The One Saving Grace | Chapter 21 of 42

Author: Julie Houston | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1038 Views | Add a Review

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16

Well, at least I couldn’t see myself dying of a coronary in the near future, the amount of exercise my heart was getting lately. Alex’s innuendo had it pounding at twice its normal rate.

Ho,

I texted back, my fingers missing the letters in my revved up state.

Ho to you, too.

Sorry, that was meant to be ‘Hi’.

Where are you?

Down a country lane.

Sounds promising.

For what?

A tryst.

Just on my way home.

Assumed you’d be at home.

Long story.

Fancy a drink?

What, on a Monday morning?

Coffee, not gin.

Nick’s just gone off again.

I know.

Is that why you texted me?

Yes. Hang on, will ring you.

Five seconds later my mobile rang. ‘How come you haven’t got your babies with you?’ Alex asked.

‘As I said, a long story.’ My voice faltered as I thought about Grace on her way to the psychiatric unit; I suddenly remembered how mental illness had always been one of her biggest fears when we were younger. We’d both been offered cleaning jobs after A levels, through one of Grace’s neighbours who was in Human Resources at the (now bulldozed) huge Victorian mental hospital on the outskirts of Midhope. I went for it. Grace wouldn’t.

‘No way,’ she’d said, ‘am I being locked on a ward with mad people. The very thought of being in a place like that really terrifies me.’

‘Are you OK?’ Alex asked, interrupting my thoughts.

‘No, I’m not, actually,’ I said. I suddenly didn’t want to be alone. ‘I could do with company.’

‘Do you know The Three Foxes near Allenby?’

‘Gosh, that’s at least an hour’s drive from here.’ I looked at my watch.

‘Yes,’ Alex said gently, ‘but, Harriet, I’m assuming you don’t want to be seen anywhere in Midhope with me.’

‘No, of course not.’ Although, to be honest, I felt so wretched at the thought of Grace on a psychiatric ward, I hadn’t really thought about being seen out and about with a man who wasn’t my husband. Surely, at the end of the day, he was a family friend and I could say I just happened to bump into him.

Oh, yeah?

But Allenby it was, and I suddenly didn’t care that I was in faded Levis, bobbled sweater and that my feet were tucked in black leather biker boots rather than the high heels that would have made my legs long and glamorous. I drove too quickly, then thought that if I was done for speeding Nick would want to know what I’d been doing on the A62 heading towards Manchester on a Monday morning, and hit the brakes. I slowed down to the legal limit, forcing myself to follow my satnav’s instructions, nervous that I would miss the turning off and get lost.

The Three Foxes were looking decidedly the worse for wear ‒ scabby, with touches of mange ‒ and I wondered at Alex’s choice of venue. I pulled into the miserable looking car park, which was empty except for Alex’s Porsche blatant in the top right hand corner. I drove away from it and deliberately steered my Mini towards the bottom left. It was a strange feeling: I just didn’t seem to care any more about where all this was leading.

Myriad images of Grace being led along dark corridors, resonant with the calls and screams of desperate inmates, shifted ‒ kaleidoscope-like ‒ through my mind, and I shook my head as I looked towards the pub door, desperate to dispel them. I felt anger with Nick for his cavalier attitude to Grace’s situation when I’d told him what was happening, but more so with myself for not having insisted on going with her to the hospital. I hesitated briefly as I locked the car door and considered getting straight back in and driving in the opposite direction towards Leeds and Grace.

I’d abandoned her.

The area around the main entrance to the pub was a dumping ground for tab ends dropped by the smokers who obviously congregated outside, huddled together against the cold north wind sweeping down from the Pennines, still complaining after years of enforced expulsion. No one was outside now on this dreary November Monday morning and I pulled the heavy, shabby door and went inside.

There was just one man standing at the bar, rheumy-eyed and of an indeterminate age. He turned briefly as the door opened, but without a great deal of interest, and almost immediately dropped his eyes back to his tabloid with its screaming headline that, once more, we were heading for the worst winter on record.

There was no sign of Alex. I walked towards a door in the corner of the bar and peered through the smeared glass into what was, years ago, presumably the snug. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the ghosts of the clones of Ena, Martha and Minnie still hovered, watching in anticipation of adulterous meetings and delighted when, as now, one was about to take place.

He was sat, alone, in the far corner of the room, totally engrossed in his laptop in front of him and oblivious to the fact that I was standing, looking, drinking him in. As I watched him he loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top couple of buttons of his red striped shirt, and took a mouthful from one of the two cups on the table without once taking his eyes from the screen. He was so intent on what was in front of him he didn’t look up even when I opened the door, crossed the room towards him and stood looking down at him.

When he eventually glanced up he grinned, quickly did something to his laptop and closed its lid.

‘Harriet. You came.’ He stood, pulled both ends of my woollen scarf towards him and kissed me. He tasted of coffee: a clean and wholesome smelling island adrift in the heavily patterned, stickily stained and, despite the smoking ban, tobacco smelling sea that was the pub carpet.

‘You choose your places, don’t you?’ I said, reeling slightly from the touch of his lips on mine.

He grinned again. ‘OK, I agree, it’s not The Ritz but I thought it was a good place to see you. I’m assuming you don’t know anyone who lives round here.’

‘Does anyone live round here? This place is like the Marie Celeste ‒ where did everybody go? Why aren’t you working?’

Alex frowned briefly before smiling once more. ‘Remember, I work for myself, Harriet? Not for David or your husband. I’m off to Milan later this afternoon and I’ll be working there solidly for at least a week.’ He had perfect white teeth ‒ he’d obviously eschewed all sugar as a child or was genetically favoured ‒ and I noticed, for the first time, a tiny white scar nestling at the corner of his right eyebrow. ‘How long have you got?’ he asked, pulling off the fingers of my gloves one by one before warming my hands within his own. ‘Jesus, you’re frozen.’

‘It’s November,’ I said, passing off the slight tremble that was threatening to overwhelm me as being caused by the outside chill. It wasn’t yet afternoon and already I’d learned that my best friend wanted to die, seen her packed off to a psychiatric unit, driven a ridiculous number of miles to cross the Yorkshire/Lancashire border… and knew, without a flicker of doubt, that I was about to make love to a man who was not my husband. And all on a miserably cold Monday morning in November.

‘Harriet,’ Alex said, sliding warm hands under my sweater. ‘You cannot imagine how much I want to fuck you.’ He brushed a thumb lightly over my nipple and my legs buckled slightly. His hair, dark, soft, smelling of shampoo, brushed my face as he leaned into me with such expertise I felt my mouth part in a little involuntary murmur.

‘Not here,’ I said, laughing slightly, yet almost faint with longing. ‘Not here in this grubby little snug.’ I looked in alarm at the door, terrified that hungry workers, in search of pie and chips or a roast beef sandwich, were about to encounter rather more than they’d bargained for.

Alex kissed the top of my head and laughed, withdrawing his hands from the small of my back. ‘Of course not here, you goose. You might be driving me to distraction but I don’t think the landlord would be too happy for his customers having to step over our writhing bodies.’ He smiled down at me, buttoning my jacket, tying my scarf firmly and kissing the tips of each finger before inserting them gently back into their glove. ‘Look, Harriet, my apartment is a fifteen minute drive from here. Leave your car in the car park and I’ll drive us there. I’ll make you a coffee, warm you up and if you want, if you don’t think better of it, make love to you.’

I abandoned my little Mini in the corner of that littered, tab end strewn car park in the same way, I realised afterwards, that I’d abandoned Grace just a few hours earlier.

*

‘Does it not worry you that I am here with you, the married woman of a work colleague…?’ When Alex didn’t say anything, but continued to lazily stroke my naked back with the tips of his fingers I went on, ‘because it absolutely scares me to death.’

‘Harriet, I honestly don’t think anything worries me.’ He said it almost sadly, nuzzling into my hair, kissing my neck, turning me to face him. I looked into those blue eyes, at the dark stubble that was just beginning to make an appearance, at the sheer beauty of his face… and knew that I couldn’t bear this to be a one-off, as I’d earlier told myself it had to be. Just as a novice cocaine sniffer will tell himself that the first time will be the last time, that he is in control and the experience will not be repeated, I’d told myself that this one time with Alex would be just that: strictly a one-off. But the last two hours with this man had set me on a spiral where all thoughts of my family, my children, and my beloved Nick were banished from my mind.

A couple of years ago Grace and I had sat in my sitting room watching the TV drama Mistresses howling with derisive laughter as the Irish one, played by the gorgeous Orla Brady, trawled hotel bars looking for predatory sex with strangers only a few months after having given birth.

‘Oh, as if,’ I’d snorted, throwing my slipper at the TV and pouring us both another glass of wine. ‘Nobody even wants sex when they’ve just had a baby, never mind actively going out there looking for it with a stranger. I’m going to write to the BBC to tell them to get real. What utter garbage.’

And yet here I was, with two babies at home, stripping off with abandon and not really caring that I was pushing forty, that I had five children… that I had a husband who loved and cherished me. Maybe all those reasons were why I was here, in Alex’s flat, in Alex’s bed sated with the most incredible, wanton sex I’d ever experienced. Bring it on, Orla. I now know where you were coming from.

Shit. Unfortunate choice of words.

Why does nothing worry you?’ I sat up in bed, pulled the sheets around my breasts, suddenly shy.

‘Just the way I am, I guess.’ Alex turned away from me, reaching for the glass of sparkling water that had now lost most of its fizz, revealing a back that was taut, muscled and tanned.

And bearing a small but very distinct round scar.

I put my finger to it. The scar itself was a round pink O, unmissable in the smooth tanned skin of Alex’s back.

‘Gosh, Alex. What happened? That looks like a bullet wound.’

He drank deeply from the glass before smiling somewhat wryly. ‘And how would you know what a bullet wound looks like, Harriet?’

I felt embarrassed, as if I’d exposed him to something that he would far rather have kept hidden.

‘Well, is it?’

‘Is it what?’

‘A bullet wound. Were you shot?’

Alex pulled me down beside him, wrapping strong arms around me, hiding the scar in the white Egyptian cotton sheet beneath us.

‘Yes, Harriet. I’ve been shot.’

I suddenly had an awful vision of a cuckolded husband banging down Alex’s door, a blonde in the bed hiding in terror from her husband, Alex taking a bullet in his back…

‘Was it another woman’s husband?’ I asked, suddenly terrified for Nick. Would Nick have the wherewithal to find a gun and actually have the know-how to be able to shoot Alex? What had I got myself into? Oh, fuck.

Alex actually laughed out loud. ‘No, Harriet, it wasn’t another woman’s husband, I promise you.’

When he didn’t say anything that might actually explain the reason for having taken a bullet in his back, I sat up and looked at him. ‘So, are you going to tell me?’

He sighed and said briefly, ‘Afghanistan.’

‘Afghanistan? You were in the army?’ This was the last thing I’d imagined Alex being a part of.

He shook his head and sighed again. ‘SBS.’

‘SBS?’ I was never very good at acronyms and I trawled my mind, trying to think what the hell SBS was. I could only think of the BBC, TOWIE and, being a teacher, the NUT.

‘Special Boat Service,’ Alex supplied eventually.

‘I have honestly never heard of it,’ I said, puzzled.

‘Then it really doesn’t matter,’ Alex said, nuzzling into my neck while inching expert fingers up my inner thigh once more…

*

An hour later, I gathered my abandoned jeans, socks, bra and pants and went into Alex’s ‒ very masculine ‒ bathroom, only just stopping myself from having a nosy in his bathroom cabinet to find out any more revelations about this man who, I now realised, I really knew nothing about. I looked in his mirror instead: apart from mussed up hair, I didn’t look any different. No Scarlet Woman emblazoned across my forehead, no outer sign that I was a cheat, an adulterer, that I had betrayed my husband. I had a quick shower ‒ getting rid of any evidence of what I’d been up to ‒ and painted lipstick on my mouth.

‘I’m in a real hurry, Harriet,’ Alex shouted from the bedroom. ‘Let me have a quick shower and get dressed, and then I’ll drop you off and go straight to the airport.’

*

My little red Mini was still there, alone and accusing. I’d had an awful thought that my tyres might have been let down by an angry pub landlord who knew I’d left my car there after buying not so much as a packet of pork scratchings. How would I have explained that to Nick? But then, of course, Nick was off in Vladivostok, or wherever he’d flown off to this time. Guilt at what I’d done that afternoon was having me put the blame on to Nick for swanning off, once again, leaving me with five children to bring up all on my own.

Little faithful red Mini, collaborator in my adultery, started immediately. I pulled out of the pub car park and switched my phone back on. It was only two p.m. – a lifetime away from this morning in the Hendersons’ kitchen. I needed to phone them, see what was happening with Grace. I was just about to speed dial Amanda on my hands-free when the phone rang.

Nick.

I was terrified, terrified he would hear the guilt in my voice. I didn’t answer but instead, heart racing, concentrated on the task of getting back to Midhope in time to pick up India from school.

Nick rang again. I pressed the answer button on my steering wheel.

‘Harriet, why the fuck don’t you keep your phone switched on? Where are you? Where have you been?’ His voice was angry, persistent.

‘Cheadle Hulme. John Lewis,’ I gabbled. ‘Thought I’d go and have a look at fabric for curtains, seeing you gave the twins away. Decided to go and see if I could see anything there, as we’ve not been able to find anything in Midhope. We’ve been over a year without curtains in our bedroom now, you know.’

That last sentence was the only one with any grain of truth attached to it.

‘You need to get home,’ Nick said shortly. ‘Kit’s been suspended from school.’

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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