggie stares pointedly at Jess.
Jess says nothing.
“I’ve seen the texts,” Maggie continues, her voice ominously quiet. “There aren’t any names, of course, but I know he sent them to you. The number’s the same as the message you sent me a few weeks ago. The one that thanked me for inviting you over for dinner.”
Jess inwardly curses herself for her good manners.
“It’s not what you think,” Robin begins nervously. “I admit we’ve been messaging each other and some of the texts have been a bit flirty, but …”
“A bit flirty?” Maggie sounds as if she can’t believe what she’s just heard. “Let’s just have a listen to some of them, shall we?” She begins reading in a detached tone. “Every time I think of you, I find a smile on my face. Just the memory of being inside you is making me hard again.”
Robin’s face freezes with horror. Jess buries her head in her hands.
Four weeks earlier.
“More wine, Jess?” Robin topped up her glass liberally before doing the same to his own.
“Robin!” Maggie’s voice was harsh and shrill. “You’ve got a long drive tomorrow. Don’t overdo it now.”
“Where are you off to?” Jess asked, although she already knew.
“I’ve got a conference in Brighton.” He was avoiding her gaze and she knew why. “It happens around this time every year, but now I’m heading up the office, I’m expected to give a presentation. It’s going to be hell.”
“In the past, you’ve taken me with you.” Maggie sounded aggrieved.
“In the past, I haven’t had to sit up until silly o’clock making sure my speech is okay,” he told her. “You know I’d take you with me if I could.”
“I suppose I’d better be going.” Jess got to her feet. “If you’ve got to be up early tomorrow …” Her words tailed off. “Thanks for a lovely meal, Maggie,” she added as Robin rose with her.
“I’ll walk you back to your front door,” he said. “Might clear my head a bit. That okay with you, Maggie?”
His wife grunted. “I’ll tidy up on my own, then, shall I?” she said pointedly.
“I’ll load the dishwasher when I get back,” he promised. “You ready, Jess?”
“You weren’t the first, you know.” Maggie’s voice sounds weary, as if this is a speech she has made many times over. Perhaps she has.
Robin’s hands grip the steering wheel as he stares straight ahead. Outsides, flakes continue to whirl and swirl. Maggie’s accusations flutter in synchronicity.
“The first one I knew about was the night before our second wedding anniversary. You remember, don’t you, Robin? That was another ‘conference’, but it wasn’t Brighton that time, was it?”
At this moment, Jess wishes desperately that she was anywhere else but in this car. She’s sure the temperature would be warmer outside, away from the biting cold of Maggie’s allegations. Are they still allegations if they’re true? She wants to rewrite the past, to go back in time and do things differently; but she can’t.
Four weeks earlier.
The stars were out, the air crisp and cold as the two of them strolled along, awkwardness keeping them a respectable distance apart.
Robin spoke first. “Well, have you thought about it?”
“You’re a married man,” Jess said automatically. “I can’t.”
They had reached her front door.
“You know I always fancied you at school,” he said softly, turning towards her under the light of the nearby lamp post.
She thought this unlikely: Robin had been out with some of the most popular girls in their year group, at a time when Jess had been just a little girl with braces and skinny legs. He was rewriting history to make it tie in with the present.
Nevertheless, when his lips met hers, she didn’t pull away.
“I caught him in the act.” Maggie’s voice is unnaturally calm, as if she’s reciting a shopping list and not a catalogue of infidelity. She corrects herself. “Well, not quite in the act. You were just zipping up your trousers, weren’t you?”
Robin doesn’t try to defend himself.
“And then we went home together as if nothing was wrong, and I asked you whether this was the first time, and you told me about the others. And I forgave you because I still loved you then.”
Then. Not now. Robin had told her that the spark had gone out of the marriage, but Jess has a feeling she knows whose fault it is that their relationship’s colder than snow.
Four weeks earlier.
“Come with me to Brighton.”
Their kiss was over, and she was still reeling from its potency.
“Please,” he begged. “I’ve wanted you since I saw you in the vegetable aisle.”
And she’d wanted him since the age of twelve. Their schooldays were a lifetime ago, but she finally had the chance to be one of the cool kids and be with the boy she’d dreamed about for years.
“I’m not going to sleep with you,” she warned.
But she did.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m still with him,” Maggie continues bitterly. “Anyone else would have divorced him for adultery years ago.”
Jess realises Maggie is right. Her marriage died years ago, so why is she still clinging on to the corpse?
Three weeks earlier.
“We can’t keep on doing this,” she said as he started unbuttoning her blouse. “It’s not fair on Maggie.”
“It’s not a proper marriage,” he told her, sliding her skirt down over her hips. “There’s no spark anymore. But the first time I kissed you, it was electric.”
So far, neither of them had used the L word. Robin wanted her; he needed her; he couldn’t get enough of her – but they’d never tried to disguise their adultery by pretending it was anything more than a sordid little affair.
Later, as they lay still in the afterglow of a very strenuous session, she broached the subject again. “I mean it, Robin. I feel guilty every time I think about Maggie.”
“Then don’t think about her,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “I don’t – when I’m with you.”
“I told him eighteen month ago that it was over.” Maggie’s staring straight ahead: like her husband, she’s gazing through the windscreen, seeing nothing. “I got as far as seeing a solicitor, and then Robin begged me not to go through with it. He said I was the only woman he’d ever loved, that all the rest were just stupid mistakes.” Her voice cracks before she continues. “Three weeks later, I found a text from another woman on his phone.”
Jess finds her heart lurching in sympathy. It’s no wonder the spark’s gone, she thinks now, finally seeing Robin for what he truly is. He’s a serial adulterer: a man with an Everest complex. (“Why did you sleep with her, Robin?” “Because she was there.”)
A week earlier.
“We can’t do this again,” Jess said, watching as Robin pulled on his trousers and began slowly buttoning his shirt.
By way of response, he sat down on the bed and looked into her eyes. “We should have done this years ago,” he said. “I could have married you instead of Maggie.”
But his voice sounded insincere in the wake of all of the adulterous excitement.
“We’re not a proper couple, Robin. You’re with Maggie; and I’m …”
“Alone?” he finished.
“Ending it,” she said.
“Do you know what the really stupid thing is?” Maggie doesn’t wait for a reply to her question. “In his own way, I think he does love me. It’s just that ‘fidelity’ isn’t part of his vocabulary.”
“Maggie …” The raw pain in Robin’s voice is unmistakeable.
“And that’s the tragedy,” she continues, still in the same flat voice. “He loves me, but all I can feel now is indifference. I know he’ll never be faithful, but I just don’t care anymore. I’m too old to start again, so I may as well stay put – at least that way I’m financially secure. And we don’t have children, so that’s one less thing to worry about.”
A single tear rolls down Jess’s cheek. It’s better being on her own, she thinks, than being locked inside a relationship as miserable as this.
A week earlier.
“You’re not serious,” he said. “What we have together is –“
“Wrong.” She opened the bedroom door and ushered him downstairs. “I can’t do this anymore, Robin. All this sneaking about and having sex in secret. I don’t like who I am at the moment. That’s why it has to stop.”
“You’ll always be very special, you know that,” he said softly as he sat down at the kitchen table and started to put his shoes back on.
But not special enough, she thought sadly, knowing he would never leave his wife; knowing she would never want him to. They’d both been chasing a dream – trying to recapture lost youth – and now it was time to be grown-ups once more.
“We can’t see each other again,” she said.
And then the doorbell rang.
Jess opens the car door. A blast of icy air enters but she welcomes its chilly embrace. She doesn’t deserve to be sitting in the car, an awkward third person in another couple’s relationship. It’s not her fault that Robin strayed: if she hadn’t said yes, he would have found someone else in Brighton; she knew that at the time; but she’s certainly not an innocent party in all of this.
She half expects Robin or Maggie to call her back, to ask her where she’s going; but they seem unaware of her departure, too busy exhuming the hurt of a marriage that was buried long ago. Maybe they’ll be able to piece something back together: it depends how much they both want it.
As for herself … Jess is alone again, a single, solitary snowflake caught up in the blizzard of life. She catches one of the crystalline shapes on her sleeve, admiring its beauty, then lets it slowly melt.