Wednesday, 15 February 2012

An Illicit Romance
 
Julie-Ann Corrigan
 
Hazelnut Latte with a sprinkling of nut meg - a guilty pleasure

Margarita was standing in the kitchen brewing the morning coffee.  She spent as much time scooping it back out of the filter as she did putting it in.
Graham said she always used too much coffee.  Making the coffee had always been Graham’s job in the mornings, but since her early retirement, it had become her job.
Margarita flinched even now at the word retirement.
Graham appeared in the kitchen; tie neat, hair slicked forward too much over his bald patch, ‘What are you up to today?’   He was adding more water to the thick liquid Margarita had handed to him.  It was still too strong.
‘Today’s the loft day.  I’m finally going to sort my box,’ she said, eyeing up her husband’s tampered-with coffee.  ‘I really wish you’d boarded the loft before now, it’s going to be awful clambering about up there – I’m not getting any younger, you know.’
‘I know.’ Graham looked too hard at Margarita’s sensible dressing gown. ‘You know how it is with work and everything, never enough time.  Did he expect her to board the loft, seeing as she wasn’t working? ‘Don’t worry I’ll do it this weekend.  Just don’t nag me.’  He poured the coffee down the sink and kissed his wife.  ‘Leave your box today Marg.  Don’t go ferreting around up there until I’ve boarded it for you, okay?’
‘Okay.’ Margarita replied.

 

  *      *      *


         Margarita had been in the cramped loft for what felt like hours.  
Getting older was no fun, she thought, as she took a too large step to get to the next plank.  She ignored the pull in her calf muscle, determined to get to the enormous box that was perched precariously at the far end of the loft.
The aches in her body dulled as she contemplated the fun she was going to have looking at all the old photos; reading letters from friends.
 She’d thought after her retirement, she’d have all the time in the world. There were so many things she wanted to do; a whole world left to explore, maybe research her family history.  And … rediscover her passionate love for her husband.
Graham was ten years younger than Margarita.  It had never been a problem, ever.  Until she retired.  Until then their easy love and comradeship had seemed to offset any friction that might have occurred because of their respective busy jobs.  Friends were continually telling them how lucky they were to rub along so easily together.
Some of these same friends hinted at their childlessness and how much easier it was for them - because they didn’t have children.  Margarita and Graham were unbothered by these early cutting remarks.  They married because they loved each other.  Children were secondary to their needs.  So when children never happened, neither of them was at all concerned. 
Margarita paused in her loft quest and allowed herself to reminisce thinking of those early days; fending off the ‘when are you having children?’ remarks.
Margarita continued to pull the box along the loft.  It snagged on a plank, looked unsteady for a moment, but was then sitting in front of her. There, she’d got it.  Her excitement at finally conquering the box was overshadowed by thoughts of her husband.  This box was filled with memories; of holidays and special occasions. They took few photos these days, probably because they did so little together. He was consumed by his job, never really wanting to take holidays, too tired to socialise.
 Margarita was desperate to start seeing the world now she had the time, but she only felt strangely trapped by her freedom. Graham had another ten years left at work.  How could she wait that long?
Margarita had been a physiotherapist all of her life.  Her job had demanded organisation and efficiency.  She was straightforward but knew one of her more unappealing traits was her need to be in control.  Since she had more time on her hands, this trait had manifested itself into bossiness. 
She knew this because Graham had told her so only the other day.  In all fairness, he had qualified his comment by saying that is was her bossiness that had first attracted him to her.
Margarita had by now taken the battered box out of the loft.  She sat on the landing, made herself as comfortable as possible and tentatively opened the lid.
In one encompassing glance, she viewed the whole of their marriage.  She tucked arthritic knees under her chin and began.
The most recent correspondence and photos lay on the top.  Margarita put her hand and forearm down into the depths of the box and pulled the last twenty years out.  As it spilled onto the floor, she pushed it out of the way with her foot.  She dug again into the box, retrieving their first ten years of life together.  The part she, more than ever today, was compelled to examine.
There it was.  What she’d been subconsciously waiting to find. 
A faded black and white photograph of a much younger Margarita with a broad, blonde-haired young man.  They were sitting on a grassy embankment.  In the background was the old Victorian building in which Margarita had worked and then managed for over twenty-five years.  Just by looking at the old photo, she saw the sheer love, the determination of youth as the pair gazed at each other.
She had all but forgotten about her illicit romance.  Sitting on her immaculately clean landing, old feelings flourished.  The pain in her knees disappeared as quickly as the adrenaline had begun to flow.
Margarita was now, quite furiously, pulling out other photographs.  There was a batch taken in the old gymnasium of the Physiotherapy Department; lots of images of the statuesque blonde man.  With her experienced physiotherapist’s eye, she saw the pain in the young man’s eyes as he struggled to walk with the aid of the bars.  The photographs represented the recovery from the horrific injuries he’d sustained from his motorbike accident.  Margarita vividly remembered his slow and painful journey.  She was in many of the photos.  She was his physiotherapist and as she fell in love with her blonde patient, she’d felt his pain as if it were her own.  The surgeons, in their usual pessimistic way had told him he would never walk again.  Margarita was determined to prove them wrong.  She used all her skills to rehabilitate him to his full potential.  It took a long time. 
But in the end, neither of them minded how long it took.  Because each day in the Rehabilitation Centre represented another day in which they could be together.  Another day they could fall more in love. 
Another day in which she could well be, severely disciplined.
She pulled out another photograph, this time of herself and a tall, elegant woman, well into her fifties.  Her old boss. By only looking at the photo, she felt the dread.  She remembered clearly the day she’d been called into Mrs Clealand’s office.
She’d been made to wait outside for a good twenty minutes before her formidable boss called her in.  It was a ruse Margarita and her young collegues knew well.  ‘Makes you more acquiescent, you know.’  Josie had once observed.  ‘You’re so bloody terrified by the time she gets you in there you’ll do anything she bloody well asks.’ 
Margarita thought briefly of the now dead Josie and quickly felt guilty that she’d not thought of her for years.  How could she have forgotten Josie?
But like many things, she had forgotten.
Margarita finally sat down in Mrs Cleland’s office; the smell of cinnamon biscuits putting her at dangerous ease.
 ‘So, Mrs Hepworth, you appear to be achieving marvellous results with our young motorcycle boy.’  Margarita didn’t know if it was a compliment or not.  Did Mrs ‘See-Everything’ know about her and the patient?
‘Yes,’ was all she could muster as redness seeped up above her starched white uniform.
‘Margarita, you are very young and very married.  You have a marvellous career ahead of you.  What are you doing?’
Margarita had no idea what to say.  She was ashamed; she felt like an idiot, but was beyond rational thought.
‘I love him, Mrs Clealand, and he loves me.  I’m going to get a divorce.’  Margarita didn’t know who was more shocked at this statement, Mrs Clealand or herself.  Only for a moment did she worry her blonde Adonis felt the same. 
There was a barely audible tap on the door, Mrs Clealand snapped,  ‘Come in!’
The blonde head poked around the door, news travelled fast around the Rehabilitation centre.  His voice was strong and clear.  Margarita loved him even more.
‘Mrs Clealand, is there something we need to discuss?’  He glanced at Margarita reassuringly.
‘Yes, there is.’  She pulled herself up to her full height, ‘You’ve made a substantial recovery under the care of one of my best and most promising junior member of staff.’  Her face softened. ‘As the Senior Physiotherapist here, I will be discharging you from her care, as of today.’  Mrs Clealand pretended to shuffle some papers and not looking at either of them carried on, ‘I know nothing, I only hope you both know what you are doing.  Please leave now – and Margarita, make sure you finish your morning duties, you have a busy afternoon ahead of you.’ 
Margarita still remembered how despondent and yet at the same time, euphoric she’d felt.  Mrs Clealand was not going to sack her, but she still had to confront her young husband and more terrifying, her own mother. 
Divorce was still a dirty word in the early seventies … at least it was in Margarita’s middle-class family.
Margarita’s career had weathered the considerable storm.  Not that many years after the illicit affair and a convivial divorce, she was chosen as Mrs Clealands natural successor.  Mrs Clealand had called her a born leader and Margarita’s career blossomed.  Margarita smiled at Josie’s response to her promotion, ‘You still don’t get to boss me around missy.’  No one bossed Josie around, only the blonde Adonis had got away with that.  Again Margarita felt guilty about not remembering her old friend enough.  She made a mental note to visit her grave with Graham later that week.
Thinking of her contemporary husband brought Margarita away from her nostalgia.  She looked at the time, ‘Goodness, I really must go and start making dinner,’ she said to herself.   She unfolded stiff knees, pushed everything into a corner picking up only a few photographs to peer at downstairs whilst cooking.  She couldn’t help it.
 
 *       *       *
 

She hadn’t left herself enough time to prepare the casserole and felt a little bit cross with herself.  She’d spent too much time upstairs; tripping down memory lane.  Graham wouldn’t say a thing – she knew – but nevertheless she felt guilty.  In the old days before she had retired they would have laughed and sent out for a takeaway.  But for some reason now she felt she should be keeping the home fires burning, her mother’s voice reverberating in her head.
She heard Graham’s Jaguar pull into the drive.  Maybe they could have eggs on toast.
‘I’m home Marg!’  Graham shouted.  As he entered the kitchen, he brought in a strong smell of autumnal evening air.
Margarita quickly pushed the old photographs underneath the newspaper.  She had a feeling this wasn’t the best time to be showing them to Graham.  He didn’t look quite his usual self.
‘Are you all right, darling?  You look a little distracted.’  She forgot about her day and concentrated on her husband.
‘Had a bit of strange day, as it happens,’ Graham undid his tie and uncharacteristically, threw it onto the kitchen table.  ‘It would seem Marg, that I’ll be joining you in retirement.’  
Graham appeared older than when he had left for work earlier in the day.
‘I don’t understand – you don’t want to retire yet, do you?’
‘Well no - not really.  The company’s been taken over and most of the over fifties, in middle management, well, have been given a very lucrative retirement package.’
‘Including you?’
‘Yes, definitely including me.’ 
Margarita thought for a terrible moment he was going to cry.  She noticed the way he limped along the kitchen; his bad leg always got worse when something was bothering him; as though the burdens on his mind affected the damaged muscles in his body.  Mind and body always truly connected.
Graham sat down heavily.  He pulled the newspaper towards the end of the table pretending the conversation was over; Margarita’s day’s work slid out.  The faded photos dropped onto Grahams lap.
An invitation to sort things out.
‘You’ve been busy.’  Graham said.  ‘I told you I’d fix the loft … this weekend.’ 
Margarita felt a pang of guilt.  She knew that doing the loft was a major exercise for Graham.  Her gaze trailed down to his bad leg; she felt guiltier than ever.  It bothered him more than he would ever let on.  It was too much … she expected too much.
He still hadn’t looked at the photographs.
Margarita studied her husband, at the same time trying to find the right words to soothe his slightly bruised ego regarding his unexpected news.
‘Maybe it’s not a bad thing Graham – you know, being retired.’  She looked at him for reassurance and carried on, ‘We can spend more time together, go and see the world.’  His expression softened, she felt she could make a joke, like she used to, ‘Maybe you can start making the coffee again in the mornings.’ 
As Graham chuckled, he began to look at Margarita’s photos; staring intently at the black and white fading image of Margarita and the blonde Adonis.  It was as if a shadow had crossed his face. 
Margarita sat directly opposite her husband … and waited.
‘It must be over twenty-five years, Margarita.’  He glanced at his beloved wife.  ‘You haven’t changed at all.’
‘No, I have my mother’s genes, I think.’  She got up and walked behind his chair, peering at the photo with him, ‘It’s your hair, Graham – you have so much less of it now.’
  ‘Mmm – and it’s considerably whiter.’  He encircled her waist with his arm and hugged her like he hadn’t done for a while.  ‘It seems like only yesterday, yet at the same time, a lifetime ago.’
‘Can you remember that day in Mrs Clealand’s office?  You came in like a knight in shining armour and “saved” me.  I knew then that we’d grow old together.’
‘Margarita, you never needed saving, that’s why I fell in love with you.’
‘We were a bit naughty weren’t we?  An illicit romance - who would think it – looking at us now?’  Margarita started to giggle uncontrollably.  Graham got up, now not limping and kissed her.
‘Well, my darling we’d better start planning some holidays, don’t you think?’
Margarita knew they would be all right. 
Together they always got through everything.

Bio:
Julie-Ann writes short stories and articles. She has had short stories published in collections and one of her recent articles was published in Beat Magazine (see her interview with Laura Wilkinson here
She has recently completed her first novel and is now working on her second.

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