It was a fly-tippers’ paradise, a deserted lay-by on a quiet country lane, far enough from the main road to avoid discovery. It was also an ideal spot for lovers to park, discreet and remote, the skies filled with birdsong, the air heavy with anticipation. An old battered Peugeot sat there now, the couple inside staring straight ahead. They weren’t there to fly-tip. The woman, Liz, wound down her window and felt the warm summer breeze on her face. She smoothed out her skirt, trying to pull it over her knees.
‘We did the crossword together, do you remember?’ she asked.
Her companion nodded, ‘In that pub round the corner from your flat. What was it called?’
Liz smiled. If Rob remembered the crossword, he must remember how they ended up there at lunchtime on a Monday, two pints of bitter sipped cautiously. A make or break move, she recalled, the beer mixing with the cocktail still sitting in her stomach from the night before. Either I’ll spew or start to feel better, keep the hangover at bay.
‘Was it the Brewer’s something?’ Rob asked. He was still holding the steering wheel, even though they’d been parked up for a good ten minutes.
‘No, that was further up, nearer to Uni. I think it was called The Rising Sun.’
‘Right, The Rising Sun.’
They sat in the car saying nothing for a while, not daring to look at each other. Rob took his hand off the steering wheel, stroked her thigh.
‘I don’t normally do this,’ Liz said. But she didn’t move her leg.
‘Me neither. But I think we ought.’
‘We ought not!‘ It came out louder than she’d intended, in the voice she used for telling her children off. ‘I’m married, Rob – twelve years, three children, one mortgage. We ought not.’ But she wanted to, badly, and that was the crux of it.
Rob stroked Liz’s cheek and curled a lock of her hair around his finger, ‘You used to wear things in your hair. Tiny beads, bells and stuff.’
She smiled, ‘I had a row of plaits, thin ones, all round the back. You could only see them when I put my hair up. The beads were from old bits of jewellery, I even had a couple of parrots, wooden painted ones, used to be a pair of earrings. I’ve still got them somewhere.’
‘I don’t remember parrots, but you don’t surprise me – you were quite… zany, back then.’
She laughed, ‘Zany? Thanks, I think. You were loads zanier than me.’ She turned now to look at him, he was wearing baggy trousers and a t-shirt that was so faded she could no longer read the slogan, but she guessed it was humorous rather than political. He said he’d spent the last few years travelling round the world, picking up a bit of work here and there. He was just back from Morocco and had brought a bit of sun back with him, trapped it in his skin and hair. ‘You haven’t changed,’ she said.
‘Neither have you.’ He leant in for a kiss, but she pushed him away.
‘Shut up, Rob, I got old and fat – I weigh twice as much as I did back then -,’
Rob interrupted her, ‘That’s a good thing, Lizzie, you were so skinny you looked like you might take off any minute. I considered carrying tent pegs around with me to anchor you down. And you’re not old, you’re six months younger than me.’
Rob was wrong. She was old. And she’d been fine with it until she bumped into him outside La Cucina, a few nights ago. Larry was inside ordering coffee, she’d popped out to feed the parking meter, they hadn’t intended to stay this long, but the food was good and they were enjoying being child-free.
Liz hadn’t seen Rob for twenty years, not since they’d left Uni, but he’d hardly changed. She recognised him instantly, he took a little longer: frowning at the strange woman who was staring at him, coin poised in the parking meter. She dropped the coin in, turned the meter, grinned as the recognition showed on his face.
‘Bloody hell! Lizzie McDowell! Bloody hell!’ He ran up, hugged her. ‘Bloody hell!’
‘Bloody hell! Rob Carter!’
They’d talked, gabbled more like, for a good twenty minutes, before she remembered Larry, waiting in the restaurant. They exchanged phone numbers and a few more bloody hells, promised to stay in touch. Liz ran back to the restaurant and apologised to Larry for being so long. She told him she’d bumped into an old friend and didn’t correct him when he assumed the friend was female.
It was Liz’s turn to drive, so Larry had guzzled the lion’s share of the bottle of wine which now sat empty on the table between them. He got chatty and animated when he was drunk. Liz watched his lips moving, the lines around his mouth and eyes dancing, but she didn’t hear the words. She was back in her grimy student flat, twenty years ago, remembering a drunken night of nearly, but not quite, screwing Rob. And a hung-over pint the following morning in a backstreet pub. And a crossword.
Liz didn’t think she’d see him again, so she was surprised when Rob called this morning, wanted to meet up. She didn’t want him in her house, didn’t want him to see the suburban housewife she’d become, didn’t want him to see that, while he’d been travelling the world, free and wild, she’d been tying herself down, piling on the responsibility (as well as the pounds). So she suggested they go out to lunch, told him her house was hard to find and he could pick her up at the end of the road. But it was Rob who suggested they pull over in the lay-by.
‘It’s weird seeing you again,’ Liz said, pulling at her skirt again. ‘All this stuff I’d forgotten about. I didn’t expect to feel like this.’
‘I know, it’s like we’ve got – unfinished business, you and me.’ Rob locked his eyes on hers, making her stomach flip.
‘Like the crossword,’ she said.
‘No. We finished the crossword.’
‘Not really, we got bored, filled it with rude words. Remember?’
‘God, yes, I do. We left it on the table, jam-packed with obscenities, for someone else to find.’ Rob laughed, ‘You had a pretty rich vocabulary back then.’
‘Fuck off!’ she punched him in the arm, felt the words echo round the car. She never swore any more. Not since she’d had kids, didn’t swear, didn’t smoke, didn’t do stuff like this.
‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘It’s only unfinished business because you fell asleep.’
‘You said you weren’t sure, remember? I was being a gentleman. A very tired, very pissed gentleman.’ He paused, ‘You’re still not sure are you?’
She shook her head, sat back in her seat. It would be a lot easier if she had a crap marriage, but she didn’t, she had a great marriage, great husband, great kids. If she could hate Larry, just a little bit, just enough to justify this. Once, he had almost hit her, in an argument about paint of all things, he’d raised his hand, but had walked out instead, returning two hours later, mortified at his own behaviour, begging for forgiveness.
‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’
Rob shrugged, ‘No pressure. It’s good to see you, Lizzie, really good.’ He reached over her and opened the glove compartment, scrabbling about for a moment, then pulled out a fat joint, ready rolled. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘For old times’ sake.’ He climbed out of the car, went round to her side, and held her door open.
‘I’m not smoking that thing,’ she said, grinning, knowing that she would. ‘It’s been years.’
‘It’s like riding a bike, trust me,’ he said.
They hadn’t noticed the sofa before, discarded on the roadside, even though they’d pulled up almost alongside it. It was old and battered, one of the arms worn down to bare wood. The pattern had once been a bright, bold, geometric one, with shades of orange, green and red, now it had faded to pastel, mirroring Liz’s wardrobe: gone were the bright orange skirts, red leggings and neon t-shirts she had worn at Uni; lately, it was mostly pale blue, inoffensive cotton tops, and stonewashed jeans. Except today she’d worn a skirt.
‘Perfect!’ said Rob, gesturing to the sofa, ‘Would madam care to take a seat?’
‘I’m not sitting on that bloody thing,’ she said. ‘It’s filthy. God knows how long it’s been here. It’s probably full of rats.’
‘Lizzie McDowell, you have changed,’ Rob shook his head and tutted.
‘Fuck off!’ she said, sitting down. ‘And it’s Liz Collard now,’ she reminded him, and instantly wished she hadn’t. He wasn’t listening anyway. He had spotted a discarded carpet and was dragging it over. He unrolled it in front of the sofa, walked across it and sat down next to her. He passed her the joint, she took a drag, careful not to inhale too deep or too quickly, closed her eyes and leant back in the sofa, letting the hash work its magic.
And suddenly it wasn’t a sofa any more, it was a time machine dragging her back to the past, so fast it made her dizzy. And she was back in her tiny student bedroom, with Rob, sitting on her bed. The room was so small, there was barely space for the bed, she kept her clothes in a suitcase underneath and her books in a pile by the door. The walls were covered with posters and batik print scarves. A joss stick burned in an elephant shaped incense holder on the windowsill. She felt Rob’s hand behind her, pulling her towards him, and turned to kiss him, because at this precise moment she was Lizzie McDowell, Philosophy undergraduate, future unknown; not Liz Collard, mother of three, life filled with school runs, packed lunches and sleepovers.
She leaned forward, but the tip of the joint chose that moment to free itself from its paper case, burning through Liz’s skirt, not the orange one from back then, but the plain denim one, from now. The one she’d put on this morning for easy access, even though she was still pretending it was just a drive with an old friend.
‘Ow! Shit!’ she yelled, as she shoved the joint back into Rob’s hand. She leapt up and brushed herself down. Rob had always been useless at rolling joints. She sat down and the time machine lurched and bucked its way back to the present, back to a country lay-by littered with other people’s cast-off debris: an old shoe, lace still tied, lying on the verge; takeaway wrappers fluttering in the breeze. And a man she used to know sitting on a battered old sofa, beckoning to her like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with promises of hash-flavoured lollipops and a better life.
‘Look, Rob,’ she said. He did, and she wished he hadn’t because he was so much better looking than the Child Catcher. He smiled.
‘I suppose it’s only fair,’ he said. ‘It was me back then in the pub, afterwards, me that said let’s just be friends. I always regretted it though, Lizzie, always.’
And he held out the lollipop. And she took it.
She inhaled deeply this time and felt the time machine judder and bump, and suck everything in its path into a vacuum. Pop! Children gone. Pop! Larry gone. Pop! Liz Collard, gone. Until all that was left was Lizzie McDowell and Rob Carter, young, single and bursting with future promise. Lizzie was going to live in France, in Paris, hang out in cafés, smoke Gauloises and drink espresso. Rob was going to work in the City, get rich by thirty and retire before he was thirty-five. They both had essays to finish by Friday, but it didn’t matter because today was Monday and they had two pints of bitter, a crossword, and all the time in the world.
‘Five across, six letters: They are almost dirty.’
‘That’s five letters, Rob. Try again.’
‘Whores.’ He grabbed the pen out of Lizzie’s hand and wrote it in.
‘That’s wrong, it doesn’t work. Why would it be whores?’
‘Ten down, three letters, begins with S – sex.’ And so it started. Lizzie giggled, grabbed the pen and wrote willy in a five-letter space. Rob wrote copulate, joining with the L in willy, but he’d chosen a nine letter space, so filled in the final space with an exclamation mark.
‘How the hell did you ever manage to get onto a Maths degree course, Rob? Surely you have to be able to count to ten.’
‘I used my natural charm,’ he grinned. She mimed sticking her fingers down her throat and made a gagging sound.
There was a hole in her skirt. She stared at the small, brown edges against the crisp blue denim, disorientated. ‘How am I going to explain that to Larry?’ she said, inadvertently pressing the fast forward button. And the sofa-time-machine sped away from the past, away from the two pints of bitter and away from the night they nearly screwed. Liz closed her eyes and waited for the dizziness to subside, knowing she would be back in the lay-by on a smelly old sofa when she opened them.
But she wasn’t. She was in a strange house, in a strange kitchen, and something was simmering on an electric stove which she somehow knew was hers, but couldn’t be because her cooker was dual-fuel, expensive, enormous. She got up from the sofa and looked in the pan. Risotto. She wondered why she would cook risotto, Larry hated it, said it looked and smelled like regurgitated porridge. Not that it mattered because she’d only made enough for one. Maybe he was eating out. She grabbed a spoon and stirred it, catching it just in time before it stuck. The doorbell rang and her eldest, Sophie, ran down the stairs.
‘I’ll get it, Mum.’
Liz peeked round the kitchen door, her daughter was standing in the hall with her back to her, opening the front door. There were subtle differences: her hair was longer; her clothes more grown-up. The sofa had taken Liz too far, missed the lay-by altogether, headed into the future.
‘It’s just Dad,’ Sophie yelled, ‘Jake! Harry! Come on, Dad’s waiting!’ She grabbed her coat and a bag, ran back to the kitchen, ‘See you tomorrow evening, Mum.’ And she kissed her mum on the cheek then ran back to yell at the boys to hurry up.
Liz stuck her head round the kitchen door that she didn’t recognise, stared down the hall that she didn’t know, and waved at the husband that wasn’t hers anymore.
‘Can’t stop, I’ve got a risotto on,’ she said, as casually as she could, realising that that was why she was cooking risotto. Because she needed an excuse to stay in the kitchen. Because she found it too hard to make conversation with Larry when he picked the kids up for the weekend. Because he didn’t love her anymore.
The door closed. The house was quiet, dark, lonely. She slumped down on the sofa and closed her eyes, leaving the risotto to burn, picking absent-mindedly at the hole in her skirt.
‘You OK?’ It was Rob’s voice.
‘Where are we?’ she asked.
‘Jesus! How much did you smoke?’
She opened her eyes to bright sunshine, birds singing, thistles and nettles dancing in the wind. And a scummy sofa, and a dirty carpet laid out on the tarmac. And a future full of promise. And Rob, who was still young because he’d cheated, forgotten to live, skipped all the hard bits. Who had no lines on his tanned face because he hadn’t earned any. She passed the joint back to him, it was almost burnt down to the roach.
‘You should go,’ she said.
Rob shrugged, ‘What about you? At least let me give you a lift back.’
Liz shook her head and leaned back in the sofa. She closed her eyes, heard the click of the car door, the grinding of the engine, louder as he revved it, then quieter and quieter. Then nothing. She opened her eyes, patted the arm of the sofa and stood up, pulling her phone out of her pocket.
‘Hi Larry, it’s me – do you fancy meeting up for lunch? … No, I’m off Italian, what about that new place on the Quay … you know, the one that does the All You Can Eat Buffet. I don’t know what’s got into me, but I’m absolutely bloody starving.’
© E L Appleby 2012
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