Birthday Story by Ian Inglis

As lunchtime approached on the day of her husband’s forty-fifth birthday, the prospect of the empty afternoon ahead made Jan contact one of her two lovers. Having one lover (she knew from experience) was too restrictive; having two gave her an element of choice; having three (again, she knew from experience) was far too unwieldy and led to complications. She stepped over her discarded underwear tossed carelessly around the floor, lay back in the bath, and weighed up the merits of each.

David was a married man of her own age whom she had met eighteen months ago at a neighbour’s party.

‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I know you.’

‘We’ve just moved in, at the top end of the road.’ He looked around. ‘My wife’s here somewhere.’

‘Oh, that’s a pity,’ she said, and walked away. 

Later in the evening, he’d approached her, tentatively.

‘Hello again. What did you mean when you said it was a pity my wife’s here?’

She shook her head and smiled. ‘What do you think I meant?’

‘She’s not always here,’ he said, quietly.

‘Let me know the next time she’s not.’

And so their affair had begun. David was an experienced and generous lover: sex with him left her satisfied and relaxed. While she appreciated his reliability and the obvious devotion he had for her (he’d once, to her considerable alarm, started to tell her that he loved her) she was at the same time mildly irritated by elements in his behaviour which suggested that he couldn’t quite believe his luck.

Nick was twenty years younger than her, not much older than her own daughters. She’d started chatting to him several weeks earlier, while both were waiting in the queue for concert tickets. 

‘Enjoy the show,’ she said, as they walked away with their tickets.

He stood very close to her and allowed his hand to brush hers.

‘I’d enjoy you more.’

‘I’m a married woman,’ she said, taken aback by his boldness. ‘Also, I’m older than you.’

‘And I’m a single man, who’s younger than you. We’re both just what the other one wants. It sounds like a perfect match.’

‘What makes you think I want you?’

‘Don’t you?’

‘Where do you live?’ she asked.

‘Very near.’

And so their affair had begun.

***

Now, as she considered her options, she wondered, not for the first time, whether David and Nick – neither of whom knew of the other’s existence – would be offended by the manner in which she routinely evaluated their usefulness to her. She took little interest in their histories, their personal circumstances, their motivations and ambitions. Her relationship with them was centred firmly around what they could give her or, more accurately, perhaps, what she could take from them. Both men were content to let her initiate their meetings, and determine their timing and location: she made it clear that they were never to contact her. She liked to characterise her encounters with David as “Sunday afternoon sex” and those with Nick as “Saturday night sex”. And right now, she wanted to feel the intoxication and abandon of a Saturday night – or, at least, the Saturday nights she used to know in the past. 

She stepped out of the bathtub and looked at her reflection in the full-length mirror. Whose hands did she want to feel running over her body? On balance, she thought, it ought to be Nick today. With him, there was little pretence of affection. Their relationship was purely, compellingly physical, their times together unpredictable, passionate, exciting. And right now, her body ached for excitement. Later in the afternoon, her husband would return from work, the children from school and college, and her life would fall into its familiar predictability. The interminable dreariness of another celebration pizza at her husband’s favourite Italian restaurant would be significantly lightened, she thought, if she were able to conceal her boredom behind the secret, thrilling memory of an afternoon of voluptuous and hedonistic sex.

She dialled his number.

‘Hi, Jan. I was just thinking of you.’

She ignored the lie.

‘Are you free this afternoon, Nick?’

‘Yes, I am. But I have to be away by four.’

 ‘I’ll come over now, then.’ 

***

Jan had arranged to pick up Chrissy, her younger daughter, from hockey practice at 4.30. Now, as she sat in the car outside the school gates, the fierce imprint of Nick’s body only slowly receding from her own, she felt no shame or guilt. Why should she? She was hurting no one. She had done nothing wrong. Her marriage to Paul was not an unhappy one: indeed, to listen to the complaints of some of her friends, it seemed that hers was a model of marital bliss. And if there were tensions in David’s marriage to Ruth, or in Nick’s relationship with his long-time girlfriend Sarah, these were no concern of hers: nor were her affairs with them responsible for those tensions. In fact, Jan would never describe her liaisons with David and Nick as affairs. That was a grubby, tawdry, tabloid sort of word. They were interludes, entertainments, diversions. There had been others before, and she had no doubt that there would be others in the future. Would she feel the same if she were to discover that Paul was seeing someone else? Well, that was different, of course. He would never engage in such behaviour lightly or casually: for him, it would have to be serious, meaningful, and permanent. And, of course, he was fortunate in having his work at the hospital to occupy his time. She had no such luxury.

Chrissy opened the door and climbed into the back seat of the car. ‘Do you think Dad will mind if I don’t come for the meal tonight?’

‘It depends,’ she said, as she waited for Chrissy to fasten her seatbelt. ‘What else do you have on?’

‘Annie’s parents have said they’ll take us to the ski-dome. It’s ages since I’ve been, and some of the ski-boarders who were at the Winter Olympics are supposed to be there. What do you think?’

‘When did you find out about this?’

‘I can’t remember. A few days ago, I think.’

‘Why didn’t you mention it before?’

‘I suppose I forgot. It’s not a big deal, is it?’

‘No, it’s not a big deal. It just would be nice to have been told about it in advance.’

‘So I can go?’

‘Yes. I don’t think Dad will mind.’

‘Oh thanks. I’ll text Annie now and tell her it’s OK. And Phoebe won’t be there tonight either, so you and Dad’ll be able to have a romantic evening together!’

‘Why won’t Phoebe – ?’ she began. 

‘It’s the rehearsal…at college,’ said Chrissy. ‘Don’t you remember?’

She must have forgotten. The group presentation for her elder daughter’s final-year assessment was coming up, and she and the rest of the Drama students were needed at the technical rehearsal. An Inspector Calls. Not the sort of play Jan would have picked, but a safe enough choice.

‘But that’s tomorrow, isn’t it?’ she said, puzzled and annoyed by her own forgetfulness.  ‘I’m sure that’s what she told me. Unless they’ve decided to do it over two nights.’

‘Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know.’

‘Oh, well. We’ll just have to cope without you both,’ she said, brightly.

***

Jan sat watching the TV news with a glass of Pinot Grigio in her hand, acknowledging the customary relief she felt after successfully negotiating the sundry demands of another day. She was wearing the black-and-white Versace dress she had bought in Rome, and hoping it wouldn’t crease too much. The table at the restaurant was booked for 7.30, and she might as well get in the mood. It wasn’t hard to predict the evening ahead. When he returned from work, Paul would immediately change into the sports jacket and jeans that he thought made him look younger, and almost certainly wear the Liberty tie she had given him that morning. At the restaurant, he would order what he always ordered: Potato Skins with a Garlic Dip; Pizza Carbonara; Tiramisu; Coffee. Oh, and a bottle of Chianti. She had given up attempting to persuade him to try something different. In a way, she even envied his dogged continuity. Was she hungry? Not really, but she had no wish to spoil his birthday and was prepared to go through the motions. And when they returned from the restaurant? She supposed that she would allow him to have sex with her, in spite of the inevitable aroma of garlic – after all, it was his birthday and she didn’t want to appear unreasonable. She closed her eyes as she thought of the afternoon in Nick’s flat. Over the several occasions she had been there, she wouldn’t have said that they had ever had sex together. Instead, they fucked each other, furiously and repeatedly, just as they had this afternoon. And David (she reminded herself to call him later in the week)? He was different again. He made love to her, gently, correctly, and unselfishly. To make love, to have sex, to fuck…although some people regarded them as alternative words for the same thing, they were not the same thing at all. She had always known that.

Her phone rang and she answered it.

‘Paul. Where are you?’

‘Jan, I’m sorry. I’m afraid we’re going to have to cancel tonight. We’re overwhelmed in A&E, and they’ve just asked me to do an extra shift. I can’t say no.’

‘I thought Tuesday was generally quiet.’

‘It usually is. But not tonight. Don’t ask me why. I’m down there now, and it’s bedlam.’

‘Alright,’ she sighed, surprised at her mild disappointment. ‘What time do you think you’ll be back?’

‘Late. Not before midnight.’

She switched off the television, went through to the kitchen, took the opened bottle of wine from the refrigerator and refilled her glass. Odd that the hospital should be so busy on a Tuesday night. Odd that she had heard none of the background bustle and noise she associated with A&E. Odd too, that he hadn’t persuaded one of his colleagues to cover his shift – he was always very particular about birthdays with the family.

She turned to the TV and radio listings in the evening newspaper. There was nothing she wanted to watch, nothing that attracted her. It was a pity Chrissy hadn’t mentioned her ski-dome trip before – unlike her, too: she was usually so thoughtful. And she could have sworn Phoebe had told her the rehearsal was tomorrow. As for the birthday meal…she really ought to ring to cancel the booking, but it wasn’t her responsibility. The restaurant could sort it out. When she and Paul failed to turn up, someone else would claim the table soon enough. She sat for a few minutes in silence, staring past the array of birthday cards above the fireplace. Something – what was it? A moment? A word? A detail? Like a tiny speck tantalisingly out of reach at the periphery of her vision, it floated away each time she tried to focus on it. She felt she should ask a question, but had no clear idea what that question might be or to whom it should be addressed. She smiled at her own foolishness, before standing up and walking toward the kitchen again. She might as well bring the bottle in here: she didn’t mind drinking alone. It would give her time to think. And besides, what else was there to do?


Ian Inglis was born in Stoke-on-Trent and now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne. He has published several books and many articles around topics within popular culture, and his short stories have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines including ProleBandit FictionPopshot and Sentinel Literary Quarterly.

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