Sunday morning, sun-dappled playground. A lone man pushing a boy on a swing, his back to her, so she couldn’t see his face, not that it much mattered. The boy was five or so, squealing, giddy. Probably didn’t get much time with his dad, whose neck showed the pallor of the 9-5 office ghoul. Thick gold wedding band embedded in thicker finger. Hands wrapped firm round the swinging chain.
She sat on a wooden bench just outside the playground, book on her lap, heels pressed neatly together. Pencil skirt, tight over the hips and thighs, showing her shape, yet still eminently respectable; pussy bow silk blouse. She knew well enough what they liked. The Victorians could still teach us a fair bit about allure. It’s all in the promise, not the delivery. Slender ankle, heel dangling from stockinged toe. The delicate movement of a rib cage under silk. The book was reasonably intellectual, though not unappealingly so, and besides, she didn’t open it.
Dad becomes distracted, checks his phone, yawns. Children are boring. Particularly at that age. He takes a few photos of his boy, still swinging and squealing, increasing desperation in his glee; perhaps he can sense its end in the air. Dad walks away, thumbs busy, doubtless posting and tagging busily to prove his worth. #instadad.
He looks up and meets her gaze. She looks away, confused, then back, with a tiny smile; then down to her book, crossing and uncrossing legs, the old dance. Silk ripples over skin as her breath quickens. Would he bite? Maybe not this time. But she’d be back next week, as would he, and eventually the smile and nod would become a ritual. Then they’d exchange words, innocent pleasantries, the weather, plans for the weekend, the joy of this beautiful leafy oasis among hot unyielding steel and tarmac. A brushed hand, the anticipation of next week. What might she wear, what will he say? The child, unsupervised, hands sweaty from clasping chains, falls from the swing and cries. She offers tissues and a plaster from a neat shiny handbag, praying silently the little brat won’t come near her.
It takes mere seconds to smash decades to detritus. Pasts rewritten as meaningless, risible; children’s futures blighted. It starts with that single glance. I don’t know why more women don’t bother, when it’s simplicity itself. Be a friend first. Listen, really listen. Men love that. Respect them. An old-fashioned notion, but so useful, really essential in this game, worth more than every nude or flirty text. They get sick of being a laughing stock, punchline to their wives’ every anecdote; their best days behind them, their children their chef attraction. But not for her. It’s the men she wants. Specifically, now, him. Destroying lives and marriages and families, a bitch in a manger. The attention soothes her wounded self. If he hadn’t put up a bit of a fight, she probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s the chase she enjoys, the sense of her own power when she overcomes his resistance. They exchange numbers on the flimsiest of pretexts, although maybe he really believes it, who knows?
That’s how Bill explained it to me, anyway. They were really good friends, for ever so long. She listened to his woes, made an effort for him. He couldn’t help himself. Then he realised he loved her and it wasn’t fair to any of us, not me, not Josh, not her, to go on living a lie, although personally I think I would have preferred that future. But I wasn’t consulted. I saw the messages, watched him reinvent a trivial fling into a grand, life-altering passion, just to save face. Tricky notions, honesty, dishonesty, when feelings change hour to hour, driven by chemicals; when a few weeks of flirtation seem more real than decades of shared experience.
Take good care of yourselves, ladies; keep your figure, fight back against the ageing, sagging years; keep your house tidy, your children quiet, so daddy can sit peacefully on the not-quite-paid-for sofa, sending nudes to strangers.
He didn’t tell me every detail, of course; he’s not such a cad as that. I doubt very much they met in the playground, with Josh as witness; that’s my frenzied febrile imagination. More likely a bar, or conference; more likely yet online, that huge adult playground. I’ve imagined most of it myself, over and over, embroidering their story, busy as Penelope, adding every humiliating touch I can invent: I find it oddly soothing. In my version, he tells her every tiny domestic feature of me, of our lives, every stain, every wrinkle, and she offers sympathy for its drudging endless tedium, and presents an alternative vision. Silk and stockings, designer handbags. Yet I was the lie he couldn’t live.