IN THE MIRROR
‘I saw you today,’ said Ann to her husband. He was reading the paper after dinner, sucking his teeth.
‘I mean at lunchtime. In the lane. I was amazed.’
‘You should be, since I had lunch at the school.’ He twitched, enjoying himself.
‘Yes, alone. Clearly you confused me with some other dried up academic.’
All this made her tremble. At lunchtime she’d been looking in the mirror. She’d hung it in the kitchen when they’d first moved in and were full of plans. It caught the light from the kitchen window and made her look awful, yet she went there many times a day.
This time she’d been stretching the wrinkles around her eyes. She stretched them out and watched them spring back and thought, ‘Next stop a walking stick.’ Then she’d seen him. He was passing behind her, glimpsed over her shoulder in the mirror, swinging his yellow cane that wasn’t a walking stick but a tool for beheading weeds.
She had run to the window but he’d gone. She looked right and left, confused by the angles in the mirror. She ran down the path to the front gate and looked again. Their house was on a tight bend and she couldn’t see far. She hurried out, but the lane was empty.
So here was another worry. First she’d seen that she was lonely, then that she was old, and now George was sneaking past the house when he should be at work.
She stood up quickly and said, ‘I don’t know why you’re lying.’ She went upstairs and splashed her face in the bathroom sink, and saw how misery had made her eyes swell.
She had seen him. She went to the bedroom window. Even from here she couldn’t see much, the lane sunk between tall hedges. She remembered him clearly, though: slim and straightbacked with his cane, glimpsed for a moment as he passed the gate.
Damn mirror. She still couldn’t work out the angles. Perhaps if she went down and looked again. Hands trembling, she smoothed her dress. She crept downstairs, hearing his chair creak, the rustle of newspaper, and stood in front of the mirror. People used to say, ‘A handsome couple,’ but of course a woman ages faster. She thought of her husband striding past, confident and tall.
‘I did see him.’
Over her shoulder, reflected in the mirror, was the gate with its glimpse of lane. Actually it didn’t matter about the angles, because George had been heading towards that big oak. She went to the window and saw that the oak was off to the left, on the way to the school. He must have parked short of the gate, then passed it on foot, and she’d seen him when he was walking back to the car.
It was obvious where he’d been: Jenny’s house.
She gripped the window sill. ‘Betrayal. I am betrayed.’
Next day she saw him again. Again it was lunchtime, although she hadn’t noticed. She was back at the mirror, touching the skin on her throat. It had slackened like a scarf. For the moment, her top button covered it, but the loose skin would spread up her throat and reach her chin and everyone would see that she was old.
There was a movement over her shoulder. George! She gave a cry of shock, but knew what to do. Without moving, staring into the mirror, she checked that again he was walking towards the oak. She hurried to the front door and down the path in the sunshine.
No one. She ran to the tree. It stood on the worst part of the bend, where the hedges were high and the lane tipped outwards so that car tyres squealed. But the lane slumbered in the heat. She walked on until she could see properly. The lane ran straight and clear before it vanished behind a wood and on towards the dirty main road and then the school.
He’d been with Jenny. Then he’d strolled past his own gate, swinging the yellow cane, and had driven back to the school.
She turned round, bowed under her grief. The sorrow was like coming home.
Next lunchtime she was waiting. And she waited the day after. Clearly George was learning deceit, because she stood at the kitchen window for hours and saw only Jenny, cycling past as usual in the afternoon. There was the tinkle of a bell, a flash of chrome through the hedge, and a glimpse of her pink face as she passed the gate.
Doubtless she was off to some committee in the town. A restless woman, surely the last person to flourish in the country but annoyingly busy.
During these days Ann was abrupt with her husband. Her attitude said that she understood his tricks, which were contemptible. She put the plate in front of him and the food was perfect – shining salads with the best ham, or with smoked salmon, glossy and rich. She ordered the food from a shop in the town, brought in a liveried van, very expensive but it was right that George should pay. She slept in the spare room among abandoned hobbies – her sewing machine and exercise bike and easel.
George seemed not to care. It was perhaps a war over who could say the least. Or perhaps he was happy with the paper, and then with his files that kept him in the study all evening, with only an occasional throat-clearing.
‘I might as well be alone,’ she thought, watching TV with the sound off. ‘I’d be happier alone.’
Next morning she broke. She stayed in bed until George had left, then dashed around the house wringing her hands. She gripped the backs of chairs, craned from windows, stood in the bathroom saying ‘Why?’ and then went to their bedroom and opened the wardrobe. She parted his coats and moved a cardboard box. George’s yellow cane stood in a corner.
She punched her forehead because the world was mocking her. She took out the cane. The mud on its steel tip was old and dry.
She went frantic again, shouting and stamping, and came to herself in the kitchen, fists above her head. ‘I’m a mad woman. I’m a woman in the country, mad with pain.’ She sat in the kitchen and spread her fingers on the table. The tabletop was cool. She heard the clock ticking, and a fly at the window.
She went to the mirror. Its face was smooth, like the face of a cruel child. ‘I’m miserable. I pretend it’s because I’m old. It’s better than thinking that nobody loves me.’
Nobody loved her! Her eyes filled. She looked into the mirror to see how ugly she was when she cried. Instead, over her shoulder, she saw George and Jenny, blatantly together in the lane, George swinging his yellow cane.
She ran to the front door and into the sunshine, her hands in little fists. They wanted to grind her into the dust, but she would beat them.
An hour later she found herself alone. She was standing in the middle of the lane. Birds sang, the sun filtered down through the oak, and she was dizzy and afraid.
She went to bed, the sun pouring through the curtains, a clamour of birds in the garden. There was always another level to sorrow, the heart broken smaller still. In the evening George came to her twice, but she didn’t listen and only said, ‘Go. I don’t want you.’
It seemed that she had an infinite capacity for sleep. She knew nothing until morning, when he sat on the bed. ‘Don’t be miserable,’ he said. ‘It does hurt me, you know.’
‘And yet you lie about …’ It was too humiliating to explain.
‘About being at school? You should phone. They’ll put you through and we can talk.’
‘I won’t phone. They hate me.’
‘What? Why would they hate you?’
‘Poor George.’ She used a wheedling voice. ‘Poor George, with that old hag.’
‘You’re not old. Nobody thinks that. You’re imagining it.’
‘I’m not imagining how you lie and lie.’ She looked awful, she knew, her face twisted into the pillow.
‘I’ll come home then. At lunchtime.’
‘It’ll be fun, in the car.’
Incredulous, she couldn’t speak. At last she said, ‘I'm sure you have more exciting things to do.’
George stood up. ‘Don’t think about being old. It’ll come soon enough.’ He gave a little laugh. ‘You’re spoiling your life. We have a good life.’
‘I’ve laid out breakfast. Just boil the kettle.’ There was a silence and then he kissed her head. ‘Eat. You’ll feel better.’
She turned away and pulled up the sheet. Her misery was just, because she shared the house with a liar who mocked her with his tricks. With this thought she fell asleep.
At lunchtime she came down to the kitchen, leaning heavily on the banister, and stared at the tea bag he’d placed in a cup. She hated him, but he was right in this: she had looked into the future and it was crushing her.
She went to the mirror. She watched the wrinkles on her upper lip, which opened and closed as she spoke: ‘I saw myself as an old woman, and this has aged me. I saw myself as unloved, and now I’m unlovable. We mustn’t look too far ahead.’
There was a movement in the mirror. George and Jenny were passing the gate, smiling, arm in arm.
She didn’t run because she couldn’t. She went to the front door and fumbled with the lock. She staggered down the path, and steadied herself on the gate post, and came again to the oak.
No one. She swayed in the middle of the lane. A car came swiftly round the bend.
George started walking home for lunch. There were letters to write, and he had to pack Ann’s clothes and belongings – her easel and stuffed toys and mirrors. Most of all he needed to get away from the school: he didn’t like chatter, and everyone wanted to sympathise. It was a long walk, but of course the car was wrecked.
The weather stayed good. After a week or two he remembered his yellow cane, and walked straighter, swinging at weeds.
Then Jenny invited him for lunch. It was pleasant, and he went again. It was odd to pass his house, and so she walked a little way back with him. One day she took his arm.
And when she moved into his house … well, no one was surprised. She was so like George – pleased with herself, out-going, always cheerful.