Jo sighed and logged out of her computer, no more work until Monday morning. It had been a busy week, and the TGIF feeling in the office was contagious. They were a tight team and they worked hard; tonight the unencumbered would sink a couple drinks together before going their separate ways. At forty eight Jo was the oldest of the group that had no need to hurry home to childcare or other domestic commitments. Jo looked out of the window and grimaced as she saw the fine drizzle that showed no sign of abating. She zipped up her blue Berghaus jacket and fell into step with Anna and Steve as they left the building. The two thirty-somethings had recently become a couple, and the novelty was as yet untarnished.
"So, Jo, what are you up to this weekend?" said Anna.
"I'm not sure yet, I..."
Before Jo finished her sentence Steve grinned and said, "Did we say? We're going to scope out narrowboats for sale. Anna's always wanted to get a mooring in the canal basin and live on the water, and she's got me going now. I'll have to learn to swim though."
"Isn't it great that we both want to do this?" said Anna. "Jo, you must come and visit us when we're finally afloat. We'd love that, wouldn't we darling?"
"Sure, that'd be great. But we've got a way to go before then. Did the others say that they'd be in the 'King Charles 'or 'The Farriers'?" said Steve.
"I'm not sure, did you hear Jo?"
"'The Farriers' was mentioned. Shall we try there, it's the nearest as well?"
"Yeh, let's get in out of this mizzle."
They opened the old oak door of the pub and a blanket of heat enveloped them. Jo's glasses misted up as she peered around for familiar faces. The trio separated to check out the nooks and crannies of the two bars but couldn't find their workmates. They might have moved on to the 'King Charles' but the log fire that flared in the cavernous grate proved seductive and they settled into a corner table. Anna got the first round in, three pints of the local Sabrina Porter. Jo listened as Steve and Anna continued their animated discussion about Project Narrowboat, and she tried to show an active interest. Jo recharged their glasses, and when she returned to their table she found that the conversation had shifted. Anna and Steve were recalling their childhoods; Jo remembered reading somewhere that you have to be really in love with someone to be intrigued by the mundane details of their infancy and adolescence. She recognised her 'gooseberry' status, and eventually feigned a headache. She said her goodbyes and left them to ramble together through their recollections.
When Jo got home she drew the curtains, lit her gas fire, switched on her reading lamp and settled down to check her emails. She balanced her laptop on her knees and snuggled into her deep leather arm chair, the battered and beautiful bounty from a skip surfing trip. There was nothing much in her inbox, loads of the usual advertising, and a briefly worded request from her son for his oldest sister's postal address. Her face twisted in tolerant annoyance.
"When will he ever write things down? I've already sent the address to him, half a dozen times this year alone," she said to herself.
Jo's home was in a lane of terraced houses, near the centre of Worcester, a county town in the Welsh marches. Her three children were all grown up and engrossed in their own lives. About five years ago she'd finally extricated herself from an ill-conceived marriage. It had suffocated her for nearly a decade, a match made on the rebound from an even more painful breakup.
Tonight she felt vaguely miserable. During the working week she enjoyed her freedom. Her time was her own and she could linger with friends and workmates as the mood took her. If she wanted company she did not have to go far to find it. She could cook or not cook, stay in or go out, act on impulse and be spontaneous without a second thought. But at weekends she faltered, bereft of a focus because her weekday companions were rarely available. Anna, for instance, had once been happy to come with her and track down bargains at car boot sales. She had other priorities now.
By nine o'clock Jo felt peckish, but she couldn't quite summon the energy to prepare a proper meal. As she deliberated the relative merits of a bowl of Puffed Wheat versus a cheese toastie, the phone rang. She scrambled across the room to grab it before it stopped.
"Hello, Jo here," she said.
"Jo, it's Rose. I wondered if I could ask you a favour?"
Rose was her old next door neighbour, a generous woman, one of her first friends in Worcester. She'd moved across town last year to live with her elderly mother.
"Of course, what can I do for you, Rose?"
"Well, you know I met a guy called Bryan at the County Show last year? The one who farms out Evesham way? He's asked me to come for dinner at his tomorrow night and stay over. Is there any chance that you could be on standby if my mother needs help? She wouldn't call unless she absolutely had to; she's very proud like that. It just means being on the end of the phone and coming over in an emergency. But don't be put out, if you've anything on, I'll make other arrangements."
Jo's heart sank a little; her whole Saturday night would be committed to being 'on duty' just in case she was needed. That would rule out going for a drink, even in the unlikely event that anyone invited her. She wouldn't be able to switch off at all.
"Of course I can do that, Rose. You go and have a lovely time. Are you sure that I shouldn't come over to check on her anyway though?"
"No, that's fine. She's still compos mentis and I'll have her settled for the night before I go. She always reads in bed between seven and nine, before going to sleep. I'll be back in the morning by 10:00. I can't imagine that you'll hear from her, but we need to have a contingency plan, just in case. I'll leave my mobile on as well, and if there's any emergency I can get a taxi back from Bryan's. Is that OK?"
"Definitely. Maybe we can meet one lunch time next week and you can fill me in on the charms of Farmer Bryan?"
"You're on, Jo. I'll call you in the week and we'll make a plan?"
"Fine. We might speak over the weekend anyway? Adios and enjoy."
Jo made her way to the kitchen, both hungry and resigned to her agreement to help Rose to have a break. She opened her fridge door and appraised the meagre contents. Nothing looked very appetising. Then her eyes lighted on a plastic box that contained minted new potatoes, leftovers from the night before. She set about slicing them and then heated up a generous splash of olive oil in her cast iron frying pan. As the potatoes fried to a golden brown she poured out a large glass of Merlot.
Her evening was thus transformed, and she snuggled down to watch her all-time favourite film, 'Babette's Feast'. On other occasions when she'd watched the DVD, she had concentrated her attention on the magnificent food and drink, and the twists and turns of the plot over the decades that the pastor's daughters lived in their remote Jutland village. But tonight the she was captivated by the hard won sense of community that formed the warp and weft of the story. Although the joys of living alone must not be taken for granted, she remembered how precious it was to have a place in the lives of others.
Early the next morning Jo lay in a hot bath, scented with lavender, and mulled over the odd nature of her weekends. She remembered times when a relaxed soak like this would have been impossible. There'd have been too much going on; too many people to talk to, shop for, cook for and ferry to and fro. She'd always been busy and running to catch up with herself.
Like many people who lived with other people, her old weekends had flown by in a whirl of domestic tasks and family expeditions. On rare occasions when she did have time to herself she'd longed for it to go on and on. It had never occurred to her that she could ever have too much of it. Sometimes she'd emerged into the wider social landscape for a quick night time drink with friends, usually with other couples, but otherwise weekends had been insular and predictable.
Things were very different for her now. It wasn't that she was lethargic these days. She got on with the things that needed to be done, but she still had a lot of time on her hands. Her small terraced house was clean and comfortable. She generally cleared up after herself as she went along and the weekly vacuuming took no more than an hour tops. On Saturdays she usually took a brisk walk into town and was at the market by 10:00am. By 11:30 she was home again, well stocked with the week's fruit and veg.
If she was lucky she might bump into a friend doing Saturday errands and they might go for coffee with her. Her favourite haunt was a chapel that had morphed into a café bar, 'The Chorister's Rest'. It bemused her, confirmed agnostic as she was, when she got an uneasy feeling that socialising in a house of God verged on being sacrilegious. This contradiction in terms flew in the face of her aspirations to be a logical thinker. At least she was not alone, the landlord himself had told her he feared that the resident spirits disturbed the ether and potentially undermined profits. But at least a quiet cappuccino on a Saturday morning didn't seem to rattle the ghosts (as far she could divine anyway). In any event her companions for elevenses would soon make their excuses and go back to their schedules, leaving her to meander homewards alone.
As the water cooled Jo recalled something that had happened one day last March. She'd been striding home from market in the spring sunshine and she'd had a rucksack on her back that bounced, heavy with fresh produce. She'd inhaled deeply, glad to be alive, and looked upwards to exalt in the scudding clouds. Then, alas; the sun had dazzled her and she'd tripped. In fairness, she flew rather than tripped. As she caught her left trainer on an uneven paving stone her backpack had jettisoned forwards over her head. The weight-accelerated velocity carried her in an arc into the air before she'd fallen and landed at the feet of a startled old man. Within seconds a motley group of well-intentioned Samaritans had surrounded her. She'd squirmed under their collective scrutiny. As blood seeped through onto the knees of her jeans, she'd made a determined getaway, mortified by her indignity.
When Jo had arrived back home she had put on the kettle on to make a brew. As she'd waited for it to boil she'd thought how strange it was that she'd been unable to face the kind concern of the people who'd wanted to help her. She'd retreated from them by instinct, and yet she'd longed not to be so lonely. Why was she so contrary?
As she sipped her tea she felt sorry for herself. She would have liked to have had someone at home to listen to her story; it might have become funny in the telling if she'd had a sympathetic listener. As it was she didn't see a soul until she went to work on Monday morning and by then the incident had gone cold and she failed to mine it for the amusement of herself or anyone else. As if in spite, her knees remained sore for the rest of the week.
Jo stood up and climbed out of the bath. She towelled herself dry in an absent minded sort of way. Her fingers were long skilled in the production of finely tuned pleasure, and they too went onto autopilot as they released her pent-up frustration with strokes that were familiar and precise. But this self-administered excitement was soon concluded, and it left her hankering for more than orgasmic sneezes. Jo traced her fingers in lazy circles round her nipples. In her wistful reverie she wondered if her body would ever again feel the undertow of shared sexual arousal that would not be denied its natural expression.
As Jo spread Marmite on her toast, for breakfast, she continued to ruminate. Her determined independence vied with her need to be intimate with another human being, and the two contradictory forces engaged in an unresolvable battle for supremacy in her life. As a result ambivalence, ambiguity and boredom were her trusty companions, and they came out to play at weekends. Most Saturday mornings passed without event, good or bad, and then they washed her up on the shores of the barren yet harmless weekend hours to come. It would have been good to have had friends to hang out with, similar to the normal companionship that enhanced the working week. She knew that there must be other unattached folk out there, but how to find them? Perhaps they all covered their tracks as carefully as she did. Perhaps they too were intent on avoiding the pity of the better connected?
Rose's mum was fine that Saturday night, and Jo did not hear from her. Jo used the time to read Margaret Drabble's latest novel, 'The Pure Gold Baby'. She finished it at four am, and sank into a disturbed sleep. She dreamt that she was marooned on a desert island; she had gone there on purpose but too late she had realised that she would never again see another living soul and that she would die alone. She ran and ran round the island, which got progressively smaller, until it became a rock no bigger than her leather chair. Then it was her chair. The chair began to sink and sucked her down. She woke up just before she drowned.
At Christmas time Jo was returned to her hectic former life, when her children and their sundry friends returned home for the festivities. She was exhausted by New Year, and longed for her customary peace and quiet. But a few days after their departure, she was at odds with herself once more. She guarded her independence with jealous determination and yet she felt left out of life's mainstream when she listened to her friends talking about their love lives, about Bryan or Steve or whoever, and about the trials of mundane family life.
One Sunday afternoon in early January Jo went for a walk. A network of paths ran from a back lane near her house and skirted first the canal and then the River Avon as it ran through the town. She loved this four mile circuit in all seasons of the year. That day a mist had hung low for the entire day and dampness permeated the irregular stones and the earth underfoot. Tiny droplets of water gathered on her short, curly hair and amplified the salt and pepper colour of her locks. The backs of Victorian warehouses glowered in the half-light. Oil trails floated on the canal water and the air was tainted by noxious effluvia that rose from hidden waste. She hunched her shoulders and imagined that she had just finished a long shift in a glove factory, Worcester's once thriving local industry. Those sorry wage slaves would have had little leisure time, and would have envied her with her hours free of toil. She chided herself for being so listless and fed up; she was sure that it wasn't normal to feel so low for no good reason. Maybe she should see her GP? Then it came to her with an abject clarity that made her go pink with embarrassment, she was simply lonely.
Jo rounded a bend in the manmade waterway, mounted a short flight of steps and crossed a small bridge that led onto a cycle path. This path twisted back on itself before it dropped down to follow the open river. A flotilla of swans glided downstream impervious to the gloomy weather, and as the winter sun set an ochre haze tinged the foggy sky to the west. Jo turned to the vacant space by her side and said,
"I'll remember this for the rest of my life."
Jo leant into the line made by her three friends so that Anna could take a selfie of the four of them. Their smiles were sparkly and a little synthetic as dictated by the conventions of such photos. It would not be long before it was speeding around the stellar reaches of social media and popping up in front of the eyes of a horde of people, the majority of whom she had never met, and never would.
Jo hated to have her photo taken at the best of times; even as a child her father had been unable to persuade her to pose for the routine Kodak snaps that captured the alleged joy of family holidays. It was almost as if she wanted to remain untethered by concrete images, free to shape shift in the realms of her imagination.
However, when the others clustered to view the picture on Anna's mobile, Jo felt a dissonant need to join them. The three younger women looked more alike than they did in real life, the expressions that they'd adopted softened and blurred their particular features; their individuality was muted by the uniform style of their makeup, haircuts and jewellery. In Jo's eyes the images appeared to be blond and pretty, but bland at the same time.
To Jo's surprise she saw that her own image stood out with clarity. Most of the time she'd felt less visible as she'd got older. This photo reflected an opposite truth. It was as if her unique life was written in bas relief on her face. Sadness was there, but this paled into insignificance compared with the strength and presence that shone from her eyes, well framed by the familiar filigree tracings on her skin. She looked, as a more objective observer might, at the curved and kind line of her full lips. She came to a conclusion that astounded her. She was still an attractive woman. Perhaps she should have more self-confidence after all. For too long she'd dismissed herself as menopausal, a bit on the heavy side, tall and sprouting unruly grey hair. But seeing her picture she had to admit that she was much more than that. She thought of the Burns poem that her Scottish granny used to recite long ago:
"'O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!'"
As is the custom at any event these days, a range of selfies were taken that evening in June. Jo and most of her twenty colleagues were at the 'King Charles' to say bon voyage to Zeb. He was a twenty five year old man who had broken at least two hearts since he'd been on placement with their social work team. The recipients of his attention, John and then Gavin, bore their disappointments with stoicism and now Zeb was about return to his native Canada and his boyfriend in the Mounties. Zeb was popular with everyone and he merited a good send off.
After a couple of hours in the pub, everyone was well lubricated and good natured. Food was called for and they relocated en masse to the 'The Chorister's Rest' to bestir the familiars of that place and eat the well tested French cuisine, the mainstay of the evening menu. Jo found herself sitting at the end of the long table, next to George. He was a quiet man, more of a listener than a talker. When he'd first joined the team five or six years ago Jo had been mildly curious about him, but she'd been preoccupied by her own domestic changes at the time. Although they worked well together when they undertook joint casework, they were still relative strangers. Jo had a notion that he had a family, liked gardening and had some sort of interest in writing short stories, but that was about it.
After the food orders were taken, and wine was on the table, George turned towards Steve who had started to regale him with amusing tales of his life on the barge. Steve always became loquacious under the influence. The house move onto the canal was still fresh for him, but Anna was already less than thrilled by the lack of privacy, and by the intrusion of drunken singing most Saturday nights as young male revellers made their way home along the banks at four in the morning.
Jo, slightly sozzled, waited for their food to be served, and was surprised to find the physical proximity of George very pleasant. He carried his considerable height well, and even sitting down he had to bend his head to remain within earshot of his neighbours' bons mots. To see his bonny white curls incline in this way, and to smell the musky-mellow strains of sandalwood that were probably left on his skin from his soap or shower gel, lifted her spirits. She noted for the first time that she could recall, that his eyes were a delicious hazel colour and his lashes were enviably long and dark. She amused herself by wondering what George thought of her. Maybe he would write a story about her life? If he did how would it end?
"Sorry George, I didn't catch that. I was miles away," said Jo.
"I was just asking you, do you know anything about Leeds University? I had an idea that one of your kids went there, or did I get it wrong?"
"That's right," said Jo. "It was my son, Ollie, he had a good time there, socially and academically, although that was a few years back. He read History. Why do you ask?"
"It's Graine, she's my youngest. She's thinking of applying there to do English. I said that I'd ask around. It's nice that she's talking to me about it, after so long."
"I don't follow, isn't that what you'd expect her to do?"
"Jo, I don't usually broadcast this but my two live in the States with their mother. They've been there for twelve years now. I'm very much a long distance dad, and not a very good one at that. You see, I can't stand flying so I can count the times that I've seen them on one hand; that is since Vicki, my ex, went back to Carolina."
"Shit, George, I had no idea. I'm so sorry."
Jo's eyes filled as she thought of Ollie, and his sisters Meg and Kate. Whatever had gone wrong in her life, and plenty had, she'd always been there for her children, and she'd seen them move through each stage of their adult lives to date too. She'd thought of that as normal, George would see that as a blessing.
"So Graine might come back to England for her studies?" Jo said when she'd recovered herself.
"Yes, and if she does I'm going to have to be so careful. She's not the six year old that went away all those years back, and I mustn't smother her, or try to make up for lost time in some cack handed way," said George.
"You're right. But I'm sure that she will want to get to know you properly now, or else why would she come to the UK?"
"You know, Jo, I've never felt this lonely if I'm honest. When they left the country I think I went into a place in my head and kept my distance from anyone who wanted to be a friend. I would not admit that I needed anyone else. Self-protection I guess. Does that make any sense?"
"I think so. Go on."
"Well, I learnt to be self-sufficient out of necessity and my writing kept me going. But now, it's like I'm back in the real world again. I need a friend, someone I can be honest with. I need to check things out with someone else, I don't trust my own judgement. If and when Graine comes, I must get it right."
"Take it easy, George, one step at a time. Too much navel gazing won't help."
"And there's another thing. If Graine comes I'm sure that Sean, my son, will visit her. He's with a law firm lawyer in Chicago now, and I know they're close. I'm over the moon, but I'm scared."
"It'll turn out fine, George. You're a good man, and sooner or later they'll see that."
Her words felt inadequate and stilted, but she struggled to do any better.
The waiters came across the room with the starters, and Jo swallowed hard, before attacking her Moules Marinière. After a couple of mouthfuls she put down her cutlery and took hold of George's hand,
"Are you busy this weekend, George?"
"Jo, it's a rare weekend that sees me spoken for. Weekends seem to go on for ever. What had you in mind?"
"Nothing much. But you see, mine are a bit fallow too."
"I find that hard to believe, a lively woman like you, I'll bet you never stop."
"Well you'd be wrong. In the week, yes. Weekends, nope."
"Jo, thanks for the invitation. It'd be great to get together. How about we take a picnic to the Forest of Dean? There's some great wood carvings to see, and lovely woodland walks."
"Fab, I'll dig out my walking boots."
"Just one thing Jo, you're not doing this because you feel sorry for me are you? And if I go on too much about my kids, please tell me to shut up."
"Are you trying to put me off, George? No? Well shut the fuck up."
The night of Zeb's leaving do must have been well starred. Gavin and John embarked on a fine and lusty romance, Anna and Steve remembered why they loved each other and Jo and George started to paddle in the warm shallows of friendship.
After a couple of months it became apparent to Jo and to George that their affair, as it had become, was not a flash in the pan. It was hallmarked by weekend escapades that were planned with meticulous care for maximum enjoyment. In the evenings that followed their exploits their initial love making was tentative; they resembled their teenaged selves as they spent languorous hours in delightful exploration. The greedy tension that built between them was finally taken to the next level after a Friday night viewing of 'Withnail and I' at the local community cinema, held in a school gym. The seats were uncomfortable but the experience was perfect; numb bums didn't spoil the whimsical delight of the surreal film. They came out at 9pm and as they debated whether to go for a drink, George seized the initiative,
"Jo, it's time that you came over to mine. I know your place is convenient, it's so near town, but it's weird that you've not seen where I live. Could I tempt you to a taxi ride, and a bottle of vintage cava that I just happen to have chilling in the fridge? And, I have some very good olives that you might enjoy, Kalamata and Cerignola varietals."
Jo replied by way of pulling him towards her and planting an assertive kiss on his lips. As they'd spent more time together she'd started to feel edgy about never having been to his home. Only last week Anna had asked her what she'd thought of George's garden (which he talked about a great deal at work). Jo had had to admit that she'd never seen it. Anna clearly thought this was odd but she tried to be sensitive to her friend's feelings and changed the subject with speed. This had added to Jo's abashment.
"Would you like to collect some things from yours, so that you can stay over?" said George.
"Good thinking, but let's get a shift on, that sky looks heavy."
Half an hour later George opened his front door. Jo did that female thing as she checked out where she'd landed with the apparent insouciance of a migrant bird that needs to establish its bearings whilst being un-phased by new surroundings. She smelt the traces of roasted coffee beans and rosemary oil. Within ten minutes she'd appraised his eclectic tastes in books, pictures and music, and she'd seen that he took care of his house plants. She'd ascertained that he was not OCD about tidiness, but not a man-slut either. She saw photographs of two young people, whom she took to be Sean and Graine, hung with care on the chimney breast over the multi-fuel stove. Then she saw the gentleness with which he tickled the cat that welcomed him home, and his practiced attention to its need for food and water.
Jo and George enjoyed the cava and olives on the two seater sofa, in front of the fire that soon blazed in the stove. They discussed the film, and their delight in the shameless and dissolute nature of the main protagonists. Then they moved on to the subsequent career of Richard E. Grant, an actor they both admired. As the wine softened their sense of separateness, late night glances built between them and bewitched the air. They abandoned their residual shyness in touches, demands and gifts choreographed by desire. They failed to notice if the earth moved, rapt as they were by the pleasure that assaulted their senses. As the midnight rain pelted on the French windows, they staggered up to bed and slept for many hours, before awakening to remind themselves of their joy through the repetition of the moves that had delivered it to them.
One Sunday in late November, Jo and George decided to walk off a fine lunch of Welsh salt lamb and all the trimmings. They headed out along the canal to follow Jo's time honoured circular route. George took Jo's hand in his, as was customary between them now.
"You know Jo," said George, "I wanted to get to know you better when I first got the job with your team. But I soon decided that you were way out of my league, and back then I had nothing to offer anyone else anyway. I am so grateful that you had the guts to break the ice last June at Zeb's leaving do."
"I think you have the Chardonnay, then the Muscadet to thank for that, my lover."
"Your Bristol accent is not as good as your cooking, I'm afraid," said George with an exaggerated wince. Jo stuck her tongue out in reply and they chased each other like school children. A few minutes later they passed a cyclist riding in the opposite direction, they curbed their exuberance in order to let her pass on the tow path. Then, flushed pink and breathless, they linked arms and fell into step with each other again.
"We'll pass Annie and Steve's narrowboat any minute," said Jo. "I'm so pleased they're back on dry land for the winter, especially with the baby due in February. They're lucky that Gavin wanted to rent his place out."
"Jo, I've been meaning to say. I had a letter from Graine yesterday. She's got her place at Leeds for next year.
"That's great. I'm so pleased."
"Me too," said George, "and there's something else. She's asked to spend Christmas with me. Sean as well."
"God, that's a turn up for the books. You didn't see that one coming did you?" said Jo.
"Not at all. I know that you said I could come to you, and meet your kids. But we might need to rethink? Your lot might find it too much in one fell swoop, to meet me and my kids. My kids, that I have to get to know all over again. And ditto I need to be able to give Graine and Sean my full attention. No question. But Jo, I don't want this to come between us, I don't want to lose you."
Jo's first instinct was to do a hard of sell of her idea of a grand family Christmas, but her affection for George prevailed. Deferred gratification was called for without doubt. There was no other way.
"George, we'll take this one step at a time, let everything unfold. We don't need to rush because we've mapped our direction of travel: towards a life that may, one day, be shared. So we have to get it right with the children, it's the only way."
George was unable to speak as his gratitude for Jo's understanding overwhelmed him. In silence they embraced, unified in a heartfelt commitment to each other.
That night Jo had a dream, rich in déjà vu, peppered by hope and anxiety in equal measure. She and George walked by the canal. They rounded a bend in the manmade waterway, mounted a short flight of steps and crossed a small bridge that led onto a cycle path. This path twisted back on itself before it dropped down to follow the open river. A flotilla of swans glided downstream impervious to the gloomy weather, and as the winter sun set an ochre haze tinged the foggy sky to the west. Jo turned to George by her side and said:
"We'll remember this for the rest of our lives. Won't we, won't we, won't we?"
Her voice drifted into the future and the past echoed back.