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“Faithful Lovers” by Margaret Drabble

Published: April 11, 2017

There must have been a moment at which she decided to go down the street and around the corner and into the café. For at one point she was walking quite idly, quite innocently, with no recollection or association in her head but the dimmest shadow of long-past knowledge, and within ten yards she had made up her mind that she would go and have her lunch in that place where they had had lunch together once a fortnight or so over that long and lovely year. It was the kind of place where nobody either of them knew would ever see them. At the same time, it was not impossibly inconvenient, not so very far from Holborn, where they both had good reason to be from time to time. They had felt safe there — as safe as they could ever feel — yet at the same time aware that they had not allowed themselves to be driven into grotesque precautions.

And now, after so long, after three years, she found herself there — and at lunchtime, too. She was hungry. There is nothing more to it than that, she said to herself. I happened to be near, and the fact that I wanted my lunch reminded me of this place, and moreover, there is nowhere else possible within a five-minute walk. She had done enough walking, she thought — from the Old Street tube station to the place where they had made her new tooth. She ran her tongue over the new front tooth, reassuringly, and was slightly ashamed by the immense relief that she felt at being once more presentable, no longer disfigured by that humiliating gap. She had always made much of caring little for her beauty, and was always disturbed by the accidents that brought her face to face with her own vanity — by the inconvenient pimple, by the unperceived smudge on the cheek, by the heavy cold. And that lost tooth had been something of a test case ever since she had had it knocked out, while still a child at school. Her dentist had made her the most elaborate and delicate bridge then, but the night before last she had fallen after a party and broken it. She had rung up her dentist in the morning, and he had promised her a temporary bridge to last her until he could make her a new one. When he had told her the name of the place she should go to to collect the bridge, she had noticed in herself a small flicker of recollection. He went on explaining to her, obliging yet irritable. “You’ve got that then, Mrs. Harvey? Eighty-two St. Luke’s Street? You go to Old Street station, then turn right…” And he had explained to her that she should express her gratitude to the man at the laboratory, in view of the shortness of the notice. And she had duly expressed it to the man when, ten minutes ago, he handed her the tooth.

Then she had come out and walked along this street. And as she paused at the café door, she knew that she had been thinking of him and of that other year all this time, that she could not very well have avoided the thought of him, among so much familiar scenery. There they had sat in the car and kissed, and endlessly discussed the impossibility of their kissing; there they had stood by that lamppost, transfixed, unable to move. The pavement seemed still to bear the marks of their feet. And yet it was all so long ago, so thoroughly slaughtered and decayed. It was two years since she had cared, more than two years since she had suffered.

She was content, she was occupied, she had got her tooth back, everything was under control. And in a way it made her almost happy to be back in this place, to find how thoroughly dead it all was. She saw no ghosts of him here; for a year after their parting she had seen him on every street corner, in every passing car, in shapes of heads and hands and forms of movement, but now he was nowhere anymore, not even here. For as long as she had imagined that she saw him, she had imagined that he had remembered. Those false ghosts had been in some way the projected shadows of his love; but now she knew that surely they had both forgotten.

She pushed open the door and went in. It looked the same. She went to the side of the room that they had always favored, away from the door and the window, and sat at the corner table, where they had always sat when they could, with her back to the door. She sat there and looked down at the red-veined Formica tabletop, with its cluster of sugar bowl, salt and pepper, mustard and ketchup, and an ashtray. Then she looked up at the dark yellow ceiling, with its curiously useless trelliswork hung with plastic lemons and bananas, and then at the wall, papered in a strange, delicate, dirty flowered print. On the wall hung the only thing that was different. It was a calendar, a gift from a garage, and the picture showed an Alpine hut in snowy mountains, for all that the month was May. In their day the calendar had been one donated by a fruit juice firm, and they had seen it through three seasons; she recalled the anguish with which she had seen its leaves turn, more relentless even than those leaves falling so ominously from real trees, and she recalled that at the time of their parting the calendar showed an appalling photograph of an autumn evening in a country garden, with an old couple sitting by their ivy-covered doorway.

They had both been merciless deliverers of ultimatums, the one upon the other. And she had selected in her own soul the month, and the day of that month, and had said, “Look, on the twenty-third, that’s it, and I mean it this time.” She wondered if he had known that this time it was for real. Because he had taken her at her word. It was the first time that she had not relented, nor he persisted; each other time they had parted forever, a telephone call had been enough to reunite them; each time she had left him, she had sat by the telephone biting her nails and waiting for it to ring. But this time it did not ring.

The menu, when it was brought to her, had not altered much. Though she never knew why she bothered to read menus, for she always ate the same lunch — a cheese omelette and chips. So she ordered her meal, and then sat back to wait. Usually, whenever left alone in a public place, she would read, and through habit she propped a book up against the sugar bowl and opened it. But she did not look at the words. Nor was she dwelling entirely upon the past, for a certain pleasurable anxiety about that evening’s show was stealing most of her attention, and she found herself wondering whether she had adequately prepared her piece about interior decoration for the discussion program she’d been asked to appear on, and whether David Rathbone, the producer, would offer to drive her home, and whether her hair would look all right. And most of all, she wondered if she ought to wear her gray skirt. She was not at all sure that it was not just a little bit too tight. If it wasn’t, then it was perfect, for it was the kind of thing that she always looked marvelous in. Then she said to herself: The very fact that I’m worrying about it must mean that it must be too tight after all, or the thought of its being too tight wouldn’t have crossed my mind, would it? And then she saw him.

What was really most shocking about it was the way they noticed each other simultaneously, without a chance of turning away or in any way managing the shock. Their eyes met, and they both jerked, beyond hope of dissimulation.

“Oh, God,” he said, after a second, and he stood there looking at her.

And she felt at such a loss, sitting there with her book propped up against the sugar bowl, and her head full of thoughts of skirts and false teeth, that she said, hurriedly, throwing away what might after all have been really quite a moment, “Oh, Lord, oh, well, since you’re there, do sit down.” And she moved up the wooden bench, closing up her book with a snap, averting her eyes, confused, unable to look.

And he sat down by her, and then said quite suddenly and intimately, as though perfectly at home with her after so many years of silence, “Oh, Lord, my darling Viola, what a dreadful, dreadful surprise. I don’t think I shall ever recover.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Kenneth,” she said, as though she too had discovered exactly where she was. “One gets over these things quite quickly. I feel better already, don’t you?”

“Why, yes, I suppose I do,” he said. “I feel better now that I’m sitting down. I thought I was going to faint, standing there and looking at you. Didn’t you feel some sort of slight tremor?”

“It’s hard to tell,” she said, “when one’s sitting down. It isn’t a fair test. Even of tremors.”

“No,” he said, “no.”

Then they were silent for a moment or two, and then she said, very precisely and carefully, offering her first generous signal of intended retreat, “I suppose that what is odd, really, is that we haven’t come across one another before.”

“Have you ever been back here before this?” he asked.

“No, never,” she said. “Have you?”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I have. And if you had been back, you might have seen me. I looked for you.”

“You’re lying,” she said quickly, elated, looking at him for the first time since he had sat down by her, and then looking away again quickly, horrified by the dangerous proximity of his head.

“No, I’m not,” he said. “I came here, and I looked for you. I was sure that you would come.”

“It’s a safe lie,” she said, “like all your lies. A lie I could never catch you out in. Unless I really had been here, looking for you, and simply hadn’t wanted to admit it.”

“But,” he said with conviction, “you weren’t here at all. I came, but you didn’t. You were faithless, weren’t you, my darling?”

“Faithless?”

“You forgot me quicker than I forgot you, didn’t you? How long did you remember me?”

“Oh, how can one say?” she said. “After all, there are degrees of remembrance.”

“Tell me,” he said. “What harm can it do to tell me now?”

She moved a little on the seat, away from him, but settling at the same time into a more comfortable pose of confidence, because she had been waiting for years to tell him.

“I suffered quite horribly,” she said. “Really quite horribly. That’s what you want to hear, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is,” he said.

“Oh, I really did,” she said. “I can’t tell you. I cried all the time, for weeks. For at least a month. And whenever the phone rang, I started, I jumped, like a fool, as though I’d been shot. It was pathetic, it was ludicrous. Each time I answered and it wasn’t you I would stand there listening, and they would go on talking, and sometimes I would say yes or no, as I waited for them to ring off. And when they did ring off I would sit down and I would cry. Is that what you want me to say?”

“I want to hear it,” he said, “but it can’t, it can’t be true.”

“It’s as true as that you came to this place to look for me,” she said.

“I did come,” he said.

“And I did weep,” she said.

“Did you ever try to ring me?” he asked then, unable to resist.

“No!” she said with some pride. “No, not once. I’d said I wouldn’t, and I didn’t.”

“I rang you, once,” he said.

“You didn’t,” she said, and became aware at that instant that her knees under the table were trembling.

“I did,” he said. “It was just over a year ago, and we’d just got back from a party — about three in the morning it was — and I rang you.”

“Oh, God,” she said, “oh, God. It’s true, it’s not a lie, because I remember it! Oliver went to answer it, and he came back saying no one was there. But I immediately thought of you. Oh, my darling, I can’t tell you how I’ve had to stop myself from ringing you, how I’ve sat there by the phone and lifted the receiver and dialed the beginning of your number, and then stopped. Wasn’t that good of me?”

“Oh,” he said, “if you knew how I’d wanted you to ring.”

“I did write to you once,” she said. “But I couldn’t bring myself to post it. But I’ll tell you what I did do: I typed out an envelope to you, and I put one of those circulars from that absurd poetry club of mine into it, and I sent it off to you, because I thought that at least it might create in you a passing thought of me. And I liked the thought of something from my house reaching your house. Though perhaps she threw it away before it even got to you.”

“I remember it,” he said. “I did think of you. But I didn’t think you sent it, because the postmark was Croydon.”

“Oh,” she said, weakly. “You got it. Oh, Lord, how alarmingly faithful we have both been.”

“Did you expect us not to be? We swore that we would be. Oh, look, my darling, here’s your lunch. Are you still eating cheese omelettes every day? Now, that really is what I call alarming consistency. And I haven’t even ordered. What about some moussaka? I always used to like that; it was always rather nice, in its own disgusting way. One moussaka, please.”

After her first mouthful, she put down her fork and said reflectively, “From my point of view, at least, the whole business was quite unnecessary. What I mean is, Oliver hadn’t the faintest suspicion. Which, considering how ludicrously careless we were, is quite astonishing. We could have gone on forever, and he’d never have known. He was far too preoccupied with his own affairs.”

“You know,” he said, “all those continual threats of separation, of ending it — that was really corrupt. I feel bad about it now, looking back. Don’t you?”

“How do you mean, bad about it?” she said.

“I feel we ought to have been able to do better than that. Though, come to think of it, it was you that did nearly all the threatening. Every time I saw you, you said it was for the last time. Every time. And I must have seen you six days in every week for over a year. You can’t have meant it each time.”

“I did mean it,” she said. “Every time I said it. I must have meant it, because I finally did it, didn’t I?”

“You mean we did it,” he said. “You couldn’t have done it without my help. If I’d rung you, if I’d written to you, it would have started all over again.”

“Do you really think so?” she said, sadly, without malice, without recrimination. “Yes, I suppose you might be right. It takes two to part, just as it takes two to love.”

“It was corrupt,” he said, “to make ourselves live under that perpetual threat.”

“Yes,” she said, “but remember how lovely it was, how horribly lovely, each time that one relented. Each time one said, ‘I’ll never see you again . . . all right, I’ll meet you tomorrow in the usual place at half-past one.’ It was lovely.”

“Lovely, but wicked,” he said.

“Oh, that sensation,” she said, “that sensation of defeat. That was so lovely, every time, every time you touched me, every time I saw you. And I felt so sure, so entirely sure that what you felt was what I felt. Lord, we were so alike. And to think that when I first knew you I couldn’t think of anything to say to you at all; I thought you came from another world, that we had nothing in common at all, nothing except, well, except you know what; I feel it would be dangerous even to mention it, even now. Oh, darling, what a disaster, our being so alike.”

“I liked it, though,” he said. “I liked breaking up together. Better than having it done to one, better than doing it.”

“Yes, but more seriously incurable,” she said. And silence threatening to fall once more, she said quickly, “Anyway, tell me what you’re doing round here. I mean to say, one has to have some reason for coming to a place like this.”

“I told you,” he said. “I was looking for you.”

“You are a liar,” she said, smiling, amazed that even here she could allow herself to be amused; indeed, could not prevent herself from smiling.

“What are you doing here, then?”

“Oh, I had a perfectly good reason,” she said. “You know that false front tooth? Well, yesterday morning I broke it, and I’ve got to do a program on television tonight, so I went to my dentist and he made me a temporary new bridge, and I had to come round here to the laboratory to pick it up.”

“Have you got it in?”

“Look,” she said, and turned to face him, smiling, lifting her upper lip.

“Well, that’s convincing enough, I guess,” he said.

“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here,” she said. “I bet you haven’t got as good a reason as me. Mine is entirely convincing, don’t you think? I mean, where else could I have had lunch? I think my reason clears me entirely of suspicion of any kind, don’t you?”

“Any suspicion of sentiment?”

“That’s what I meant.”

He thought for a moment, and then said, “I had to call on a man about my income tax. Look, here’s his address.” And he got an envelope out of his pocket and showed her.

“Ah,” she said.

“I came here on purpose,” he said. “To think of you. I could have had lunch at lots of places between London Wall and here.”

“You didn’t come here because of me; you came here because it’s the only place you could think of,” she said.

“It comes to the same thing,” he said.

“No, it doesn’t,” she said firmly. She felt creeping upon her the familiar illusion of control, created as always before by a concentration upon trivialities; she reflected that their conversations had always followed the patterns of their times in bed, and that these idle points of contention were like those frivolous, delaying gestures in which she would turn aside, in which he would lie still and stare at the ceiling, not daring to touch her, thus merely deferring the inevitable. Thinking this, and able to live only in the deferment, for now there was no inevitable outcome that she could see, she said, eating her last chip, “And how are your children?”

“They’re fine,” he said, “fine. Saul started grammar school. We were pleased about that. What about yours?”

“Oh, they’re all right, too. I’ve had some dreadful nights with Laura recently. I must say I thought I was through with all that — I mean, the child’s five now — but she says she can’t sleep and has these dreadful nightmares, so she’s been in my bed every night for the last fortnight. It’s wearing me out. Then in the morning she just laughs. She doesn’t kick; it’s just that I can’t sleep with anyone else in the bed.”

“What does Oliver say?” he asked, and she said, without thinking, “Oh, I don’t sleep with Oliver anymore,” and wondered as she said it how she could have made such a mistake, and wondered how to get out of it. But fortunately at that instant his moussaka arrived, making it unnecessary to pursue the subject. Though once it had become unnecessary, she regretted the subject’s disappearance; she thought of saying what was the truth itself — that she had slept with nobody since she had slept with him, that for three years she had slept alone, and that she was quite prepared to sleep alone forever. But she was not entirely sure that he would want to hear it, and she knew that such a remark, once made, could never be retracted, so she said nothing.

“It looks all right,” he said, staring at the moussaka. He took a mouthful and chewed it, and then he put his fork down and said, “Oh, Lord, oh, Lord, what a Proustian experience. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that I’m sitting here with you. It tastes of you, this stuff. Oh, God, it reminds me of you. You look so beautiful, you look so lovely, my darling. Oh, God, I loved you so much. Do you believe me — that I really loved you?”

“I haven’t slept with anyone,” she said, “since I last slept with you.”

“Oh, darling,” he said. And she could feel herself fainting and sighing away, drifting downward on that fatefully descending, eddying spiral, like Paolo and Francesca in hell, helpless, the mutually entwined drifting fall of all true lovers, unresisting. It was as though three years of solitude had been nothing but a pause, nothing but a long breath before this final acknowledgment of nature, damnation, and destiny. She turned toward him and said, “Oh, my darling, I love you. What can I do? I love you.” And he, with the same breath, said, “I love you, I all the time love you, I want you,” and they kissed there, their faces already so close that they hardly had to move.

Like many romantics, they habitually connived with fate by remembering the names of restaurants and the streets they had once walked along as lovers. Those who forget forget, he said to her later, and those who do not forget will meet again.

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