I grabbed the ringing telephone without answering it, settling myself back on the bed. I knew who was calling. I let him stew until just before the answer phone cut in.
“Hello. Exactly eleven,” I said, trying to keep my tone cool. “Yes, you are punctual. I still don’t understand why you couldn’t tell me what all this was about when you were here.” He’d rushed away soon after an early meal and I was still smarting from his departure. It was difficult for him to make time to see me and I prided myself that I was never too demanding, but today’s encounter had almost figured in the ‘wham, bam’ category and I resented it.
“No, of course I’m not sitting here swilling wine.” I didn’t say I’d just drunk a mug of cocoa. It would have sounded too banal and middle-aged.
“I’m on my own, remember? I’m ready for bed.”
Actually, it had been a rare treat to have an evening to myself and I might have enjoyed it if I hadn’t been so cross with William. I’d put friends off and left all work behind at the office for a change. A soak in the bath, followed by a dull film, a much-loved book, plus the cocoa, and I was relaxed, ready for sleep.
William’s request that I abandon my warm bed to arm myself with something alcoholic didn’t enthral me.
“Look, this is not some kinky way of getting phone sex, is it? Because I’m not … OK. OK. I’m getting up, I’m going to the kitchen.
“Yes, there is still half a bottle of white wine left. You put it in the fridge if you remember, but I’m not really in the mood … All right. I will. Keep calm. Grief, if you wanted me to have another glass of wine, all you had to do was pour it for me while you were here. I still don’t understand why you had to rush away so early this evening. It sounded like an excuse to me.”
Damn. I hadn’t meant to say that, planned to be cool, holding him at arm’s length for a change. After all, he needed me if he was going to progress in his career. He depended on me as a source of information. I’d put my job in the Cabinet Office at risk more than once for William.
“I’ve got the wine,” I said, “But I’m taking the bottle and the glass back to bed with me. The heating’s gone off and it’s chilly.
“Right. I’m here. Now, what’s all this about?
“Yes, I’m pouring myself a large glass now. Can’t you hear it? There, one glass of wine. A nightcap, as requested.”
I leaned back against the heap of pillows and shivered a little. The bottle was cold, wet, condensation filming the sides. The wine smelled sour to me now and I didn’t want it. I thought of pretending to drink it. William would never know. I could pour the liquid down the sink. I don’t know why I didn’t. Perhaps it was the excitement in his voice, rather than his words, but I I decided to go along with his whim.
“A toast? Come on. What’s the special occasion? Cheers.”
The sour smell must have been in my imagination. I had to hand it to him: he could be relied upon to choose delicious wine. I took another mouthful and swilled the mellow fluid around my tongue, savouring it.
“You really are weird tonight, William, you know that? What have you done with your wife, anyway? She’s upstairs … So it is kinky phone sex after all. I knew it.
“Fine. That’s not what this is about. I believe you. So what’s this brilliant piece of news you couldn’t tell me while you were here?
“You’ve only just heard. Oh, that’s why you had to leave so early.
“But that’s amazing.”
It was particularly amazing because I knew nothing about his new appointment and I felt a bit excluded, but I didn’t say so. Still, it was good that my efforts on William’s behalf hadn’t been in vain and I was very pleased for him. In a way, it was reassuring that nobody had mentioned his promotion to me. It meant that our relationship was still private even after six years. It’s difficult to keep secrets in the corridors of power. They’d be better named the corridors of scandal.
“Yes, a celebration. Cheers. Oh yes, a good swig of wine.” Was he trying to get me drunk by proxy? “It’s wonderful news and you really deserve it. I suppose you’re allowed to be a touch dramatic on this occasion.
“I am pouring another one, you impatient bastard. My alcohol consumption has gone up ten fold since I met you, do you know that?”
When I first met the Honourable William Marchbold, one glass of anything more than a spritzer had me throwing up in the loo. But from henceforth he was to be addressed as Right Honourable.
“Cheers and congratulations, my darling. I am so pleased for you. I know how much you’ve wanted this. And you’re so young. I thought Privy Councillors had to be ancient fuddy … What? They don’t have to be ancient, but they do have to be honourable?
“Why are you sorry? What are you trying to say?”
I drained my glass and poured out the last dregs from the bottle. I needed the drink now. My tongue felt thick, too large for my mouth and I found it difficult to speak. There was a lump in my throat too, but not because I wanted to cry. It was a scream that stuck there. How dare he think he could do this to me?
“This is your way of dumping me, is it? Over the phone? You hadn’t got the balls to tell me to my face, had you? You bastard. I’ve given up everything for you. I lied for you, cheated for you. You’d never have got so far if it weren’t for me. Rewind a few years to where you were nothing. Less than nothing.
“You used me as a stepping stone, something to crunch underfoot on your way up the political hill. Well, you won’t get away with it. My influence can work as well against you as for you. I’ll tell the press how I lied about the Minister. That it was you all the time. I’ll tell them I’ve come to my senses and realised that you were manipulating me for your own ends.”
How could I have been taken in by this prick? It wasn’t as if I were some naïve adolescent, fresh from the typing pool and ready to be conned. I should have known better. I’d seen pompous idiots like William Marchbold come and go. He was no better than any of the others, his brains floating about in his boxers. And I’d fallen for him. I really had. I’d believed all the talk about him leaving his wife. Yes, I know they all say that, but he sounded so sincere and our relationship was different. At least, I’d thought so. I’d been a mug all right.
I caught sight of my reflection in the dressing table mirror and flinched. Without make up, hair in sleepy disarray. Is this what William saw? How he must have laughed when I told him I loved him. The age difference between us had never seemed a problem, but in fact I was old enough to be his mother. He was still babbling in my ear, like some apologetic wasp.
“Yes, the wine was a good idea. Oh, yes, you’re so clever.
“What?” It took several seconds before the enormity of his words hit my brain.
“What was in the wine?”
My reflexes had slowed. The glass in my hand had a twin and the room began to whirl.
I slammed the phone down, picked it up again to dial for an ambulance. There was no dialling tone, only his voice on the other end.
“Get off the line,” I screamed. “Get off. Put the phone down. I can’t dial out while you’re on.”
But he knew that, didn’t he? He began the call. He had to finish it. That’s why he’d chosen to do it this way. I searched my handbag for my mobile and through a fog remembered that he’d taken it earlier, saying that he’d lost his and could he borrow mine for the evening.
“You bastard. You … How could you …
“I’ll write a note then. I’ll write it down. I’ll tell them. I will. I’ll tell everyone. All I need is a pen.”
My notebook appeared in my hand and I stared at it, wondering where it had come from and why it looked so blurred. The contents of the bedside table skittered to the floor as I reached for my pen and the lamp went out.
“I need a pen,” I said to the darkness.
“I need …”