Stephen, not surprisingly, is awake.
"You all right?" he asks me.
I can't look at him. A couple of hours ago his hands were all over me, and I wanted them there, too, but now I don't want him in the bed, in the room, in Leeds.
"Bit restless." I get out of bed and start to get dressed. "I'm going out for a walk."
It's my hotel room, so I take the keycard with me, but even as I'm putting it in my bag I realize I'm not coming back. I want to be at home, rowing and crying and feeling guilty about the mess we're about to make of our children's lives. The Health Authority is paying for the room. Stephen will have to take care of the minibar, though.
I drive for a couple of hours and then stop at a service station for a cup of tea and a doughnut. If this was a film, something would happen on the drive home, something that illustrated and illuminated the significance of the journey. I'd meet someone, or decide to become a different person, or get involved in a crime and maybe be abducted by the criminal, a nineteen-year-old with a drug habit and limited education who turns out to be both more intelligent and, indeed, more caring than me--ironically, seeing as I'm a doctor and he's an armed robber. And he'd learn something, although God knows what, from me and I'd learn something from him and then we'd continue alone on our journeys through life, subtly but profoundly modified by our brief time together. But this isn't a film, as I've said before, so I eat my doughnut, drink my tea, and get back in the car. (Why do I keep going on about films? I've only been to the cinema twice in the last couple of years, and both of the films I saw starred animated insects. For all I know, most adult films currently on general release are about women who drive uneventfully from Leeds to North London, stopping for tea and doughnuts on the M1.) The journey only takes me three hours, including doughnuts. I'm home by six, home to a sleeping house which, I now notice, is beginning to give off a sour smell of defeat.
No one wakes up until quarter to eight, so I doze on the sofa. I'm happy to be back in the house, despite mobile phone calls and lovers; I'm happy to feel the warmth of my oblivious children seeping down through the creaking floorboards. I don't want to go to the marital bed, not tonight, or this morning, or whatever it is now--not because of Stephen, but because I have not yet decided whether I'll ever sleep with David again. What would be the point? But then, what is the point anyway, divorce or no divorce? It's so strange, all that---I've had countless conversations with or about people who are "sleeping in separate bedrooms," as if sleeping in the same bed is all there is to staying married, but however bad things get, sharing a bed has never been problematic; it's the rest of life that horrifies. There have been times recently, since the beginning of our troubles, when the sight of David awake, active, conscious, walking and talking has made me want to retch, so acute is my loathing of him; at night, though, it's a different story. We still make love, in a halfhearted, functional way, but it's not the sex: it's more that we've worked out sleeping in the last twenty odd years, and how to do it together. I've developed contours for his elbows and knees and bum, and nobody else quite fits into me in quite the same way, especially not Stephen, who despite being leaner and taller and all sorts of things that you think might recommend him to a woman looking for a bed partner, seems to have all sorts of body parts in all the wrong places; there were times last night when I began to wonder gloomily whether David is the only person in the world with whom I will ever be comfortable, whether the reason our marriage and maybe countless marriages have survived thus far is that there is some perfect weight/height differential that no one has ever researched properly, and if one or other partner is a fraction of a millimeter wrong either way then the relationship will never take. And it's not just that, either. When David's asleep, I can turn him back into the person I still love: I can impose my idea of what David should be, used to be, onto his sleeping form, and the seven hours I spend with that David just about gets me through the next day with the other David.
Reprinted from How to be Good by Nick Hornby by permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright 2001 by Nick Hornby. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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