I’m not sure how I talked myself into marriage. I’d fallen in love with a string of women but I was still resisting the obvious. In fact, I’d created such an elaborate cover that my family had started to describe me as “boy crazy.” For a while there were three named Martin—not all at the same time, although there was some overlap. What I liked most about these men was the sense they gave me, in those first years of my twenties, that I was succeeding at being the kind of young woman I was supposed to be.
Tony Wilde was more appealing than the others with his long, reddish sideburns and a taste for black shirts with light ties that made him look rakish. His sense of humor, his rebelliousness, and his enormous horse, Frank, all drew me to him and into his circle—a group of upper middle-class, country people with rigid traditions, where he fit only marginally. He must have been in as much danger of not belonging as I was; it was easy to notice his shy pleasure when his friends, lounging with tankards or martini glasses in the gardens of country pubs, slapped him on the back.
We were introduced by mutual friends at the tennis club, although Tony was not really a tennis club type. Wearing vivid T-shirts and dirty gym shoes on the manicured lawns of the Grasshoppers Club, he slashed at the ball with an untutored but effective forehand. Sunday afternoons we sat side by side on the grass, drinking tea and smiling at the white-clad members who ran to the net exclaiming well-played, old chap! or chased a ball to the baseline with I say, good shot! Slowly, as he warmed to me, he revealed that his mother had wanted him to follow in his dead father’s footsteps to become an army officer, but he had refused. I could see that he wouldn’t have done well as a soldier, having little appetite for following orders or even suggestions. So—just for now, he said—he had formed a partnership with a friend who was building up a smoked fish business in a Sussex village at the foot of the Downs.
That he had a dead parent never struck me as a point of connection. Not once did I ask about his father, not even how he had died, and although Tony knew of my parents’ deaths, he never asked me about them either. But his fatherlessness must have played a role in the independence I recognized and liked. He was attentive to his mother, but she wasn’t a factor in the decisions he would make.
He shared a home with his brother Rory, whose business was renovating old houses. On a country road a short walk from the brothers’ favorite pub, Rory had restored their house with traditional red Sussex tile. The outbuildings included a large barn for Frank where, among bales of straw and old farm implements, the 17-hand-high chestnut munched his hay with a bantam perched on his back.
Tony spent his workdays chugging up and down small rivers in an outboard dinghy, putting out and hauling in homemade eel traps. Smoked eels were a popular, expensive delicacy and the fledgling business was making good money from them; he was saving the cost of flying them in from Japan—or that’s what he said. Actually, it looked to me as if he just enjoyed puttering up and down those little rivers. He was a free spirit of a kind I’d never encountered before.
I still didn’t know him very well when he invited me out for dinner in London, on a day when he paid his regular visit to Billingsgate fish market to buy trout and salmon for the smoker. We met in Queen’s Gate near the Albert Hall, an elegant avenue where I could leave my car for the evening. Tony arrived in his shabby green van, leaped out and, after greeting me shyly, proceeded to change his trousers in the street while I pretended he was nothing to do with me. Moving off, the passenger seat wobbled alarmingly and its unruly springs dug into my behind. As I turned to fiddle with the seat, I noticed two hay bales in the back.
“Is Frank eating you out of house and home?” I gestured over my shoulder.
“Oh no. It’s to get rid of the smell of fish.”
There was no answer to this, since I was already wondering whether the stench would make dinner out of the question. As we cruised along Knightsbridge I felt more and more nauseated. Staring out at the self-satisfied mannequins in Harrods’ windows, I tried not to breathe, but it was no use. Just as I was considering asking Tony to stop, what appeared to be a snake emerged from under the seat.
“Good Lord!” Tony said. “I thought I’d lost that big one. Sorry. I’ll just move it into the box.” He stopped the van, picked up the eel and put it away behind the hay.
We ate dinner at one of the ubiquitous French bistros of that era, with its red checked tablecloths and candles in Mateus Rosé bottles grown into waxy stalagmites. After steaks and crème brûlée, Tony asked if I’d mind a quick stop on the way back to my car.
“Arsenal played today,” he said, as if that explained everything.
So we spent half an hour parked outside a television shop, while Tony watched the end of the football match. At this stage of the relationship, I found such habits rather endearing.
In spite of a life crammed full of boyfriends, parties, and casual sex, it had been a long time—more than five years since my parents died—without any genuinely carefree moments, and Tony had a gift for joy. I still have a snapshot of him dressed in pink jeans and a sky-blue sweater, caught by the camera mid-leap, one arm flung high above his head, one knee bent up, and a laugh on his face. We were companionable too—at least as long as we stayed busy. He was as little given to introspection as I was, which made him a highly suitable partner for someone who was not only in denial from grief but also hiding her lesbian affairs of the past few years. We laughed, ate Rory’s elaborate meals, went out drinking with friends, and played a lot of cribbage.
Nothing remains in my memory of a proposal. Probably there wasn’t one—or at least not a formal, ring-bearing, down-on-one-knee scene. Maybe it was just assumed. It would have been his style to throw out something like, “When we get hitched, we could pop off to France for a bit…” and expect me to digest it without making a fuss. What I do remember is various family members on both sides telling Tony that he’d have to get a proper job. We should buy a house, they said. Get serious. And, even though I must have sensed that we couldn’t be like the married couples we knew, I entered into these discussions never noticing if Tony seemed reluctant to leave the river to put on a business suit.
Before we knew it, we had a future: in a few months he would join me in the family ventilation business, which my brother had inherited and where I was now working. In addition to designing and manufacturing industrial systems, the business had a thriving domestic department, which I had built up, marketing kitchen fans and stove hoods. In 1968, Britain’s gas companies had begun to convert appliances to use the newly abundant North Sea gas, requiring ventilation to be installed in thousands of windows. To meet this boom, we acquired a team of glaziers and a fleet of minivans, which my brother proposed Tony should manage in the field. Nobody mentioned that since I was a director of the company, his paychecks would bear my signature.
By this time, I had made a habit of going along when he visited his mother on Sunday evenings. Her cottage was right out of an English greeting card, set amid apple trees under which masses of daffodils—mostly white Bathshebas—bloomed in spring. But when Mrs. Wilde emerged to greet me on my first visit, she did not have twinkly eyes or an apron tied around her waist. I remember how uncomfortably I loomed above her in my best coat, hoping for a reversal in our statures so that she might look down on me benignly, and I all but bobbed a curtsey while she stood erect in a navy skirt as if on the parade ground. Inside, while Tony was hanging my coat on a peg in the hallway, I caught her looking me up and down. When our eyes met, she smiled brightly and bustled off into the kitchen, leaving me to wonder if I’d passed muster.
Her questions about my family were peremptory and seemed designed only to explore my suitability as an addition to her clan. Joanna, Tony’s sister, had married a member of a family whose surname I recognized from Shakespeare plays, and who came attached to a 13th century castle that I would later visit over one exceedingly cold weekend spent mostly avoiding “the public” who were occasionally let in to look at the gardens. The husband turned out to be a lanky, endearing man who wandered around in baggy corduroy trousers with a shotgun over his shoulder. But I didn’t know that yet. All I knew was that Mrs. Wilde was terrifically pleased with her daughter’s catch, and much less pleased with Tony’s, although she did make some effort to hide it. Over a series of Sunday suppers, she managed to engineer our only connection—a kind of mother-in-law, daughter-in-law alliance, aimed at convincing Tony that he would enjoy the rat race.
Before we’d set the date, I got pregnant. First I threw up every morning, then I put on weight. Furtively I had a pregnancy test: negative. Thank god. The thought of having a child filled me with panic. By the time I had the second test I was more than four months along and, according to snapshots, showing it.
Three years earlier, Parliament had legalized abortion though there was still a stigma attached to it and many hoops to jump through, but I didn’t hesitate. I told no one except Tony who, I suppose, told Rory, but neither of them was any use at finding medical help. So I went to Dr. Brennan, the Scotsman who had been our family doctor as well as my father’s weekend fishing friend. After making clear his disapproval, och aye-ing and scribbling notes without looking up from his desk, he referred me to someone who referred me to someone else. The final obstacle was a balding, bewildered-looking psychiatrist who made me sit in acute embarrassment for fifty expensive minutes after which he vouched for my imminent insanity.
The private clinic in Hove, whose address he’d jotted on a prescription pad, smelled of antiseptic, long-cooked vegetables and furniture polish. As I stepped into the hall, the door clicked discreetly shut behind me and fear fingered the back of my neck. What if it all went wrong?
Some time after the operation I woke to wave after wave of severe contractions.
“Don’t make so much noise,” hissed the nurse, glaring at me as I moaned. From the moment I’d rung the front door bell and she had admitted me with tight lips, she’d made no effort to hide her impatience with my predicament—and now my inability to keep quiet.
“We’ve sent for the doctor,” the kinder night nurse said an hour later, and indeed the doctor did make a brief appearance to prescribe a painkiller.
The next day, Tony showed up, carrying a bouquet picked from the meadow by his house: a fistful of lavender-blue scabious with one small scarlet pimpernel peeping from inside the bunch as if Chauvelin might be hiding under my bed.
“Hello, Woo,” Tony said, looking uncomfortable and out of place on the straight-backed chair. “Are you all right then?”
“It was pretty awful.” I hesitated while he fidgeted. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Rory sends his love.” Then he fell silent.
Ten minutes later, he announced he was going to a party. I was so weighed down by shame and drugs that I couldn’t muster any indignation, though I felt sorely abandoned after he left and remained resentful and pouty for several weeks, which he didn’t notice. And when was it, I wonder now, that he wrote that poem—the only poem I ever knew him to write, scribbled in pencil on a piece of lined paper that I found years later in an old handbag, one long verse in which he accused me of killing our child? He had never objected to the abortion; could he all the time have been harboring fantasies about the son he would have played cricket with and taught to ride? Or did the indignation rise up later when he was already angry with me for my failures as a wife?
Even though I’d never wanted it, I was surprised at how much I thought about the child we might have had. For months I wondered about names, and for several years noted the passing of possible birthdays. It was an odd kind of loss, perhaps more physical than anything else. But Tony and I never talked about it. By the time we got married, it was relegated to a growing heap of unapproachable subjects.
* * * * * * *
All Saints’ in Patcham, on the outskirts of Brighton, is a small church with a square Norman tower, surrounded by old oak trees that cast a pleasant shade in summer and an ominous dark in winter. My mother went to the Sunday morning service a few times a year; my father just showed up on Christmas day. They weren’t buried there in that traditional English churchyard, where the gravestones are mottled with lichen and some lean crookedly away from their neighbors, disturbing the symmetry of the rows; their bodies had been taken from the sea to the sprawling cemetery in Gibraltar. But it had been at All Saints’ that we’d held their memorial service with the pews filled to overflowing.
Now, seven years later, the pews were once again full. Wide, flowered hats bumped brims as women kissed cheeks, ushers and male guests in morning coats tucked their top hats under their arms as they entered the church, and everyone else paraded their frills and furbelows as befitted a showy June wedding. Tony’s niece tiptoed behind me in a pink dress with flowers in her hair while the younger nephew wandered haphazardly in his velvet knickerbockers. I was in white with three arum lilies in my hands and four large brandies under my belt.
The organ blared out the fanfare from Handel’s Water Music, its echoes rolling around the blackened roof beams and across the old frescoes on the plaster of the front wall as I entered on my brother’s arm. I walked in my long dress, custom-made at Fenwick’s of Bond Street, toward the flushed neck and broad shoulders of my future husband. One of the men in suits released me, another recaptured me, and the third in his black cassock blessed me. Through it all, I caught not one glimpse of myself sitting in the front pew—not one brief memory of this same vicar leaning from the pulpit to speak urgently of my dead mother and father.
As if in a dream I said “I will” and “till death us do part.” I went kiss kiss when the vicar told Tony he could kiss the bride and the bride turned out, rather astonishingly, to be me. After signing the registry, Tony’s tiny mother reached up to take my tall brother’s arm, and we processed down the aisle, bride and groom, bride’s attendants, and family, to the triumphant clamor of the Toccata in F by Bach, which I had chosen perhaps for its echoes of Sophia or perhaps simply because I thought the day deserved a bit of drama. If there was no grand passion going on here, mightn’t a piece of music that evoked it liven up the proceedings?
As I walked towards the door holding on to Tony’s arm, the organ was so loud I feared it might blast the old church into little pieces. I imagined the fragments flying up into the sky and twirling around before falling in slow motion onto the roofs of nearby houses. The toccata swelled, its chords holding me in their suffocating embrace while the fast-flowing bass notes raced up and down like the sound track to a prison escape. Faces on each side of the aisle turned towards us with wedding-day smiles—smiles that for a moment erased their own disappointments, their own secrets, their own late-night shouting matches.
Sophia had demanded a seat near the front. “Your uncle, darling, is your dear departed father’s closest living relative. It’s only right that we should take our proper place.” And there they were, Guy with his mustache waxed at the tips and imposing in an old-fashioned morning suit that smelled faintly of mothballs. Sophie seemed to have grown several inches, her head crowned with a many-layered navy turban. She reached out a gloved hand to touch my arm as we passed, an eloquent tear glistening in one eye. A few rows back, I glimpsed the beaming face of Jane, and then the red hair of Charlotte, the German teacher with whom I’d had a panicky affair, just weeks before the wedding. On a mission to extend our North Sea gas business into Germany, I’d taken private language classes in the hopes of having a meeting with the men in Dusseldorf but, discovering that I had little aptitude for German, I had taken my teacher along as interpreter. What with the drive across Germany and the turreted castle in which the gas guys put us up, one thing had led to another.
Outside on the grass, we grouped and re-grouped for the photographs, while a blustery wind knocked my lacquered and backcombed hair to one side and goose flesh bristled under the lace that covered my arms. At the reception, Sophia managed to stay sober until close to the end. We barely talked, but she acted pleased that I was doing the right thing—that I had apparently accepted her version of our affair. Once, in the kitchen at Llanfair Lodge, she had told me casually that Italian men were very tolerant of their future wives having premarital sex with other women—in fact, they considered it a useful kind of initiation.
After the bells pealed, the confetti was scattered, glasses raised and speeches made, I sank into the passenger seat of my white MGB behind the lipstick messages scrawled across the windscreen. As a husband, Tony now became the driver and, dragging a train of clashing tin cans, whisked me away into the dead air of my new closet. Still, I was relieved to have a life without secrets—at least not current ones. Marriage was, and still is, a pretty good hiding place for a lesbian.
Late that night we arrived in Dieppe where we stayed in a pokey hotel; thousands of motor scooters buzzed past at five in the morning. We went on to Paris, where I took snapshots in the gardens at Versailles—Tony in a pair of zany red pants—and then to the southwest coast near Biarritz. It was a countryside of pine forests, sand dunes, and rabbit stews, with few visitors around. Although I’m sure I told myself that I was happy, in fact the only emotion I can recall is a kind of uneasiness. The perpetual sighing of surf and wind and the murmur of passing travelers’ voices were muffled as if at a great distance, while we became a couple of actors playing the honeymoon scene. We ordered local gourmet casseroles, drank a lot of wine, and made love in hotel beds or on the beach, although I quickly began finding excuses to avoid it.
My skin reddened in the hot sun and I wrote a lot of postcards, mostly to remind myself of who I used to be before this turn of events, and to pledge that I would soon return to a life I recognized. It was a relief when the white cliffs loomed up and the car ferry disgorged us on to the Newhaven dock. When we telephoned our friends and families with glowing reports of the trip, our voices, loud with enthusiasm, must have revealed to any perceptive listener that something was already wrong. But if they worried for us, nobody said so.
* * * * * * *
I tried to make friends with the neighbors in Dorking, where Tony and I bought a terraced, pink-brick house with honeysuckle climbing beside the front steps. The women I gravitated to at the new tennis club were, it turned out, unhappy in their marriages too, but I wasn’t able to enter into their gripe sessions since I couldn’t acknowledge, even to myself, what was wrong with mine.
We both made the same drive to work, but Tony left a half hour before me, having bathed, shaved, and eaten the eggs, bacon and toast I made for him. My job was at least as demanding as his, but we took for granted that I would take care of the house and him, in addition to working a full day. He felt free to stop off at the pub on his way home, meet friends, or browse the antique stores where he liked to make deals on Staffordshire figures or lusterware jugs. If he was late for the dinner I had waiting, I rarely kicked up a fuss. But inside I began to fume. Not only was I lonely, I was growing increasingly irritable, though I had no idea why: didn’t I have an enviable life? Soon, without realizing it, I was simply waiting for an excuse to leave.
One Saturday morning, eleven months after the wedding, Tony shouted out that I should cook his breakfast. Lying in the bathtub, as I often did on weekend mornings, behind a locked door with a good book, my resentment spilled out. Without thinking I yelled, “Get it yourself!” There was a short pause and then a noisy assault on the door, which caved in immediately. Naked, I cringed, feeling for the first time in my life physically afraid of someone I knew. He slapped me once on my back and loomed over me for a few minutes, muttering about my duties as a wife.
As he stormed down the stairs, I could feel a place on my wet shoulder blade where the imprint of his hand was reddening, but I knew I wasn’t really hurt except in some internal place that involved pride and my mother’s voice telling me to stand up straight because I was beautiful. I pictured the outline of Tony’s hand gradually coming into focus like a photograph in a tray of developing liquid, and was only distantly aware of the front door slamming.
After a few days of tension and no apologies on either side, I impulsively made plans to take a holiday by myself and told Tony I was going away “to think things over.” I flew out to stay with an old school friend who was living with her husband in Barbados where, for a week, I sprawled on the white beach, drank too much rum on the sailing club verandah, and refused to think about my marriage.
In the shade of a dubonnet-lettered umbrella, I pulled a postcard from the pile waiting next to my glass that now held only a slice of rum-soaked pineapple, and wrote an uncommunicative message to Tony. Looking around for the waiter, I glanced across the raked sand to the green-tiled bar in the shade of the palm trees. A lone woman wearing tailored shorts, a bikini top, and a long gauzy scarf wound around her neck, perched on one of the high stools. She was leaning in towards the barman in his maroon coat while he shook her cocktail, his arm beckoning and unbeckoning, the ice thunk-thunking, his closely-cropped head tilting just a little towards her with a hint of intimacy. Then she turned away from him and stared directly at me. When the breeze kicked up a tiny sand devil at her feet and the two tails of her emerald scarf floated into the air, for a brief moment I thought it was Sophia.
* * * * * * *
Stepping out of the 727 and staggering up the tunnel into Heathrow, I had a headache. There, in the crush of family reunions and embracing couples, stood Tony, a bunch of roses in his hand. He kissed me on the cheek and thrust the flowers at me.
“There you are, Woo,” he said. “I missed you.”
Driving round the ring road in stop-and-go traffic, he asked me nothing about my trip. My sunburn itched and my whole being rebelled at the smell of diesel; I wanted to be back with the scents of oleander, the rhythms of steel bands, crashing surf, and ice cubes clinking in a frosty glass. I listened half-heartedly while Tony filled me in on things at the office and the score of his weekend cricket match, but I was overcome by a kind of weariness—a lassitude against which there was no point rallying. It was all over, and I knew it. But why? How could I explain? I glanced sideways at his profile, remembering the fondness I had once felt for his crooked nose and the ginger sideburns that curled when they grew too long. I’d gone away to think but I had no idea how to conduct an inner life.
Back at our house we sat down at the kitchen table with bread and butter, a plate of cold ham and a limp lettuce. Between us, the roses in a cut glass vase began to open, their heavy fragrance crowding into the room. I could hardly breathe. Hadn’t I married him because he was nicer than the other men? Couldn’t we start again?
Tony leaned towards me hesitantly.
“Listen,” he said, his voice shaky. “I understand the problem now. I know what’s wrong and I think we can get through it.”
Dread turned the pit of my stomach. I didn’t know what I was afraid of, but I was definitely afraid.
“What do you mean?” Whatever he was going to say, it involved my wrongness—of that I was sure.
“I found your letters.”
Then, “What letters?”
“The letters in your suitcase.”
I knew which suitcase he meant. It was a white leather one. Full of Sophia’s letters, and some of Jane’s.
“That suitcase is locked.”
“Well, I broke the lock,” he said. “I knew you had something to hide and now I know what it is. But you can change.”
He looked first defiant and then, when he remembered, awkwardly concerned. Soon he was merely flustered: there were too many things he knew but couldn’t bring himself to say.
“You broke into my suitcase?” I said, rage beginning to well up.
“Well, I had to…”
“What do you mean, ‘had to’?” Now I was getting hot.
“Don’t shout at me. Anyway, Joan said…”
“What do you mean ‘Joan said’? Are you talking about my godmother?” I was losing my balance.
“When she saw Sophia’s letters, she said that woman always causes trouble and she wasn’t surprised she’d led you into this…”
“I’m leaving you,” I said cool again. I felt dead inside.
This time it was Tony’s turn to say “What do you mean?” but I could only say dully, “I’m leaving.”
“Well,” he said, his voice shaking and his eyes fearful, “if you leave me, I’ll stand up in court and tell everybody everything. The whole damned world will know you’re a lesbian!”
This was the second time the word had hung in the air between me and an antagonist. It was just as potent as it had been in the car, parked on Birdcage Walk, when I’d hurled it at Sophie. Its three hated syllables slapped my face and I recoiled with a jerk of my neck just as she had. My knees began to tremble.
Nothing in the world could be worse than having my dirty secret revealed but, scared as I was, I knew I couldn’t stay. My life was probably over anyway.
“Do what you want,” I said and went upstairs to pack.