It started with a kiss. Or rather the lack of one. I think kisses should be built in to the marital vows. ‘To love, honour and smooch so long as you both shall live.’ Not confined to your courting days. Not merely a precursor to bedroom games or at midnight at New Year’s Eve. Call me a dreamer, but I think of kisses as a husbandly duty. And I didn’t get so much as a peck on my proffered cheek from any of my boys that Saturday, least of all from Mike, my biggest boy. I stomped off and left them sorting out the weekly timetable. Football practise, swimming, horse riding.
Saturdays were freedom. My time.
I had minimal interaction with the mechanic when I dropped the Megane into the garage on the way. A middle-aged woman becomes invisible to everyone bar other middle-aged women. I took the 66A into town. Mike only called three times.
“There’s no sugar.”
“Where’s my wallet?”
“Who is this Kevin I need to pick up from horse riding?”
I had to raise my voice. The whole top deck knew that his wallet was in the hall and Kevin Donnolly was the red-headed boy who had lived next door for the last six years. Yes, that Kevin. I was already frazzled and I hadn’t started spending my freedom time.
My plan has always been to use this time for art galleries, poetry readings and other such cultural happenings. I rarely get as far as making this reality. The new shopping centre and local craft market exert a strong pull. This Saturday was different.
The exhibition I visited was a series of parodies of, or homages to various iconic masterworks. There was a room of Mona Lisas, all smiling enigmatically or frenetically at the people drifting through. A Mona with a fetching pink Mohican and nappy pin through her cheek caught my eye. Studying it was a young couple, entwined around each other. The man was wearing a jacket very like the one Mike wears when we go to school concerts and fundraiser race nights, this being pretty much the extent of our social life now. As I watched, the girl rested her head on his shoulder and he turned and kissed her. It must have lasted less than a second but by the time their lips had parted, I was in the next room feeling twisted in my stomach. Had Mike and I ever been like that? So demonstrative? So close?
I dawdled through a banquet of Last Suppers set in a wide range of dining establishments. Then a parade of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus where the goddesses ranged from obese to anorexic. I didn’t rate the coat hanger version and the sculpture made of balloons hadn’t lasted three hours.
I wound up in a display of variations on Rodin’s ‘The Kiss.’ I wandered around soaking up the sensuousness of them, the way the bodies wrapped around each other, hands on thighs, arms round necks, shoulders stroked, lips on lips, nice tight torsos, eyes shut. It was all very arousing. I sat on the shapeless black bench in the middle and drank it in, imagining myself in their granite embraces.
One sculpture was of two young men. The younger dark-haired Adonis had muscular arms and delicious eyebrows. He reminded me of a boy I had a cavernous crush on at school. The star of the football team and all round hero, built for worshipping. All the girls obliged. At the end of term disco, the gods were favouring me. I managed to snag him for the last slow dance and a long snog. It was a delicious but short lived victory. I relished the look of pure disbelief on the netball captain’s face when the football star put his arm around me and walked me home. To be precise, I walked him home as he lived closer to the hall. That didn’t shatter my illusions about our future. I practised writing our names together until he dumped me the next week for the same netball captain. He had been trying to, and had succeeded in making her very, very jealous.
On the rebound, I dived into the arms of Barry McNevin, a less sought after god. We were together for months. I thought he was heaven, long blond hair, an earring and matching black leather jacket with fringes. I was comparing my memory of his oblong buttocks with the taut posteriors of the two sculptured snoggers when, as if in the story, into the room walked Barry. I could feel him approach before I actually saw him. My skin tingled. The stone buttocks blurred on front of me and I stood up too quickly. My head swam and I staggered towards the bench before I crumpled and embarrassed myself completely. It was one thing to be caught staring at buttocks and another thing altogether to swoon. Two warm hands caught me.
“Whoa. Are you OK?” His voice was soft, almost squidgy.
“Stood up too fast.” I leaned forward taking deep breaths.
“Take deep breaths,” he said and pushed my head towards my knees.
We sat like this for a while, I enjoying the sensation of his hand on my hair though wishing I’d had my roots retouched. I could hear his slow breathing. Someone walked into the room, paused then left again, picking up speed, the clips of their heels echoing around the walls. When I was sure we were alone, I said “Barry?”
I sat up. “Barry McNevin, as I live and die.”
He had cut his biker hair. Now it was sandy and short with speckles of grey. Why does grey look distinguished on men but decrepit on women? His face was lined but not yet craggy and he had managed to avoid the belly that many of the other lads from school display like a proud brewery pregnancy. His striped blue shirt was exactly the same deep shade as his eyes. He had always been clothes conscious. His sister had worked in Burtons and got him a discount.
“Is it you? It is. God.” Now it was his turn to swoon. “I can’t believe it. I haven’t seen you in years. How are you?”
“Fine, fine. You?”
“Fine. Great. Just visiting my mum.”
We swapped family updates for a while. His PR job sounded much more glamorous than my electronic paper pushing position. I talked it up a little. I mean, PRs spin for a living, right? So he probably wasn’t exactly the managing director yet, was he? I didn’t quite get around to mentioning my boys, leaving a family sized hole there that he could make of as he saw fit. He made no mention of family either. But there was no ring, whatever that means.
We studied the other sculptures in the room. He made comments about the materials and pointed out intriguing features. This made a pleasant change from Mike’s usual interest level which, if he could be persuaded to accompany me in the first place, peaked only when we headed for the café.
“Now this position is impossible,” said Barry.
We were stopped in front of two Giacometti stick-like figures. The woman-stick was sitting on a chair bending over the man-stick who was sitting beneath her on the ground.
“Oh I don’t know.” I moved my arms the way the woman-stick was holding hers. “You’d have to try it.”
“You couldn’t bend over like that.”
I looked around. The room was empty. I sat on the bench and bent over, my arms crossed and dangling. “See?”
“Your hands won’t reach.”
He sat down on the floor below me. I could smell his shampoo. I was suddenly aware of my heart, thudding against my rib cage as if it wanted to break out and join the bloody innards of the Damien Hirst ripoffs in the next room. I swallowed.
Then I was leaning over him, my hair tumbling down, his hands on my bare shoulders pulling me forward, my hands on his knees, his head on my chest, his mouth on mine.
“See?” he breathed and kissed me.
It was like a warm summer’s day with strawberries and cream and sunshine on my back and a second glass of Rioja and honeysuckle blossoms and cicadas in the long grass and someone faraway playing a lonesome saxophone and …and I was a married woman. I broke away.
“Barry.” I choked. I could hardly breath.
“Yes?” He smiled up at me from the ground. He had learned a lot about kissing since he was seventeen.
“Barry, I…” I was flushed from my hairline to my waist. If I flushed anymore I’d set myself alight. Headline. ‘Gallery burnt to the ground by spontaneous internal combustion mystery.’ Was this the start of the menopause?
“Did I tell you, you look amazing?” he murmured.
I tried not to simper. He got up and brushed the gallery dust off his trousers then sat on the bench with his arm around me. It felt good. He kissed me again, a proper kiss. There was a touching of tongues. He nuzzled my neck the way he had when we were supposed to be studying for our exams. I let him. I breathed in the clean, clinical smell of his shampoo, ‘Head and Shoulders,’ the same brand Mike uses. Mike. I stiffened. What about Mike?
“Barry. We shouldn’t be here.” What was I doing? What if someone came in who knew me? It could happen.
“You’re right.” He stopped, his lips warm below my left ear lobe. I shuddered despite myself. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
Somewhere else? Was this how it started? Is this how my twice divorced sister did it? Did infidelity run in families? My hands were shaking. He took one and held it.
“Are you cold?”
“No. I have to go.” I looked at my watch like it was some kind of escape hatch. I had no idea what time it said.
“Really? Already?” His Brad Pitt grin was infectious.
“Can’t you be late?”
He had said that before too. Barry had spent a lot of time being late. I had wasted many hours hanging around by the newsagents waiting for him. Wondering if he’d show up. One day he hadn’t.
“I know somewhere we can go. Come on.” And he walked away, expecting me to follow.
“I can’t. Not today.” I tried not to think about my boys coming home smelling of chlorine, horses and mud. Mike was picking a DVD for us to watch tonight. Probably another all action, kick-ass, no brainer.
“Another time then. How about next Saturday? Same time, same place?” He waited, smoothing his hair.
Next Saturday? I had no idea what was on the calendar for next Saturday. I should be able to get away. Surely I could. I looked at him standing in the doorway. What should I do?
My phone rang.
“Hi sweetie. The garage called. The car’s ready for you.” Mike sounded tired.
“Uh-huh.” My voice came out strange, slurred almost.
“I got a DVD. Some slushy chick flick. I thought you’d like it.”
I looked up. Barry had vanished. Disappeared completely.
Popped out of existence like the balloon sculpture. As if he’d never been there at all.
“When are you coming home?” In the background I heard a crash and one of the boys shouting.
A guide came in trailed by a group of baseball capped tourists. They stood between me and the embracing figures, oblivious, just another invisible middle-aged woman huddled on a bench.