The creaks and groans of the old boards overhead pick up pace again, their rhythm echoed in deepening moans. Bec arches a brow at her friend. Again?
The creaks and groans get faster.
“The man,” Bec says, “is a machine.”
Geraldine remembers that when David suggested taking in lodgers to help with the bills, she had said it would be nice to have some action around the place. Not what she had in mind.
The cadence of the creaks is joined by the thump of the headboard against the wall, and as the tempo picks up the moans change pitch: higher and higher. The wine glasses shimmy against each other in the rack and the copper pots clatter and clash.
The kettle announces its own crescendo with a long, drawn out squeal. Geraldine lifts it off the hob in time for them both to hear a broad Australian accent cry, “O. God. O God. O God Jean-Luc, Jean-Luc, O-o-o god!” Two more thumps of the headboard, then quiet.
“Jesus, I need a fag after that,” says Bec, “Oh, to be young again, eh?”
“I was never that young. David said wasn’t like in the movies and until they moved in I thought he knew best.”
It takes Bec a moment to process what she means.
“Oh. Pet,” she says.
Later, alone in bed, Geraldine feels the sting of embarrassment as she recalls the conversation that ensued. It was like being back at high school, being forced to admit you’d never snogged anybody. At least Bec was kind. All these years. Two boys, grown to men but when it comes to sex, it seems she and David are beginners. Or amateurs. Or flops. Not that she hasn’t enjoyed it. She’s just never been moved to call on god. And anyway, there’s more to marriage than sex and they’re happy and that’s what counts.
She stares at the ceiling, her eyes drawn to the familiar mismatched cornice piece above the window. I bet Natalie doesn’t think about plasterwork when she’s with Jean-Luc.
You have to learn to pleasure yourself, Bec had said. She slides her hands down her body, over her breasts, the appliqué cats on her nightie bumpy under her fingers. The cornice piece again. She closes her eyes, tight, and slides her hands further down. Her fingers find the coarse brush of pubic hair. Bravely she carries on, going to a place she’d previously only visited for hygiene and routine maintenance. “I’m doing this for us, David” she thinks, pressing on. The soft folds are warm and embracing. Now what?
Meanwhile, David is having his own problems with soft embracing folds. Specifically, getting them off his dead right arm. He had known he’d regret bringing Deirdre back to his room even as he led her up the stairs. And he’d have to replace his toothbrush now. No fool like an old fool, Geraldine would say. Geraldine. Lovely, gentle Geraldine. She deserves better. Never again, he vows, knowing himself for a liar.
When he was found to be surplus to requirements at the NHS Trust he worked for and forced to take a lower paid job outside London, he’d vowed to himself he would stay faithful. He’d only strayed a few times over the years and each time he’d been riddled with guilt and regret. But eventually the thought of a hot mouth on his cock, or the memory of bending some dirty bitch over a motel table, gets the best of him and he finds himself looking for someone that reminds him of Geraldine, but not too much.
Geraldine is nervous. Having failed at solo pursuits she had decided this problem was something she and David should tackle together, but now he’s due home, she’s as jumpy as a cat in a thunderstorm. She checks the house – again – then goes to the front room to peer down the street – again. His familiar figure is at the end of the drive: relief and panic compete for attention. She opens the front door.
David hears the front door click and looks up to see Geraldine standing in the in the doorway. He waves a greeting; she echoes it.
“Hello, love,” he says, kissing her on the cheek, “I missed you.”
“Me too,” she says. There’s something odd about her, he thinks.
“Have you had your hair done?” That’s usually it. She laughs (nervously?), shaking her head as she steps aside. The house is spotless, as usual, and he feels a weight lift from him as the familiar surroundings welcome him. It’s good to be home.
Jean-Luc and Natalie arrive home just as they are packing the dishwasher after supper. It’s the first time David’s met the younger man and his lean, muscled body makes him feel impossibly old. The Canadian, apparently a doorman of some sort, soon has the women in stitches, regaling them with indiscreet stories of celebrities off duty in the club. Geraldine is flushed from the wine and her eyes sparkle. How he misses her. The young couple excuse themselves and head up for bed.
“Shall we go up too?” Geraldine says. An early night, why not? They go upstairs and prepare for bed. Geraldine comes back from the bathroom in a lacy nightie, much different from her usual attire. She looks lovely and he tells her so. He takes off his glasses and joins her in bed, snuggling up spoon-style behind her. She smells like the safest place in the world and he buries his nose in her hair and inhales deeply.
Faint sounds start to seep through the walls from the lodgers’ bedroom. It’s the cue Geraldine’s been waiting for.
“Listen,” she says. As soon as David identifies the sound, he colours and breaks the cuddle.
“I’m sorry, love, I’ll ask them to be quiet.”
“No!” Aghast, she tugs on his pyjamas to keep him in bed. “No. They’re…entitled. I meant…” How to say it? “I meant, don’t you think…don’t you want…couldn’t we…?” Her eyes beg him to understand.
“You shouldn’t have to put up with that.” He pulls away from her.
“No, David, leave them. Here.” She switches the radio and Elton John’s bright pop drowns out the lodgers’ exertions.
“They’re young.” She pats the bed. He gives in. This time she spoons him, and slides her hand under his pyjama top and caresses his stomach, his chest. He’s rigid beside her, but not the way she’d hoped. When she slides her hand under the elastic of his pyjama pants, he leaps out of bed as though scorched.
“I – have something to do downstairs.”
Geraldine stares at the space he leaves behind.
“It’s noisier down there.”
She switches off the radio, then the light. Jean-Luc and Natalie are still at it. What can it be like? She closes her eyes against the dark and slides her hands over the soft satin of her negligee till both rest on the mound between her legs. Listening to the soft sounds from next door, she imagines David on top of her and rubs her crotch in time with Jean-Luc’s rhythm. She feels a heaviness deep inside and her scalp tingles as waves of heat radiate from the spot beneath her hands. She’s conscious her breath is getting ragged. This she knows: this she’s had before. Jean-Luc’s not stopping though. She pulls her nightie up, and once again plunges boldly into those soft, wet folds. It feels good. Part of her mind says ‘what if David comes back?’ and another part shouts it down, ‘so what if he does?’. Jean-Luc’s thrusting drives her hands faster and harder and then all the sound is gone and she’s lost who knows where and then it breaks wide open, a light exploding in her brain through her body, shuddering, releasing, relief.
Geraldine quivers in the dark, her hands trapped between clenched thighs. She slowly releases them, stunned by the force that’s moved through her. She breathes, deep, jagged breaths. So that’s it. That’s what we’ve been missing. Next door, Natalie’s reaching her own release and Jean-Luc’s going with her. David, it’s time for a change, she thinks as she falls into a deep, satisfied sleep.
David and Geraldine are having breakfast together the next morning when Jean-Luc and Natalie start rattling the crockery again.
“They have to go,” David says firmly.
“They paid a month in advance,” says Geraldine, ending the debate before it begins.
Later, David’s goes out to the garden when Jean-Luc and Natalie come downstairs in their pyjamas. He’s embarrassed to be around them, especially her. He watches though, sees Geraldine’s ease with them. He thinks of her hands on his body last night. How many times has she ever…? A dark thought starts to form.
David finds it hard to concentrate at work that week. He frequently finds himself staring blankly at the computer screen and realises he’s become lost in obsessive thoughts about Geraldine and the muscle-bound lodger. The way he struts about the house in his vest. And all that sex. Tiny moments plague him: a touch here, a laugh there. Anything could be happening and he’s powerless to stop it.
Geraldine is also distracted from her usual chores. The hoover lies neglected in the hall cupboard. Last week’s cut flowers drop petals on the polished surface of the dining table. Having discovered her own orgasm, she’s determined to have one with David. He’d barely left the house before she was on the phone to Bec, breathlessly sharing her success and enlisting her help. Bec, bless her, jumps in with both feet. They even venture to Ann Summers but Geraldine is alarmed by the rampant rabbit and his friends and settles for a nice bustier and suspenders. ‘Sure,’ Bec says, ‘baby steps.’
By Thursday David’s so worked up he signs off sick. It’s no lie. He feels sick to his stomach. He catches an early train to London, planning the whole way what he’ll say and do if he catches them together. Part of him is in denial, insisting ‘not Geraldine, not sweet, innocent, Geraldine’ but the dog inside, the one that led him astray all those times, growls otherwise. It breaks his heart to hear it snarl that all women are the same, but it’s easier to hear than the tiny voice that’s saying maybe it’s his fault, maybe he’s never satisfied her. He hurries home, the closer he gets his fears looming larger in his mind. By the time he gets off the tube he’s convinced he’ll find Jean-Luc rogering Geraldine in the front garden. He breaks into a jog as he enters their street. Nothing in the front garden. The house is impassive.
Geraldine pays the beautician, admiring her smooth brows in the mirror while she waits for her receipt. She notes the high flush in her cheeks and thinks how flattering all this sex stuff is. What a nice thing to discover in middle-age. The bell above the door tinkles as she steps into the street and heads for home.
David opens the front door.
There’s no sign of her, but the normally spotless house is dishevelled: the rumpled hair and lipstick-on-the-collar of the housewife? In the kitchen his stomach turns to hear the floorboards creaking overhead. His worst nightmare, coming true. He storms up the stairs, the dog inside baying for blood.
When Geraldine gets home Natalie is standing, tear-stained, on the front step, duffel bag and suitcase at her feet and Mrs Parker next door is ostentatiously weeding her front path, radar ears trained on the raised voices coming from the house. Geraldine glares at her as she runs to the distressed girl. Geraldine’s realises one of the voices is David’s and hurries upstairs.
“What’s going on? Why is Natalie on the street?”
David and Jean-Luc speak at once.
“Your husband has accused me…”
“Get out, Geraldine, I’m taking care of this”
The last of the lodgers’ things are half-in, half-out of the remaining bags. The bed is a tousle of sheets. David’s clutching her new bustier in his fist. Geraldine swiftly makes sense of the scene.
“Shut up both of you. Jean-Luc, you tell me.”
David starts to protest but is stopped by his wife’s anger.
“He burst in on us, he thought I was with you. And when he saw it wasn’t you, he still accuses me of fu…being with you. I say, no we haven’t, but maybe he better watch out, you’re a sexy woman.”
David lunges at the younger man, who laughs as he steps aside.
“Stop it David!”
He waves the bustier in her face. “Who’s this for then? How could you do this to me?”
Geraldine’s caught between anger and sorrow. Sorrow wins, she collapses to the floor in a flood of tears. David’s frozen by fury and fear and its Jean-Luc who goes to her first. She pushes him aside; anger makes a comeback.
“You stupid, stupid man. How could you? It’s for you! For us! I want us to have sex like they do! I want to rattle the crockery! I want to cry for god!” She falls back to sobbing.
Jean-Luc can’t resist a final crack at David, “Sounds like you have an unsatisfied customer.”
David’s too stunned to react. The younger man packs the last of his things into the bags, and leaves. Geraldine’s sobs slowly subside. David stands frozen, the bustier still gripped in his hand.
“Aren’t you going to say anything? Do anything?”
Geraldine’s voice breaks the stupor. He kneels beside her. She searches his face. His heart aches as her beloved face collapses into tears again.
“You don’t want me, do you? You never have.”
“Of course I want you. I love you. But you’re my wife. The mother of my children. I couldn’t ask you to…”
“Ask me to what?”
David holds out the bustier. He’s broken, confounded. He can barely look her in the eye.
“I couldn’t ask you to dirty yourself for me.”
Geraldine takes this in.
“I don’t think it’s dirty.”
She takes his hand and squeezes reassurance, loving his familiar warmth. He leans forward and rests his forehead on hers.
“I’ve been a fool.”
She rubs her nose against his.
“But you’re my fool.”
That weekend, with reparations made to the lodgers and the house restored to glory, David and Geraldine retired to their bedroom. The old floorboards beneath their bed creaked out a brand new tune. Down in the kitchen the tea cups shimmied and the pans clattered and the glasses sang. And although Geraldine found she called on David, not god, she did utter a silent prayer of thanks for the lodgers.