By Lesley Hayes
Fergus became obsessed with Isobel’s memory shortly after his fortieth birthday. Wasn’t life supposed to begin then? For him, it seemed to have been standing still for years. He was rooted in marriage and a lifestyle from which there seemed no deviation or escape.
He was happy married to Liz, of course. Young Mia was doing well in her new class, and Noah was settling down at preschool. Weekends were spent renovating and decorating the house. It was beginning to look really good now, after all his efforts. They had marvellous friends, dependable, loyal, and reassuringly predictable. He had everything he’d hankered after ten years ago when he’d married Liz. The night of his birthday, after the perfect meal she’d cooked and the great sex they’d had (an extra bonus that week), he fell asleep, a roundly contented man.
The next morning he woke up remembering Isobel, and craving.
Isobel had said, at the station that last time: “I’ll always love you. No matter when it is, however long from now, and even if I’ve moved to the other side of the world, if you ever want me, just let me know. For me, nothing will ever change.”
The days passed, and Fergus turned forty and one week, then forty and a fortnight. He kept hearing her husky, breathy voice, choking with the emotion in those words. What a promise! He kept seeing her pert, heart-shaped face lifted towards him to reveal her blatant misery. She had half-waved as he gazed forlornly at her out of the train window before it carried him off down the track and out of her life forever.
Liz observed him lost in reverie, about to topple from the step-ladder in mid-brushstroke. Fearful for the effect on the bathroom ceiling, she said: “Snap out of it, Fergus! Those thoughts must be worth at least fifty pence!”
How plump she’s grown… Fergus thought coldly. He looked down at her, just managing to retain his dignity. How weary and straggly and ordinary she looks – like somebody’s mother….
On cue, the children arrived on the scene. They viewed his handiwork and made their usual disparaging comments dressed up as humour. What had once seemed cute now felt downright rude. Then, having made their disgruntled claims on his attention, they clattered off to wreak a little more havoc on the rest of the house.
I had it made… Fergus thought. It was good with Isobel. I had her metaphorically eating out of the palm of my hand and licking it with her pink pointy tongue, bending over backwards or any other way I wanted, just to make me happy – and I gave it all up….
It seemed incredible. All this he had abandoned for the woman who stood imperiously in the bathroom before him now: a woman with beige crepe-like skin, stretch-marks, and a shrill voice. A woman who wore men’s striped pyjamas in bed and didn’t look winsome in them, who deemed his deepest thoughts worth less than a pound, and who wouldn’t pay to hear them anyway.
Isobel had begged him, during the weeks prior to their final parting, to choose her instead of Liz. “I know I’m young and silly,” she had said, her face still waifishly beautiful in spite of the tears. “But I can learn to be the sort of person you want.”
Liz was older, sensible, determined. She made such a choice seem implausible. Fergus had known her for years. She was an established part of his life, linking the past to all foreseeable future. Security with Liz was preferable to the dubious uncertainty of a long-term relationship with Isobel. In that, he would need to take the major responsibility, make decisions, lead the way. As a permanent role, it had seemed daunting.
Liz had said: “Look, Fergus. Is it to be a spring wedding, or what? Only my parents want to know when to book their fortnight in Lanzarote. It really would be more convenient to get the wedding out of the way before they go.”
He still hated Liz’s mother. More so now that Liz was beginning to resemble her. He should have known. What had once masqueraded in Liz as good organisational skill was now waspish bossiness.
The thing with Isobel had been mad, fleeting, impossible. She was wished on him by Fate as a temporary secretary. The first evening she was in the office, they learned by chance that they both travelled home by train at more or less the same time, though heading in opposite directions. Unexpectedly a strike had been called, and all trains that day were operating a restricted service. As they each had over half an hour to spare, he offered to buy her a cup of tea or coffee in the waiting room café.
“It’s just like ‘Brief Encounter’, isn’t it?” she giggled. Then she went on to relate the entire plot of the original 1945 movie, which she’d seen on TV the week before. “It was different back in those days, wasn’t it?” she mused. She talked of The Past with great awe, as though she hardly believed that life could have been like that. She apparently considered Fergus part of a generation much earlier than her own. As he was still just about the right side of thirty, he had felt the need to prove her wrong. And so it had begun.
Isobel always knew about Liz. She knew how inevitably the well-mapped future lay ahead of Fergus. At the very beginning, when it seemed merely a fling, that wasn’t important. But after only a month, when her agency reassigned her as someone else’s temporary secretary, she stayed in Fergus’s life. And that was when she began to believe she had some claim on him.
Liz wasn’t part of Fergus’s busy everyday world. Her domain was back on the suburban end of that railway journey, nest-building under Mummy’s supervision, overseeing the refurbishment of the house her parents had bought for them to live in after the wedding. She was a nursery-school teacher, and that left lots of spare time. The kind of bedsit and snack-bar jungle through which Isobel bravely hacked a path was quite unknown to Liz. In that respect, she had led a sheltered life and intended to continue doing so.
Fergus was largely unavailable to Liz during those months of his affair with Isobel. Liz knew he was studying for his MBA in the evenings almost every night of the week. She was proud of the way he was striving so diligently to secure a better life for them. They weren’t yet living together, so his absence went largely unnoticed, and it didn’t really matter that she could only see him at weekends. Even then, he was often exhausted and disorientated – as though he hardly remembered who she was. She put it down to pre-wedding stress. Once or twice, he seemed to stumble over her name and look at her blankly, as though he had woken to find himself in a strange room.
“Buck up, Fergus!” she would tease him as if he were one of the boys in her infant class. They would both laugh.
“Miles away – sorry,” he would say. Thinking of work-related stuff and his exams, she supposed. Poor, jaded, wonderful Fergus, wearing himself to an absolute shred for her sake. Naturally, she showed him the understanding he deserved.
Isobel had a small sun-deprived room in a depressingly dingy shared house. It was in an area never likely to become fashionable, as her daily commute took her to and from a district far closer to the metropolis than Fergus’s tree-lined suburbia. Fergus always felt smutty and furtive visiting her there. More often, they would meet in a restaurant or outside a movie theatre – or even occasionally in the café at the station. Isobel would invariably make her reference to ‘Brief Encounter’, and Fergus (having now watched it himself on DVD) hoped he didn’t look like Trevor Howard.
Fergus knew that part of Isobel’s charm lay in the necessary brevity of their affair. She was the last forbidden chocolate éclair before the sensible High-Fibre diet for life. This meant that although he dreaded the moment when the final delicious mouthful slipped down, leaving just the lingering aftertaste and traces of chocolate to be licked from lips and fingers, he also relished every small, poignant bite.
Isobel was young, unsophisticated, inexperienced. She was a painfully raw mass of exposed emotions and unprocessed ideas. She was both refreshing and exhausting to be with for this very reason. Her eyes darted everywhere, and her mind flitted with them, alighting on each fresh concept and hovering with momentary excitement before being drawn towards the next. It was energising for Fergus. He was able to introduce her to so much, which for him had already become of fading interest. Her wholehearted enthusiasm often left him limply drained. She had read and seen so little and was eager to discover and be taught. Her imagination was boundless, irrepressible. Nothing seemed to get her down.
Nothing, that is, until Fergus reminded her that he was supposed to be marrying Liz, and would have to stop seeing her soon. Then she threw herself body and soul into experiencing despair.
No matter how she persuaded or entreated, Fergus stood his ground. He was a man of honour – albeit a slightly tarnished honour given his dalliance with Isobel. Sneaking about behind Liz’s back had been bad enough, but he must do the decent thing in the end.
They met in the bar of the pub near the station for a farewell drink. Isobel sat looking tragically beautiful. She reminded him in an embarrassingly loud voice of all the marvellous times they’d had. He promised her he would never forget, that he would think of her often.
“You know I really care for you,” he said. He tried to sound sincere rather than complacent. Isobel’s grief at losing him didn’t really touch him. Her tears made him awkward, unable to get close to her. He wasn’t used to dealing with this sort of situation. They went hand in hand into the station, prepared to catch their trains from opposite platforms. It was excruciatingly symbolic.
That was when she had said she would always be there if he needed her. “Just send me an email,” she said. “I won’t change that address, whatever else changes in my life.”
Fergus examined his forty and a fortnight-year-old face in the bathroom mirror. He dutifully scrubbed all traces of paint from his hands. It was better not to incur the wrath of Liz. She who inspected fingernails before all meals, who insisted on bedtime showers before regular weekly sex.
The trouble is… he thought. What could I possibly say to Isobel after all this time?
Ten years on, it was hard to imagine the right way of phrasing such an email. What words would provide the hook to link them both to their past relationship? He didn’t want to appear needy or to ask too much of someone who might well have moved on far beyond the memories they shared, whatever she had promised about always being there.
He hadn’t really intended to do anything more about it, but a week later, the movie ‘Brief Encounter’ was shown on late-night TV. Fate was taking a hand in matters yet again. It brought back so acutely the memories of that episode in his life before marriage. In retrospect, those months with Isobel seemed more important than anything that had happened since. Happiness, though hard to define, was something he remembered having known then and since forgotten.
As the ending credits rolled and the ads began their relentless assault, Fergus sat mutely, gripped by a cumbersome melancholy. Liz tidied away coffee cups and magazines. She hustled the dog into its basket in the kitchen. Fergus’s abstraction irritated her.
She said: “Did you get that repeat prescription for your haemorrhoid cream? I did remind you.” Fergus regarded her with loathing. What insensitivity, to crash so indiscreetly into his mood of bitter-sweet nostalgia.
“You do focus your attention on banalities, don’t you?” he said loftily.
“You say that now, but you’ll sing a different tune when you’ve run out and need some more,” nagged know-all Liz. She stood by his chair as if impatient for him to move so that she could plump up the cushions and tidy him away, too.
I don’t sing any tunes… thought Fergus morosely. He was sunk in self-pity and regret. He suddenly recalled Isobel once darting across the road to meet him, weaving her way through parked and streaming traffic with a dainty liveliness that made a ballet of her movements. The climax of her dance was the moment when she grasped his hands and pulled herself into the safe harbour of his arms. Her face had shone with love for him.
The next day Fergus sent the email. “Our Brief Encounter was all too short, ten years ago,” he wrote. He signed off with an emoticon smiley face and two kisses, which felt even bolder than the words themselves.
It was a morsel of bait on a line cast into a vast, almost certainly unresponsive ocean, he felt sure. Ten years. People changed more than their email address in that time. They matured, they forgot, they moved on.
Against all the odds, it seemed, two days later, he received a reply. “Dearest Fergus, meet me again. I’ll be at our station café on Platform Four, 11 a.m. Saturday. Our previous Encounter Brief, but never forgotten. Isabel.”
Fergus flushed. He shook as though seized by a fever. The words seemed to stand out from the email with the gold-leafed glow of an illustrated manuscript. He had to keep checking to establish that it wasn’t merely his imagination, fuelled by wishful thinking. He moved into a state of tremulous anticipation, an almost trance-like condition that distanced him from any tangible reality. Nothing had significance except the point in a future time when Isobel once more existed in his present. The days and hours and people in between were a mere hindrance.
“You aren’t eating,” Liz accused, as yet another plateful congealed unheeded in front of him. “You’re going down with something.” She seemed displeased, as if inconvenienced by him. This was how she reacted to the children’s ailments and the dog’s requirements for daily walks and yearly injections.
“Yes, I’ve made an appointment with the doctor for this Saturday,” said Fergus. It was a moment of inspiration. The lie sprang wantonly to his lips. He would invent and embellish the story subsequently. There were so many plausible excuses for his prolonged absence – the long wait to be seen, the chance meeting in the surgery with an old work colleague. The important thing was that it would get him a morning pass out of the house and any little jobs Liz was bound to have lined up.
“Clean underwear, then,” said Liz. Anyone would think such a thing was a rare treat rather than a daily occurrence. The laundry basket was never allowed to lie fallow.
Fergus thought of where the station assignation might lead and lowered his eyes guiltily. “A definite must,” he agreed.
“What with your piles and so forth….” Liz cruelly pursued her theme. She eyed him as though she couldn’t quite decide whether or not she should donate him to the local charity shop.
Fergus suddenly felt much older than forty and a few weeks. He wondered exactly how much balder and fatter he might have become without noticing it during the last ten years. Did women mind about that sort of thing very much? He would have asked Liz, but she had long ago stopped really noticing him at all.
He arrived at the station that Saturday, ages before the specified time. Earlier, he had spent much longer than usual in the bathroom. Liz had been roused to fury at his obstruction of her normal weekend routine. He wished she would say something loving or even kind before he left, but she was full of snarls and grunts and huffiness. She stalked through the house in her unbecoming though serviceable woolly dressing gown and suede mules.
He sat in the small waiting room café looking at faces, wondering whether Isobel might arrive early too. Would he recognise her? It suddenly struck him that she must have changed far more than he had imagined. She was a woman in her thirties now, rather than a girl. Had she moulded herself in the image she believed he wanted? Had she really waited patiently all this time for him to return to her? Had she known for sure that he would?
If she had believed his return was inevitable, then she had understood him better than he had himself. He preferred to think she would simply have hoped against all the contrary evidence. After all, he had been mostly happy enough with Liz for ten years.
He kept thinking of Liz’s tired suede mules with the downtrodden backs. For some reason, these filled him with dreadful pangs of remorse and tenderness. Neither of these emotions was conducive to an embarkation on infidelity.
He wondered again in what ways Isobel might have altered with the passage of time. He had a sudden dreadful vision of her in Liz’s mules – or even worse, in some of those garish, fluffy slippers with heels. He reluctantly suspected they were more her style. Had she married, had children? Had she sagged, drooped, withered, or piled on the pounds? Had she exchanged that glorious bloom of youth for a painted travesty of what she once had been?
Hadn’t her swift reply to his email been somewhat incautious? Didn’t that smack of desperation? Ten years might have treated her far more badly than his overworked imagination could suggest. Perhaps she had abandoned herself into slatternliness without the incentive to appear smart. Had she given up using her brain without his guidance? Slumped into apathy? Or, perhaps worse, had she channelled all her unsatisfied libido into becoming one of those man-eating career women? Maybe what she wanted now was to wreak her revenge.
It was five to eleven. Fergus knew this because he had been nervously glancing at his watch at two-minute intervals for the last half-hour. Quite irrelevantly, it floated into his mind that there was a train going back homewards at two minutes past the hour. If he started now and sprinted up the stairs and across the bridge to the opposite platform, he could catch it.
He found himself in mid-sprint almost without realising that he had left the café, the way things are in dreams. He felt as if he were being chased by something horrible, some bounding overweight virago screaming for his blood. He had completely forgotten what Isobel looked like ten years ago. The new, terrifying, fantasy-conjured images had blocked off all true memories.
He settled himself in a corner seat of the carriage and began to wonder what story he would concoct for Liz. How comforting it was to know she would be waiting there with shepherd’s pie and a detailed plan of how he should spend the afternoon.
Relaxed, he glanced out of the window at his side just as the train was pulling away from the platform. There, unmistakably, across the track, standing wan and dejected, was Isobel. Their eyes met as, incredulous at her abandonment, she caught sight of him.
She hadn’t changed at all.
But this is exactly how I felt then! Fergus recalled. His throat constricted with exultation.
It was that same odd agonising mixture of sentimental regret and overwhelming, heady relief. He was free! What a narrow escape from all that clinging, demanding passion!