Her deepest motives are folded in shadow, though punishment is the greatest of them, his regret and his punishment as yet unshaped.
London. Late Summer 2015
It starts with a glance. Beth wonders, as her glance hardens into a stare, if she should turn away, leave the party, abandon the possibility of complications and disappointment, return unscathed to the bedsit above the dry cleaner’s, to the empty wine glass on the dressing table, the cup in the sink, grainy dregs tracking to the rim.
Though there is a choice in that moment, it becomes too late to make it. It was too late weeks ago. She should have ignored the invitation pinned to the board in the coffee room, and never left the flat; she might have stopped at the door of the conference room or left before the unknown man stepped from behind Ted. Now she has seen his face, she is held.
She stands with colleagues, half listening to their chatter. Stephanie’s Yorkshire accent is comforting; Beth has at times imagined laying her head on that pillowy chest and telling her everything. Helena is thin-haired and muscular; she represents the nurses’ union. In the birdlike movements of her head she seems to be watching, gathering information, a little sly. Beth met them outside by chance and came in with them, smiling as though her courage hadn’t ebbed at the door. Other nurses join them, mostly mothers. All week the gossip circled around what they would wear, how to persuade husbands to babysit, how late they might stay. She had listened, saying nothing. She had wanted to see Ted again but at a distance, watch him with his family. Her deepest motives are folded in shadow, though punishment is the greatest of them, his regret and his punishment as yet unshaped.
Banners have been strung across the ceiling. There are balloons in primary colours taped to the backs of chairs. Music plays from invisible speakers. The long table has been pushed against the wall and covered with paper tablecloths. Already there are damp patches of wine, fragments of scattered lettuce, the tang of coleslaw and the sulphur of boiled egg. Bottles with beaded green necks stand in ice and three girls walk around with trays of glasses, brim-full of wine. They offer these unsmilingly. Beth feels judged by their downcast eyes, ashamed of her giggling friends who scoop glasses off every passing tray.
The room fills rapidly, the heat and noise increase. The consultants are in a group at the centre, a couple of women surgeons among them, glamorous in silky dresses, the marks of exhaustion on their faces. Most of their colleagues are men in prosperous middle age. Younger doctors hover at the edge of these knots, rocking on their heels, fingering phones, eyeing each other. Unnecessary stethoscopes are linked around their necks. In the Serengeti with Ted years ago she’d seen adolescent lions circle the older ones, watching them, wanting inclusion first, supremacy later.
Some of the men glance over to her group; their collective gaze travels past her friends and settles on her. Their faces become serious, she recognises intent. Her look tonight is exotic, seductress rather than nurse. Her dark hair is heavy on her shoulders, she wears black lace to her neck, black eyeliner, a red slash of lipstick. Her cheekbones glimmer. Her friends in low-cut silk are a little older, less precisely groomed; they exclaimed when they saw her, as if her appearance had been conjured by magic rather than craft. She feels sharp-edged amidst their softness, glowing inside the circle like a knife.
She noticed Ted immediately; he is easy to notice. Tall, blond, the way he stands. She edges nearer, hidden in the crowd, an outsider, looking in. His wife is close to him; his hand holds hers. Beth stops, recalculates. He never used to hold Jenny’s hand. Eight years ago, when she first met him, husband and wife were at opposite ends of the room. Today, Jenny’s clothes are loose and grey; her frame seems swamped by cloth. The wild hair is gathered into a knot and streaked with white. Beth sees the blue glance flick towards her then away. Jenny knows exactly who she is, has probably known for years; she would by now have found a place to put the knowledge. Their twins are here, she recognises Ed. He is standing beside his parents, darkly angular like his mother, from whom his head is turned, as though straining away. Ted always said the boy was closer to him than to Jenny; he took credit for getting his son through rehab, it never occurred to him he was part of the problem. A red-headed girl in green dungarees stands beside Ed, her hand is around his waist, pressing close, shy. Next to them her male mirror image scans the room closely; her delicate features are sharpened into a muzzle on his face, he resembles a fox. He turns to chat to Ed who nods and laughs. A group within a group, easy to decode: Ed, his girlfriend, her older brother who seems close to Ed; at a guess he came first, introducing the sister. Ted’s once shambolic, drug-taking son has shored himself up against his successful father. Theo, the photographer brother, loose-limbed and fair like Ted, lounges at the corner of the room with a camera round his neck. Their daughter is not here, of course.
Ted is the gravitational centre of the room, a king holding court. The group of young doctors nearest him jostle for attention. His eyes are clear; the puffiness has gone. He must have stopped drinking. He has the gleam of a man who has won his battles, past grief buried deep. He bends to whisper in Jenny’s ear, she smiles; so he has repaired his marriage, he is hard to withstand once he has made up his mind. She was persuaded, once. A bitter taste is in her mouth, sweat prickles her neck. Ted straightens and smiles, he knows all eyes are on him though he won’t guess at her presence, uninvited and no longer part of his life. She toasts him silently. After his daughter went missing, family disaster took centre stage for a while. When war reporters talk of collateral damage, she recognises the word.
The wine tastes salty, expensive. His favourite. In the early years, they used to drink it as they undressed at the end of the day, before he went home. Tuesdays and Thursdays. She smiles with her friends, but other losses crowd in. Her mother’s tipsy laugh echoes from the shadows; her parents hover near at parties. Twenty years dead, self-absorbed and frequently drunk, there’d been no room for anyone else, hardly any for her. They would have been fighting before the crash, fighting and screaming as usual. The other loss is lodged more deeply; Ted’s second daughter, the child he never saw.
Ted is listening to a broad-shouldered man with curly auburn hair who is half hidden behind him, though Ted’s eyes also sweep the crowd, the consultants, the nurses and junior doctors, the anaesthetists and radiologists. He is watching everyone watch him; that he is taking pleasure from the moment is evident in the way he holds his mouth, pursed with triumph. New vanity, unappealing. His shirt strains over a paunch, his hand goes to his back when he straightens. There is white in his hair, deeper lines on his face, cruel ones by his mouth. He’d be sixty now, more. She is less than half his age.
If you can fall in love across a room, you can fall out of it too, falling as from a height to land in a different place with a jolt that shakes your mind. Perhaps she has been mistaken all this time. Perhaps she doesn’t want him after all, never really wanted him. She wants what he has: family, safety, money. Love. The simple, unimaginable things. His sons are smiling at him; his wife holds his hand.
A camera flashes twice; Theo is crouching against the wall, grinning and snapping fast. Champagne has replaced wine on the circulating trays. The auburn-haired man has moved forward and is tapping a glass with a knife. Heads swivel at the clash of metal on glass, the chatter quietens. The shoulders and the colour of his hair are familiar. She has seen him at a distance in the car park talking to Ted or walking rapidly through the corridors of the hospital, head bent, surrounded by a group. A man in a hurry who leaves a stir in the air. Now he is clearly revealed, fresh-faced and handsome. He wears a kilt, a tweed jacket slung over his shoulders; the colours glow next to Ted’s black suit. His frame seems broader than most, high cheekbones, wide-set eyes. Norse or Viking. He has the air of a soldier before a fight; calm and battle-fit. The freckles make him look very young.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, a few moments, please.’ The voice is confident, Scots.
‘We are here to celebrate the achievements of an extraordinary man. Thanks to the Professor we are developing cures for some of the world’s most debilitating conditions.’
His shoulders shift as he talks, his feet step away and back; if he was an animal he would be a horse in peak condition, energy coming off him like heat. Ted was like that once.
‘There are some special investigations going on, with exciting developments ahead,’ the young man tells the room. ‘Since the National poached Ted from Bristol four years ago, our department has gone from strength to strength.’ A patter of clapping. ‘He has looked after me since I started a couple of years back. Friend, mentor, the best teacher I’ve ever had – it’s an honour to be part of his team.’ He sounds as sincere as a child. He raises his glass. ‘First a toast to Jenny; you know what they say, behind every great man is a great woman . . .’
Two women. For seven years it was she, Beth, who had stood in the shadows behind Ted, closer to him than Jenny. As if on cue, Ted turns to the slight figure of his wife, puts his arms round her, pulling her close for a kiss. Ed looks away before the laughter resumes and a small cheer goes up.
‘I give you Professor Edward Malcolm, the new President of the Society of British Neurosurgeons.’
More applause. Ted holds up his hands in mock protest and steps forward. He flattens his hair, his chin lifts and he begins to speak. The words follow each other smoothly, he acknowledges the young man’s praise with a self-deprecating grin, he makes several jokes and pauses for laughter. He nods at members of the audience with appreciative smiles that seem personal. He thanks his team, his wife, his boys. The performance is masterly.
Beth has manoeuvred herself to the front, near where the young Scot is now standing close to Ed. The man’s features have softened as he watches Ted. He would be a middle-grade registrar, working the academic part of the rotation perhaps, hunched over a microscope in the laboratory. Clever and ambitious, Ted only employs people like himself. Oxbridge usually, though this man looks as if he travelled a tougher route. In profile his nose dips at its bridge; there is a triangular scar on his temple, a jagged one on his chin. Ted’s voice rises; he is coming to the end of his speech.
‘. . . so here’s to Baird McAlister, a star in the making.’ He raises his glass to the young man. ‘And to the next generation of doctors, who will take this research forward to places we can only guess at.’ He smiles at Ed who would by now be qualified; his son is frowning at the floor, red-cheeked with embarrassment. The foxy friend murmurs into his ear and Ed raises his head with a grin. Beth is close enough to catch their conversation, turning her head away to avoid recognition.
‘. . . family dynamics on display; so interesting.’
‘Shut up, Jake Valance.’ Ed sounds irritated. ‘This isn’t copy.’
‘Could be. Famous father, rebellious son; perfect for the Sunday Times.’
‘You wouldn’t dare.’
They laugh. Ed’s close friend is a journalist then; a trained observer, that glance around the room had been narrow-eyed. She takes a step away as Ted rejoins his family to prolonged applause. The music becomes louder and the lights dim. Several nurses start to dance together in inward-facing circles. A couple of doctors from Casualty, thick-necked rugby players, begin to walk towards her. She moves nearer to Baird McAlister. His hair is the colour of fire; if she reached to touch him, she has the feeling that her hands would be warmed. As if he can sense her near him, he turns towards her. She notices his irises first, grey streaked with orange, like glowing ash, and then her reflection in his pupils: pale face, encased body. Intent.
‘Quite a speech,’ she says, lifting her glass.
There are green, blue and yellow threads in his jacket; close up he smells of fresh towels and antiseptic. He shakes his head but his face flickers with pleasure. His eyes crease, her reflection vanishes.
‘My boss’s was far more accomplished.’ He indicates Ted who is now downing glass after glass of champagne as if to make up for lost time. Theo is taking photos in quick succession, the Casualty officers have disappeared. ‘He’s a natural at this kind of thing.’
He isn’t. He practises; she knows this. He paces up and down, practising until he is word perfect. There would have been nothing remotely natural about that speech. She wonders if Baird had noticed her already, as she had him, and if gossip might have placed her with Ted. She had let people think there was a boyfriend in the background, a successful business type, often abroad. When rumours of Ted’s affair began to circulate no one suspected her, remote, preoccupied Beth. She turns her back on Ted’s group; she doesn’t want her face in his family album.
‘Yours was better.’
The blush spreads to his hairline; a moment of silent appraisal passes between them, then he smiles. He smiles with his whole face; his mouth opens, his eyes dance, even his ears shift slightly. It’s hard not to smile back.
‘You seem fond of Ted.’
‘Of course. I owe him everything.’
‘Owe him?’ Her voice is light as if amused but she knows how he feels; she’d felt like that once.
‘In every way. He’s given me opportunities most registrars would kill for; I’ve been under his wing from the start. I made a stupid mistake early on and he took the rap.’ A swift sideways glance at her face. ‘I shouldn’t have shared that; don’t tell anyone.’
‘Nothing to tell.’ She smiles up into his eyes. ‘Scout’s honour.’
He grins back, he looks relieved. There is something of the boy scout in him; words like innocence and loyalty would apply, so would goodness probably. Naivety perhaps. No wonder Ted fastened to him, someone he could mould, whose devotion would enhance his ego. Her successor; maybe she should warn him.
‘I swear I’ve seen you somewhere before.’ The grey eyes search hers. ‘On a ward maybe. Are you one of those newly qualified doctors who are coming to take my research forward?’
He’s noticed her then; she wants to tell him she might have been a doctor had there been more money, had her parents been sober enough to save some. He’s the type that would listen.
‘I’m a theatre nurse,’ she answers, lifting her chin. ‘Orthopaedics.’
‘Tough job, that.’ It sounds as though he means it. He couldn’t know how tough it’s been to stand there as handmaiden, passing over chosen knives when she would rather make the cut herself, delicate, precise. She has watched so often, sometimes she thinks she could do it in her sleep.
A waitress approaches, carrying a tray of steaming Yorkshire puddings, miniature cups with a slice of red meat in each, blood seeping into batter. The girl is young for this, mid-teens at a guess, a platinum blonde with tilted eyes the colour of water. Her mouth is turned down; she is doing this on sufferance. She is dressed in black with a frilled white apron, as if acting the part of a maid in a play, appropriately costumed.
Her face is expressionless; she would rather be someone else in a different drama. The hand holding the tray trembles, there is a tiny inked mouse at the base of her thumb.
‘Pretty.’ Beth smiles.
The girl twists her hand to support the tray from underneath, the thumb becomes hidden. The marks under her eyes are greenish, a tired schoolgirl helping out. Baird McAlister has noticed this too; he takes a pudding, then another and another. He puts them into his mouth and they vanish like magic.
‘How did you know I was starving?’ he jokes, but the girl steps back as if found out in some trickery. Beth sees the other two waitresses hovering. They look older. One is tall, late twenties with a slant-eyed stare and thick grey hair pulled back from a bony face; the smaller girl has bold brown eyes and a turned-up nose; with her red curls she has the appearance of a tortoiseshell cat. Despite their different colourings they are similar; stepped versions of the same girl. A family business. Beth is held, riven as she always is. Sisters. It would have changed her life.
‘There’s something about roast beef that restores one’s self-belief,’ Baird McAlister says, leaning a little towards Beth. ‘Have one.’
‘Food and a beautiful woman. How the hell do you do it, Albie?’ A pale youth has appeared from behind Baird; a cloud of dust-coloured hair froths to the collar of his purple jacket. ‘I’m Bruce.’ The narrow eyes glint.
‘Beth,’ she replies, unsmiling.
‘Me and Albie, we’re brothers in arms. We compete for resources, like our lab rats.’ He leans close to put a soft mole paw on her arm. ‘Now where exactly did those food-bearing lovelies disappear to?’ His face turns like a burrowing animal coming up into light, questing for food.
‘Vanished into thin air, they must have seen you coming,’ Baird McAlister tells him, an edge to his voice.
A good moment for her to leave too. Baird knows her name and where she works; let him find her, it works better that way. As she says goodbye, his eyes shift to someone behind her and his face breaks into a wide smile; turning, she sees Ted staring down at her, his mouth strained into a half-smile.
‘I see you’ve met Albie,’ he murmurs under his breath, as if they still share secrets, as if nothing has changed. His voice trembles.
A warm sense of triumph floods her throat; she moves past him, smiling faintly. Anyone watching would think she hardly knew him, was uninterested, a little bored.
She doesn’t notice the walk to the station or the train back home, she doesn’t pick up the glass on the dressing table or wash out the cup in the sink. She lies in bed but doesn’t sleep. She stretches her hand across the strip of light that falls over the bed from the street lamp outside, spreading the fingers as wide as they can go, as if trying to grasp the bar of brightness between the soft edges of shadow on either side. The face of the young surgeon glows in her retina like an after-image of the sun, eclipsing Ted’s completely.