A Just and Upright Man is a crime and romance novel set in the northeast of England in the 1760s. I’m in the process of recording the audiobook version and you can listen to Chapter 2 here.
That’s my voice you’re listening to; the reason I chose to record my own book is that I was brought up in the northeast of England, so I know the accent is authentic 🙂
I was in that place I knew so well that I’d always thought of as Between Women. And then I realised that I wasn’t.
I’d been between women several times in the past, and always with a combination of sadness and hope. Sadness that a love affair was over, because I was completely invested in a relationship while it lasted. Or I thought I was; the woman often disagreed, which was sometimes the reason it was coming to an end. And hope at the idea of being able to put myself out there once more in the hunt for someone new. Someone somehow indefinably better. Someone with whom, this time, the train of love would not slam into the buffers.
That was the nature of the experience of being between women.
And, this time, it didn’t apply.
About six years earlier I’d talked to the doctor about sleep difficulties I was having. I don’t mean going to sleep, I could still do that, but staying that way instead of waking at two in the morning. The doc suggested testosterone therapy and I said, ‘You have to be joking. Almost all the trouble I’ve had in my life, all the stupid things I’ve done, were caused by too much testosterone. And now, when it’s finally receding, you want to top it up. No thank you.’
And it was the right decision because, after a while, I started sleeping through the night again.
I’d been glad that the hormonal flood was reducing, the tide of aggressive maleness ebbing, the risk of behaving like a damn fool diminishing. What I didn’t do was to think through the likely consequences. I didn’t need to at the time, because I wasn’t going to see them for another six years, but now here they were.
I’m not talking about impotence; I could still do the lady justice if I wanted to, no Viagra needed, thanks very much. I just didn’t want to.
I didn’t suddenly wake up and find I’d gone off the whole idea. What happened was that I met a new woman, a very agreeable woman, just turned fifty, a nice age difference, and I took her to dinner. It was a good dinner. Nice restaurant, attentive service, food better than normal. The conversation was good, too. Easy. Agreeable. Unstressed. You don’t always get that on a first date. We had a lot in common. Including, as we found out towards the end, a mutual love of cheese. Cheese is usually more a man’s thing than a woman’s. A lot of women see it as fat they don’t need to ingest. But the restaurant had an excellent British cheese board, and she got into them as much as I did and we found we were talking about cheese: Cheddar; Perl Wen; Sage Derby; Shropshire Blue, and then I said, ‘What a friend we have in cheeses,’ and she laughed.
It was a lovely laugh, whole-hearted and not tinkly or forced, and I think she knew it wasn’t originally my gag, that it had been around a while, and maybe she was just encouraging my willingness to make an evening of it, showing hers too for that matter, and maybe she was someone who laughs easily. I like people like that, men or women, especially when I’ve just met them because then you get a chance to rework all your old material. Good salespeople have their material, you know, just as professional comics do.
So I ran off a couple of the classics. Like the one about being expelled from school because of that unfortunate incident in drama club when I misinterpreted the stage direction, Enter Ophelia From Behind.
Her laughter was completely in the moment. Unforced. And all the time I was thinking, ‘Oh, God, I hope she doesn’t want to go to bed.’
I don’t think I’d ever thought that before. Not since I was eighteen and I’d gone for a curry with my first girlfriend, can’t even remember her name now, curries being the new thing for most English people when I was eighteen, and not with all the girls and then women since; not once have I ever hoped the one I was with wouldn’t want to go to bed with me. Mostly they didn’t, of course, especially in the early days because girls played by different rules in the Sixties, whatever you may read. And that first one certainly hadn’t. But that was not what I wanted.
And now it was.
Don’t ask me to explain it. I’ve never been good at the great existential questions. I’m a salesman, a good one, and when I’m working and I meet someone for the first time I think, ‘Is there a sale here?’ and if the answer’s ‘No,’ I’m out of there as soon as politeness allows but if it’s ‘Yes,’ or even ‘Quite possibly’ I know I’m not leaving till I’ve got it. But to explain other things, like why I’d suddenly stopped wanting something I’d always wanted in the past, well, I can’t do that.
I think she did, actually. Want to go to bed, that is. Or I think she was willing to, at the very least. I say that because she didn’t look happy when I did my thing with the iPhone. I’d paid the bill, left a tip, walked her home and the look on her face said she was about to suggest coffee, which as we all know may be an offer of a cup of coffee and may mean something else entirely, and I took the iPhone out of my pocket. I said, ‘I hate it when these things vibrate like that. It’s why I never carry it in my shirt pocket. I’m afraid it’ll have my nipple off.’ She smiled, but I wondered if she realised that every word I’d just spoken was untrue and I’d said it to let her think my iPhone had vibrated, which it hadn’t, and that someone had contacted me, which was not so. Then I pretended to read a text message which didn’t actually exist, and then I said what a great evening I’d had and how I hoped we’d do it again but right now I had to run because someone needed my help. I couldn’t read her facial expression but she wasn’t happy. But she agreed we’d had a good time and I should call her and maybe we could do it again. Then she turned away, put her key in the lock and went inside without a backward glance.
* * *
Of course I wasn’t going to call her, whatever we may have said, and I suppose I thought I’d never see her again. But she rang me. She was throwing a party, just a little thing for old friends, nothing elaborate but it would be fun and she hoped I’d want to go.
You don’t have much time to think of a response to something like that; any hesitation sends its own message; we’d had a good evening and I’d enjoyed her company so I said yes, I’d like to go to her party. She gave me date and time, we exchanged pleasantries and hung up. It wasn’t all pleasantries because she said, ‘Leave your iPhone at home.’ So she had known I was lying, but she was prepared to give me a second chance.
* * *
One of the difficulties with parties is: flowers or wine? I decided to play safe and do both. I had the flowers delivered the morning of the party so she’d have a chance to put them in a vase and straighten them out, fluff them up or whatever it is that women do with flowers. I took the wine with me. My wine rack has the really good bottles on the lowest level and the stuff I’d give to people I didn’t really like on the top. It isn’t bad because what would be the point of buying bad wine? It just isn’t memorable. Or pricey. For the party, I took out a bottle from one of the middle shelves. Then I put it back and went lower down. All the way down. Don’t ask why because I don’t know.
When I put it in her hands she looked at the label and said, ‘I’m going to hide this. It’d be a shame to waste it on people who won’t know what they’re drinking.’ So she knew wine as well as cheese. My kind of woman. Would have been once, anyway.
It was a good party. If these were the kind of people she liked, I liked them, too. There was none of that competitiveness you often get at social gatherings—the “I’ve been to this place/read that book/met some power broker you haven’t” stuff that has so often made me leave a party early and I didn’t want to leave this one—I was having too good a time. In fact, I was still there at the end and when the last guests were preparing to leave I stood with them to thank Catherine—that was her name; Catherine—and go, too. As she was kissing the others goodbye she put a hand on my chest and said, ‘Stay a moment, will you? I have something you might be interested in.’ Then the door was closed and we were alone.
She turned to me. She was smiling and I thought there was an inquiry in her raised eyebrows but whatever the question was she didn’t ask it. Not right then, at any rate. She said, ‘I have to go to the bathroom. I won’t be long.’
When she came back, she’d got rid of the party dress and wrapped herself in a towelling dressing gown. There was a pleasing smell of soap. She said, ‘I’ve just washed my bits. Bidets are wonderful, aren’t they?’ She put her hands on my chest and kissed me on the cheek. ‘If you’d rather go, you can. I won’t be cross. We’d probably better not see each other again, though.’
That doctor must have been crazy. I didn’t need testosterone replacement; I had the stuff in plenty. I said, ‘I’d like to stay.’
‘Right answer. Would you mind washing your bits too, then?’
* * *
While you’re doing what we did that night, you don’t think about why you’re doing it. That came later and I found it intriguing. The doctor had been right in a way; I did need something to boost my hormones. The something wasn’t chemical, though. What I’d lacked was desire, and I hadn’t had that because there had been no-one in my life I liked enough to want to take my clothes off. And now there was. When a young man says, ‘I love you,’ what he really means is, “I want to be inside you.” And he does. He wants to be inside her every day. He thinks that desire will be with him for ever, and when it dies—because it does die—he may make the best of what he has or he may look elsewhere in the hope of finding the same level of lust with someone else. But I’m an old man, or at least my father’s generation would have called me old, and what I need now is different. If I could talk to the young man I once was, when he looked at a new girl I’d say, “Hang on a minute. What are you going to talk about, when the sex is done?”
It would be pointless, though. He wouldn’t have listened, the randy sod. What he needed was what that bottle of wine I’d taken Catherine had. Time in the bottle. Age. Maturity.
I’ve got those things now. Catherine and I are happy together. I’ve looked all my life for contentment. You have to wait for that. I wish I’d known earlier.
I’ve put this here as an example of how I write. If you don’t like my writing, that’s okay, we won’t fight about it. If you do, and you’d like to know what else I write, you’ll find the information here.