“Isak?” I say, still staring at the dark-haired photographer in front of me.
“Yes, that’s my name.”
“Oh, right, of course.”
“And yours is?”
“Martha, nice to meet you,” he says, stretching forth a hand to clasp mine, and he grins again showing straight white teeth. His skinny black trousers are filthy from kneeling on the dusty floor of the church, and god only knows what else, and underneath a rather beautiful slate grey tweed blazer, he is wearing an thick argyle jumper in a lighter grey with a navy pattern, a white shirt and grey tie peeking out from the crew neck. Hardly a look Richard would wear, and yet, it holds definite appeal. “Visiting?” he asks.
“What?” I’m jolted back into the conversation. He gestures to the book I have in my hand; my snickelway book. “Oh, right, yes… Well, no actually.”
“Yes or no; which is it?”
It’s unusual for me to talk to someone outside my immediate life and I am flustered by his interest, by my interest. I force myself to breathe, and answer slowly, as I would explaining a tricky part of my thesis to a younger student, “Yes, I’m visiting here, but no, I’m not a tourist. I live here now; I moved a few weeks ago with my husband.”
“Well, congratulations,” he says, no visible reaction to my mention of Richard. “You’ll love it here; it’s my favourite place in the world. York, that is, not this church, although it has its charms.” I nod in agreement while I think to myself, who is this man? And why is he talking to me? I was never able to flirt, watching my housemates as they chatted with seeming ease to rowers from our college, or boys they’d met in bars. Is this flirting? For heaven’s sake, Martha, all the poor man has done is and introduce himself. He’s just being friendly. Now pay attention.
“Have you seen the hagioscope?” he asks.
“The what?” I say, surprised by the turn of the conversation when I tune back in.
“The hagioscope,” and he gestures towards what I had taken to be a mere hole in the wall, deliberate, or otherwise. “The guides will tell you that it was built so the chantry priest could say mass in synchronisation with the priest at the high altar, but you want to know what I think?”
“I like to think it was more so the priest could keep on eye on his congregation at all times. You know, watch the merry widows, and all that.”
I’m not sure what the right response is so stick to a simple, “Erm, yes. Perhaps.” The conversation stalls. I look around frantically for an escape, any escape, and my eye alights on an intricate stone carving lying at the foot of the wall. Social discomfort instantly forgotten, I step forward and crouch beside it.
“It’s a grave slab.”
“Oh? What?” I say.
“It’s a grave slab,” he repeats. “From the 13th century and these,” he points to a carving of a fish and cauldron. “These are called…”
“Rebus. Yes, I know. They show us the name or the profession of the dead… History student,” I say as he looks curiously at me.
“Yes, perhaps,” I say, tracing the outline of the fish. “But whatever, it’s beautiful and more than seven hundred years old. Truly remarkable.”
“Yes,” Isak says, picking up his camera and taking a photo of me before I have time to react. “Remarkable.”
“Hey!” I say. “Don’t do that. I don’t like having my picture taken-”
“Would you like an information leaflet?” asks an elderly man, who has appeared at my elbow.
“A what?” I snap. “Oh, right, yes. Thank you,” I say, apologetically. I turn to Isak, “Can you delete-” My words trail off. There’s no one there.
“Is this your first visit to Holy Trinity?” asks the guide.
“I, erm, yes,” I say weakly.
“Allow me to point out the highlights. I don’t suppose you’ve seen a hagioscope before?”
It is more than half an hour before I am released by my well-meaning guide, and only after having expressed appropriate admiration for the rare survival of the seventeenth century box pews, the font, pulpit and stained glass windows. There is no sign of Isak, and discreet enquiries reveal nothing. The sun is already beginning to set when I step outside clutching a fistful of leaflets, the remainder of my snickelway tour forgotten. Instead, once I exit the passageway from Holy Trinity and find myself in Low Petergate, I simply let my feet automatically take me the few paces home. Thankfully, Mrs Gilbert is long gone, and I have enough time before Richard comes home to treat myself to a strong sweet tea and several chocolate biscuits.
I throw on an extra jumper and climb up to the tiny roof garden. I am less dazed in these familiar surroundings and I piece the day together; my first memorable one in York, apart from moving in. I think I can begin to see the potential of this city. Already I am enthralled by the Minster, and that’s without having stepped a foot inside, and the church of the Holy Trinity weaves a spell on me that I’m not entirely sure is of its own making or of Isak’s.
I carry the thought of him close to me. Perhaps he will be a friend, one entirely separate from Richard and the life he is building for us here. And yet, more likely, I will never see him again. Excepting his name, and his profession, I know nothing about him. It’s this uncertainty, or rather, the certainty that I will never see him again that leads me to dwell on him and his grey eyes for longer than I ought.
It’s the peanut that rouses me, its movements bringing with them a sense of nausea. Darkness has fallen and the air is damp. Stirring, I go back to the kitchen, stopping to prepare a mug of peppermint tea before heading to the bathroom to tidy myself up before Richard arrives home.
By the time he walks through the door, I am ready and waiting in a beautifully cut classic black dress, its clever seams and stitching creating the illusion of curves which the peanut has yet to accentuate, sheer black tights cover my freshly shaved and moisturised legs, and patent black court shoes with a four inch heel wait only for my feet to slip into them. My engagement ring sparkles, matched by the studs in my ears, an ‘impromptu’ honeymoon gift, which I felt, perhaps unjustly, lacked any hint of impulse. Delicate make up, only a touch heavier than its day counterpart, grace my features, and a spritz of Jo Malone completes the look.
From his eyes, I can see that my appearance pleases him, and, if I’m honest, I’m not displeased myself when I look in the mirror. Perhaps it is a little conservative to celebrate a 24th birthday but there is no denying its elegance. I hold two glasses in my hand; one a single malt whisky topped off with a blast of soda water, the other an apple juice.
“This bloody flat!” he says as he shuts the front door forcefully, although not slammed, never slammed. “I had to park three streets away!” Since we now live right in the centre of town, and in a predominantly pedestrian zone, it should come as no surprise to Richard that his brand new BMW, a model of which I am oblivious and a present to himself for securing this promotion, is more often than not relegated to on-street parking wherever he can secure it, and any resident of York can tell you that is easier said than done.
Used to underground parking and valet service in London, this is the very pinnacle of outrage, another cross to bear in this Northern wasteland until he can return home in a few years triumphant with an even bigger, better promotion, and preferably a happy family in tow. I can’t decide if it is becoming more or less irritating with each daily outburst, but even I know enough not to suggest cycling, or worse, the bus.
“Darling,” he says, taking the proffered glass from my hand. “You angel.” He plants a kiss on my cheek without actually letting his lips touch my skin and gives me an appreciative once-over. “You look lovely. What’s the occasion?”
“It’s my birthday.”
He hides his momentary confusion well, “Of course it is. In fact, I have your present with me.” He puts a hand into the inner pocket of his jacket and pulls out a parcel: small, unobtrusive with its delicate cream and black wrapping. Without taking it from him I know what I’ll find: an exquisite piece of jewellery. No doubt a platinum-set diamond, or some such; a girl’s best friend, I am told.
I recognise the packaging as that of his favourite jeweller in London. He must have had Lynn, his previous PA, organise it before we left. He places the box in my hand, and beneath a rustling layer of cream tissue paper, I discover an elegant case, which opens in the way only an expensive jewellery box can, to reveal a diamond tennis bracelet nestling against a cream suede backdrop. I lift it gently and hold it against my wrist. It sparkles irresistibly.
“Happy Birthday. Here, let me. It looks exquisite on you.” He takes a long sip of whisky, “And what’s the capable Mrs Gilbert left us for supper?” He pokes his head around the kitchen door. “Shepherd’s pie?” I nod. “It’s your birthday, and you’re not having shepherd’s pie for supper on your birthday. Let’s see if there’s anywhere decent to eat in this place.”
Taking his mobile phone out of his inner jacket pocket, he has his new PA on the other end in seconds. I feel sorry for the poor woman. She’ll never have had to work for someone like Richard before, but then again, he does have a pretty habit of endearing himself to women across the board while getting everything exactly his own way. Charm, I believe it’s called. Something I’ve never possessed.
“Right,” I hear him say. “Make the reservations, will you? Yes; eight will be fine. You’re a star.” Turning back to me, “Rustique. Little French jobby, apparently. Give me thirty minutes, darling, and I’ll see I don’t put you to shame.”
Taking the whisky with him, his jacket is the first to come off and is carefully hung on its allotted hanger; next his silk tie is pulled wide, almost savagely, and placed on a special hanger with tens of others; the Italian tan leather belt is pulled through the loops of his trousers and coiled, placed in a drawer; wooden shoe trees are inserted in each rich tan leather loafer; he steps out of first one, and then, the other leg of the trousers of his bespoke suit and they are hung with their jacket; the black cashmere socks are folded back in a pair before being deposited in the laundry basket, and he downs the rest of the whisky in one gulp. The silver cufflinks are taken out and popped back in their cream and black box, a twin to that of my diamond bracelet, and the handmade shirt, professional washed, ironed and starched only the day before, follows the socks into the basket.
The whole process is finished in minutes and without any of the fuss or mess I would make. I sip my apple juice and stare at the man I married: a man more than fifteen years my senior. The years have been kind: he is still very handsome, in a traditional sense with a full head of sandy hair, combed over at the side, clean-shaven cheeks, the only wrinkles serving to add to his appeal, soft blue eyes that crinkle at the side when he smiles and a small dimple in his chin.
Regular gym sessions and golf ensure that the dreaded middle-aged spread has been held at bay, for now, and yet, time waits for no man, and as he peels off his boxers – 100% cotton, John Lewis – I see that his bottom has the very beginnings of a sag to the cheeks. Nothing pronounced yet, indeed, far from it, but the clock is ticking. What appears dignified and mature in a face: a few wrinkles and lines, and the bags under the eyes that deem a man busy and important, seem less worthy on a bottom.
You cannot lust after a man with a saggy bottom. Unbidden, Isak flashes into my mind, followed by myself and my still firm body and pert breasts, and the life growing inside of me: the old, the young and the barely begun.
Twenty minutes of expensive lather, designer aftershave and bespoke clothing later, Richard reappears in the sitting room.
“Ready, darling?” he says, knowing full well I’ve been primed and ready to go long before he set foot inside the flat this evening. We descend into the night.
‘Rustique’ is indeed a French jobby, but exceeds even Richard’s expectations, although I suspect that has more to do with the out-of-London prices than the food. Not a miser by any standards, and always keen to spend exactly the right amount, he is nevertheless on guard against being ripped off. A trait of all rich men, I imagine. Richard is an orderer, and an expert one at that. He knows far more about food than I do, and I’m happy to bow to his expertise.
I’m to have the king prawns in a garlic and tomato sauce followed by the confit of duck with dauphinoise potatoes, while he tucks into the game terrine and a haunch of venison. I think I might like to try the guinea fowl supreme but the order has already been placed. A rich burgundy is brought to our table with a flourish at the same time that Richard waves the bread basket away as much for his own benefit, as for mine.
A single glass of wine, red, is good for the baby, he says, and I clink the glass against his, quashing the unexpected urge to tell him that only the middle class engage in such a mundane act, the upper class preferring a simple raise and acknowledgement.
The food is delicious and I’d like to tuck in with more gusto but I’ve never had a particularly large appetite, instead I savour each mouthful: the duck positively melts in my mouth and I allow the wine to coat my entire mouth with its rich velvety smoothness.
With each course, I pass a forkful across the table. Richard takes my fork, decants its contents on to his side plate, and returns the fork before loading his own with the new bounty. Despite having his child growing inside me, we do not, and never will, share cutlery. In an unguarded and oddly confiding moment on our honeymoon, Richard once confessed that ever since he read that Princess Anne never ate all the food on her plate, he had adopted the same attitude, and yet he looks mournfully at the slice of venison pushed carefully to one side on his plate. I think he enjoys the self-discipline and the denial though.
“I discovered something today,” I say. “Did you know that where we live used to be called Mad Alice Lane?”
“You know, I think someone might have mentioned it at work.”
Trust Richard to have known but not to have thought to share this information.
“Don’t you think that’s fascinating?”
“How so?” He tilts his head very slightly to one side, the line between his eyes marginally narrows and his bottom lip turns into a tiny pout.
I go on, “Well, who was this Alice? What did she do? Why was she mad? When did she live?”
“It’s probably just a nickname, one from the locals.”
“Well actually, I read in this guidebook that a real person called Alice Smith lived there in the 1800s. She was hanged for being crazy.”
“We don’t say someone is crazy now, Martha.”
“Oh. Well, you know, insane then. Did you know you could be killed just for being a bit, well, not all there?”
“I’m not sure this is suitable talk on your birthday dinner,” he says, taking my hand to soften the blow.
I sit back in my chair. “Of course not. Still,” I say, feeling unnaturally rebellious. “I think it’s fascinating.”
“What else did you and my future heir get up to today?”
I look at him considering; this isn’t a trick question; he isn’t trying to catch me out; he’s simply making polite conversation. But he knows I have nothing to fill my time with. I weigh up my options. “I found a book at home.”
“Of course. Carry on.”
“It’s sort of a walking tour of the city.”
“Yes. It’s very old fashioned I suppose but it takes you around all the old snickelways in York; takes you to forgotten little nooks and off the beaten track.”
“Not too far off, I hope?”
“No; not at all,” I reassure him. “In fact, I kept bumping into this one person: a photographer. It was in this church. Did you know we live opposite a church?”
“Yes; Holy Trinity. It’s medieval and has some lovely features still left inside. These box pews-”
“You don’t want a dessert, do you, darling?”
“Pardon?” He gestures at the menus the waiter put down a few minutes ago. “No, thank you. I’ll just have an espresso.”
“This late? Don’t you think a decaf Americano would be better? Two decaf Americanos,” he says to the hovering waiter.
“And it has a hagioscope.”
“A hagioscope,” I repeat. “It’s a little hole cut into the wall of a church so that the… hang on, let me get this right… so that the priest-”
“Oh, and the bill, please,” he says to the waiter. “Sorry, you were saying?”
“So that the priest can say mass in synchronisation with the main priest-”
“God, this is strong coffee. I don’t think it can be decaf after all. Shall we go?”
“Yes; let’s,” I say carefully replacing the cup into the saucer.