It was one of those Saturday evening dinner parties in north London that was a little too large to sustain a collective discussion and so, as the noise levels inevitably rose, pairs of guests found themselves engaged in more personal conversations, but Tom didn't mind because the hosts had mixed up the couples and he was seated next to Gail.
Tom was in his late 40s and director of a pressure group on climate change. His first marriage had not worked out, but his second marriage to Clare, a social worker, was strong and happy and they had two delightful children together, both at school. Clare was sitting at almost the opposite end of the table with people she knew and liked. Tom was proud of his wife and sure of his love for her but, in other circumstances, he would not have found it difficult to imagine the very real chemistry with Gail working its magic.
Gail was younger than Tom - late 30s. She was a geography teacher, married to Edward, a brand manager in a large food manufacturing company. They had a little girl in nursery school and a Polish au pair. Edward was located in the middle of one of the long sides of the table and effortlessly commanding the attention of all the guests anywhere near him.
Tom and Gail had met on a number of previous social occasions, several of them here, and had always thoroughly enjoyed each other's company. He found her bright and undeniably attractive, especially this evening in her low cut white dress. For her part, she'd always been struck by his intelligence and admired his social commitment. As a geography teacher, she needed no convincing on the dangers of global warming. Above all, she was struck by his empathy and care, qualities she saw too rarely in Edward.
It was mid January and the soup course piping hot broccoli and stilton with delicious granary breads had been most welcome. Gail and Tom had exchanged news on how each of their families had spent Christmas and the New Year. They could then have moved on to discuss their professional lives, but Gail mentioned that one of the things she'd found troubling over Christmas was a conversation she'd had with a good friend who had discovered than her husband was having an affair and who was thinking of leaving him once Christmas was over.
"Relationships, eh?" responded Tom. "Difficult things. But I've a couple of theories about what works and what doesn't."
"Really?" quizzed Gail with a hint of uncharacteristic condescension. "So, tell me one of your theories."
The main course was being served which temporarily brought a halt to their conversation: ripe green peppers stuffed with spicy mince and accompanied by new potatoes, sliced carrots, and broad beans (all organic, naturally).
"Well, resumed Tom. I'm hesitant to pronounce on such a delicate subject but, since you ask" - he smiled, revealing that his reluctance was more feigned than fact - "one of my theories is that understanding the dynamics of a relationship involves coming to terms with change and the lack of it."
"Sounds a bit grand and theoretical, Tom. What exactly are you talking about?"
"It's a massive generalisation, I know, but I reckon that, in many relationships, the man hopes that the woman won't change and she does. Whereas the woman hopes that the man will change and he doesn't."
"Sounds intriguing" offered Gail. "Please explain."
"Well, a man hopes that his partner will stay slim, attractive, keen on sex, and focused on him and, of course, she doesn't. She puts on weight, spends lots of time on the kids, and is less interested in sex. On the other hand, a woman hopes that the man will work less hard and become more attentive to her needs and, of course, he doesn't. Indeed, in too many cases, the woman hopes that her partner will spend less, drink less or become less aggressive or violent and he rarely does."
Gail looked thoughtful: "Sounds sobering but it has a more than a hint of credibility. I'd thought that Edward might be a bit less focused on his career now that we have a child but, if anything, he seems less interested in me since we had Polly." There was a brief respite and then she continued: "So what's the answer?"
"Good relationships are not easy to create and harder still to sustain, Gail. We both know that. But I guess the answer involves men accepting that their partners will change and women not trying too much to change their partners. Both need to be more accepting which, of course, is easy to say and much harder to do."
The dessert course was a selection: a rich chocolate cake, a strawberry cheesecake, or a fresh fruit salad.
Having made their selections (or, in Tom's case, two), the conversation resumed when Gail inquired: "So you said you had a couple of theories. What was the other one?"
"Aaah" reacted Tom. "My other theory is that successful relationships involve a subtle blend of commonalties and differences. I think that relationships work best when a couple share basic values but have different complementary, if you like personalities."
"Again, you're going to have to give me more information if I'm to really understand this."
"OK. By the sharing of basic values, I mean that, if religion or politics is important to a couple, it helps if they have similar religious or political views. In any event, it certainly helps if they feel the same about money, sex, truth, lifestyle, parenthood those sort of fundamental things. On the other hand, it's striking how many contented couples I know are made up of such different personalities. For instance, perhaps one is organised, disciplined, a planner, while the other is much more laid back, much more spontaneous. Maybe one is more extrovert and sociable, while the other is quieter and content to be more of an observer." He paused to let the thought mellow and then continued: "I think we need to be more accepting of differences and even celebrate them."
"Now, that is interesting" commented Gail. "Edward is much more materialistic than me and we're always arguing about how we should spend our money and how much debt we can carry. The trouble is that we're both strong personalties and want to be in charge too often. I suppose I want him to be more like me and he wants me to be more like him and, of course, we're different."
There was a burst of loud, raucous laughter from the other side of the dinner table. Gail and Tom both looked over and it was apparent that her husband was amusing some of the other guests.
"Well, Edward's on form as usual" noted Tom. "And he seems to be doing very well in his company too from what I overheard earlier in the evening. He was talking about a product launch. So, what's the new thing that we must all buy next then?"
Gail hesitated before responding: "To be honest, I don't really know. We've hardly seen each other since we went back to work after the Christmas break."
"Sounds like you're having an affair, Gail" blurted Tom in what he hoped sounded a jokey way - but immediately recognised was inappropriate. "I'm sorry - I shouldn't have said that."
Gail paused a couple of seconds too long. "No, you shouldn't, Tom. But, tell me why did you say it?"
"I'm really sorry. It's just that the Christmas period is very difficult for relationships. All the time one spends together. All the pressure of planning events and seeing families. Often January is when the pressure boils over. I wasn't surprised when you told me your friend was thinking of leaving her husband in the New Year. I suppose I was wondering why you and Edward are talking so little at the moment. But I'm sure things are fine. I should have kept my mouth shut."
To cover his embarrassment at the turn of the conversation, Tom gathered some of the dessert dishes and took them to the kitchen where he deliberately lingered. To his surprise, he found that a few moments later Gail entered the kitchen, herself bearing dishes.
Conspiratorially she moved close and spoke quietly: "What would you do if you and Clare had problems in your marriage?"
Tom guessed that she was telling him something and making herself vulnerable, so he responded with particular honesty: "In the past, we have. We found counselling really helped us through a tough patch."
Gail looked pained: "Edward won't go. He says we can sort this out ourselves."
"So you do have problems."
"More than Edward realises. More than I can say."
At this point, their hostess arrived in the kitchen, intending to prepare teas and coffees. "Here you both are" she announced unnecessarily. "If you two hide away like this, people are going to think you're having an affair" she laughed.
It was a few weeks later when Tom received a call at work from Gail. It was half-term, she was off work, and tomorrow the au pair would be taking out her daughter Polly. Could they have lunch and talk?
Tom booked a table at "Rules" which claimed to be the oldest restaurant in London. He'd never met Gail alone before and wanted to make a bit of a show. No sooner had she arrived, though, than it was apparent that the food and the ambiance were of little interest to her. She really did want to talk and Tom listened attentively, saying very, very little.
Gail told him that she was indeed having an affair. It had been going on since the summer. It had been particularly intense since Christmas. Her lover was Edward's younger brother. He had all the best attributes of Edward they were both strikingly handsome but the relationship didn't have the downsides of her marriage. Her brother-in-law, a university lecturer, was much more caring and attentive and a wonderful lover. But he too was married.
Gail went on to explain that Edward was becoming increasingly suspicious and questioning. She was out such a lot and their sex life was now so perfunctory, he was bound to wonder. She began to weep.
"Oh dear, Gail" responded Tom, as he reached out to hold her hand. "This is complicated. But you know I really care for you. I'll do whatever I can to help you through this."
A couple of weeks later, there was another call to Tom. This time, Gail suggested that they meet after work at a wine bar in the Barnet area where they both lived. When she arrived, it was immediately apparent to Tom that she was very distraught and he braced himself for an up-date on the situation. It was not what he expected.
Gail explained: "Edward knows now that I've been having an affair. He accused me directly and I admitted it. He thinks it's recent and he told me that he knows it's you. He said that, at the dinner party in the middle of January, we were behaving 'conspiratorially' as he put it. Then: would you believe it? A colleague of his saw us at 'Rules' with me crying and you holding my hand. That convinced him it was you."
"But - you told him the truth?" pleaded Tom.
"I'm so sorry, Tom, I couldn't. If he knew that I'd been sleeping with his brother, he'd go crazy. So I had to pretend that it was you."
"Oh - my - God" whispered Tom ever so slowly.
"But I want to end the affair. I will end it. I have to stay with Edward for the sake of Polly. Edward's not so bad a husband. It's like you said at dinner: I have to be more accepting of him as he is. I've told him that the affair is over and that you and I will never see each other again."
"But what do you mean, Gail? How can we never see each other again? We go to the same dinner parties and social events."
"Well, we won't be able to. Edward wouldn't allow it and I can understand that. I am so, so sorry but we can never see each other again."
Tom's mind was in a complete whirl: "What am I supposed to say to Clare? How am I supposed to explain that we will never be able to socialise with you and Edward again?"
"You will have to tell her the truth, Tom. Your marriage is strong enough to take the truth mine isn't."
"But Clare is bound to wonder if something has been going on between us. I can't risk my marriage, Gail."
She was sobbing now: "You have to do this, Tom. You said that you'd do anything you could to help me. I know that I'm asking so much of you. But you and Clare can handle the truth. If Edward finds out that I've been having an affair with his brother, our marriage will be over and his brother's marriage will be over too and Edward and his brother will never speak to each other again. And then there's poor Polly. She would want us to stay together. She's still so young."
Silence hung over them like a suffocating fog.
Then Tom spoke somewhat forlornly: "When you put it that way, I guess I don't have much choice."
Gail almost shouted: "Thank you. Thank you."
Outside the wine bar, Tom and Gail said farewell for the last time. Gail's face was still streaked with tears but it was evident that she now saw a way to pull through this and rebuild her marriage.
"You are a good man Tom" she offered gratefully as she kissed him on the lips. Tom held her to him a couple of seconds too long.
Then she was gone forever. As her car pulled away, he saw on the opposite side of the road his wife with an expression he had never observed before. Wide-eyed, Clare had her hand to her open mouth.
He had some explaining to do.
Published on 11 September 2009
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