Story — From the April 2017 issue

Necessary Driving Skills

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I’m not an adulterer yet. But I will be, and soon. I can feel it coming on like autumn. Can’t you? Ever so slowly, a chill in the bones, and then suddenly, snap, you’re huddled against discovery? How old are you? You see, this is the paradoxical thing about my peer group (and yours — if it hasn’t happened yet, it will). The more we settle, the more opportunities there are for disruption. Because adultery’s just not adultery when you’re still fucking around (adultery’s not adultery when nobody’s married). My London was once a network of coupled places; I was aware, driving around, of tenuous cords, like strands of semen, connecting Clapham with Kentish Town, Maida Vale with Barnes, Notting Hill with Whitechapel. A bus map, a Knowledge of coupling: a transport system. Now Simon and Maxine are married with a ten-month-old daughter. Luke, a partner at his law firm and earning a packet, is married to Helen, a fellow marketing manager of Jill’s at L’Oréal. The strands have dried and disintegrated, been replaced — for now at least — by the much flimsier filaments of friendship. We don’t see one another anymore, we keep in touch. Football’s still played some Sundays, but guilty stability’s put paid to the after-match drink — other halves to get home to. Friday nights, by default, are for box sets and takeaways, or, when we do make it to a bar or a club or a party past midnight, are cast in the faint but unmistakable gloom of occasion and achievement. Drugs are now either a habit or only for Christmas. My circle of friends, turning square.

Take the other weekend.

Luke and Helen had rented a cottage near Stow-on-the-Wold for a fortnight, to see, Hel said, what living in the country might be like. Being a salesman-veteran of motorway turnoff, I could have told her: it’s like the town, only lonelier. The laughably pretty village was called Lower Slaughter, which from the hints Luke’s dropped about their sex life was either a cosmic joke or Helen trying to tell him something. Anyway, out of horror at chastity in the heritage belt or nostalgia for the good old days of substance abuse and casual congress, Luke invited six of us up for the weekend — “Plenty of room, double bed, single mattress, two bunks, and the sofa for you, Neil.” No one’s quite got used to me going steady. Because I was the appointed singleton, the exception that proved their lives, lived by new rules, might be viable.

“You don’t want me to come,” Jill had said.

“Yes I do.”

“No you don’t. They’re your friends.”

“Yours too, now.”

“Not in the same way.”

“What’s that meant to mean?”

We’d done this several times before. I knew what it was meant to mean. I also knew what it really meant — what Jill meant by meaning to mean it. She wanted to be pleaded with, prioritized. Who knew if I wanted her to come? Could I enter into the cozy new conspiracy of separate togetherness, for a few days at least? Would it be fun? Good training? Would it make me more or less visible to Sasha? Two options. Either placate Jill — “Please, darling” — and hope she might happily say no. Or affect offense at the aspersion — “Because I slept with Maxine?” (Jill doesn’t know about Sasha) — confront her with her jealousy, dissolve her with a drop of anger, and accept her No, you go as conciliatory proof of her trust in me.

“Look, come if you want to, don’t if you don’t.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, I’d really like you to. And Helen will be disappointed.”

“I might just do some things at home.”

“No pressure either way. But it’s okay if I take the car?”

“I’ll come.”

“Really? Good.”

“As long as we’re not back too late on Sunday. I’ve got to go to work the next day.”

So the six of us set off that Saturday morning, two by fuel-uneconomical two. Of course within half a mile of the lifted restriction past R.A.F. Northolt I’d left them far behind — Kim’s bad enough, but Simon drives like an old lady, like Pnin, pulling down on the wheel like it’s the ladder out of a swimming pool. We arrived at Glebe or Glib Cottage or whatever it was called forty-five minutes ahead of Kim and Sasha, twenty minutes earlier than expected, to be met by Luke at the wisteria-wigged doorway, holding a pitcher of mojitos with the liminally hostile awkwardness of a man who knows, Now I’ll have to behave in certain ways. In the background towel-turbaned Helen steamed past unpublicly.

“You’re here,” he said. “Helen’s just having a bath.”

And that kind of set the tone for the weekend. Of it never being quite the right time for anything. Oh, we had a laugh, of course, traded in the cool thin currency of quips and repartee, but don’t you think sometimes that having a laugh is the last thing left, or, rather, an essentially anxious response to the feeling that there’s nothing left, that no one has anything to say to one another? I don’t want to come the misery guts, but it’s not like it used to be, kidding around being one of a number of tones available to our careering improvisations, taking in music and gossip and books and personal histories, stoned riffs starting funny then grading, sometimes, into serious avowal or point of view, then, sometimes, back to funny again. The thing was, it didn’t matter what you said. Now it’s narrower. Now it’s gag or be gagged.

083__HA0417_83-1After an insufficiently drunken lunch we went for a walk. A round trip of miles from Burford, along the trickling Windrush and back, up muddy wold and down ankle-spraining scree, seven of us (Sasha napped) strung out along the skyline like the dance of death at the end of The Seventh Seal. Walking. Not talking. Me to Luke: Everything all right with Hel? Luke to me: I’ll tell you later. (He didn’t.) That chat constantly deferred. On the way back to the cottage, perhaps out of an unspoken sense of communal guilt at not having mixed, drivers and passengers played musical chairs: Maxine drove me; Jill drove Simon; Kim, Helen; and so on. That’s as far as it goes these days. We used to see one another’s bedrooms — now it’s the inside of our cars. Maxine, I remember, had a bedroom full of chimes, a furtive lover’s nightmare of dangling steel tubes and dopey-sounding scooped-out bamboo stalks that rang and jangled and clonked if you so much as sat on the bed, and sure enough, here in her Golf, suspended from the rearview mirror, was a cluster of tiny tubular bells, gonged on corners and gear changes by a dolphin on a string.

“It’s funny,” she said, as we crunched out of the car park, too slow behind Jill, “how all of a sudden we mind our own business. I mean as a group. We used to be so — into one another.”

Now this was more like it. It’s like the intimacy of the car interior, with its cans on the floor, its CD selection (trance-driving standards: Portishead, Massive Attack, Boards of Canada), its whiffs of warm vinyl and baby sick, unnoticed till an alien enters, had eased Maxine into candor. And looking over I thought how easy, how right it would be to direct her into a lay-by, lift up her T-shirt, and run my tongue down her stomach, still ruched from her caesarean, I imagined, like the inside pocket of an old-fashioned suitcase.

“I’m so glad you said that.”

“You know? It’s like this living-in-the-country bullshit. Why? What’s wrong with living close to your friends? They don’t even have kids. And as if you could find out in a fortnight.”

“Well, I don’t think the experiment’s been a success.”

“Whatever, it’s the impulse. A kind of elective provincialism. I mean, I love Luke, but . . . I’m twenty-nine, for fuck’s sake.”

“You don’t want to live in the sticks. Third.”

“What?”

“You want to be in third gear.”

“Fuck off, Neil. I don’t want any of us to live in the sticks. I don’t know. Maybe things aren’t good between Luke and Hel and the mood is catching. It’s just, I love my husband, I love my kid, like I can only hope Sasha loves Kim, and vice versa, and yet we’re all acting like marriage is this fragile state that mustn’t be corrupted by our past.” Ahead, framed in the back window of the Beemer, Simon and Jill sat in silent silhouette. We rode a bump, the wind chimes jangled, and Maxine laughed. “Like Simon minds that you and I shagged.”

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is the author of Pub Walks in Underhill Country (Penguin), a novel. His article “Good Plain English” appeared in the March 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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