Herewith a lovely story by Ian Colford, a Canadian short story writer who happens to be a librarian at Dalhousie University next door to the University of King’s College in Halifax where my son Jacob goes to school. Ian is the author of a short story collection, Evidence, published in 2008 and shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed, Raddall Atlantic Fiction, and ReLit awards. This is the first new piece of fiction on NC in the New Year, an auspicious beginning. Enjoy.
by Ian Colford
I hadn’t seen her since last winter. But I had heard the rumours. So I was not surprised that Laurianne looked tired, maybe even ill. The change was dramatic. After our drinks came I asked why it had taken her so long to return my calls. She explained that she had become involved with someone.
She met Peter Raffin at the home of her best friend Megan. Peter was manager of the large speciality bookstore where Megan worked, and Megan had invited Laurianne for dinner along with a group of her co-workers, ten guests in all. Megan introduced Laurianne and Peter to each other and then left them alone. Peter began flirting with her immediately. He said she had beautiful skin, hair, and lips. It was a warm evening in midsummer. She’d worn a flimsy halter top with spaghetti straps and she enjoyed feeling that his eyes were roaming over her body. He was a year or two older than her. Laurianne guessed he was thirty.
The small room was crowded and after only a few minutes he had manoeuvred her into a corner. Nobody seemed to notice them. They discussed things that didn’t matter but couldn’t take their eyes off one another. Laurianne noticed his hands and imagined them on her skin, and as if he’d read her mind he lifted one hand and gently caressed her shoulder, then let his fingers linger on her upper arm. When Megan announced that she was serving dinner Peter gave Laurianne an earnest look and whispered that they didn’t have to stay, that he would take her to a restaurant. In response she crept by him and found a place at the table between two women.
The food was marvellous and the conversation lively and absorbing, but Laurianne could not concentrate. Her attention drifted and she fell silent, conscious of Peter at the other end of the table. Though undeniably intelligent and witty, the two women bored her. For some reason tonight Megan’s jokes seemed mean-spirited, her laughter uncouth. But the worst of it was seeing how much Peter enjoyed talking with the attractive young woman on his right and the bearded man on his left. He smiled and laughed and not once did he glance her way. Laurianne knew he was married. How obvious it was: in his upright posture, in the way he held his wineglass not by the stem, but cradled in his hand by the bowl, in the way his eyes flitted cautiously toward the young woman’s breasts and stayed there, held rapt by the deep shadow of her cleavage. She wondered where his wife could be on a night such as this, and then, with faint horror, studied the women seated around the table. But no, he had cornered her, pointedly ignored all the other guests for her sake. And when she recalled that everyone here was either a friend of Megan’s or a co-worker, she breathed easier knowing his wife was not present.
After dinner there was time for more drinks and conversation. Laurianne toyed with the idea of leaving early, before anything could happen, but instead found herself mapping a path through the room so she could get to the spot closest to Peter before anyone else. As it turned out, the girl who had sat next to him at dinner was married to the man with the beard. When Peter settled into the sofa Laurianne curled up on the floor at his feet. Again there was laughter and conversation, but Laurianne was distracted by Peter’s hand, which tentatively explored her neck and back, alternately massaging and caressing. She shifted closer to him, pressed her breast against his leg, and they remained like this through drinks and coffee.
It was after midnight when the party broke up. As she stood in the doorway saying goodbye to Megan a breathless panic swept over her because she couldn’t see Peter. Then, emerging from the hallway where the bathroom was, he caught her eye. A tacit understanding passed between them. She would wait for him outside.
It happened just as she’d always dreamed it might. He offered her a drive and she said yes. But instead of taking her home he drove to the beach. A warm breeze drifted inland off the water. It was silent except for the lapping of the surf. She left her shoes in the car and when they set out on their walk they joined hands.
“What’s going to happen?” she asked when they’d gone a few moments without speaking.
“What do you want to happen?”
“No. It’s not going to be up to me.”
“I can’t believe I just met you tonight. You seem so familiar.”
They kissed, and it was laden with all the passion missing from her other relationships.
They made love on the beach with the stars overhead. Peter did not insist and only began removing his clothes when Laurianne was naked. Before stripping, he asked if she was sure she wanted to do this. As she held him in her hand before guiding him into her, he asked again. They had no condoms, but she didn’t care, and in answer she tightened her grip and then gasped when he thrust himself inside. Instantly she felt a rush of elation and emitted a giggle. With the vigour of their movements she was afraid it would be over too quickly, but he thrust again and again until she thought her insides would melt. When she came, the release caught her so by surprise that she cried aloud. Within seconds Peter came too, and after a moment spent catching their breath and gazing into each other’s eyes, they dressed quickly and left the beach in case anyone, hearing her cry out, had called the police.
She had never done such a thing in her life. After he drove her home she showered, but couldn’t sleep, her heart was beating so. It was true, then, what she’d been told as a girl, about how love transformed you and altered the way you perceive the world. She wept with gratitude, for she had her health and her youth, and now she had Peter. He had promised to pick her up after work the next day and take her out to dinner. The next morning she phoned Megan from her office.
“Yes, of course he’s married,” Megan said. “What made you think he wasn’t?”
“He wasn’t wearing a ring. And he came on to me.”
“Oh, that’s just Peter. He’s friendly with everyone.”
“Not this friendly I hope.” Before she knew it was going to happen, tears were streaming down her face.
“Oh, god. You didn’t do anything, did you?”
“He’s taking me out to dinner tonight.”
Megan’s voice fell to just above a whisper. “Jesus, Laurianne! He’s as married as they come. They have two kids. What the hell were you thinking?”
“It wasn’t my fault!”
She slammed down the phone and glanced around the office. She was a receptionist for an insurance adjustor. The office occupied several adjoining rooms on the mezzanine floor of a shopping mall full of discount stores. This morning her boss was out on a call. His assistant had left to get coffee. When the phone rang she snapped it up.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t judge you.”
Laurianne sighed. “What should I do?”
But she knew that Megan could tell her nothing about how to proceed, and the conversation became desultory, skirting topic after topic until the assistant returned and Laurianne had to hang up.
That night after dinner Peter took her to an apartment where they made love again. She gazed at him with heartsick longing even when his attention was focused entirely on her, waiting for him to say the words, thinking she would die when he told her he loved her but couldn’t see her any more because he was married. But again there was no mention of a wife or children, no mention of family obligations that would take him away from her for extended periods. No mention of guilt or transgression. He was not wearing a ring. She didn’t ask.
They met a few times a week for dinner and sex. He seemed to have unlimited time to spend with her, for which she was grateful. But what was he telling his family? How could he possibly justify these frequent and lengthy absences? When her mother visited and she had to miss an evening with him, she grew weak, as if with hunger, as the hours of their separation dragged by. But Peter did not miss a single tryst. He was always on time and always happy to see her. She never had to listen to him make excuses.
One night, as they lay together sweaty and sated after an hour of strenuous lovemaking, he said, “I know about a position that’s opening up. I want you to consider applying for it.”
She had told him she had no practical skills and was unhappy with her job, but had not dwelled upon this for fear it would contaminate their time together. She did not want him regarding her as someone who needed help.
“What sort of position is it?”
He touched her face lightly and stroked her beneath the blankets. “It’s a receptionist job with my dad’s law firm. They need someone presentable and intelligent. You’d be perfect.”
“Peter, I don’t want you doing me favours—”
“You’re not happy where you are. And, anyway, I can’t guarantee anything. My influence ends at the front door of that place. I only know about it because the woman who’s leaving has been there forever.”
Without warning she started to cry. He wiped away her tears.
“Promise me you’ll apply. That’s all I ask.”
She got the job. It paid three times her previous salary and provided benefits she hadn’t dreamed existed. The affair continued much as it had before. A few times a week she met Peter for dinner. On those few nights when they did not have sex it was because one or the other of them was exhausted from their previous exertions. Peter had access to three apartments, all located in different parts of the city, and though she never asked who owned them, two were plainly the living quarters of single men while the other, her favourite—on the top floor of the Prince Regal Hotel—was always waiting for her with fresh sheets, scented soaps, and an air of harmless anonymity. She had moved into a new apartment that was roomier than her old one, and to vary their routine she invited Peter here. She had hoped, when she started working at Peter’s father’s law firm, to learn more about his family, but Peter never set foot in the place and his father, a tall distinguished-looking man with soft silver hair and a sinewy voice that reminded her of a bass clarinet, never acknowledged her existence.
Late in September the executive assistant who worked with the partners approached Laurianne and told her that Mr. Raffin wanted to speak with her. Her first thought was that he had discovered the affair and was going to fire her. As she followed the woman into the inner offices—a sanctum that had never before opened its doors to her—she grew light-headed with a kind of childish dread. When it came to her that her transgressions were to be laid before her in all their sordid and grimy detail, and that she would be powerless to do anything but acknowledge them, she felt the heat of indignation rise to her face. Who was this man to judge her? She and Peter were adults. By some standards their actions might be reprehensible, but they were still no business of Peter’s father.
It was a huge office, lush with upholstered antique furniture and intricately patterned wallpaper. Her feet sank into the thick pile of a Turkish carpet of a luxurious burgundy hue. Breathless, she was struck by a ludicrous desire to remove her shoes. Her escort was suddenly gone. She heard Peter’s father addressing her from what seemed a great distance away.
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I—”
“You’ve never been in here before,” he said, his sumptuous voice surrounding her. “Funny thing. The grand tour never seems to get this far.”
He came out from behind the desk. Unsure how to respond to him, Laurianne didn’t move.
“I’m Montgomery Raffin.”
He was standing before her with his hand extended. She took it.
“I did get this right, didn’t I? You are Laurianne?”
“Come over here and have a seat. My son Peter tells me you’re a friend of his.”
She followed him and sat in the middle of three soft black leather chairs. Behind the desk a range of high windows afforded an unobstructed view of the city. She could see the harbour; the suburban hills beyond.
“We know each other. Yes.”
“Now, you see, I didn’t even know that. Were you in school together? College?”
“My best friend works in his bookstore. She introduced us.”
He leaned back in his swivel chair and linked his hands behind his head.
“Oh, I see. So you haven’t known him for all that long then.”
“A few months.”
“But it feels like we’ve known each other a lot longer.”
As he stared at her across the desk she bit her lip and willed herself to keep her mouth shut. Becoming conscious of her hands lying idle, she tried to reposition them less gracelessly in her lap. All at once despair swept over her. She held her breath in order not to cry.
“Look, Laurianne, I don’t mean to keep you. There’s this party we’re having at the house. The whole family will be there, and all kinds of friends and neighbours. We do this every year. I asked Peter if there was anyone he wanted to invite and he mentioned you. And I was…well, it floored me to think a friend of his worked here and I didn’t even know who it was.”
She tried to think of an excuse, any reason not to go.
“Well, do you think you’re interested?” He paused. “Or maybe I’ll leave it with you. You can decide later.”
She smiled. “I’d love to come.”
“Well, good. I’ll get Peter to phone you with the details. And look, I’m sorry if I made you nervous, calling you in here like this.” He laughed. “You probably thought I was going to fire you.”
She met his eyes and laughed. He reminded her of someone she had cared about when she was very young, an elderly neighbour when she was growing up. Despite the office, his manner was unpretentious, disarmingly casual, almost intimate. Once she’d gotten over her fear of disclosure and reprimand he made her feel she belonged in that room, sitting across from a man who made at least a million dollars a year in a chair that probably cost more than her annual salary.
She was unsure about the party. For many days she remained torn between curiosity and apprehension. Her fretting amused Peter, and in the end she allowed him to dispel her doubts.
“It’ll be fine,” he said.
She wanted so to please him.
She and Megan arrived at the same time as some other guests. A sign on the front lawn directed everyone around to the back. The house was huge, and the back yard, enclosed by a stone wall, covered half an acre of manicured lawn and woodland. There was a pool. Uniformed waiters and waitresses roamed the space with trays of drinks and warm hors d’oeuvres. Already more than a hundred people of all ages were there, entire families it seemed: old women, middle-aged men, children, babies.
She had chosen a demure outfit, tan slacks and matching sweater. The sky was hazy; soon it would rain. Immediately Megan spotted someone else from the bookstore, leaving Laurianne on her own and wondering why she’d agreed to come. She accepted a glass of white wine from a waiter and strolled back and forth beside the pool. The still water calmed her. Because Megan would have disapproved of an affair with a married man she had let on that nothing further had happened between her and Peter, but this meant she had no one to discuss it with. She was certain that Peter regarded it as nothing more than a dalliance, and this seemed to lessen both its importance and the likelihood that anyone would notice or care. That she was in love with him was beside the point. She was happy, and true happiness was something that many people searched for their entire lives without success.
She looked around for Peter. Eventually a young man in a grey suit with a narrow face approached her and asked if she was a relative or a friend of the family.
“I’m a friend of Peter’s.”
“Sam Newlyn,” he said as he held out his hand. “We live over there.” He indicated the house on the other side of the stone wall, beyond a grove of maples. Standing on her toes, she could just glimpse the highest peak of the roof. He seemed to sense she was uncomfortable and, casting around for a topic of conversation, settled on real estate prices. “The market’s gone over the top. We could get two million for our place. And it’s only going to go higher. It’s insane.”
She nodded. He seemed pleasant enough, in a bland business-executive way. But she wished Peter would appear by her side and ferry her off to one of their sanctuaries.
Behind Sam’s back a woman approached through the crowd. She wore a plain navy-blue sleeveless dress that clung to her slender body, accentuating its curves, and her straight blonde hair swayed and shimmered as she moved. She placed a hand on Sam’s shoulder, revealing a ring with a diamond the size of a kernel of corn.
“Sammy! So nice of you to come!”
Laurianne took a step back as they lightly embraced. It couldn’t be, she thought. She had imagined an ungainly overweight harridan. This woman was graceful, dignified, stunning.
“You know Peter’s friend Laurianne.”
“No, I don’t think I do.”
“We haven’t met,” Laurianne said, clutching her wine glass with both hands.
“I just thought,” Sam said, his eyes darting from one to the other, “since you know Peter.”
“Through the bookstore,” Laurianne added quickly.
“Ah yes. The bookstore.” Iris raised her glass. “Here’s to the bookstore.”
Laurianne took a sip of wine. Sam seemed embarrassed.
“I don’t mean to cast aspersions,” Iris said. Then she laughed. “Well, maybe I do.”
“Excuse me,” Sam said, and slipped away. Iris watched him go.
“Aren’t men cowards?” she asked, shaking her head. She turned to Laurianne. “And what do you do at the bookstore?”
“Actually, I don’t work there. But I know someone who does.”
Iris assessed her. “So you’re a friend of a friend.”
Laurianne felt the blood rush to her face. “I guess.”
“So how on earth did you rate an invitation?” Again she shook her head. “I tell everyone this is an exclusive gathering, and here we have people wandering in off the street.”
“Peter’s father asked me.”
“I beg your pardon.”
Laurianne looked toward the house, away from Iris’s cool gaze. “Mr. Raffin asked me. I work in his office.”
Iris stared at her. When she smiled, her eyes lit up. “He likes you that much, does he?”
“You must be pretty special. I don’t see any of the other junior associates here. Do you?”
Laurianne decided not to correct her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just wanted to have a good time.”
“And I’m not helping with that, am I? Oh dear. Well, don’t mind me.” Iris turned sideways to Laurianne and, observing the festivities with a narrow glance, brought her drink to her lips. “If nothing else the Raffins know how to put on a spread. My advice to you is to make yourself at home and eat and drink whatever you can lay your hands on.”
“Is there a bathroom in there that anyone can use?”
“Up the stairs, down the hall to your left.”
“You’ll have to excuse me.”
Laurianne hurried through the crowd. Where was Peter? He must have known by now that she was here. She glanced longingly from side to side, then remembered that Iris was probably watching her. She couldn’t be seen looking for him. On the other hand, what was the point in hiding it? Iris knew. She had to know. Why else would she behave so horribly to someone she’d never met before?
Laurianne tried to follow the directions Iris had given her, but nothing made sense and each room she burst into was full of people looking smug and comfortable in one another’s company. None of them was familiar. In the kitchen she left her wine glass on the counter. Finally she found the stairs. On the second floor landing she started down one hallway, turned back and tried another. She heard voices that could have been coming from outside or downstairs. At the end of the hall was a corner and an archway, and through here she encountered another set of stairs leading up to a landing illuminated by an octagonal stained-glass window. She heard steps. And before she could turn and escape, Montgomery Raffin emerged from around the bend in the stairs. He was wearing khaki trousers and a plain beige sweater.
Ever since the meeting in his office he had behaved kindly toward her, always greeting her when he passed by her desk, sometimes stopping to talk. Far from intimidating her with his regal, white-haired presence, he had the power to put her at ease. There was always a part of her listening for his voice. She felt protected and took comfort from the belief that someone was watching out for her.
And so now, when she felt defeated by a situation she would have been wise to avoid, he appeared to her as something of a saviour.
“Hey, Laurianne,” he said. As he approached he must have noticed the look on her face. “Is everything okay?”
“Where’s Peter?” she cried, her voice rising as she lost control of it.
She was in his arms. His hand stroked her back as she wept.
“Hey, c’mon now. That’s no way to behave at a party. Peter had to go out. He’ll be back.”
She clung to him, mortified.
He didn’t say anything for a few moments, but continued to caress her back and then her hair. She felt his lips touch the top of her head.
When they parted she forced her eyes upward to meet his.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to.”
“No, of course not.”
She waited, and after a moment he kissed her.
She left the party without seeing Peter. Later he called to apologize, the first time he had ever had to do that, and asked her to dinner the next day. Montgomery Raffin took her to dinner the following night. A pattern developed which grew into ritual. With Peter the sex was violent, manic, exhausting; with his father it was unhurried and playful. They both gave her things, paid her bills. She knew they would not discuss her with each other, because they were not close. Their paths hardly ever crossed.
We ordered more drinks. I lit her cigarette and she thanked me. As she leaned toward the flame I saw the bouquet of tiny wrinkles blooming in the corners of her eyes. She had lost weight; her skin seemed loose on her. When I asked if she was getting enough sleep she smiled.
“Who needs sleep?” she said. She tilted her head and eyed me with amusement. Apparently the question struck her as absurd.
I decided there was nothing I could tell her that she didn’t already know.