The Arrangement | Jennifer Johnson

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There’s someone in the kitchen. I hear the kettle being filled. I look at the clock, it’s not yet seven, he’s up early. He must have woken me, but I don’t mind. I like hearing someone else here, another human being. It’s bright outside, the sun’s up; too bright, makes me think of ‘sun before seven, rain before eleven’. That comes true, more often than not. He doesn’t like me saying it, thinks it old ladyish. He teases me, says I’m like his Aunt Joan, saying things like that.

I wonder if he’s going to make me a cup, but I suppose he thinks I’m still asleep. I get up, slide my feet into my slippers and pull on my dressing gown, handy on the end of the bed.

As I go along the corridor I hear a clinking from the kitchen, spoon on mug, fishing out the tea bag. Sounds like twice, good, he is making one for me. I’m feeling happy then, this will be a better day. I reach the kitchen, the door is open. I walk in to say good morning to Tom and it isn’t him.

It’s a woman.

She’s got her back to me, all I can see is long hair, blondish and untidy, and she’s wearing one of his shirts, the dark blue one I gave him for Christmas, I’m sure it is.

She turns and smiles, saying, ‘Hello, you must be Kay,’ as if it were normal for her to be in my kitchen. I see she’s used my green mug too, my special one for coffee.

‘That’s my mug,’ I say.

‘Oh, I’m sorry, Tom didn’t say which to use.’ There’s an accent, something of the cruel south, Australia perhaps. Though I confuse that with New Zealand and you have to be careful not to mistake them. You can really get off on the wrong foot. Not that I want to be on any kind of foot with this one, I don’t like the look of her. I can see from the roots that she’s not really blonde. The shirt is too tight across her breasts. Tom is quite slim; it’s only a 15” collar, that shirt.

‘You have it then. Which one is it? I’ll make another,’ she says. Definitely Australian. I’ve never liked them. They smile a lot and pretend to be friendly but they’ve hard hearts, underneath.

She tops up the kettle and turns it on again. It has a blue light as it boils; it’s new, I bought it at Argos last week, and I find myself just staring at that, listening to the water coming up to the boil.

She turns back to me and says,

‘I’m Annie,’ as if I should know who she is. She’s young, younger than me; I’d say maybe forty, if that. Her nails are painted and her legs are tanned. I don’t like her in my kitchen. I don’t like what she is, what I know she must be.

I take my mug, even though it has tea in it, which it shouldn’t. And I go back to my bedroom and shut the door.

Maybe I was rude but I didn’t know what to say and I think Tom is rude to bring her here, without warning me.

I don’t drink the tea. There’s too much milk in it. I wait until I hear Tom’s door close, she must have gone back in there, then I hurry to the bathroom. I shower, don’t bother to wash my hair, I don’t want to take that much time, go back to my room and dress. I don’t want another meeting en déshabille, no.

I knew there were women; I didn’t mind, why should I? We’d agreed about it, needs must. Well, there hadn’t been many men for me, so I could have resented that; perhaps I did, sometimes. But he never brought them here. We’d agreed that too. He’d kept to the arrangement. Until now.

I go into the sitting room and wait. After a while I hear them whispering in the hall, then the front door latch click as it opens. A few seconds later the door closes, the loose flap of the letterbox rattling as it always does. Then the sitting room door opens and he comes in.

‘I’m sorry, I should have told you she’d be here,’ he says, but he doesn’t sound sorry. So I ask him, though I shouldn’t, because I don’t want to hear the answer,

‘Is this serious?’

He doesn’t speak for a moment, as if he is deciding what to tell me. Then he says,

‘Yes, I think it is.’

I don’t know why I go on; it’s as if I can’t help it, have to hear the worst.

‘Do you think it will last?’

And he looks at me oddly, as if that wasn’t a reasonable question, and says, ‘I do, or what’s the point?’

The point, I thought, is that you and I were going to see each other out. But there seemed no point in saying it.
We’d said, Tom and I, if we ended up on our own one day, we’d live together, share a place, as friends. We said it years ago. He’d just been dumped by a girl he thought he was in love with. And I too had come to the end of yet another useless relationship. We got drunk on a bottle of something cheap and nasty, all we could afford in those days, and we made this pact, we promised each other that we wouldn’t have to be alone; by the time we were forty, if all else had failed, we’d live together, keep each other company.

I was the first. Three years ago my husband buzzed off, as they do, when you start to wear out. And he wanted kids. I didn’t, so he found someone who did. I moved here then. Tom was married too. Marty she was called, his wife, and no better than she should have been. I always think that about her, seems appropriate, though to be honest I’m not quite sure what it means. She died, which was sad, of course, though I don’t think they were very happy, not by the end. She’d taken to religion, which is not something you can easily countenance. It’s the certainty they have that’s so off-putting.

That’s when he moved in, and it was so good having him here. We were like brother and sister, that was it, but without all that family angst and resentment. We were each other’s best friends, and it was enough for me. I suppose it wasn’t for him.

I leave the flat. I walk down to the shops, though I don’t want to buy anything. There’s a café there I quite like, the music’s not too loud and the coffee’s reasonable. It’s still early, barely nine, so there are plenty of empty tables and I take my flat white to a corner by the window. Recently we’d been talking about finding a bigger flat, or even a small house. He was going to sell his place. With that and what I’d get for my flat we could afford something decent, even around here. Only the other week I brought it up again, asked him if he’d given the tenants notice, and he said he would. He might have been seeing her but he didn’t mention it, didn’t say he had changed his mind about living with me, because I think he must have by then. I don’t think I’m jumping to conclusions, no; the way he said that, ‘or what’s the point?’ as if there were no other option.

A bell rings as the café door opens and a group of those mothers come in with their tiny babies in enormous pushchairs that cost hundreds of pounds. They come over to the next table and settle in, so I have to leave, as I know they’ll all be breastfeeding and giggling. It’s started raining, I should have known it would, but I was upset so I’d forgotten my umbrella, and the rain runs down my face like tears.

When I get back to the flat Tom’s left for work; he’ll be out all day now. I go to his room. He’s left the door open. I don’t go in, I just stand in the doorway. He’s made the bed and opened the window, but I can still smell her. There’s a trace of a vanilla scent hanging in the air. And underneath lies something fainter, animal, proof – not that I needed it. I’m cursed with an oversensitive nose. It can be difficult.

He’s been my friend for so long, I wonder that I missed it, the importance of this Annie. I suppose I forgot to be vigilant. I’ve got used to living with him now, I thought it worked so well. He cooks, I don’t. He moved in with cookbooks and special knives, mine were all blunt and rubbish he said.

‘What shall we have tonight?’ he’d say as he left for the office, and he’d stop on the way home to buy fresh ravioli, or sea bream, or a surprise. It was like a romance without the pain, a marriage without the arguments. At weekends we went to art galleries or walked on the Heath. One Saturday we took the train to Margate and walked beside that great sweep of beach to the new gallery at the end of the promenade. When we got home he said, ‘That was a really good day, wasn’t it?’

We’d always talked to each other. When we were both married we sometimes met for lunch. We went to the theatre together too – neither of our spouses cared for it. Marty thought it a waste of money and Laurence my husband was jealous; he shouldn’t have been. It’s not the men friends who are the danger to a marriage but the women, those conspiratorial husband haters, pretending to be disinterested agony aunts. I had one like that, Frances. She met me for lunch at Tate Modern on a Saturday from time to time. She was the kind of woman who talks about herself so much that all I usually had to do was listen. That suited me, I was never given to sharing confidences with women. This time Frances wanted to talk about my husband.

I knew something was odd as we queued with our trays in the café and she insisted on buying us glasses of wine. We didn’t usually drink together. So I was not completely surprised when she said,

‘I think there’s something you ought to know.’

I think there’s very little one ought to know, and certainly not what other people think one ought to know; I’d have done better not knowing. Knowing what Laurence was ‘up to’, as she put it, turned me into the woman he left. That’s something she ought to know, my ‘friend’.
Tom doesn’t return in the evening. It was humiliating to be left by a husband; it is devastating to be left by a friend. I open a bottle, but I haven’t the heart to get drunk. We should have stayed as we were; I know that now. I suppose his Aunt Joan also said, ‘For better, for worse but never for lunch.’ We should have kept it at lunch.

He comes in early the next morning. He goes into the kitchen, and I hear him making tea. Then he taps on my door, as I’d thought he would. I’m sitting up in bed, wearing a decent nightdress and I’ve brushed my hair. I say, ‘Come in.’

‘Peace offering?’ he says, which is crass, but I let it pass. He hands me a mug, a tea one – he knows the difference.

‘You’re angry.’ It’s not a question, it doesn’t need to be; but there is a question, there are many. Neither of us is going to ask them.

What do I say? I’m disappointed? I’d sound like his mother, or Aunt Joan, but I am disappointed, and angry, and afraid, all these. He knows me so well, he’ll be aware, he should be. But now he’s something else too, he’s attached, to Annie, already making plans, imagining her beside him. What I feel is irrelevant; his awareness has another focus. I’m not a fool, not in that way, not that blind and insensitive, and I can be generous, so I am, and I say:

‘It’s all right.’

But both of us know it isn’t.