The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 18 The Final Act

IT’S A REASONABLE length journey to Dennis’s but I find his place without difficulty despite having only been there once before. Or actually twice if you count delivering Trixie to be with the cleaner for a day last December as well as collecting her later, though both times in the depths of winter. It was barely light in the early morning and almost pitch black after work.

Dennis’s house is in a pleasant, small town off the A120. It’s too big to call a village, though it has the air of a village, being rather tucked away. It has a main street and shops including a supermarket, and a comprehensive school as well as a primary, a large church and some outlying industrial areas.

The town isn’t far from the A120 and the A12 and therefore has the possibility of commuting to other larger towns for work or taking a train, including to London. Dennis’s house is on the outskirts in a cul-de-sac and it backs onto fields. Trixie would have to venture a fair way to any busy road from her owner’s rear boundary.

The house is quite old. I’d say possibly two to two hundred and fifty years old, though not old-old as in ancient timbered. It looks like a Georgian or possibly a Victorian rectory given up by the C of E in recent decades as being too expensive to bring up to modern standards. The result of these abandonment of charming old rectories is that the current incumbent has to reside in a nineteen-sixties monstrosity some way from the church with no more insulation than the old vicarage, no fireplaces or chimneys and having to depend on out-of-date storage heaters and what remains of Economy Seven for heating. From the look of it, the new vicarage in this town has had its large picture windows replaced some time ago with cheap double-glazed sealed units. As I drive past the new vicarage now, I think I can see that some of the sealed units have failed and have misted. It’s very obvious at this time of year.

There’s a bridle path at the back of Dennis’s garden, not suitable for vehicular traffic but it might, a hundred or more years ago, have been one of the routes by pony and trap to get to the church which is a short distance further along the track. The track opens out into what was possibly at one time the old village green outside the churchyard before the settlement expanded from a village into a town. I noticed this last December when I brought Trixie to spend the day with the cleaner and prowled round the place in the poor December morning light. As I drive along the cul-de-sac towards Dennis’s house, I take in other older houses, some actually authentically timbered and thatched, and some more recently built houses, obviously the result of in-fill.

I come to the end of the cul-de-sac and there is Dennis’s comfortable, mellow red brick, rectangular, Georgian (probably) former rectory, with a slate roof and sash windows, set a little way back from the lane. At each end of and tied into the old red brick front walls of the house there are high brick walls curving round to the road, shutting out the view of whatever may be at the rear. There are thick hedges to the sides of these walls with, again, no peep holes into the back garden. There are gates through these walls, a small pedestrian gate each side of the house and one larger double gate for vehicles I presume, but you couldn’t possibly see what, if anything, may be going on behind the walls.

The house looks imposing but homely from the outside and I find I like it very well.

I drive onto the in-and-out gravel drive and park not quite next to the front door which immediately opens and Dennis comes out of the house to greet me. He walks round to the offside and opens my car door and I get out. He’s smiling as always and I have to resist the urge to throw my arms around his neck. I can’t see any other cars. Still, I can’t discount the possibility that Cathy Earnshaw is there in the house somewhere even now, fully installed and baking a thumpin’ parkin and cutting up Wensleydale cheese for tasty bites for later, when all I can normally muster up is M&S and Waitrose convenient ready-made canapés.

“I’m so glad you could come,” Dennis says. “It’s rather cold today but I don’t think Trixie’ll mind!”

“Don’t worry. I’m wearing lots of layers and I’ve brought several extra.”

“Trixie’s looking forward to seeing you,” he says, which is sweet.

But indeed she greets me like an old friend as I go into the front hall. She’s grown up quite a bit since I last saw her. She’s becoming a very attractive short-haired blue tabby as Dennis predicted, although she still has kittenish qualities and throws herself on her back for a tummy tickle.

“I haven’t taken her out yet. I was waiting for you.” I feel honoured.

I accept a cup of coffee. We stand in his country kitchen next to his Aga and discuss what we’ve been up to since he came and collected Trixie in December which in my case isn’t anything I desperately want to share. The New Year’s Eve adventure, though uplifting for me, seems hazy and improbable and I don’t rush to tell him about it. Dennis says he’s been to dinners and one or two parties and another breakfast at which he says he looked out for me but I wasn’t there. I mustn’t have received or noticed an invite.

Trixie is full of energy and is peering out of the glass door at the back of the house which Dennis says she often does but so far she’s been denied access to the great outdoors.

“Is it safe for her?” I say.

“Well, the back garden’s mostly an old walled kitchen garden. There’s an ancient orchard beyond it and either side of that it’s a bit wild. Maybe you saw it when you brought Trixie here in December.”

“Well, there wasn’t much time and it was quite dark in the morning and in the evening too but I did go out there and notice the lane at the very back leading to the church.”

I don’t say this but I’ve also looked it up on Google Earth. Nowhere is private these days. Whether a good or a bad thing I’m not sure. Maybe I should get a drone to hover over my own house for the next three months at least to check that the Arsehole isn’t trying to move back in without telling me while I’m at work.

“Will you still take her to work or let her have the run of the garden?” I say.

“Eventually I’ll have to let her out all the time. We let our old cat out while we were both at work. There’s a cat flap already but obviously it’s not able to be used just now. For now though, I’ll probably still take her to work most days.”

He’s so caring.

“Well then,” Dennis says, “shall we make a start?”

“No time like the present!” I say. That seems rather clichéd. Even so, it will be getting dark quite soon. We only have about two hours of daylight left, maximum.

“Right then.” He opens the back door and Trixie bolts out and we follow. She disappears immediately. It’s rather worrying and Dennis looks deeply concerned. Soon she appears again from behind a holly bush, gambols across the grass and goes behind the apple tree. The next time I see her she’s at least eight feet up the tree balancing precariously on a thin branch. She looks uncertain and won’t go either way. She mews down at us.

“Oh dear,” I laugh and walk to the base of the tree. I raise my hands and call her. She just mews. Dennis shakes his head and goes and gets a ladder, places it on the branch and climbs up it. Trixie naturally moves along the branch away from him.

“I think we should sit down and just see what she does,” I say. “After all, it’s her time to explore and test things out. If she wants to come down she will.”

Reluctantly Dennis climbs down the ladder, comes over to the garden bench and sits next to me with his hands in his lap, watching Trixie apprehensively. Trixie alternately stands on and hangs from the end of the branch and mews pitifully at us.

“I expect you’ll have to have Trixie neutered,” I say as she tries her hardest to seduce us over to her, just so that she can no doubt then avoid our help and carry on appealing to us from further along the branch.

“I suppose so,” he says reluctantly. “It seems an awful violation, though, to have half her insides extracted. I’ll have to think about it. Maybe there won’t be any full toms anywhere nearabouts.”

Hmm, I think. Along the road from my own house there’s a tumbledown old barn that I understand used to be a milking parlour at one time and stray cats still lurk about that sometimes, though village ladies have made valiant efforts to catch them in traps and get them neutered. Once there are no eligible females around, the toms that can’t be caught tend to drift off looking for opportunities elsewhere. There are probably similar situations in this village and Trixie would no doubt present as a valuable find for a horny old feral feline roué. I believe that randy toms will travel long distances to encounter a viable female.

“Well, maybe you’ll be lucky. Anyway, thanks for asking me over,” I say. “Actually it couldn’t have come at a better time.”

“Oh, good. I’m pleased to hear that.”

“My ex wanted to go out for lunch today and I thought it would be to press for a house sale etc, but it turned out he wanted to come back. I mean to me. Though I don’t actually believe that, but it’s what he said to begin with.”

“Oh,” says Dennis looking at me and taking his attention away from Trixie for the first time. “Will you agree to it?” His expression is a little hard to read. It’s quite intense but I can’t really tell if an affirmative reply would especially discomfit him. Would he care? I imagine the scenario if I were to say that I was planning a reunion with the Arsehole, that I was over the moon, telling Dennis that he and I could still remain friends‒

“Anna?” he says urgently. This time he does look concerned.

I laugh, more sort of a huff. “No fear,” I say. “It’s much too late for that. But I suppose it always was. Ever since he … you know.”

“Hmm,” says Dennis.

“No. We’ll sell the house and split everything and that’ll be that. I expect that’s what you did.”

“Yes,” Dennis says. “Except I bought her out of this house instead. I didn’t want to leave it and she didn’t care. It’s similar to the house I grew up in. It’s all sorted now. Very neat and tidy.”

“I know. It sound trite, but that’s what I want now. I don’t want a lot of aggro; him actually returning to the house and staying there for a lengthy period because he’s messed up his life.

“Anyway,” I sigh, “have you …er … had any more conferences or anything away in the wilds of Yorkshire?”

“No. It was just the one last year.”

I’m dying to ask if he’s still seeing Cathy Earnshaw. She certainly doesn’t appear to be here as I’d rather dreaded she might.

“I did so enjoy having Trixie to stay last December,” I say hoping that this might prompt some revelation about his love life. “If you needed me to, I’d be happy to look after her again any time.”

“Thanks,” he says. “It was a great help.”

“Er, did you enjoy your stay in London? We didn’t get much chance to speak when you collected Trixie.” I do hope this doesn’t sound too much as though I’m digging for information ,which of course I am. I’ve always been an appalling liar and I’m sure he can see through my superficially innocent questions. Or at least that’s how I feel. I try not to go red in the face.

“You OK?” he says. “You look a bit pink. I hope it’s not too cold for you.”

“No, not at all.” In fact I’ve broken into a sweat beneath my several layers of insulation. I’ll have to remember not to wear a polyester fleece the next time I want to closely question someone while trying to appear nonchalant.

I start to feel it coming on as it always does when something’s important to me. The nerves, the trepidation, actual physical discomfort. Shaking a little and my heart thumping like a sledgehammer. I know there’s only one thing for it which is to come out with it and be truthful.

“So, how did it go with The Lady of the North?” It just slipsd out like that.

Dennis laughs. “What do you mean?”

“Sorry. It’s none of my business. I just meant the woman you met at the conference in the North of England. The lady you were going to meet in London. Don’t say if you don’t want to.”

“She isn’t a northerner,” he says looking at me. Trixie appeals to us as she dangles from the thin branch.

“Well, whatever she is then. But I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s none of my business.”

“She’s French actually.” He looks down at his hands. “She was just at this conference in Cumbria.”

“Not Yorkshire then?”

“Er. No. Not God’s own County, no.”

“Oh. I mean there’s no reason why it should have been Yorkshire. You said the North of England and I just thought: Cathy Earnshaw.”

Dennis laughs out loud. I feel such a fool. He must think I’m a complete idiot.

“Well, anyway,” he says, “it didn’t go at all. We didn’t get on that well. And it didn’t seem right.”

Oh, I think. No entente-by-ecky-thump. Or entente-cordiale either. No gi’ing it pasty or croissants all this time.

Trixie’s branch at that point sways dangerously. Dennis gets up and stands under the tree ready to catch her if necessary but she gamely hangs on. Little by little she makes her way back along the branch to a stouter part of it and thence to the tree trunk. She slithers expertly down to the ground tail first. We applaud her loudly. I go over and we put our arms out to her but she dashes off to the far corners of the walled garden. We follow, hanging back so that she can explore further without our interference.

Dennis leans against a plum tree and I lean against another nearby as we observe Trixie’s tour through the shrubbery.

“The fact is,” says Dennis, “I haven’t found anyone I like at all since last September/October. Not really.”

“I suppose I’m the same. I honestly wish I hadn’t bothered at all,” I say. “It’s just been one disaster after another.” I want to say that I don’t mean my evening with him but of course it was a bit of a disaster by most standards. You couldn’t call it a roaring success.

“Actually,” he says, “I did enjoy our evening out together.” I’m grateful to him for saying this because I did too.

“Me too,” I say, “actually.”

“I mean,” he says, “it doesn’t have to be a conventionally successful date to be enjoyable still, does it? I was … er … happy to be with you and … I still am.”

I can’t keep saying “me too”. I just nod and look at him and he looks at me. I do so like him. He’s so very nice, feeble adjective that that is. We just look and look and turn to look at Trixie every so often. Eventually she romps over and I pick her up, all fluffy and cold from the outside and smelling of the clean fresh air. I cradle her on her back like a baby. She puts a gentle front paw out and touches my face. I hold the paw and kiss it. Dennis stands next to me and takes her other front paw in his hand and kisses that and looks at me, so close.

There’s very little sound around us. The birds have sensibly gone to bed by now. A solitary crow caws in the distance. The evening is still and calm and a little misty. Dennis leans closer to me over Trixie and very gently he kisses my lips. I close my eyes. In my arms, Trixie starts to purr softly. I know how she feels. I wish it would go on forever. He whispers that we should maybe go in now and I notice that darkness has descended quickly, that it’s grown very cold. I look down and see that Trixie is fast asleep.

BACK IN the kitchen, we put Trixie in her basket by the Aga. She stretches, yawns and closes her eyes again. Dennis appears a little embarrassed, as though he may have overstepped a mark. I do so hope that the ‘just good mates’ business hasn’t overtaken us and set in firmly. I watch him put the kettle on and start to set out crockery. However, I’m conscious after our kiss of the urgent need for a serious and extended tampering with my undergarments. A strong desire which couldn’t be assuaged by a cup of Earl Grey or Orange Pekoe. We are on the cusp of something beautiful and wonderful which I’m convinced a shared pot of strong tea won’t further or fulfil. Or at least Dennis doesn’t seem like a hot beverage fetishist. I dare say there are a few about.

But does it mean anything? A stray kiss, brought on perhaps by the calm of the evening and the fluffy, cuddly form of Trixie in between us. Maybe it’s wholly too presumptuous to be reading anything into it.

Dennis is facing away from me as he peers into his eye-level cupboard at a bewildering range of infusions. My heart starts to hammer away again as I know I may not get another chance to move things on. He must be able to hear it this time in the confines of the kitchen. I’m sure my brow is breaking into a sweat as it feels cooler when the rest of me, still in my fleeces, is burning up. He turns to me.

“What would you like?” he says.

I go over to take a closer look at the packets of tea. I turn to him. “You,” I reply breathlessly and place a hand on his shoulder.

He takes a deep breath, swallows and looks my face slowly up and down. “Anna,” he says.

He puts one hand on the side of my head and the other round my waist. Trixie snores softly. Then we kiss properly, extensively, thoroughly. Getting closer and closer and closer. And soon it isn’t enough. I feel as though I’ve been injected with some powerful ecstasy-inducing chemical that infuses every part of my body, and snakes and twists through my mind.

“Could we go to bed?” I say. I’m not drunk this time. Unless you count drunk with lust. There’s no reason for him to refuse this time around.

When I set out for his place earlier, this development wasn’t anticipated; at least not that seriously. I have to hope that I haven’t got a tatty bra on today or that, in my rush to change and leave, I didn’t put odd socks on under my jeans. I don’t know if this sort of thing worries men too; the state of his underpants or maybe an untidy bedroom. Possibly, but I really couldn’t give a toss just now about anything practical. If he refuses now on account of an unmade bed or a bathroom that needs a bit of a clean-up, then I’ll know he just wants to remain friends, though it doesn’t feel like it from where I’m standing face-to-face with him, our hands pulling our nether regions tightly together, crushed against each other, making my body sing and quiver like a tuning fork. I have to stand on tiptoe to achieve this. Dennis is assisting by supporting my bottom at just the right height.

“Hmm,” he whispers appreciatively, putting one hand under my upper clothing. “You’re gorgeously sweaty under all those layers. We’d better get them off you as soon as possible. Come on then.” He moves apart from me. He takes my hand and leads me out through the hall and up the stairs to a room just along the galleried landing. The door is half open and I can see from the landing light that the room is tidy, the bed neatly made.

Very soon the bed is anything but neat. Dennis doesn’t turn the light on in the room but leaves the door ajar. We undress together and make love half beneath the bedclothes in the dim light, like being in a warm, intimate, cosy nest. Dennis is extremely loving, his hands soft and gentle and caressing, his lips everywhere that matters. It’s overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so safe and loved and cared for, in just exactly the right place in the universe, at least not in adult life, probably not since I was a small child. These impressions however are fleeting and don’t detract in the slightest from the exquisite physical sensation. I feel the familiar adrenaline rush in my legs and body and the obvious place. Hurrah, I think at the end, for the folic acid!

We lay conjoined for some time afterwards. I still feel overwhelmed. I feel like crying. I have to hope that this is just the beginning; that he’ll want us to continue. He slides off me in due course and we lie entangled not saying anything, softly caressing each other still.

I hope that you’ll be able to put up with my daftness, I think to myself, that you won’t get sick of me. I don’t express these thoughts out loud. I look surreptitiously at him in the indirect, soft lighting. His eyes are closed. Will you stay with me? Could you, I ask him silently, hack your way through the thorny thicket of my mind, would you chase down the labyrinthine, narrow, dark, twisting tunnels deep beneath the surface calm avoiding the dead ends and false leads? Or would the process be wholly too uncomfortable? I can’t hide myself from you.

There’s been an advert on TV recently in which a man and woman are spray painting a shed a bright colour. At one point she’s inside and pulls a silly face out of the window at the man and he pulls a face back, a sort of lugubrious cod-fish face. I’m afraid this just about sums me up. I was heartened to know that someone thinks that this is received behaviour for certain sectors of the population. Those of course towards the daft end of society. I used to do it to the Arsehole, pull silly faces at him in all sorts of situations. He didn’t do it back so much but he fully accepted this kind of behaviour. However, would Dennis appreciate bouts of occasional gurning if they accidentally slip out?

I can’t believe that after the most outstanding, stupendous sex I’ve ever had with the person I love most in the world that I’m lying here thinking about deliberate facial contortions. It says something about the inner life. That basically it’s ludicrously indiscriminate and irrelevant. Without opening his eyes, Dennis puts a hand to my face, finds my lips and kisses me.

“What,” he then says smiling, looking deep into my eyes, “is going on in there?”

“Oh nothing. Nothing at all serious.” I turn the other way and let him cuddle me from behind. I don’t want him to see my face. He raises himself up a little and kisses my neck and ear and face.

“You don’t,” he says, “have to try to hide anything from me. I’ll love you any-which-way.” Then he buries his face in my hair. “That just slipped out.” His voice is muffled. “I hope you don’t mind too much.”

I turn around again to face him. “No. Not at all. I’m glad you said it. I love you too. Really. Very much.”

“Oh good.” He sounds relieved, and emotional. “I’m so happy.” He kisses me. “I wanted you that first night out together you know. But I thought it wouldn’t be right.”

“I wanted you too. But I thought you’d say no. I’ve thought about you an awful lot since then. Kind of wished that we could have another try. But you know, it seemed as though you were pursuing other … er … avenues. Cathy Earnshaw. Or actually now I suppose I should have been thinking of Fantine or Madame Bovary or whatever.”

Dennis laughs softly, though his eyes glisten. He sniffs.

“I wanted to ask you out again,” he says, “but I thought you may just want to be friends and I didn’t think I could actually do that, just be friends, not for long. The fact is, I’ve been hopelessly attracted to you for years. Ever since I first saw you at that property seminar in Chelmsford about ten years ago.” I dredge through my memory but I’ve no recollection of this event. “It took all my courage to ask you out at all when I heard you were separated. And after actually getting to go out with you once, I knew I wouldn’t be able to be just friends with you. It would have been impossibly uncomfortable. The few times we saw each other since October, you seemed to be cheerful enough so I thought I’d better let you get on with things. And even as friends, I couldn’t ask you to an opera. And I wasn’t sure about any black magic events going on locally. I was looking for an excuse to contact you but oddly there were none advertised in the local papers.”

“I didn’t really stick pins into effigies you know!” I say quickly.

“I know you didn’t.” I’m reassured. I know he won’t lie to me.

We regard each other. Dennis without his specs I find just as agreeable as with them on. I wonder if my face is just a blur to him. Probably a good thing if it is!

“I can see you perfectly well at this distance,” he says “and I love every bit of you.”

Sheer unadulterated bliss has entered my life. I don’t think I care if he can read my mind or effortlessly extract all my secrets, my foibles, my odd quirks, all my irrelevant, muddled thoughts about everything and anything. I’ve had a hard time of it these last few months. Some disagreeable things have happened to me. I know now that I’m about to enter a hopefully permanent settled phase. All the unpleasantness is over at last.

“Do you think,” he says, “that you and me and Trixie could possibly live happily together?”

“You want me to move in with you?”

“Well. If you go away back to your home tonight, I’ll pine for you. And tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. And every other day.”

“Yes, I’ll stay.” I may have to barricade the former matrimonial home and put bars up at the windows but I couldn’t spend the night away from Dennis, or any other night.

WE FALL asleep together. Hours later we wake. The curtains are still open and it’s pitch black outside.

“I should go and check on Trixie,” Dennis says.

“I’ll come with you.”

We get up out of bed. We go down hand in hand. All the lights are still on. In the kitchen it appears Trixie has been up and used her litter tray but now she’s back in her bed and cosily stretches, looks at us and closes her eyes again. The Aga is belting out a pleasant all-round heat. We decide to take that postponed cup of tea and Dennis switches on the kettle again and organises a tray. I must say that in the buff he’s pretty well appointed; quite the perfect, most desirable specimen, in and out and big in all the right places. I catch him eyeing me in return. I’m happy to say that since last autumn I’ve managed to keep off most of my returned body fat. Mainly it has to be said due to bouts of abject misery, supreme self-loathing and a total absence of any significant self-confidence. Fasting at least provides the illusion of having some element of control over one’s life and destiny.

However just now, the exact reason for my size 10 body doesn’t overly concern me. If it furthers my relationship with Dennis then I’m happy. And it does apparently further it. Regardless of the definite attractions of a brewing pot of tea, we have to throw our arms around each other in the middle of the kitchen and kiss endlessly. I can feel that I am and I can see that Dennis is anxious for a resumption of earlier close contact. The tea may grow cold but the warm bed beckons irresistibly.

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