The younger woman.
We went for lunch at her mother’s one Sunday afternoon. I was in a bad mood, the kids were playing up, Andrea was touchy and tense. No-one wanted to go and see her, the grandmother, the mother-in-law, mum. No-one liked her.
The afternoon was a drag, the kids were fidgety and rude, the exchanges between Andrea and her mother politely recriminatory, the Sunday roast overcooked, tough meat , mushy veg. I remained quiet and neutral throughout, washing up, busy in the background, keen to get away.
After lunch the photos came out, the kids sat on either side of Granny exchanging secret glances and giggling, pretending to show an interest in the family’s past. I made tea for everyone, telling myself, well, we only had to do it twice a year or so, I could stand another hour.
Coming back in and setting the teapot down on the table beside the settee I glanced at the photos and was immediately struck by a picture of an intensely beautiful young woman that was unmistakably Andrea.
It occurred to me that I had never really seen any photographs of Andrea that were more than a few years old. We had met when she was in her early forties and I was in my mid-thirties. She had two children by her first marriage that I was now step-father to. I would have described Andrea as averagely-attractive for her age, a little bit on the heavy side, bright. We had a drink after work one day, she came on to me, we ended up in bed then somehow within a year we were married. We had a good relationship. We were sensitive to each other’s need for space of our own, determined to focus on the positive things, not to make the same mistakes again. It was rational and constructive, we communicated. An adult relationship.
Our sex life was never characterised by great ease or enthusiasm. After the first year it dwindled and might even have withered away all together if not for our determination to make an effort. Passion does not last forever, you have to work at it.
I set down the tea cups, gave the kids their juice and took up a photo album from the pile. There she was on every page, an extravagant beauty. It was definitely her. You were very pretty when you were younger, I said. I was naïve, she responded. You WERE really pretty, mummy, Rosie chimed in. Mummy shrugged and sipped at her tea.
I was conscious that I was grinning and that my heart was beating faster. I turned over a few more leaves in the album, Christmas 1987. A series of banal superlatives went thumping hotly through my brain. Incredible, amazing, unbelievable. The quality of her skin, her hair, the fullness of her lips, the deep, burning lustre of her eyes, those cheekbones, that smile. I kept looking up from the album to Andrea tensely staring into her teacup. An enormous pang of lust whetted by envy went through me. If only I had known her at that age. But would she have wanted me then?
I glanced through some other albums until I found one entitled Summer Holiday 1984. She would have been seventeen at the time. I paused, then set it back in the pile, went upstairs to the toilet and found I had an erection. I sat down on the edge of the bath, chuckling to myself. Well, well, well, I said to myself over and over without really knowing what I meant.
That night in bed and for the next week or so I was drunk with lust. With my eyes closed I summoned up the images I had seen in the album that day, for this was the same women even if the years had been mysteriously unkind. I felt a strange tension, as though I were digging under the surface of her skin, through the slack flesh and flab to get to the girl she had been, who stood off to one side, impossibly remote, in all her intoxicating mockery. Andrea was alarmed by the sudden and dramatic resurgence in my sexual interest in her, by its ferocity. I was a man at war with an invisible adversary and the battle ground was Andrea herself.
A couple of weeks later I suggested that perhaps we should go to visit her mother again. Andrea was bemused.
Y’know, she’s lonely, I said.
Fine, she said, turning back to the T.V. with her eyebrows raised, YOU go then.
I did. I took the kids, who sulked all the way there even though I promised them chicken Mc Nuggets on the way back, to make it seem less weird. When they were all out in the garden I stole the Summer 1984 album. Back at the house I quickly secreted it among boxes of old files in the spare room upstairs. For the rest of the evening I was in a giddy mood. Andrea watched me suspiciously. Later when she was taking them up to bed I heard her asking the kids if Daddy had been with them the whole time at grandma’s house and they told her, yes. Do we have to go and see Granny every week they asked and Andrea clucked soothingly that no they certainly did not.
I allowed Andrea to go to bed earlier than me that evening and then snuck into the spare room to look at the album. My hands were shaking slightly as I opened it, my lips pressed tightly together, eyes narrowed, as though I were expecting to receive a blow. What I was doing was clearly wrong. She was just seventeen in these photographs. After two pages of mid-summer landscapes somewhere in Portugal that I dutifully browsed through as though someone were watching over my shoulder, there was a photograph of her in a blue bikini striking a coquettish pose by the Hotel swimming pool. The sharpness and solidity of that newly bloomed flesh, all arrested and sculpted upward surge.
My heart was up in my throat. Andrea was almost certainly asleep by now. I flicked through the rest of the album, there were many such images. I felt that I should be careful, parcel them out. I had brought some kitchen roll upstairs, just in case, and it seemed to me that it would be necessary for me to use it if I had any hope of getting to sleep tonight. After about ten minutes I went downstairs to get some more.
A week or so later Andrea confronted me directly. Are you having an affair, she asked. An affair? I’m never out of the house. When could I possibly have been having an affair? Why are you in such a good mood all the time? Why the high spirits, why all the sex?
Because you turn me on, I said, moving closer.
She took a step back.
Are you in love with someone else? You’re acting like a man in love with someone.
She turned and looked over her shoulder now as though the answer to this particular enigma might be found there. I don’t believe you, she said.
I saw then that things would go wrong. Perhaps I should tell her, I thought, but how will she react? She’ll be horrified, won’t she? She’ll say there’s something wrong with me. I’ll be something like a criminal to her.
I paused. What to say? Well, I’ve become obsessed with the beauty of a much younger women, but don’t worry, it’s you. How will she react to that?
Well, how would you?