Stories Written on Lined Paper - 15. Moving Pictures
Thursday 14th June 1990
Helen carefully laid out the finished food upon the two plates which she then placed on the middle shelf of the oven, feeling the heat prickling the skin on her face. Before closing the oven door, she stared at the food there. The spiced chicken, the blanched green beans, the lightly boiled sweetcorn cobs, the crisp baked potatoes and the cheese and garlic sauce. She had felt a moment of pride, well, satisfaction at a job well done when she had finished cooking the meal. For once everything had turned out the way she had planned, there had been no last-minute accidents, no over cooked food to vie with under cooked food and nothing had stuck to the pans. In frustration, she slammed the oven door. In half an hour's time the food would be dry and tasteless, the meal would be ruined.
Helen stood up and tucked a loose strand of hair back into the French plait, which she was wearing her corn blonde tresses in tonight. The kitchen window reflected back her image. It confirmed what she had been intending: her hair was worn in the style Paul always said was his favourite. Her white blouse was new, but her black cotton slacks were not, even though they were her best pair. It was the image she had been striving for – smart, but still welcoming. She had skipped her afternoon lecture today - she could copy up Stella’s notes later she’d reasoned - and left college shortly before lunch, collecting everything she need for tonight on her way home.
Helen dug her hands into the pockets of her pants and walked out of the kitchen and into the dimly-lit sitting room. The room was lit only by the two wall lights - she’d turned off the main light, intending to create a romantic feeling by having the room mainly lit by candles. She hadn't bothered to light the two white candles on the dining table yet, and now she was glad she hadn't. She didn’t want the candles burning away as she waited for him.
Paul had always been the one to be romantic, even after their marriage. He was the one who had given her small and often silly presents, taking pleasure in her delight. When she had tried to reciprocate, it had lacked the spontaneity of Paul's presents. She had always given hers in reply to one of Paul's gifts. The stream of gifts had dried up and finally stopped a long time ago now. Of late, their relationship had seemed to slow down and dry up too. More and more, the silences between them could fill a whole evening. Their sole topic of conversation now seemed to be what each of them had done that day. And then, it was often just a brief explanation. More and more, Paul had been working later, coming home late two or three nights a week. Paul had never previously spent so much extra time at work - he would always rush home to her. Now he seemed to spend so much time at work, only saying it was necessary to gain a promotion. But she missed him more and more the, more time he spent away from her. Was this promotion worth all this?
Helen turned away from the window. Even in daylight she couldn't have seen his car approaching the house. The house had a screen of fir trees hiding it from the road on which it sat. They had moved here over seven years ago, just two years after they married, and she was still working for the Builders Merchants as a secretary. They had viewed it excitedly together when it had been empty under the watchful eye of the little estate agent. They had walked from room to room, excitedly imagining what it would look like fully furnished.
Now the house was so quiet she could only hear the creaking the central heating always made. She slowly walked over to the room's stereo. Music was what she needed, or least some sort of noise. After a moment searching, she found a CD of soulful ballads and placed that on the CD tray. Moments later the room was filled with sad singing voices.
Paul was now two hours late. Once that would have been unusual without one of Paul's customary hurried phone call, giving his excuse. Now it was almost the norm. The idea of this meal had been Sarah’s, one of her new friends at college, and had been backed up by Craig, the pale young man in the bookshop, the week before. Though cooking was never her strong skill, Helen had quietly agreed with them and had planned this meal as a surprise for Paul. Except telling Paul about it had sabotaged her attempt at a romantic evening.
At first, she had denied even the presence of that hair. A single short, white blonde hair caught on the collar of Paul's dark suit. It wasn’t a long corn blonde hair like hers, and neither was it one of Paul's curly brown hairs. While loading the washing machine she had found Paul's black sweater with several of those hairs on the shoulder. Over the next week she found those hairs gracing two more pieces of Paul's clothing. She didn’t find any lipstick or make-up stains, no tell-tale whiffs of perfume, no unexplainable marks on his body, but there were those hairs. More and more she thought Paul was having an affair, but her only evidence were those hairs. How could she confront him with so little evidence? How could she confront him and not sound like a crazy woman?
Was Paul's affair the reason for the distance now between them, or did the distance lead to the affair? Over the past two weeks she had almost been driving herself crazy with those thoughts. But neither could she bring herself to ask Paul about it. What would she do if he was having an affair?
Once she had tried imaging her rival. Tall, shapely figured, carefully and strikingly dressed, settled in a well-paid job, and that head of short blonde sculpted hair. She always left the image there; its reality was too painful for her to consider.
Helen dropped down onto the sofa, dropped her head back on the cushions there and closed her eyes. She had not told anyone her fears - they always sounded so stupid to her - a handful of white hairs and she was sure he was having an affair - but she knew he was. Neither could she just abandon her marriage without a fight. Their relationship had been so good. It had been Paul who, two years ago, had been there for her when the Builder's Merchant had gone bankrupt, leaving her unemployed. He had encouraged her to return to college to pursue a degree. She hadn’t the chance to go onto university when she left school. She’d had to get a job at eighteen - her father demanded it. He had been there when she’d been making the adjustment to being a student, with all the new and different pressures she’d never experienced before. That was before that distance had opened up between them.
Ever since she lost her job, her mother had been nagging her about why she wasn't "starting a family". By the time her mother was her age, she’d already had two children. All she could say to her mother was that neither Paul nor she were ready for children, an excuse her mother never accepted. Now she was glad they had put it off.
Slowly, Helen lay down on her side on the sofa and curled her legs up under herself. The idea of just drifting off to sleep, allowing the thoughts to drain from her mind and be replaced by dreams was becoming more and more appealing. She closed her eyes. The idea behind tonight’s meal had been to show Paul what he was missing, to make him jealous of what he could lose. It had failed because of Paul himself. Without knowing it, he had sabotaged it all. She felt angry at it all, and her foolishness playing along with it all. She lay there a long moment just hoping for sleep.
Thursday 14th June 1990
Paul rested his head against the steering wheel and closed his eyes. He was probably about halfway between the office and home - the office with its mounds of work that he had only been able to make a small dent in and the home with Helen and all her coursework, demands for quiet while she worked, and his dinner eaten on his own.
Soft jazz music was drifting out of the car's radio, even though he had the volume low, the music seemed to be filling the car. The sudden glare of a passing car’s headlights made him look up, but the other car passed away rapidly, and he returned to resting his head on the steering wheel, closing his eyes. On an impulse he’d pulled the car into the layby and stopped on his way home. The idea of Helen and her coursework waiting at home for him filled him full of dread, so much so that he had stopped the car, not wanting to return there. It was the idea of Helen waiting for him though that caused that feeling of dread. That afternoon in the office, as the computer screen had flickered away in front of him, as Angela chattered away about her own disastrous love-life and her brother's failed attempts at starting a family, he thought about finally leaving Helen. Of course, he didn’t discuss it with anyone, but he would never have done.
More and more, Helen’s presence filled him with guilt. He had not touched her, not even a casual touch of affection, for months now. The sexual side of their relationship had died away long before that. When they were still having sex, it always felt as if they were performing a set of scripted exercises, no passion to them: he would reach for her breast, she would reach for his shoulder, he would lift the hem of her nightdress, she would stroke his thigh or his cock, he would mount her, she would sigh, he would close his eyes. Inside a minute or so it would be over. He would roll off of her and fall asleep, in silence. With Craig it was all different, never the same pattern to their lovemaking. Their joyful, passionate kissing. The way they gleefully removed each other’s clothes. The excited way they explored each other's bodies, the different ways they found to give each other sexual pleasure. Then, when their orgasms were spent, they would lay together, wrapped up in each other’s arms. It was the most perfect love making he’d ever experienced.
Paul sighed to himself. His body felt so tired. His limbs and back ached with fatigue. His mind, though, wouldn’t settle - it was filled with moving and searching thoughts. At three forty-five that afternoon, Angela, with whom he shared an office, had suggested that they stay behind late to finish their joint presentation together. She claimed they could mark it down as overtime. She had caught him off-guard and he had said yes without thinking. It took them nearly three hours to finish their presentation. Only when it was done did he remember that he hadn’t telephoned Helen to tell her he was going to be late. Would she even have noticed? She was always so busy with her own work: true, he had been the one to suggest she return to college for her own studies. Her studies seemed to occupy almost all of her time - her lectures in college, her coursework and reading, her group of new friends. But her new life took some of the pressure off of him, she now had a life away from him and in a way that was good, for him at least.
He’d been twenty-one and Helen twenty-three when they married. He’d been studying for his own degree, so for two and a half years as he studied, Helen supported him, working as a secretary. He was incredibly grateful to her for giving him that chance. She was the first person he’d ever had a relationship with. The rush of excitement he felt with her, the excitement of having someone taking an interest in him, the excitement of his first real sexual experience, the excitement of another human needing him, had carried him easily through their courtship and marriage. Those first three years of married life they had spent together in their tiny flat, at the top of an old town house, had seemed like bliss. Their lives were almost completely wrapped up with each other. He would search on his way home from university for tiny and silly little presents to give her. Watching her delight in them had been pleasure enough. Sex was always a high priority back then - they never fell asleep at night without making love.
Their life had changed, fallen into a domestic routine, when they left their flat to move into their house. His first-class degree had landed him a first-class job and they could afford the mortgage for their house. Unfortunately, it was there that the slow rot that set in between them began. A domestic routine took over their lives. Meals were eaten in the dining room, TV was watched in the lounge and sex was reserved to their bedroom and once a week on a Friday night. Once a week they’d entertain friends or accept a return invitation from different friends. On a Saturday night they would go to the cinema together to usually watch one blockbuster film or another and have a meal together afterwards. He told himself he was happy - he had everything he thought he wanted. Then Helen lost her job.
The Builder’s Merchants, where she was employed as a secretary, went bust and she was unemployed. Rapidly, Helen seemed to slow down in herself, unemployment taking its toll on her, that and her failure to find a new job. At almost the same time he received the strongest shock his life he had ever received.
He’d spent the morning at a client’s offices presenting yet another presentation to senior managers who couldn’t make up their collective minds. To lift their moods, he and his three colleagues had retired to a nearby pub for a long liquid lunch. Finding himself needing to empty his full bladder after his first pint, Paul had hurried to the pub's toilet. He was stood at one of the urinals and quickly became aware of a man standing next to him and watching him. The man wasn't urinating. Instead, he was stroking his full erection. Slowly, the man had reached over and taken hold of Paul's own cock. Paul hadn’t stopped him. Instead, he felt a shudder of delight as that strange man’s hand took hold of him. Quickly Paul had come over the back of the urinal, barely after a handful of strokes from the other man’s hand. Then he had rushed out of the toilet.
That night, he had made love to Helen. As he reached orgasm with her all he could think about was coming into that unknown man's hand.
The soft jazz music had changed now into the sound of a woman’s voice singing of her unsuccessful love life. Paul straightened his back until his head rested against the head rest. It was a change his position but still his body ached from fatigue.
Paul closed his eyes again. He knew if he turned the car around, he could be at Craig's home inside half an hour. Craig always spent his Thursday evenings alone at home. He knew Craig would be surprised to see him, maybe a little irritated. He was sure, Craig and he would soon settle down together, their bodies wrapped around each other on Craig’s sofa. Perhaps they would talk; perhaps they would fall into making love, and even later, perhaps he would tell Craig that he loved him.
More and more Paul had been finding himself, at the most unexpected moments, just thinking about Craig, wondering what Craig was doing at that moment, planning what he and Craig would do together when they next met. The realization had come suddenly: he loved Craig. It was more than just a sexual need, it was love. With the realisation came a moment of fear - surely there had to be a next move. He had to tell Craig his feelings. He had to explain everything to Craig, explain everything about Helen. He had to make Craig see how things really were.
The hand rapping on the passenger window made him jump and snap his eyes open. A policeman was looking in through the window. In his rear-view mirror, Paul saw a second policeman sitting in the parked police car. Why hadn't he heard them approaching? Slowly Paul lent across and opened the window.
"Excuse me, sir, but are you all right?" The policeman lent in through the open window as he spoke.
"Yes," Paul answered.
"It's just we noticed you're still parked here. You were parked here when we passed half an hour ago," the policeman said, his tone as if explaining something to someone very stupid.
"I'm fine. I wanted some time to think."
"Are you sobering up or something?"
"No. I'm fine," Paul said.
"Then why have you parked up here?"
"I said, I was thinking," Paul said. He felt his agitation increasing. He hadn’t been hurting anyone.
"Must be some very big thoughts,” the policeman replied.
"Look Officer, I’m not breaking any law, I'm not illegally parked or anything, am I?" Paul felt the annoyance pushing up the sarcasm into his voice. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew he shouldn’t antagonize the police.
"There's no need to get like that with me," the policeman said as he straightened up and stepped back from Paul's car.
"I'll be moving on in a minute, okay?
"Fine. Make sure you do," the policeman said as he turned back to the police car.
Paul watched the police car pull away and move off down the road.
Paul stared at the road ahead and then at the road behind him, in the rear-view mirror. Home was straight ahead or in the opposite direction, was Craig’s home, were he really wanted to be. He took a deep breath, he couldn’t just there and be indecisive. Then he decided.
He put his car into gear, pressed his foot slowly on the accretor and pulled hard on the steering wheel, turned the car around in one hundred and eighty degrees, turning the car in the opposite direction.
Thursday 14th June 1990
Craig sat on the desk, looking at their nearly completed work. Truman was in the stockroom, finishing off the cataloguing. Craig glanced around the shop: only a small pile of books was left to be returned to the shelves. They had spent the evening reorganising the shop, changing the shelves where the books were displayed. Truman had a new system for the shelves, grouping the books by different categories, in a different layout, that Truman was sure would help customers browse and find what they wanted and what they hadn’t been expecting to find, and help the store sell more. Craig felt tired but satisfied - they had achieved so much in only a few hours.
Truman exited the stockroom, causing its door to crash against the door frame, and returned to the shop’s main floor. Truman never seemed to be able to quietly enter any room.
"Do you want a takeaway?" Truman asked.
"I wouldn't say no," Craig answered.
"Yes, I could really go a pizza," Craig replied.
"I don't know - something with meat and veggies."
"You had sweetcorn and chicken last time. Want that again?" Truman asked, his almost photographic memory again surprising Craig.
"Why not?" Craig replied.
"Good. I want a ham and mushroom one. I know, boring but I like it," Truman said.
"I'll get you some money." Craig stood up and reached for the back pocket of his jeans where his wallet was.
"Forget it - the old man can pay for them out of the petty cash," Truman said, referring to the shop's silent owner, Truman's father.
"Sure?" Craig asked him.
"Yes! It's one of the few perks of being the boss' son."
"Thanks," Craig said.
"Don't think anything of it."
"I'll finish sorting out these books," Craig said, nodding at the remaining books.
"Don't worry. Just hold the fort. We'll finish it all off after our pizzas. It shouldn't take long now," Truman said.
Truman pulled on his leather jacket, and a moment later left the shop, crashing the door behind him.
Craig sat himself down at the chair, his usual place during his working day. This job had come as a saving grace. He’d been given his redundancy period from his last job. He suspected that there were hidden motives behind being chosen for redundancy. There were men there with less experience and less qualifications as him, but he’d quickly been known as the “Office Queer”. He knew Truman's father from church, though Truman was only a casual visitor there. Truman ran the bookshop that his father owned. Truman needed assistance to run the bookshop Truman's father had introduced the two of them, Craig and Truman. At once they had struck up an easy friendship, and just like that, Craig had a new job. It was the easiest interview of his life.
In his months working there, he had never managed to figure out Truman. Truman wasn’t standoffish or unfriendly: conversation would bounce between, yet rarely about anything personal. He knew Truman’s views on all the day’s news, what books Truman liked - the shop had a chalkboard listing the week’s recommendations that Truman always wrote - but he knew nothing personal about Truman. Had Truman ever been in love, ever been in a relationship? Was Truman was attracted to women or men? Craig could answer any of them. He kept his own personal life quiet at work now. He had learnt his warning from his previous job: waving pink flags wasn’t always welcome. It wasn’t that hard: at church he kept quiet about his private life. As far as people at church were concerned, he was happily single with no thought of marriage on his mind. It was a lie, but it was his choice.
He hated being single. He hated the loneliness of sleeping alone. He hated returning home to an empty flat. He hated watching other couples showing the world how happy they were. He felt so excluded, the envy of watching something he did not have.
He also knew he saw no real future in his relationship with Paul.
Craig stood up and walked around the desk. Slowly he began to wander around the shop. Truman’s new layout certainly worked: the topics of the shelves flowed on onto the next, and slowly walking past the shelves, he could see that now. There had been arguments between Truman and his father when Truman wanted to expand the shop's stock, though Truman still went ahead. There were now sections for race, feminism, sexuality, gay and lesbian interest and politics. Truman's father had worried this would change the whole tone of the shop, costing them sales. Yet he soon changed his opinion when the shop's takings took a sharp jump.
Craig ran his finger along the spines of a shelves of books. Feeling the smooth paper of the book spines sliding under his fingertip while book edges knocked against his finger.
He'd met Paul at a party. It was being thrown by friends of his friend Mark. Craig couldn't even remember the names of the hosts. Mark was the only school friend Craig had remained in contact with, and Mark had almost begged him to come alone - he needed Craig’s company to help him survive. They hadn’t been at the party long when Craig realised why Mark wanted him there. The party was in a three-story townhouse, but the other guests there had seemed very straight and very suburban. All anyone seemed to be talking about there was double glazing, DIY, holidays in France and the wonderful achievements of their children. Craig had found himself very bored very quickly. He would have left but Mark had promised him a lift home.
He drifted through the stylish and probably expensive home, from one room to the next. He hoped to fall into one interesting conversation. But he didn’t. On his third glass of wine, he’d sat down at the bottom of first floor’s staircase. There, he’d met Paul when he was coming down these stairs. Paul had stumbled as he tried to pass him, sat there. Craig had instinctively grabbed hold of Paul's arm and Paul had sat down heavily next to him on the stairs. Paul had looked at him with an awkward and surprised expression on his face. Then Paul laughed a deep and throaty laugh, a very infectious laugh making Craig laugh along too.
Soon they had fallen in conversation, sat there, their knees pressed together. They liked the same films; they’d read the same books] and, it was so relaxing to have someone interesting to talk with here. Soon they were exchanging phone numbers and making promises to meet again, though that had been Paul’s idea: he’d said they were enjoying too much of a good time not to meet again. As Mark drove him home, an hour or so later, Craig wondered what he had done, agreeing to meet Paul again - was he just making another friend? But Paul was so handsome.
Craig lent against one of the full bookcases and stared at the small pile of books sat on the shop's sales table, waiting to be moved to their new home on the shelves. He could always start moving them himself, not waiting for Truman. But he didn’t move - he could wait. He was in no rush to get home - his flat would be empty and dark. Thursday nights were not the night he could expect Paul to call on him unexpectedly.
They had had sex on their second date on Craig's sofa: hurried sex, frantic fumbling, their trousers around their ankles and their shirts up to their shoulders. Their first date - it had been a date - had been out to see a German gay film which verged upon the pornographic with the amount male nudity in it. Craig had been aroused and slightly embarrassed at the same time. Throughout the film, they had sat in adjacent seats with their shoulders, arms, thighs and backs of their hands pressed together. At the end of the film, they had parted outside the cinema with a casual goodbye, but no more, not even shaking hands. Craig had returned home felling frustrated: sitting so intimately with Paul in cinema had given him such hopeful messages and then they parted without even a handshake, no hint of physical affection. He wrote the whole evening off as yet another example of his ability to make the wrong choice in men. Four days later, Paul had rung him, asking for another date. That one quickly resulted in sex. Paul had called around at Craig's flat. Craig had invited him in and once the front door was closed, they had fallen into each other's arms in a passionate kiss.
Soon, their relationship fell into a regular pattern of meeting only on weekday evenings, with Paul never staying for a whole night. They had spent. two whole weekends together at Craig's flat. They had been weekends of bliss when he had Paul’s full attention, but there had only been two of them. They always met at Paul's bidding, Paul always picking the night, always at Craig's flat. Sex was always high on the menu. They hardly did anything else together. Talking, then eating together and sex was the pattern their dates always took. The sexual side of their relationship was very satisfying, but he quickly realised he was not Paul's number one priority.
Lately, Craig had been examining their relationship, turning over and over the facts of it. He knew he was not Paul's only lover. Though Paul had never hinted at it, Craig knew he had a live-in lover tucked away in a suburban home somewhere. The man was probably the same age as Paul, looked like him, had an equally busy job, and they probably called each other "darling" when they were home together. He envied them their domestic life. Paul liked him, but that was as far as it went. Paul didn't care about him, didn't love him. He was just Paul's bit of excitement, sex and interesting conversation, before he returned home to his domestic life. He was growing tired of it. He had to end this relationship because there was no future in it. He was wasting his time with Paul, and that hurt.
He wished he had someone he could talk to about this. He and Truman never talked about anything personal. It was ridiculous to think he could talk to anyone at church about this. There was Mark, but he had been working in Saudi Arabi for the last three weeks and Craig had only received one letter from him. That only left Helen. Their friendship was casual, but twice they had joked that Craig's boyfriend and Helen's husband were both called Paul.
Truman always took Monday mornings as his half-day. For the last few months Helen had regularly visited the shop on a Monday morning, usually searching for books for her studies. Monday mornings were always slow, so it had not taken long for him and Helen to fall into conversation each time she was there. This had slowly led to a casual friendship. Something had made him feel safe in this friendship, the only times he saw her were on a Monday morning in the shop. So he had told her about Paul, not the full details and not his suspicions, and she had laughed, telling him her husband was also called Paul. In a strange way that sealed their friendship.
Craig sat back at the desk again. He hated this feeling sweeping over him, the melancholy of knowing what lay ahead and the decision he would have to take, but not liking either of them. All his life he had wanted the simple option and he had never found it.
On Monday morning he would ask Helen's advice. Then the next time he saw Paul he would tell him exactly how he felt, how he was tired of being Paul’s bit-on-the-side. He didn’t expect Paul to throw his arms open and say they had to stay together. It would be the end of everything, but then at least he could move forward. Even if that didn’t feel like a good thing.
Craig sat forward and looked at his own reflection in the shop's darkened windows. A month ago, on a sudden impulse, he’d had his blonde hair cut short, into a spikey style. He’d gone from looking like a blonde beach bum into a punkish rebel. Most people hardly commented on the change. Paul had quickly said it made him look "sexy" and then changed the subject. Only Truman said it made him look "different" and “good” - the only one to show him any positive over his new hairstyle. Even after nearly a month Craig wasn't sure he liked his it.
The shop door banged opened and Truman stamped through it, calling out,
"The pizza man's here!"
"Thanks, Truman," Craig replied, standing up to greet him.
This story is set when it was written in 1991. I was in my mid-twenties and a year before I’m had an affair with a married man, not my proudest moment, and he ended it when I found out he was married. I wasn’t happy about that, I was very confused and hurt, but it was him who ended it.
I wrote this story, back then, to try and workout what I was feeling and what had happened to me. There’s no resolution to this story because I didn’t know how I was feeling. But this story was a change in my writing, I just wrote about the characters. There is no resolution to the situation, the characters don’t move on, they are caught in a moment. This story is about a moment in these characters’ lives and how either of them understand the other.
None of the characters are based on me, none of them were a thinly disgusted version of me, which was something new for me, at the time.
After writing it I just put this story away in a file, with other stories I didn’t know what to do with. I found it again a few years ago and re-read it. It was over-written (something I hope I’ve corrected here), as I did back then, but I liked the characters and I liked how they were caught in this moment, making the wrong decisions because they don’t really know the other character. I also liked the irony of the title.
I have re-written it, which I hope works, but I have kept those lost characters and the unresolved ending. This was the first time I didn’t neatly tie up the ending of a story, but not the last time.
A big thank you to @pvtguy for proofreading this story.
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