Six o’clock. The minute finger on the ornate clock above the door juddered and jerked into position. Her eyes were fixed on the door. It opened, and he came in, beaming, with a look of happy expectation that she hadn’t seen on his face for a long time. He glanced around the room and she drew back into her alcove, out of his line of vision. She watched him as he stepped forward between the tables, still beaming, drawn like a magnet towards a table on the other side of the room where sat a young woman, whose expression mirrored his. She half stood up to greet him as he gave her a hug and a kiss, then sat down beside her on the curved bench behind the table. They looked at each other again and smiled, ignoring the rest of the world and its business, sealed together in a rosy bubble on the far side of the restaurant.
She allowed them a minute or two to enjoy their bubble, then she rose and made her way across the room as if she were heading for the Ladies’ Room. When she arrived at their table, she stopped suddenly, as if seeing them for the first time, and exclaimed, “Well, well, fancy seeing YOU here!” with a smile directed at the man. He looked up, startled, speechless.
“What a coincidence!” she continued, pulling out the chair nearest to her and seating herself at their table. “Aren’t you going to introduce us, Tom?”
Through gritted teeth Tom mumbled, “Isabel, Tiffany.” His face told her she was unwelcome, but she ignored the signs.
“Tiffany – like the lamps,” she said, and smiled again to remove any sting the girl might have felt. Because she was a girl, Isabel could see that now. Pretty, fresh and guileless, she guessed.
The waiter approached and hovered beside Tom.
“I’ll have a G&T please,” said Isabel, turning towards Tiffany. “What about you?”
“Er – yes, same for me,” nodded Tiffany.
“And you, sir?” asked the waiter. Tom was glaring at Isabel. “Oh, a – a lager,” he snarled.
Then, to Isabel, “Aren’t you on your way somewhere?”
She laughed. “Actually, no. I have plenty of time,”
She could almost hear his teeth gnashing. Strange expression, she thought, I don’t think I ever heard anyone gnashing their teeth before.
She turned a friendly face towards Tiffany.
“And what do you do, Tiffany?” She almost added, “Are you a student?” but bit her tongue. No point in antagonizing the girl.
“Marine biology,” Tiffany told her.
“Sounds fascinating. Any particular branch?”
Appropriate, thought Isabel. She shot a look at Tom. Aloud, she said, “Really? Does that involve swimming with them?”
Tom looked at his watch. Their drinks arrived.
“So how do you know Tom? The only sharks he deals with are at the office.”
“Oh, we met at a conference a few months ago.”
Isabel nodded. That explained a lot.
“What about you? What do you do?” asked Tiffany, raising her glass to Isabel who responded in kind.
Isabel’s smile widened. “Children’s stories mostly,” she said. “Fiction.”
Tiffany smiled back. “That must be fun,” she commented, “I wouldn’t know where to start, where to get the ideas I mean.”
“Oh,” said Isabel, “Ideas come from all over – in fact, you have just given me an idea with your sharks. You’ll have to read it when it’s finished.”
Tom was looking grimmer by the moment, and Isabel decided she had said and done enough. She drained her glass, put it down carefully on the table and winked at him.
“Must be off,” she said. “This is a story crying out to be written down, must go and do it before I forget. Much better than Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.”
She rose and left the restaurant without a backward glance, but as she went she heard Tiffany say, “What a nice woman. Who is she?” and Tom answered: “Someone I’ve known a long time,”
Outside on the pavement she realized she was shaking. The adrenaline was subsiding and she felt weak, even a bit faint. She found her car and sat in the driver’s seat for a long while before she felt able to concentrate on driving. How had she managed to stay calm and bright, breathing evenly and exuding charm, when she felt she was drowning?
He had phoned her that morning to say he would be working late, and that had confirmed it. The piece of paper that had fallen from his pocket said only “T – 6pm – The Regency” but bore no date. When he phoned, she knew it would be today, so she had gone to The Regency at a quarter to six, to discover whether her suspicions were justified. Now she knew.
At home, she paid the babysitter and put the children to bed. Then she went straight to the master bedroom and filled three big suitcases with all Tom’s clothes and personal belongings. As a final touch, she took his dirty underwear and shirts from the laundry basket and added them to the contents of the suitcases. She put the cases outside the front door, which she locked, leaving the key half turned in the lock. She made sure the key was also in the lock of the back door, and the door to the garage.
The children were fast asleep by this time. She poured herself a glass of red wine and sat quietly in the lounge, suddenly very tired, but unable to relax. Her ears were alert for the sound of the car tyres crunching on the gravel of the drive. Yes, there it was. He was back. She tensed as she heard his key in the lock, unable to turn. He knocked on the door. She ignored him. He called out, “Isabel, open the door. Let me in!” She ignored him. He knocked harder, banged his fist, and called louder. She ignored him. Her mobile rang – his name on the display. She ignored him. He swore and stamped, tried the other doors.
After some time, she heard him grunting as he heaved the suitcases into the boot of the car, and then she was aware of the car engine revving up and knew he was driving away. She listened. Nothing. She finished her wine and went to bed.
At breakfast, her son asked her, “Where’s Daddy?”
“He had to go away,” she said,
“A deep-sea fishing trip, I think,”
“Will he be gone long?”
“I think so.”