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Affair

His eyes fall on the telephone. For a moment it seems to assume an


extra power, it holds him. He glances again at the piece of paper in his
hand. The name is written clearly on it. He repeats the numbers out loud
to himself. Can it be nearly two years already he asks, two years since I
last saw her?
He looks around at the toys lying on the living room floor. The wooden
train tracing a line across the rug, painted in shiny red, yellow, and green:
blocks, soft toys, books, the scattered concentration of a four year old
boy. He hesitates. Should he put the paper back into the book from which
it fell? Or should he tear it up and throw it in the bin?
He knows what he wants to do. He wants to lift the telephone receiver
and carefully, deliberately, push the buttons underneath the relevant
numbers. It is her voice he wants to hear. He would like it to be warm and
friendly, glad to hear him at the other end. It will not be. Probably it will be
cool and polite, a little distant. He stands for a moment.
A voice calls from the bedroom. He goes in. His son is sitting up in the
bed, tears in his eyes.
“I hadda bad dream Papa, I hadda bad dream,” he is saying.
“Hey," says François, “it’s okay, don’t be crying. Papa is here now.
You’re awake. It’s all over. Don’t worry.”
The child looks at him doubtfully. His eyes are still sleepy. François
goes over to him and lifts him from the bed. He carries him slowly into the
living room, points to the toy train.
“Look, what’s that?”
“Train, Papa, that’s my train.”
“Yes, that’s your train. Why don’t you go and play with it? Mama will be
home soon.”
He puts his son down on the carpet.
“I am just going to get some coffee. Okay?”
Straightening up, François walks to the kitchen. He reaches for the
coffee machine. The piece of paper is still in his hand. No more than a
metre away is a small bin. Taking a step, he places his foot firmly on the
pedal. The top springs open. He crumples the paper up into a tight ball,
raises his arm as if about to throw it, and then stops.
‘It’s just a number,’ he thinks. ‘Why shouldn’t I throw it away? Am I
being sentimental?’
He raises his arm once again stops once again.
‘No, maybe I'll keep it. I can still remember her writing it out that
evening as we sat in the cafe.’
Somehow he cannot quite see himself throwing it in with the rubbish.
Somehow it does not seem right. His foot lifts off the pedal. The top comes

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down with a bump. He smoothes out the ball of paper and walks back into
the living room. His son is now playing happily with the train.
“Papa my train is coming into the station. Look! Peep, peep!”
“Yes, yes, I see.”
“Papa is not looking.”
“Yes I am. Okay I’m not. Just a moment Mattias.”
François walks across the room, stepping over Mattias and the train.
Picking up the book where he left it on the armchair, he opens it and
carefully places the wrinkled piece of paper between the pages.
“Remember, François, do not forget,” he says quietly to himself.
“Between pages twenty-nine and thirty.”
He closes the book and pushes it in between the others on the shelf.

It was a Thursday evening. I was working late. It was quiet in the office,
and she, bored, came to ask me if there was anything she could do to
help. I was trying to fix a sleeving machine. Oil on my fingers, a
screwdriver in my hand, I was frustrated and tired. I was searching in the
back of the machine for the problem. Suddenly I was aware of her
standing beside me. I felt a little awkward and half-smiled.
“There is some client’s work ready. Over there, by the light-box,” I said.
“No, it's okay. There’s no hurry,” she answered. “I was only wondering
if I could help.”
“Do you know anything about this machine?” I asked.
She smiled.
“No. Not really.”
“Then I am not alone.”
The blue of her eyes, the soft line of her mouth caught my attention. I
wondered why I had not noticed that before. She laughed lightly. I gave
the screwdriver a sharp turn, and then flicked the man switch to `on’.
“Let us see if this is any better,” I said.
I took a roll of film from the rack and inserted it between the grooves,
beneath the spools of film-protector, pushed it forward over the sensor.
There was a low click, a pause, and the machine whirred into action. The
spools turned and the transport pulled the film forward, sandwiching it
between the matt and shiny plastic, sealing it with two fine lines of
acetone, and then ejecting it safely the other end. I cut it free and holding
it up to the light, examined it both back and front.
“It’s okay,” I said, “it's good now.”
I turned towards her. Her head was cocked slightly to one side, and she
was looking at him curiously. There was an awkward moment of silence.
“You must have a magic presence,” I said.
She blushed. Her hand went up to her hair, pushing it back to one side,
behind her ear.

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“I doubt it,” she answered.
Turning back to the machine, I concentrated on setting up the
receiving spool. I threaded the plastic through and stuck it down with a
piece of clear tape.
“Don’t you need to put the back on again?” she asked, pointing to the
back of the machine.
“No,” I answered, glad to be able to say something, feeling I had
embarrassed her. “I'll leave it off just in case it stops working again. That
way I shall save time.”
“Okay,” she said. “If you need me to do anything, I’ll be out in
reception.”

I watched her walk away. She was wearing a brown jacket, loose khaki
pants and black leather shoes. My eyes remained on her until she turned
a corner and out of sight. Even as she went, as she disappeared, I wanted
to call her back.
I ran my hand across the front of my t-shirt, cursed under my breath as
I realised I had put two long oil stains on it.
It was not quite eight o'clock. There was another two hours work in
front of me. Two large orders of film were still waiting to be done, black
and white, colour, transparency, some of it straightforward, some with
special instructions. The noise and the harsh white light of the laboratory
seemed stifling.
Outside it would be getting dark. The trees would be swaying lightly in
the park, creaking, contracting, as if letting go after the close heat of the
day. The sky would be falling into turquoise, the trams rattling around the
red-bricked facade of the museum. Their lighted windows would be
moving though the dusty air.
I imagined I could hear the clink of glasses in a café. I could hear the
murmur of voices underneath spinning ceiling fans. I could taste ice-cold
beer, creamy coffee. The couples in corners, their gestures, their
movements, the turns and dips of their secret conversations would
suggest intimacy. Suddenly I was thinking of her. I was seeing us there
together. Would she smile the way she had just smiled?
I put the screwdriver down and walked to the washroom. Whistling
softly, I cleaned the remains of the oil from my hands. For a moment I
stood in the corridor that led to the office. I wondered if perhaps I should
put my head around the door and see what she was doing. I decided it
was better to get on with my work. I went to the computer and entered
figures, took a sip of Cola from a cardboard cup I had left sitting to the
side. It was too sweet and already flat.

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François sits down in the armchair. He looks at his son playing on the
floor. Trains move in various lines, stopping every now and then at
stations made from an improbable collection of objects. Here some blocks,
there a book, imagination serving to finish and decorate what the eye
cannot see.
François wonders if it is better to have a child’s faith in imagination.
Perhaps it is more than just illusion, a weaving of something around what
is not really there. He hears Mattias.
“Papa, this train is going to that station there, and this one is a metro
that is going to go across the sea to a very big island.”
His son is pointing to a line of wooden carriages.
François smiles.
“Metros cannot go across the sea. Only boats or airplanes. A metro is
only for the city. How would it cross the water? Maybe you could make it
go somewhere else.”
The child looks puzzled.
“Why not papa?”
“Well they need tracks to run on, don’t they? You can’t build tracks on
water because they would sink.”
François pauses. He waits for the reply. The eyes move, the head tilts a
bit to one side.
“Yes, but this is a special train.”
“Why?” asks François.
“Because the station-master built a very, very, big bridge all the way
over.”
His son’s hands move in the air as he indicates the length of the
bridge. François smiles. He wants to laugh happily at the way in which his
son’s mind works. The way at this age, space, distance, the attributes of
the physical world, of reality, are not yet insurmountable,
unchallengeable.
“Yes,” he says, “I guess the station-master could do that if he wanted
to, couldn't he?”
François realises how big his son has become. He knows the miracle of
growth and development in a child is something repeated countless times
the world over. Nevertheless, it is true in your child it always seems
special.
Two years have seen such a change. Gone are the diapers, the baby
talk, the stroller, and the high chair. Mattias has grown under his nose. He
has already been one-and-a-half years in a playgroup and is just about to
start school.

There are the early days of the marriage. There is the June day they
moved to this apartment, a couple of months after Mattias was born.

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There are the first nights when all he remembers is the feel of his wife,
Sophie, and the warmth of her body as he got into the bed beside her
each time.
There is the long cycle along the Plantage-Middenlaan on his way from
work. Clear days. Wet days. Afternoons when the canal outside the living
room window cannot be seen for fog.
There are the Saturday evenings sitting around the old wooden table,
eating. A large dish of cannelloni or lasagna, cheese sauce, thick and
creamy, the tomatoes, the meat, rich and hot: the lingering smell of the
basil: the sweetness of the garlic.
Often they eat late, well after Mattias is asleep. Sometimes the student
from the next flat joins them. They sit and talk, share a bottle of wine,
break off pieces of the fresh baguette, laughing, teasing each other, until
it seems the street outside goes quiet, and they notice the lights in the
buildings on the other side of the canal go out one by one.
Occasionally he stands by the window and watches a boat, a barge, cut
its way through the dark water. It glides under the spindly branches of
trees, its engines churning up the surface behind it.
There are the times they are both tired, both exhausted. And there are
the times when each cycle of tiredness seems to bring with it a flowering,
a freshness, a sense of some shared achievement.
It is a year or so before the first difficulties begin to appear. At first it is
an irritation, a sharpness. Then a sarcastic edge begins to creep into some
of the conversations. The arguments, the silences, become more frequent.
They last longer. It is not that they constantly fight. It is more that the
avenues of communication become strained.
They try talking but it only seems more confusing than clarifying. Then
it seems he is hardly ever there. He is up early watching the sun break the
day over the water, hearing the cascade of birdsong that late spring and
early summer brings. Regularly he is not home till late, till after ten. Then
Sophie is already in bed, or sitting sleepily in front of the T.V.
Is it then he notices he has begun to find escape in work? Is it then he
realises he feels a stranger at home. He feels himself to be somehow
drifting away.

“Papa, the train has crashed.”


François turns his head and looks to where his son is playing. Mattias is
pointing to a line of overturned carriages.
“What is it? What has happened?”
“Papa, the train crashed. It was going very, very fast, and the
signalman didn’t change the signals, and then it went crash and fell off
the tracks.”
Mattias is kneeling down, looking intently at the overturned carriages.
Then he sits back up. There is a mixture of curiosity and concern on his
face.
“And what about the passengers,” François asks. “Are they all right?
Are any of them hurt?”

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There is a moment of silence, and suddenly with a big smile the child
declares...
“No! All the people jumped out before the crash, ‘cause they didn’t
want to be hurt. And the first carriage was a goods carriage and it had lots
of water in it, and it spilt everywhere and made the driver wet.”
He kneels up, obviously pleased at his explanation, his handling of
events. François smiles and looks at him.
“Well I’m glad no-one was hurt. The signalman should really be more
careful. You will have to speak to the stationmaster about him, won’t
you?”
Mattias nods his head in agreement then takes up his other train. He
pulls it around towards a book, making that familiar approximation of the
noise of an engine. Stopping it as straight as he can, he rolls over lying on
his back. His eyes stare up at the ceiling, his hand going up to his mouth.
His hair falls back off his forehead, and in the fairness of his face, the
whiteness of light reflected from the walls his eyes look all the bluer, all
the brighter.
François gets up and goes over to him. He bends down and tickles his
stomach. Mattias wriggles and laughs.
“Hey little fellow,” François says, “what about something to eat, what
about a nice salami sandwich?”
“Cookie, Papa. I want a cookie.”

She was already in a relationship. He knew her partner was older than
her and they had lived together for some time. She referred to him now
and then in conversation, but never directly.
More and more he found himself thinking of her. Somehow she
combined with his need to work, his need to escape the tensions at home.
He was always glad to see her.
At first they simply talked about their work. Despite the difficulties
François still felt committed to his marriage. He felt responsible to his son.
As he knew he was basically cautious he was relieved to have an excuse
to avoid any definite or impulsive action.
Their friendship grew gradually and carefully. In many ways she
puzzled him. At times she appeared insecure and over eager to please.
She was friendly. She seemed intent on involving herself in things
around her. And yet somehow she was different. She seemed somehow
alone.
On more than one occasion she demonstrated to him she considered
him special. Once after having been ill for a couple of weeks she hugged
him, kissing him on both cheeks affectionately when he returned. It was
more than friendship required.

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At other times she was distant. He realised she had guessed he was
having problems in his marriage. He never openly mentioned it; he was
not the type to discuss his personal life quickly. Now and then she made a
reference to it, a comment. Still, he knew he was the one guilty of
avoiding any the subject.
It continued in this manner for four or five months. In fact it developed
slowly, as summer passed into autumn, as the nights became deeper and
longer, as the year fell into winter. It was that February he realised it was
becoming something other than friendship.

At weekends he found himself wondering what she was doing. He


imagined she was thinking of him, and that if out in the city alone, he
would maybe run into her by accident. Occasionally they had to work
Sundays together.
Then he would get up early, taking the tram so he could walk through
the park. As it rattled its way through the quiet streets, he would think of
her. His eyes would take in the rows of four storey apartments, the
windows empty and still, curtains open, curtains closed. Dreamily he
would stare at the long lines of the tram rails, sometimes vivid and
mercurial under a sparkling winter sun.

There would be the crunch of his feet on the gravel as he entered the
park. He would walk underneath the trees, their long leafless branches
stretching up into a frosty blue or ash grey sky. By the frozen lake he
would cross a wooden footbridge and breathe in the sharp smell of a line
of evergreens.

Sometimes he sat on one of the benches in front of an unused


bandstand: a wide circular opening, surrounded by tall, bare chestnut
trees. It was set in a layer of loose grey and white stones.
Then she would be somewhere in the back of his mind. Her face, the
way her eyes lit when she smiled, the crinkle of her nose, the shy turn of
her mouth, the fall of her hair against the curve of her back as she walked
past him. She would somehow mix with the morning to come, mix with
the smell of the freshly made coffee, the penetrating peep of the
telephone and the radio that was always playing somewhere in the
background.
February became March. The clearness and coldness of midwinter gave
way to the colours of early spring. By April the trees lining the canal in
front of the window, were dusted down with green. The squalls, the
sudden showers, the leaden skies that it seemed with deceptive speed
replaced the blue, the banks of drifting cumulus, brought with them
change. Evenings became brighter.

Once he stood in a downpour with her, the umbrella too small, and the
rain bouncing off the pavement around the tram-halt. They waited a
couple of moments, their shoulders pressing against each other and then
ran to a cafe to get in from the wet. They sat at a black table, on steel

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chairs, and each ordered a coffee. He smoked a cigarette, fingering the
crumpled red and white pack, the rain still running down their foreheads,
dripping off their hair, down the back of their necks.
As spring advanced he felt himself lighten. The longer evenings and
the fine weather lifted his spirits. He watched his son grow, watched him
grapple with a world that was still all new. The evidence of life’s
determination encouraged him. He saw its instinctive move forward, its
continual willingness to learn and adapt.
The park that in February had formed a vein-like pattern of bare
branches over the glassy surface of ice and frost became a vibrant weave
of green. Older Turkish men sat around in groups talking, their wrinkled
hands fingering prayer beads, their lined faces serenely observing the
world pass by. Kids playing ball shouted out to each other. Mothers fussed
over newborn babies. Bicycles maneuvered their way around casual
strollers. Africans with drums squatted on the grass, their elastic, insistent
rhythms, bouncing off the continuous background of traffic.
As the summer reached its peak, the July nights full of the murmur of
voices from the busy terraces of cafes, he felt himself more involved. It
was not an affair. Not in the way he would normally have thought of an
affair. Still it skirted deeper intimacy.
He kissed her only once. An evening when a couple of glasses of wine
at a noisy bar found them on the turn of a street, a line of trees forming a
covering, a canopy between them and the first show of stars. Her face,
soft under the streetlights, her cheeks flushed from the drinks were more
than he could resist. Leaning over he put his mouth to her mouth. He
tasted the wine, smelt her skin, felt the softness of her lips. She did not
hesitate, in fact she responded, moved towards him but then pulled back.
Immediately he felt foolish. He apologised but she only smiled, brushed
her hair back off her face and said it was late and she should get home.
Wheeling his bicycle over the street, he looked back, thinking to see
her go. She was standing there, waving, her arm raised against the night,
the orange spheres of the pedestrian crossing, lighting then un-lighting
her shape, somehow reflecting the contradiction of what had just
happened.
As August slipped into September the questions grew. He felt caught
between two equally distant points. Was he being fair? Was he being
hasty? Was he throwing away something he would later regret?
He reasoned with himself that if he found himself looking outside home
then there was something missing within home. He knew he felt for her
what he no longer felt for his wife. There was no denying the growing
emptiness. His marriage had moved from affection to arrangement. It still
had some sense of purpose: but the purpose had supplanted the earlier
tenderness, the earlier attachment. And then there was his son. If he
broke the marriage, would he not in some way be letting Mattias down?
The willingness, the innocence with which a child trusted, was easily seen.
He felt responsible for reciprocating that trust. He felt if he stepped
outside the marriage, if he broke or destabilised the home, he would be
guilty of betraying that trust.

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As autumn crept in he understood the issue was betrayal. When
September finally let go of the summer and October arrived the only
question to which he really needed to answer, was, who would betray
whom.

There is a picture of him at that time. He is standing on a bridge, one


arm leaning on the railings, wearing faded blue jeans, a black turtleneck
sweater and brown suede shoes. The photograph is a little blurred. There
seems to be a question mark over it, something transient, and something
not quite clear. It gives the impression of movement, of liquidity. As if the
act of catching him on film was accidental.
He cannot remember exactly when it was taken, though he remembers
her with the camera. The black and silver body, her hand twisting the
focusing ring, the click of the shutter, the rasp of the film-advance.
They did it in turns: photographs of each other. They joked about
where they would have it processed. He laughed when she said she
thought she had a contact in the business. There are times when he
wonders if she still has the close-up he made of her.

He has not forgotten that October evening. She sat at the table. There
was the slight creak of the wooden chairs, the footsteps on the bare floor.
She fingered her cup nervously. He drank quickly from the cold beer in
front of him. Between them was a tension not there before. It was he who
had asked if they could meet. He had decided he needed to say how he
felt, needed to know where he stood with her. He had made up his mind
what he should do. He should at least, take the risk.

His heart leaped that bit more while walking there. The moon seemed
to travel with him, appearing and reappearing between the gables of the
houses. Wrapping his scarf tight around his neck to keep out the gusts of
chill air, the damp, he was too busy thinking, hoping, to hear the quiet fall
of leaves.

He looked at her and started to say what he wanted to say. She


forestalled him. She did not let him get any further.
She valued the relationship with her partner, she explained. Her
partner had been together for nearly five years. They had decided to have
a child together. Her eyes looked straight into his and then down at the
table. He did not know how to reply.

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At that moment he wanted her, wanted her more than at any time
since he had known her.
He sat there, the cuff of his jacket in the ashtray. The head of his beer
slid slowly down the half-empty glass. When he spoke he said little. He
realised that while she was still sitting there in front of him he could not
be angry. He did not know if he should tell her he was disappointed, if he
should say he was hurt. He looked once again into her eyes. The line of
her mouth was not soft as it usually was. It was set, stiff, and he knew her
mind was made up. He felt her decision had perhaps been made with
difficulty. He said he was glad for her and sorry. She replied, she was also
sorry.
They talked for a couple of minutes and then he said he should go. She
called a taxi and he waited at the door. As she stepped into the car, she
turned to him and for a moment put her hand on his arm. Her hair fell
over her face and she pushed it up behind her ear, the way she had done
that night when he had been fixing the machine, the way she had done it
the first time he noticed her.
The shiny door closed with a thud. The tires bit into the roadside and
he saw the yellow, neon sign of the taxi moving away through the evening
traffic.

He has phoned her once before. They talked politely with each other.
She was well, had become a mother. He suggested they get together, but
she said, she was busy, tied up between home and work. ‘Call again
sometime,’ she suggested, ‘maybe you could arrange to come by some
evening for a drink’. He answered, `yes’, but never did.
It is not that he thinks about her much. Every now and then when he
finds himself somewhere where they once were together, or when he
walks through the park, the gravel crunching under his feet, he
remembers.

François stands before the old bandstand with Sophie and Mattias. His
son climbs the steps, curiosity pushing him on, stepping into the great
circular space. The early November air carries the excited cries of, ‘Papa,
Papa, come and look’.
François finds himself on empty, greying boards. Moss and weed grow
between them. His hands are deep in the pockets of his winter coat. He
stops.

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Mattias runs around him, his arms outstretched, making the sound of
an airplane. His child’s face is flushed, his eyes joyfully free. Zooming and
zooming, ducking and darting, his four year old body is lost in its own
movement.
François turns back toward the layer of grey and white stones. There is
a woman standing there, her back turned to him, her hair blowing loosely
in the breeze. It is Sophie.
At that moment they both appear to form a line, a polarity, like the
opposite points of a compass. There is the creak in the empty trees, the
rustle of curled brown leaves being blown across the bandstand floor. A
bell from a bicycle somewhere, rings.

He remembers the mornings when he waited there, when he looked


forward to seeing someone else.
Then calling out to Mattias that they are going, he moves down the
steps. He comes up beside Sophie. He startles her. She turns quickly
around, surprise showing in her face. The distance that has grown
between them, the disappointment, the unfulfilled dreams are mirrored in
her face. They say nothing. He takes her arm and they wait for Mattias to
catch them up before walking on through the park.

Copyright © Peter Millington. October 1994.

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