The day started so well. Viv stayed in bed till ten, sleeping off the effects of her attack and, while she was dressing, Don prepared a tray, ready to carry their breakfast into the garden. Once again it was warm and sunny with hardly a cloud on the horizon. Silly expression – he flinches a little as he recalls how it had gone through his head – but at the time it had almost been true.
When he heard Viv’s footsteps on the stairs his finger reached out to touch the control on the microwave, then he lifted the kettle and poured very hot, but not boiling water on the coffee grounds.
‘Poor old thing.’ He kissed her warm, dry lips. ‘What was it this time? The kiwi fruit?’
Viv pulled a face. ‘Kiwi fruits aren’t citrus.’
‘Choccies then.’ And when she squealed in horror. ‘Just checking, my love. I have to be certain or the whole project would slide into the merely anecdotal.’
‘And that would never do.’ She laughed, closing her eyes, and Don noted how yesterday’s migraine had left her weak, but pleasantly relaxed, and in a state where she should be able to take their visitor in her stride.
The croissants were perfect and the coffee – black coffee had been eliminated from the list of food that set off her attacks – was bitter on his tongue, nicely contrasting with the sweetness of the buttery flakes.
He stretched across to clear away her plate then held up his wrist to consult his watch.
‘Off you go.’ Viv opened one eye. ‘Mustn’t be late or the train might arrive before you do. What does she look like? Mousy hair and sensible clothes, or am I confusing her with someone entirely different?’
‘You didn’t mind me inviting her?’
‘Of course not.’ She blew him a kiss. ‘Poor woman, she must be devastated. It’s an awful thing, but hearing about other people’s broken marriages always makes me feel so lucky.’
‘We are lucky, my darling, and when your health improves, when I make a genuine breakthrough, our retirement will be just as we always planned.’
* * *
Claire had changed. He noticed at once. Her hair had a reddish tinge that blended discreetly with the shade of her tailored suit, and her shoes had the kind of heels that would be quite unsuitable for country walks. Not that it mattered. She had come to talk. To sit in the sun and unwind.
‘Claire?’ He called her name, not because he was in any doubt it was her but he was afraid she might not recognise him.
‘Don, how are you?’ Her voice was deeper than he remembered. ‘Have you been waiting long? There was a hold up. A cow on the line. I could hardly believe it.’
Later, he admitted to himself it was at that precise moment he had felt the first twinge. Why had he invited her? Because when he heard about her divorce he had felt guilty that he was starting to lose touch with old colleagues? Or was it because he wanted her to see how well he had done for himself, negotiating far better early retirement terms than he had hoped for and finding a lovely old house in the West Country?
‘So.’ Claire settled herself in the passenger seat and opened her window. ‘You’re a free man. Free to do all the things you’ve dreamed about but never had the time.’
‘Not fair is it? Sometimes I can hardly believe my luck.’
‘Tell me about it.’ She leaned back, breathing in the fresh cool air. Her perfume was similar to the one Viv wore when they had an evening out. Not that they had been out very much since her migraine took a turn for the worse.
‘Well.’ He cleared his throat, feeling ridiculously self-conscious. ‘There’s the garden but that’s mainly Viv’s baby. I read a lot. Philosophy. Anthropology. Cosmology.’
‘Really? Good for you!’
He turned his head to smile at her. ‘Of course in the beginning I fell into the trap of taking up all the traditional retirement pursuits. Watercolours, landscape photography, local history, bread making.’
She was opening the glove compartment, lifting out a map of the area. ‘As I remember, you were always something of an intellectual.’
Then she asked after Viv.
‘Oh, Viv’s flourishing,’ he said, ‘apart from her migraine of course. I’m studying the causes and cures. Going into a fair amount of detail. I record the temperature, humidity. Then there’s her diet, sleeping patterns – ‘
‘Sounds very scientific. Chocolate, cheese and citrus fruits – aren’t they the foods to avoid?’
‘Not quite that simple I’m afraid. What about you, Claire? We were so sorry to hear about – ‘
‘Oh, that. No, I’m fine. Never better.’
She was putting on a brave face, taking one day at a time. He admired her for it.
‘How long is it since we saw each other?’ he asked. ‘Must be over a year.’
‘Two actually. As you know, after I left your office I did a course in Business Studies and Psychology. Then a job with an import-export company.’
‘We should never have let you go.’
She smiled. ‘And then moved to my present post.’
‘Where you’re doing rather well.’
‘Deputy Marketing Director. Sport and leisure wear. It’s booming at present but of course we’re diversifying, just in case.’
The scent of meadowsweet wafted in through the open car window. He felt a little light-headed.
Claire had always been attractive, especially for a woman of her age, although, if anything, she looked younger than he remembered. Younger but more confident, more urbane.
A small shudder ran between his shoulder blades. Not fear, just the normal anxiety people experience when it matters a great deal that their guest enjoys a visit to their home.
‘Your children,’ she said. ‘They must be grown up by now. Left the nest?’
‘Yes, but we see them quite often.’
He lapsed into silence, thinking his own thoughts. Viv missed the children. It was different for him, although if he was honest his daughters had turned out to be something of a disappointment. Tilly, so beautiful, so imaginative, had moved in with a drummer and wore her hair in scores of dirty little pigtails. Jodie’s year in France – part of her language degree – had been extended indefinitely. She sold bric-a-brac from a stall in the market at Riberac. They had visited her the previous summer but it had not been a success.
‘Tilly’s living with a musician,’ he said.
‘What kind of musician?’
‘Drums.’ It was kind of her to take an interest in his children, especially since she had none of her own.
In the afternoon, they took Claire for a drive, stopping briefly at several of the local beauty spots then returning home for tea under the medlar tree. It was cooler than it had been but Claire said she had “a hide like an elephant” and rarely felt the cold.
‘As I explained on the phone.’ She picked a sprig of lemon thyme and began rubbing it between finger and thumb. ‘I’ve moved into a flat in Fulham. Top floor, so there’s no garden which is a shame, although these days I barely have time to look after my window boxes.’
Later, while Viv was preparing dinner, he led Claire through the hall and up the wide, polished oak stairway. Once in his study, he switched on his laptop and invited her to take a seat.
‘Yesterday’s data,’ he explained, pointing at the columns of figures and a space below for Viv’s subjective impressions.
Claire took her glasses from her breast pocket and started reading aloud. ‘Did half the world disappear or was it never there? Half a mouth, half an ear, a huge faceless – ‘
‘Verbatim,’ he said. ‘I take it down as Viv describes it.’
‘A funny smell,’ read Claire, ‘gas or a dead dog. Then bursts of shimmering, whirling – ‘
‘Scintillating scotoma,’ he said. ‘Migraine produces the most amazing illusions.’ Leaning forward excitedly, he pressed a series of keys and the text was replaced by a perfect spectrum. ‘A simulation of an aura,’ he explained, ‘produced by the brain just before the attack takes hold. Of course, all the best people were migraine suffers: Julius Caesar, Kant, Freud.’
‘Really?’ Claire laughed. ‘How fascinating.’
For someone who had just been through a divorce, she seemed in remarkably good spirits. During the afternoon she had talked a great deal about her job but said nothing about Gareth.
‘You and Gareth,’ he said cautiously, ‘it must have been painful.’
She stood up, stretching her arms above her head. ‘Oh, it was all perfectly amicable. We’d changed, wanted different things. And so much of my time is fully occupied these days. Meetings that go on for hours, weekend seminars, a conference in Berlin on opportunities for women in higher management.’
They went back downstairs. Viv was making a salad. Cutting up cucumber with fast rhythmical chops. She was smiling too much, trying too hard. He feared another attack might be on the way.
During dinner Claire drank a fair amount of Chateauneuf Marquis-de-Mont. Viv was avoiding alcohol, and he never had more than a glass or two, but already they were halfway through the second bottle.
When they moved back into the sitting room, Claire settled herself in an armchair and accepted a liqueur.
‘Amazingly quiet here.’ She took a large sip, then another.
He nodded, not sure if she was enjoying the peace of the countryside or found it a little oppressive. In Berlin she had been in her element – she had told them all about it during dinner. The whole city was so full of life and the shops in the Kurfurstendamm put ours to shame.
Draining her glass, she began telling them about her weekend seminars. ‘Mostly experiential sessions. Role-playing, analysing the dynamics of the group, the interactions of the participants. Absolutely invaluable if you want to understand what makes people tick.’
Viv touched her forehead, searched in her bag.
‘New quick-acting tablets,’ he said. ‘Sometimes nip it in the bud, don’t they, my darling?’
Claire smiled. ‘Yes. Good. But do they help to get to the root of the pain? I mean, it’s not really a medical problem, is it?’
Viv poured herself a glass of water.
Claire sprang up to help. Her face had assumed the expression of the expert. ‘Illness behaviour,’ she said, ‘a fascinating phenomenon. The psychology of becoming a patient. People have written whole books on the subject. You see, your migraine, Viv, can be seen as an integral part of a pathological dyad.’
‘A dyad?’ Viv murmured.
‘You and Don,’ Claire explained. ‘Being ill allows you to feel cared for. Something so many women lack. And it also serves the function of providing Don with a much-needed role. Retirement can be tricky – unless the couple have made realistic preparations.’
She broke off, smiling at each of them in turn, and he realised he had been making small noises in his throat.
Claire patted him on the knee. ‘No, don’t tell me I’m wrong. Your body language is giving you away. Arms folded, fists clenched. D’you know, the first group session I attended I actually found myself sitting on my hands. It’s a defence, of course, a way of trying to control involuntary self-revelation. I’m not a Freudian myself but what he had to say about defences – Brilliant.’
He sat up straight. It was difficult to know what to do with his hands.
‘The thing is,’ Claire continued, ‘Viv’s illness means the two of you can maintain all your cherished illusions. Early retirement – oh, the bliss of it – only things rarely turn out quite as we expect. When Viv’s better, you tell each other, one day when Viv’s attacks are a thing of the past. Except that day never comes.
He glanced at Viv but she was giving Claire her full attention.
‘It’s the same with people who insist on being overweight,’ Claire explained. ‘One day, they say, one day when I’m thin. And that way they can continue as impotent dreamers, helpless victims taking no responsibility for their own lives.’
Her face was flushed. She held out her glass for a refill and he obliged, grasping the neck of the bottle with fingers that felt as if they belonged to someone else.
Viv rose slowly. She looked calm, serene, but he knew the signs.
‘Another of your tablets, my darling?’’
She shook her head. ‘I need to go to the bathroom.’
He hovered near the door.
‘Leave her,’ Claire said. It sounded like an order. ‘She needs time. A chance to face up to feelings she’s repressed for years, possibly all her life. Don’t worry, I’ll go up in a minute, help her to relax. It’s all a question of slowing down the metabolism, practising the correct breathing.’
He felt shaky, barely able to speak. ‘They say snuff can help,’ he whispered, ‘one big involuntary explosion can terminate an attack of migraine before it gets a hold.’
Claire had stopped listening. He watched her leave the room, listened to her footsteps in the hall.
Five minutes later – it could have been less – he heard her voice at the top of the stairs. ‘Come along, Viv. You’re feeling upset, of course you are, but in the long run you’ll find… ‘
She never finished the sentence. A small high-pitched scream preceded a sound like several suitcases bumping down the stairs. They landed with a thud on the cold, hard flagstones. Then there was silence.
* * *
They sat on the patio, sipping cool drinks. The inquest had come and gone. The verdict, quite naturally, had been accidental death.
Placing his glass on the table, he stroked the back of Viv’s hand. ‘Another, my darling?’
‘No, thank you, my love.’
Together, they gazed into the distance at the dark outline of the Mendip hills.
‘Such a tragedy,’ he said softly, ‘but I comfort myself with the knowledge she was not a happy person. I’ve been thinking about it and, if you want my opinion, I believe a lot of her troubles arose from an inability to come to terms with her innermost feelings.’
Penny Kline asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work