Thomas thought it was time Mary returned to the job market. She felt the children were still too young. "You're so talented," he told her. "I know!" she laughed. Eventually, she went for an interview. She said, "They say it's for the export office, but in the end I'd just be a glorified PA." "Glorified sounds good," Thomas suggested. "Maybe he's an interesting guy."
Mary was sitting at her place at the table, reading the newspapers online and eating an apple. Thomas had his back to the fireplace. "You're an interesting guy," she said without looking up. "I could be your PA." Thomas had decided not to drink tonight but felt the pull of the fridge. "I already have a PA," he laughed. "We know," she said.
The company made designer light fittings that were sold all over the world. It seemed right up Mary's alley. In the following days, Thomas had to struggle not to ask her whether they had been in touch. When he came home from work, she was away doing her Pilates, or in the swimming pool, or out with the dog. The children were in their rooms, doing whatever adolescent children do. Thomas lingered by the fridge. He went into the sitting room to make up the fire. Coming downstairs, his daughter Sally had her hair in a towel. "What happened with Mum and that job?" she asked. "I don't know," Thomas said. Sally sat down at the piano, banged out two chords, and stood up again. "When's dinner?" "When your mother gets back," he said.
The girl seemed frustrated. "Can't we cook?"
"We could," Thomas said. "But you know how Mum is. She's probably got something planned."
Sally went back upstairs, shaking out her hair. "I'll be late," she called.
On Sunday, Mary's brother came over with his wife and their two small children. Mary closed herself in the kitchen and prepared a mushroom risotto, with canapés to start and almond tart to close. Thomas chose the wines. Malcolm looked tired but pleased with himself. "Too many hours in court," he said. Katie talked at length of her relief at not being laid off in her newspaper's latest cull. She had a strong South African accent. "You should be proud of yourself," Thomas told her. "It means you're good." "Yeah, soon I'll be the last man standing." Katie shook her head. "Woman, rather." The upshot was that they were now working more hours than ever. "I've figured out I'm doing three people's work as of five years ago. Half the articles in the section, all the editing and all the layout."
She began to talk about what had happened when the computers crashed the previous Thursday evening. Chaos. She hadn't got home till dawn. As she spoke, her young children sat on the carpet playing with their phones. Mary was silent but, passing Thomas in the kitchen with the coffeepot, she muttered, "Proud?" And by the sink, she whispered, "I can't understand why they had children if they're going to be brought up by Filipinos."
"Where's Sally?" Malcolm asked. "My favorite niece."
Their daughter had gone to her boyfriend's.
"For the weekend!" Mark chipped in. He had chosen to sit with the adults.
"Uh oh," Malcolm said.
"You're not letting them spend the night together?" Katie asked. "She's only 16, isn't she?" She began to say that the problem with allowing adolescents to sleep together at each other's homes was that it made it more difficult for them to split up further down the line. Everything got so tangled. She had written an article about it.
To their right the lights of the city flickered in the plain. Above them a sliver of moon made the evening ghostly. Through her coat he could sense her resistance.
"You wait," Mary said.
"Oh, Katie's a tough cookie," Malcolm laughed. "She'll keep 'em on the straight and narrow."
"Katie's mostly out," Mary observed.
There was a brief pause.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Katie asked.
"Exactly what it says."
"Are you insinuating..."
"You bet I am," Mary said. For the first time she seemed to be taking pleasure in having guests.
"Girls!" Malcolm pleaded.
"Mary just means that it's impossible to stop people having sex if they really want to..." Thomas said.
"Dead right there," his wife agreed.
Malcolm tried to laugh.
"I can't believe this," Katie started. "I make one tiny criticism and..."
Mary interrupted her. "But now we're on the subject," she said. "I was offered a job, yesterday."
There was a short silence. Mary hadn't worked since her second pregnancy.
"That's wonderful!" Thomas said.
"Doing what?" Malcolm asked.
"Running an export office."
"High-class lighting design," Thomas explained. "Spiffy stuff."
But everybody was speaking at the same time now. Mark seemed absolutely thrilled. "Well done, Mum!" he shouted. "Well done!" "I guess now you'll see what it means dividing home and work," Katie remarked. "Congratulations, Sis," Malcolm smiled. "Great stuff."
"I didn't say I'd accepted," Mary told them.
Again the silence was like a spotlight. They were all watching her.
"The fact is, I only went to the interview because Tom is endlessly bothering me about working. Aren't you, dear?" Abruptly she stood up and began to gather the remaining plates.
"Mary! We can do that later."
Already heading for the kitchen, she called, "Ask him why."
Mark ran after her. "Mum!"
"It's crazy not to accept," Malcolm observed. "At least to see how it feels."
Katie was shaking her head. "Of course you want her to work, Tom, it would do her good."
But now there was a tapping on the window. Sally wanted to be let in. The girl had been crying, but put on a brave face. "Hi Uncle, hi Katie. You're looking well."
The doorbell rang from the street. Twice. Sally turned to her father.
"Tell him I don't want to see him. He can just fuck off."
She turned and hurried upstairs.
Mary had to make her decision the following Wednesday. The children were very much in favor. With them doing all the persuading, Thomas decided that any effort on his part might be counterproductive. At the same time, he wondered how he and his wife had got into this state, not being able to talk together about whether she should take a job. But then why did it feel so urgent that she did? If Malcolm and Katie had asked him, he wasn't sure he could have replied.
"The truth is I'd just be a dumb PA," Mary told the children Monday morning. "And for a man ten years younger than me. The export-office talk is the typical bait. I've been there before."
They were in the car taking the kids to the bus stop. Thomas concentrated on the road.
"The fact is, your father earns four times as much as they'd be giving me, so it would hardly make much difference, moneywise," she told them over supper. "I'd have to get someone in to clean, of course, which would cut the advantage even further. And the travel costs naturally. Forty minutes in the car. It's hard to see the point really."
Thomas was aware that all this was addressed to him although apparently spoken to the children. It occurred to him he could tell her he would be in a position to work less if she had an income. He hesitated, but let it pass. He didn't want to work less.
"You'd meet new people, Mum," Mark said.
"I don't need new people when I have my family."
"You're always saying we're short of money," Sally observed.
"Well, we're not, are we, Tom?"
Her appeal caught him by surprise.
"Like when we couldn't afford the new bathroom?" Sally insisted.
"Not desperate for money, no," he said. "After all, we did get the bathroom in the end."
Yet he desperately wanted her to take this job. What could he do to swing it?
"Like to walk the dog to the pub?" he asked on the Tuesday evening when the dishes were in the dishwasher.
Mary frowned. The Cross Keys was almost two miles away. There was a path over the hills. It had been an age since they had walked there. Or anywhere. In winter it would be muddy and dark.
"Who's going to take the dog out if I'm always at work?" she asked.
"We will!" Mark and Sally cried.
"For about the first two weeks," Mary said. "I didn't get a beautiful dog to have him locked up in the house all day."
"Well?" Thomas asked.
They walked up the hill and turned off into the wood. Mary had brought a torch. She stooped to let Ricky off his leash. The path was narrow here so they had to walk single file, but when it emerged on the hilltop, there was room for Thomas to walk beside her and take her arm. To their right the lights of the city flickered in the plain. Above them a sliver of moon made the evening ghostly. Through her coat he could sense her resistance.
"You got a text message," she said eventually.
"Did I? I didn't hear it?"
He pulled out his phone and looked at the message he knew was there.
"PA working late?"
"Some dumb offer from Orange."
"Maybe I could have an affair, with a younger man."
"Excellent idea," Thomas joked, "though definitely unwise with the boss."
"You're right, he probably wants to hire an older woman so as not to be tempted."
"For Christ's sake," Thomas tried to laugh. "You seem to think workplaces are all brothels." After a moment, he added, "Can you imagine anyone shagging, Katie, for example?"
Mary chuckled and squeezed his arm.
"Malcolm should be so lucky."
In the pub, Ricky kept running round the tables to be made a fuss of. Mary enjoyed calling him back, and telling him to sit, but as soon as they started talking, he was off again, wagging his tail among the drinkers. Finally, Thomas said it.
She was striding away at a great speed, yelling Ricky, Ricky. The little crisis seemed to have galvanized her.
"I just think it would be the best thing for you. For your life."
"Oh yeah? Driving 20 miles every morning, getting stressed out for peanuts?"
"You'd feel more..." he hesitated. "Independent."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You know, more in control."
"Tom, why on earth would I need to feel independent when I'm married and have two wonderful children? Dependency is natural in a family. We all depend on one another."
"Still, the kids really want you to take the job. They're grown up now."
Mary sighed and played with her wineglass. Thomas was drinking beer.
"Maybe they think it would bring some fresh air into the house."
She waited. He was digging his grave perhaps.
"I suppose they're excited by the idea that their mum can hold her own in the world just as well as..."
She cut him off. "Single people are independent, Tom. Are you saying you want me to be single?"
"Mary, for God's sake."
But somebody in the pub had begun to shout. A young woman was on her feet. "Get that fucking dog away from me! Shoo! Get lost!"
Ricky was sniffing and wagging his tail. The woman had backed away against the wall. She was terrified. The man beside her, who seemed considerably older, tried to grab the Cocker by the scruff of the neck. As people turned to see what was going on, he asked, "Whose dog is this?" He had a foreign accent.
"Please don't worry," Mary said, "he wouldn't hurt a fly."
"He should be on a leash," the girl screamed.
"Please get your dog," the man said.
"He really is completely harmless." Mary smiled.
Most of the folk in the pub were on her side. Ricky loved to be fondled. The couple were newcomers.
"That's not the point," the man said.
Drying glasses, the publican made no attempt to intervene.
"Ricky!" Mary called. "Come here, love."
"It's rude," the girl said, "letting your dog run around sticking his nose in people's hands. Why do I have to put up with that?" She too had a slight accent, Thomas thought. Her voice was trembling with emotion. The man had taken her hand.
"Ignorant," Mary said flatly. Ricky was already back at her side.
The girl had begun to say something else, but the man discouraged her. He got to his feet, pulled on his coat, and helped her with hers. They left their drinks unfinished. But to reach the door they had to pass by Thomas and Mary's table. "Bad manners," the girl said sharply. Thomas was struck by her finely hooked nose and jet-black hair.
"Ignorant," Mary repeated. As soon as the door was closed behind them, she took her dog by the jowls and stared into his eyes. "Ignoramuses, aren't they, love? Not like wise old Mr. Rick."
"Foreigners," the woman at the next table shook her head.
Mary drained her glass. "That's dependency for you," she said, still talking to the dog. "Latching on to a man twice your age, just to be looked after."
"No doubt his PA," Thomas joked.
On their way home, the dog disappeared. The animal stood still for a moment, on the alert, sniffing the air, then bounded off up the hill.
"Hedgehog," Mary sighed. "Now he'll get filthy, or full of thorns or something."
They walked on but the dog didn't rejoin them. There was still no sign of him when they reached the shortcut leading down through the woods. The moon had gone and it had come on to drizzle.
"We can't go back without him," Mary said.
It was after 11.
"What if I go over the hill," Thomas suggested, "the long way, and you go down through the wood? That way we'll cover both paths."
"OK," she agreed, "except you go through the wood. I'm sure he's up on the hill still. He's more likely to come to me."
"It's farther that way."
"I like walking," she said.
As soon as Thomas stepped into the wood, he was in the pitch dark. It really was impossible to know where to put your feet. He was still in time to turn and hurry after his wife for the torch, but for some reason he didn't. She was striding away at a great speed, yelling Ricky, Ricky. The little crisis seemed to have galvanized her.
Thomas stood still, hoping his eyes would grow accustomed to the dark. He looked up, trying to find a gap between the dark branches of the trees, then down at the ground. He couldn't see a thing. The only way to advance was by feeling your way forward, arms outstretched to touch the damp trunks on either side. Beneath his feet last year's leaves were soft and slimy. The drizzle was thickening. After a few moments, he stopped again. Perhaps if he waited a little longer, he would be able to make out the path. "Ricky!" he called. The darkness absorbed his voice. He had the impression no one would hear even if they were nearby. Looking up again, he could see a faint glow of sky through the branches, but that only made things more impenetrable when he looked down at the ground. Then all at once he experienced a strange sense of satisfaction. Of knowingness. "This is exactly what it is like," he said out loud. "Being in the dark."
He stumbled on for a few minutes, not even sure now if he was on the path. Then his toe caught a root and he was down on his hands and knees. For a moment he sat on the wet ground. How incredibly stupid this was! In the modern world, to let oneself get stuck like this. He could call Mary, of course. He had the phone. Or Anita, who had texted earlier, asking if she could call. He didn't want to. He didn't want to speak to anyone. But perhaps the phone could work as a torch. He pulled it out. The glow lighted an area of two or three steps, the path was nowhere to be seen. He had left it.
Now he tried to retrace his steps. He would go the long way, over the hill. Blundering in the dark, he remembered the girl with the dog phobia. Fear had made her very beautiful. Big round eyes. What a lucky man! And in the end she was surely right that one ought to be able to sit in a pub without having to be smelled by dogs. Yet it was pointless saying that to Mary. Mary seemed to have an appetite for these mundane confrontations. With Katie as well. But not for the world of work. Why not? Ask him why he wants me to work, she had said. But wouldn't the more pertinent question have been, ask her why she doesn't want to work? She wasn't lazy. She wasn't without ambition and curiosity. So what was she afraid of?
Suddenly Thomas was aware of the dog. A glint of eyes. Ten feet away, in the shadow, Ricky was waiting for him, on the path perhaps, sitting, panting, head cocked, watching intently. In the glow of the phone, his doggy face had the solemn puzzlement of someone making an enormous effort to understand.
"Got him!" Thomas phoned Mary. "Only I don't have a leash, and I can't see a thing in this stupid wood."
"Tom, you're my hero!" she cried warmly. "Just hang on to his lovely, silky, sexy fur till I get to you."
After midnight, in bed, she wanted to make love. Perhaps it was a kind of reward, Thomas thought. They hadn't made love in months. Neither of them had much appetite for it. Years later, lamenting with Sally about the amount of alimony he was having to pay, Thomas would sigh and say, "If only Mum had taken that famous job they offered her. Damn and damn, why didn't she?" "Because they never offered it to her," Sally laughed. "She told me the day she supposedly turned it down, and not to tell you. She just wanted to see how worked up you would get." However, when Thomas raised this with Mark, he got quite angry: "Dad, she didn't take the job, because she knew the moment she did the marriage was over and the family with it. She was determined to give you one more chance."
Even later, discussing this old mystery with Elsa in their new flat on Canning Street, Thomas's girlfriend observed that there was really no way of knowing whether Mary had told the truth, either to Sally or to Mark. Thomas agreed. He shook his head. The only thing he remembered now with any certainty was sitting next to Ricky in the dark wood, an arm round his neck, the animal's foul breath in his face, its doggy heart beating beneath thick fur, thinking of the girl in the pub, thinking of her visceral repugnance for animals, of the evident terror on her face as she backed to the wall, eyes wide, lips parted; thinking too of the man she was with, his tenderness as he helped her into her coat, her spunkiness when she said, "Bad manners," the couple's evident intimacy as they linked arms going out through the door of the Cross Keys.
"I knew I wanted that," he told Elsa.