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When I met Wendy she was nineteen, still living with her parents and trying to come to terms with the fact that she hadn't gone to university. She'd wanted to study art but hadn't got as far as a foundation course. Her dad wanted her to find something more secure, and his idea of a compromise was to let her do what she wanted so long as she paid her way. She could have left home and supported herself, but that would have eaten into her money, delaying her further. So for the past year she'd been working in Waterstone's, trying to save up. `And now I don't even paint much,' she said, `so what's the point?' It was strange for a first conversation to be so doubtful; people are usually keen to show you how well their life is going.
It was the coldest January I'd known in Leicester, perhaps made worse because the tail end of 1991 had been mild. I was living in a shared house, next to the football ground. With only a few weeks to go until my twenty-seventh birthday, I was keen to move out alone. During winter my room was in shadow even on clear days, because only the sun's white corona cleared the stadium. The house was centrally heated, but my room was on the top floor at the end of the radiator chain. Jutting out over the garage, it didn't even gain heat from the rest of the house. There was only one window, looking out over the road, its glass dusted with fine rain or frost.
My housemates thought I was an obsessive worker, because I was hardly ever home. It was preferable to eat out on my own than go back there early. Teaching at the university, I virtually lived in my office, usingone corner as a studio space. Designing book covers and occasional magazine illustrations was more than a supplement to my income; it allowed me to feel I'd never given up my interest in art. Even though uni took up most of the time, it was preferable to believe I was more than a casual artist. It was probably this minor artistic dabbling that interested Wendy in the first place. It didn't matter that it was illustration, rather than oils and canvas; I was doing something she still hadn't got round to. Despite the doubts she voiced, I knew it was something she dreamed of. Even on that first night, I couldn't resist encouraging her.
That had been a problem with my last few relationships. Although I was only a part-time illustrator, it apparently made me that bit more attractive to women who wanted to be artists. I'd come to enjoy the role of pseudo-mentor, and had the pleasure of feeling I was making a difference, watching successive girlfriends explore their creative interests. It didn't occur to me at the time that anybody who's going to persist with their work doesn't need encouragement.
It was only when my mate Dave pointed out that each new girlfriend was around the nineteen mark, no matter how I aged, that it became clear what was going on. I believed I was attracting people who were going to be inspired, but the opposite was true. I was attracting people who were just about to give up on their dreams. It was as though they could touch the world they'd longed for through me, without making sacrifices or putting in effort. It was enough to sate their interest and allow them to move on. They weren't consciously using me but touching a lifestyle they idolised without having to live it. In every case it took only a few months until they got a proper job. Just until I have enough money, they said, and I believed it every time. But they always stayed in those jobs, and then, months later, when I tried to encourage them to get back to their work, I was told not to interfere. We can't all sit around being an artist, you know. I'd forgotten what it was like to end a relationship, because I was always the one being dumped.
From the outset, Dave insisted that Wendy was the same. Another failed artist sapping off your mediocre success was the way he put it. When I said she was different, he just said for now. Dave's attempts to annoy me were so familiar that I didn't take this comment seriously. I consoled myself with the fact that Dave hadn't even met Wendy. At that point, I'd only been with her a week, but we'd seen each other most nights.
We met on a Saturday so cold I woke up before dawn. The cloud was low, almost like fog, but the air was rushing with an icy wind. It never got fully light, and when I went outside that afternoon the stadium floodlights were haloed with sleety rain. My feet were wet before I reached the town centre. I went into Waterstone's for warmth and to see if any of my book covers were on show. It wasn't vanity, but a way of checking whether publishers should have sent my complimentary copies.
The lowest level in Waterstone's is always quieter, more like a library; the sound of traffic and rain is distant, you can hear pages being turned. Wendy was sitting in front of a shelf, leaning on one arm, filing art manuals into place. I'd seen her before, on the till, but I rarely bought new books, so we'd never made eye contact. She looked up at me and smiled so directly I thought she must have mistaken me for somebody else. I wasn't able to smile back before she looked away.
She was wearing a black jumper, a long floral skirt and leggings. It was almost a uniform in Waterstone's, but she looked so at ease with herself that it didn't bother me. Guessing her age was difficult; her skin and smile put her at eighteen. She was small enough to appear childlike, except for the way she moved. It would be crass to call it graceful; she moved as though she enjoyed everything she touched. She'd lost the angular uneasiness that lingers in some women well into their twenties. She looked so relaxed, sliding books into place, I could imagine her in a warm living-room, by her own bookshelf, with a glass of wine and a cat.
`Am I in your way?' she asked.
`Not at all.'
I wanted to speak again but couldn't think of anything to say, so tilted my head to one side, pretending to read titles. Now would be a good time to find a book with my work in it, hoping she'd ask what I was looking at, giving me a chance to show off.
She stood up, saw that I was looking at the section on oil technique, and said, `Do you paint?'
`I do some illustration. Bits of things for books. A few covers.'
`Oh, that's great. God, you're so lucky. Is it hard work?'
`It takes time. Getting the first few sales is the tricky bit.'
I felt insincere, because I'd been through this exact nonchalant conversation many times when meeting people and at the beginning of relationships. Wendy was talking so rapidly, and blushing, I could tell it was something that mattered to her. She wasn't impressed by me, but I reminded her of what she wanted.
`Do you paint?' I asked.
`I'm meant to,' she said, and when I smiled she added: `Not as much as I should.'
A pale man behind the main counter called her name, waving a book.
`Hang on a minute,' she said, as though it was obvious we were going to carry on talking. She was gone longer than I expected, so that it was unreasonable for me to stay in the art section the whole time. I moved toward politics, already wondering what hers were. By the time you reach your mid-twenties you worry about people's preferences before you begin to hope. When you're younger, you feel something for a stranger, believe in it, and hope you'll get along. That instinct often proves to be correct, for a while. After a few disasters, though, you begin to weigh people up before you allow yourself to feel anything. The way Wendy had talked to me would have dropped me in love when I was eighteen. As it was, I was wondering about her age, where she lived, what she believed in. You know the odds of being disappointed are fairly high, so you hold back until there's more information.
There are ways around some differences. I'd even been out with a girl who agreed with fox-hunting once; we managed not to talk about it, although when we split up we kept repeating the phrase just too different to each other.
I pulled out a Ken Livingstone book; it was one of his more obscure efforts, about the politics of biology. If she were a Tory, she'd see what I'd chosen and that would be that.
`Gynaecology,' Wendy said when she returned, as though that made it clear what the delay had been. Then she said, `What's your name?'
`And you're Wendy?'
`Yes. Are you going to buy that? It's not his best.'
We spoke about his books, briefly, and then she looked worried that she'd bored me. If I was distracted, it was because I was preparing myself.
I asked her out, and she said `yes' as though she meant of course.
When you ask somebody out, there's usually a brief competition over social obligations. I can't come out tonight, or this weekend, but I'm free next Wednesday. You're meant to be impressed by how busy and loved they are.
`Can you come out tonight?' Wendy asked. It was a direct request, and I was touched. She didn't appear overeager, or desperate, but was letting me know what she wanted. As it was, I hadn't arranged anything, except a vague plan to see Dave for a drink. I wasn't cynical enough to turn her down, so I said, `Tonight's great.'
The rain had gradually set, landing in gluey blobs through the afternoon, pausing for an hour, then returning as snow. I knew this because I sat in my room, watching, waiting for evening. The ground was nowhere near frozen, but as I left the house snow was beginning to stick.
The doors to Waterstone's were locked, so I stood beneath a vent in the wall; hot air blew out, making little strands of filth on the grille shiver.
Wendy came out, saw my wet hair and apologised for being late.
`I didn't have time to get changed. You don't mind, do you?'
I said that I didn't, so long as she'd be warm enough. Her black woollen coat was too big for her shoulders, and she looked colder than I was. We set off walking before we'd talked about where to go. I'd spent hours trying to decide the best combination of food, drink and film for our initial meeting, knowing that women generally hate it if you say, I don't mind what we do. Before I could voice this Wendy told me that she didn't want to go to pubs or for food. She asked me to drive her into the surrounding countryside.
`Just for the ride,' she said.
My car was in one of the lab car-parks, five minutes away, and on the walk over, dodging pedestrians and slush, we found it difficult to talk. There was an eager politeness, wanting to get on, but the conversation laboured. It wasn't that we had nothing to say, I hoped, but that we needed more privacy before we could start talking properly.
I let her into the Mazda and was about to wipe the back window when she leaned out and said, `Get in first.'
It was dark in the car, the windows mottled with snow. We closed our doors and the snow eased down, wrinkling, cracks of streetlight coming through.
`I can't believe how still it is in here,' she said, her voice sounding loud because the noise from outside was dampened by snow.
I put the wipers on, and the windscreen went so clear it looked shiny.
`Look at that,' Wendy said. `It's so orange.'
The car-park glared with streetlight, the snow-rounded cars, the ledges and paths, all the same harsh orange. When I put the headlights on, fans of white snow appeared in front of us. Wendy said, `Beautiful.' Most people wouldn't have noticed or, if they had, would have kept it to themselves. I didn't care whether she painted or not, but it pleased me that she was impressed by what she saw.
The only relationship I'd ended on holiday was with Jo Thatcher, who picked her nails as we drove, instead of looking at the scenery. I'd been patient, until we drove over the Kirkstone Pass, when I'd said, `Look at that view', and Jo had replied, `Oh, yes, more hills'.
I headed out of town and, when the engine was warm, put the heater on so loud we had to raise our voices. Once we left the salted roads I had to drive slowly, and there wasn't much to see apart from white hedges and tyre tracks until we reached higher ground. I parked by the reservoir, and with the headlights off the landscape brightened. The sky was clearing, the moon appearing at odd moments, lighting up the snowy hills, its wide shimmer spread on the water.
I wanted to get out and walk, but Wendy said it was too cold, so we stayed in the car until the windows had steamed up. She made me smile and I talked more than usual. It didn't feel like the usual discovery and dissection of a personality, but was more like going out with a friend. She wasn't trying to look good and didn't put any effort into pretending things were going well. When she told me about her parents, her regrets about uni and her art, she wasn't whining but honestly letting me know that she'd fucked up. She even seemed embarrassed by the word art, and referred to her work as drawing.
`But you do paint?'
`I used to.'
It was past midnight when she finally told me she was cold. We'd both been blowing into our hands for hours, but she meant it was time to go.
Driving back, we were quiet, my lips feeling rough, as though we'd been kissing. I hadn't eaten since mid-afternoon, and it was probably hunger that made my sense of smell so acute. I could smell Wendy's skin and hair, as though I were lying next to her. It made the tiredness seem pleasant, and if she'd offered I'd have stayed up with her all night.
During those first weeks, we spent all our time in the car, parked in lay-bys, eating at service stations, driving down winding roads. Wendy spent so much time working in town that she cherished getting out. I'd tidied my room and kept it neat since the day we met, but she never got to see it. If I invited her back, it would either be too late or she'd say later until the time ran out. For a while I thought she might just want to be friends. We didn't go to a single pub or restaurant or to see a film; she was happy to sit in the car with me and talk. It suited me because she made me laugh and never bored me. I got the feeling this was a delaying tactic, a way of getting to know me before we slipped into a more normal relationship.
On a still night, when we parked at Bradgate Park, we were talking about previous relationships, and she used the phrase other girlfriends. We hadn't even kissed, so I said something light about her being my girlfriend. The word excited me; it's more friendly than lover or partner. She didn't speak, and lowered her head, so her face was hidden by her hair. I moved it aside and, leaving my hand on her cheek, kissed her. She put her arms around me, gently at first, then holding me so tight I had to draw her face into my neck. I breathed into her hair for so long it became damp. I felt her ribs through her jumper, but given the cold I didn't want to put my hands directly against her skin. We didn't speak for the next hour, because we kissed until our mouths were sore.
By mid-March a thaw had set in, and I moved to a larger flat on Regent Road, the whole top floor to myself. The bedroom looked out on the university buildings, where nearly every window framed a Labour poster for the coming election.
I never knew why, but the move seemed to make a difference to Wendy. As soon as I'd moved in she said, `Aren't you going to invite me over?'
I met her at work, and it was raining so much that we stopped off at a gaudy pub near Leicester's train station. Frequented mostly by businessmen, it was empty when we arrived, with almost too much space for us to be intimate, but soon filled up as it went dark outside. She held my hand and said that she loved me.
Later, in my room, with the sound of heavy rain falling on to the pavement outside, we undressed each other. I felt it was going to be unrushed, but she made a noise almost like crying when I put my hand between her legs. She was so wet when I entered her, and I was so close to coming, that I imagined it ending in apologies. I was hypnotised by the noises she made, almost musical, until she paused, holding her breath, before releasing it like she'd been winded.
We didn't talk, but I pulled the covers over and held her, breathing at her rhythm so she wouldn't wake.
In the morning we drove down the M1 to get breakfast at the Forest East service station. Wearing yesterday's clothes, we looked unwashed and tired. Instead of sitting opposite me to talk, Wendy shuffled in next to me, her hands between her legs, blowing on her coffee. It was cold outside, but the windows made the sunshine feel hot. I worried out loud that she might be pregnant.
`A baby,' she said. `Imagine that.' She looked puzzled rather than worried, as though the thought of such a change could excite her.
I rambled on about responsibility, and how many lives it wrecked, and how she had to pursue her own life first. Wendy nodded solemnly.
`I know I couldn't really cope.'
`And if you're not pregnant?' I was hinting about contraception, but she missed the point.
`I need an outlet,' she said, though it wasn't clear for what.
She wanted me to meet her parents, because they were anxious about her spending so much time out without knowing who I was. It was a reasonable request, but I'd resisted for weeks.
`If you'd gone to uni, you wouldn't have to tell them where you were.'
`Please don't get at me for that. Please.'
`I'm not. But if you'd left home, they'd get used to not knowing. It frees you up.'
Meeting parents is never easy, because whatever your age, you greet them with a tone of apology in your voice. I didn't admit it at the time, but I was afraid of Laurence Paige before I met him. It was seeing the effect he had on Wendy that made me wary. Even just talking about him, she would look anxious. It bothered me, because Wendy wouldn't let me get away with anything thoughtless but was too afraid to answer back to this man. When he was angry, she preferred to back down.
The Paiges' house was well out from the centre of Leicester, with enough space for a bare garden and what remained of a willow that had suffered at the hands of an overzealous tree surgeon. The front hall had thick red carpets, which made for a disturbing hush, the sort that is usually filled by a ticking clock. The ornaments were all evenly spaced, well dusted, and the wallpaper was like thin velvet. It was the sort of house that made you whisper.
Her dad was leaning over the kitchen counter staring at an estate agent's card. He was short and bald, with a downy swathe of blonde hair around his skull. The fluorescent light made him look sickly. He didn't shake hands or even straighten up but grinned with all his teeth showing. He looked pleased to see me, eager and pleasant, not at all what I'd expected. Wendy had gone on about how successful a businessman he was, so I hadn't expected him to be wearing a light blue pullover and a cheap gold watch.
`Hiya, Wendy.' It sounded like Hoya Windy, a strong Birmingham accent. 'Hiya, Nick. Eh, Wendy, look at this.' He started showing her the house on the card. 'Near Stratford. Four bedrooms. How about that, eh? Look at this, Nick.'
`Oh, yes, lovely.'
`I think we might have that.' He grinned again. He seemed incapable of smiling, so I wondered how he'd look when angry.
Wendy's mother came through from the washroom carrying a basket stuffed with damp laundry. It had the lemony smell I associated with Wendy, only wetter. She spoke excitedly. `Hi, hi. Oh, it's good to meet you. At last.' Linda looked to be early thirties, her orange T-shirt tucked tight into her jeans. She was closer to forty, but next to Laurence she looked like his daughter, except she was taller than him. It was difficult to believe she was Wendy's real mother, because her hair was black and her skin a deep tan. The only betrayal of her age was the make-up, two charcoal lines around her eyes, lashes stiff with mascara. She reminded me of a pop star who'd aged well. `Sorry about this. Just doing my chores.' She laughed at herself.
I'd heard so many stories of Laurence bullying her I'd imagined a prim, sad woman in a print dress with brittle hair and a lost expression. It was difficult to picture this woman letting him get away with anything. Laurence looked at her as though he was watching from behind glass, his tongue teasing his lip.
Wendy went to help her mum hang the washing out, and Laurence used the opportunity to talk to me. It went on for longer than I would have liked, but he was reasonably pleasant until he said something about `those blacks'. I'd been nodding along, hardly listening to him until he said that. I didn't respond but must have looked shocked.
`You're not a nigger-lover, are you?' He looked angry, unblinking, his lips sealed. I thought he'd hit me if I said yes.
I mumbled, `No, no, but ...'
I only had one black friend, called Carl. If he knew what I'd just done, he'd have spat in my face.
I took it out on Wendy as we drove away.
`He's a fucking cunt.'
`Don't fall out with my dad. It's not worth it.'
`Why? Will he beat me up?' I mocked, doing such a good job of being annoying that my own mood worsened. `How terrifying.'
`I don't mean that,' she said, sounding as though she was struggling to make me understand rather than arguing. `But you'd make it difficult for us. And he is my dad.'
`You're welcome to love him, but I choose not to.'
`Drop me here then.' She put her hand on the door handle.
I slowed, worried she might open the door while we were still moving. I'd pushed her too far but didn't want to back down.
`What? So I have to love your dad? You're being ridiculous.'
`You're ridiculous if you're threatened by every man you ever meet.'
`I'm not threatened. I'm twenty-seven. I don't have to live in awe of your parents. I'm an adult.'
`You should act like one then.'