This is how it started, a week ago. A Monday. It’s spring, early May, and three weeks after my 42nd birthday. I can remember some details as if written across my memory in fluorescent highlighters, as if I was on a consciousness-enhancing drug. Are there any? I don’t know. How would I? I’m just an ordinary guy with a wife, two young children, a house on Montague Road in Wimbledon that costs too much, a job I half like that pays too little, and doing the best I can to juggle - as a colleague used to say - enough balls in the air to stay happy. Stevie was blubbing about having to go to school. There is something on a Monday he doesn’t like. I haven’t bothered to find out what. Steph was watching Zing Zillas or Tinga Tinga. Their mother - that’s Katherine on good days, Catty on bad ones - had got up a while ago, kicking me in the process, and gone down to the kitchen to clean up last night’s dinner and prepare a couple of lunch boxes. It would be three if she could persuade me to take one too. She can’t. I could hear, on the bedroom radio, a cocky news presenter grilling a foreign diplomat about Egypt. I turned on the tap, and the water rush drowned out the other house sounds. I leaned over the basin, to splash my face, then mechanically looked to the side shelf to retrieve my toothbrush. It wasn’t there, not in either of the toothpaste/toothbrush tumblers, not lying on any of the surfaces, not fallen in the bath or on the floor. I stopped searching, turned off the tap, and looked in the mirror above the basin, at myself. And this, I believe, was the moment. I didn’t see myself, but another man, older, hairier, defunct - my father perhaps.
I walked to the bathroom door, and shouted down to Katherine.
‘Where’s my toothbrush?’
‘What?’ the perennial response to any question, whether I’m near or far, speaking soft or loud.
‘New one, blue one.’
I returned to stand in front of the basin and re-examine the amazing array of artefacts - oils, powders, creams, sprays, gels, toothpastes - on the side shelves. Now I could see, with the other toothbrushes, a new one, a blue one, light blue. I picked it up, gingerly, as if it might surprise me with a crackle, bang or pop. The stem was long and wavy, its width varying eloquently from very thin, to slightly bulbous, to very thin again near the head. It was patterned with a series of orange and darker blue flashes - an artistic celebration of slenderness and health. And the bristles, well if I were Keats I’d write an ode to them. Suffice it to say, I saw therein more sculptural zig-zags than in a whole room of abstract art at the Tate. I’d like to know how many people, right now, are sitting in an office or lab designing the shape of toothbrush heads. And who they are.
I tried it on for size, as it were, holding it this way and that, without us - it and me - feeling comfortable together. There seemed no doubt that it wanted to be looked at, not used. I did place a slug of toothpaste on the bristles and I did, this once, use it to clean my teeth. It was, I’m sure, a struggle for both of us. I cleaned the bristles in cold water, shook the drips off, and replaced it, bristles up, in the tumbler. Yet, all was not well. My father was still staring at me in the mirror.
So, the odd thing that happened, that led to all this - I mean me sitting down and writing a report on the last week - is that I took the blue toothbrush with me down to breakfast, and then I took it to work.
I was in the bedroom getting dressed, choosing socks if you must know. Not always an easy decision. Like ties, but different. Ties display a clear and obvious signal, to your wife perhaps, certainly to your colleagues, and your boss. I do worry about my tie etiquette, yet it never takes long to choose one. No, it’s the complex sub-textual messages given off by socks that require more thought, more care. Once the basic wool or cotton, warm or airy decision is made, I’m left pondering, pattern or no pattern, loud or not loud, bright or dour, and all the subtleties linked to such choices. This particular morning, I got stuck. Couldn’t make up my mind, and was cross with myself for the ridiculous indecision. As I hesitated, the new toothbrush came to mind; and picturing it led me, more or less instantly, to pick out a pair of striped blue socks. Problem solved.
A glance at the clock - the ever-present red-lit numbers regulating my early mornings and night-time stirrings - reminded me I was running a little late for my regular train, the 8:13. On the way downstairs, though, I passed by the bathroom to collect the blue toothbrush. I don’t know why. I didn’t deconstruct my motive or motives then, and I can’t do so now. When quizzed by Katherine for placing the toothbrush on the breakfast table, I improvised. ‘Have you noticed how beautifully designed this object is?’ Katherine hadn’t, nor did she then. She had her own rushed timetable, which involved ensuring the children were properly dressed/fed, and then transported to school/nursery. No time for oddities - like me.
I do still wear a tie, out of habit more than necessity, but I don’t carry a conventional briefcase any longer, unless I’ve a meeting with a client. Instead, I have a canvas satchel - coloured light khaki - with handle and longer strap. I can sling the bag over my shoulder when cycling to the station and tuck the strap inside when carrying it by the handle. Very convenient. With toast scoffed and coffee slurped, into this satchel I deftly slipped the toothbrush. No one saw the action, not even me.
I train into Waterloo, and walk 20 minutes to Great Peter Street, where our business - market research - takes up a a quarter of a storey of a converted medium-sized mansion block. I share my office with Wilby, a junior executive and my day-to-day assistant. There’s no ceremony between us, no missed piss-take opportunity, even though I’m his line manager. Very occasionally, when the tension ratchets up because of time or resource pressures, I’ve been known to blurt an unwarranted obscenity or two towards Wilby. He takes it on the chin, and before many minutes have passed, I mumble ‘sorry, mate’, and offer to buy him a drink after work.
When I pulled out the toothbrush, and positioned it on top of filing trays, Wilby smirked.
‘Thrown you out at last, has she, wise, wise woman!’ So unconscious of my actions with the toothbrush was I, that I had no idea what he was talking about.
‘What are you on about, and what would you know about wise women any way?’
By mid-morning, strong coffees on both our desks thanks to Wilby, the toothbrush had been hidden by fresh incoming memos, reports, papers. So why, when called in to see Hugo, my boss and part-owner of the business, did I take the damn thing (yes, for a few hours, it was a ‘damn thing’) with me? Notepad, pen and toothbrush in hand, I sat down in one of Hugo’s plush guest chairs, and waited for him to finish a call. He couldn’t see what was in my hand, because it was below the level of his desk, glass, but busy with piles of hefty reports.
‘New business, Roger, new business.’ He named a well-known bank - I’m going to call it Piggy, not its real name, with an HQ in the City, and told me it had commissioned an employee survey. Banks haven’t had a good press in the last few years, but we - by we I mean Hugo - love them, for they give us a lot of business. It was clear that I would be put in charge of the project, so, once all the preparatory negotiations were completed, I would be preparing a questionnaire to ask hundreds if not thousands of those working for the bank to find out what they thought on a variety of subjects.
‘Roger, what’s that in your hand?’
‘Oh, nothing. Notepad, pen.’
‘Don’t you want to take notes?’
‘And what’s that, Roger. It looks like a toothbrush.’ Hugo looked at me with a quizzical grin, and waited for me to say something cute, witty.
‘Here’s the preliminary brief we’ve agreed, and you’ll be at a meeting next week when we propose and hopefully finalise more specifics. Read. Digest. And be ready.’
‘Yes, sir.’ I took his cue, and saluted with the toothbrush. The bin, next to Hugo’s door, looked tempting, and the life of the blue toothbrush very nearly ended there. I can’t swear to it, but I think my arm started moving downwards as if to let go of the said damn thing there and then, only to round it upwards allowing me to give Hugo a backward good bye with a toothbrush shake across my shoulder.
Back in my own office, the toothbrush was not buried in the filing tray again, but found a top spot on my desk, not far from my mouse. And for the rest of the day, as I was writing up one report, making notes on the new bank brief, and doing other sundry jobs at the computer, I glanced often and repeatedly at the toothbrush. It served as a restful place for my eyes, and gave my brain a chance to refresh, to find the idea or word I needed to continue whatever I was doing. It felt like - I didn’t think about this until on the train home - the blue toothbrush was helping me compose my thoughts.
There was the usual chaos in my house when I got home, and I provided the usual practical help: bathing Steph and Stevie, and reading them stories, after the usual argument between them about which ones. Some days it can take 45 minutes before they’re both asleep, and until then they manage to find ways and means of pulling me back into their room. One last story. Where’s Penguin? One last kiss. Why do I have to go to school? And so on. Katherine cooked an unmemorable pasta dinner. I washed up. Television. Before bed, I used Katherine’s toothbrush, not because I didn’t want to go downstairs and retrieve Blue from my bag, but because to my mind it was no longer a toothbrush - hence why I’ve started to capitalise its name.
Tuesday morning, I didn’t get a seat on the train - it’s a 50-50 thing. I stood, one hand firmly on the rail, while the other retrieved Blue from my satchel and carefully placed it, brush end up, in the top pocket of my green-grey jacket. No one saw me do it, and no one noticed the anomaly in dress, until, that is, an attractive woman, mid-30s perhaps, my height, with large open brown eyes, short black hair, smiled at me. At me. I looked around, which only prompted her eyebrows to lift and her smile to widen. Then, she nodded, as if to Blue, to say, that’s cool, that’s funny, I understand. Or was it a nod of query, questioning my antics. I hate to confess I blushed. I cannot remember the last time a pretty woman came on to me. Not that she was coming on to me, of course - one’s psyche imagines without reference to reality - more likely she was considering why I wasn’t in a mental institution. I blushed, as I say, and feverishly thought about how I might move closer and start a conversation.
I’m not unhappy with Katherine, I’m not. Bored, maybe, not with her, but with us. How else to explain my readiness and willingness to answer a stranger’s call and, in the blink of an eyelid, be fantasising about a wild and exhilarating affair. Ready and willing in my dreams, perhaps, in practice all I could do was make secretive glances towards her, hoping against hope to have the courage to smile back. I didn’t. People ascended and descended, changing the nature of the crowd in the carriage. I lost sight of her; found her, then lost her again. As the train was pulling in to Waterloo, I glimpsed Blue in my top pocket, and resolved to push my way through the carriage in case the smiling woman was exiting through the carriage’s other doorway. She was, and I managed to brush shoulders with her.
‘Excuse me,’ I heard myself saying, ‘you have the most gorgeous smile, and, er, well I thought how pleasant it would be to see it over lunch.’ Did I say that? She looked right at me, into my own dull grey eyes. Interrogating. How did I have the confidence to hold her stare? Interrogating, quizzical, curious, and then the smile again.
‘OK.’ OK! What was I doing?
‘OK,’ I replied with that upbeat intonation used by quiz contestants when asked if they want to go on to the next level, to win a fortune. We exchanged a few brief words as to our work locations, and agreed on the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden. Did I have an hour free for lunch? I didn’t even know until I got into the office. Nor did I have her name, or telephone number.
‘Why is there a toothbrush sticking out of your pocket, OS-TEN-TATIOUSLY?’ If it’s not clear already, the last word was said with considerable emphasis. Tuesday morning staff meeting, six or seven of us, and me now at the centre of attention. Several amused faces, yet no one ready to laugh or treat the situation as a joke, at least until Hugo did. I noticed - and this did not help my situation - that none of my colleagues were wearing jackets. Why did I have mine on? The only answer that occurred to me was that I wanted to be showing Blue.
‘I was hoping you would ask.’ I said, hesitating. ‘It’s, er, an experiment.’ I pursed my lips, and sat very still.
‘E-LAB-OR-ATE.’ Hugo has lots of moods, this wasn’t one of my favourites.
‘I don’t think I can.’ At which point - all eyes still watching me closely - I removed the jacket and hung it over the corner of my chair, hiding Blue from any further attention.
‘Right.’ Hugo getting on with business. Blue was soon forgotten, though Hugo kept me behind after the meeting. I made a joke of the whole thing, saying it was a fad, and would soon be over. Hugo looked sceptical but gave me the benefit of the doubt, I think. I know I am an asset to the company, and it would take a lot to change that.
I arrived at the Lamb and Flag in good time, after a brisk walk, and fully expected to be stood up. But, brown eyes arrived a few minutes after me, and we stood together at the bar trying to order for several more minutes. Clutching our beers and cellophane-wrapped baguettes we stepped out into the alleyway to stand, awkwardly, by a wall.
‘That is a nice name, I’d like it. If I were a woman. Not so keen on Roger.’
‘No.’ We both propped our drinks on a ledge, and unwrapped our sandwiches, ham and pickle in hers, cheese and pickle in mine.
‘Shall we talk about it?’ This was Susannah.
‘What?’ I said, having not a clue to her meaning.
‘The toothbrush, of course.’
‘Oh, of course,’ and I glanced down to see Blue still sitting there in my top pocket. ‘No, let’s not.’ That was easily dealt with. ‘I want to know about you. What you do, where you live, who you live with . . . all that sort of thing. And, I’m warning you, it had all better be pretty interesting stuff.’ I’d never heard myself speak like this before, but she laughed, and when she laughed I felt on topper of the world than I’d felt for a very long time. Her carmen-painted lips were dancing.
‘OK, I’ll trade you. One interesting fact for one interesting fact, anything dull is immediately discounted. You can have the first question.’ She ruffled a hand across her dark hair. A gorgeous face shining with intrigue, play, curiosity, fun.
‘Who was your first love?’
‘Love or lover?’
And so it went for the next hour before I came to, and realised it was time to get back to the office. I wanted nothing more than to stay with Susannah, and told her so, at which point she dared me, jokingly, to phone in sick. My eyes dropped, suddenly shy, and saw the ring on my wedding finger.
‘Next time, then,’ she said. I looked up at her again, and found myself wondering if it could be arranged, an afternoon off - a sudden sickness, a dentist’s appointment . . . ‘I mean,’ she carried on, ‘you’ll tell me about the toothbrush.’
‘Friday, same time?’
There was rarely an hour went by over the next three days when Susannah didn’t infiltrate my thoughts in many different guises. I had discovered she worked as a personnel manager for a large construction company, lived with her partner, Oliver, in Clapham (four or five miles northeast of me), had no children (why not? to be pursued), spent most holidays travelling in small tours to exotic destinations, and hated bananas and all things yellow. Our hands had touched once or twice, most thrilling, and, daringly, Susannah had contrived to transform a cheek kiss to a brief touching of lips. Though I rubbed the red off my own lips as soon as I’d rounded a corner, I could not erase the sensation, which seemed to promise so very much. She found her way into my dreams also, dressed very skimpily. The shock was too great for my deprived sexual self, and I woke up in a start, expecting Katherine to have discovered me. She remained unconscious, and my own return to sleep was perturbed for a long time by realising how difficult it would be to bring such a dream to reality. In the evenings, watching television with Katherine, my thoughts would stray from a drama, perhaps about adultery, to recall my conversation with Susannah, or project forwards to what I might say the next time.
Blue kept a low profile, as though overshadowed by thoughts of Susannah. I may have left it on my desk one day, and another not transferred it to a different jacket. For whatever reason, no one overtly or discreetly, confronted me concerning it. And, to be honest, I forgot about it for a while, as though it had done a job - introducing me to Susannah - and was no longer needed.
Friday morning arrived, dull and cloudy. Catty was not exactly shouting at me but loudly finding fault in everything I did. To be fair I had forgotten I was supposed to be doing the kid stuff, dressing them, lunches and the school/nursery run so she could leave early for a distant meeting. I did this fairly regularly on Fridays, Katherine’s day off from work, allowing her to do other things, but rarely on any other day. I wasn’t happy about it this morning so had begun a low level whine: ‘God, I’ve got so much work to do’; ‘couldn’t you have arranged the meeting later in the day’; ‘I hate dressing the kids, where are their clothes?’; and so on. Catty, despite being so pressed getting herself ready, managed to notice - before she left - that I’d put Steph’s top on the wrong way round, that I’d put peanut butter in their sandwiches, when nut allergy plague dictated it was a no-no, and that I was leaving a trail of disorder where she always tidies as she goes. Yap, yap, yap. Steph helped. When Postman Pat had completed his special delivery, and I’d called her upstairs to dress, she clopped into our bedroom, heard what was going on, told me to stop being gruffy, and told Catty to stop using her big voice. Stevie couldn’t care less about disharmony, apparently, and had his head stuck into a comic. Katherine left soon after, but not before uttering a dozen reminders about this and that and this and that again. Nag, nag, nag.
Having dropped all children off in the right places and by the right times, I would normally have walked on to the station. But, in the chaos of child duties, I’d left Blue behind, and though I didn’t need it to revel in dreams about Susannah, I felt a sudden panic at the thought of my meeting her later in the day without it. So, I paced home, collected Blue, and rode my bike to the station.
‘I did say, in an email.’
‘Right. Why the fuck are you still wearing that toothbrush. Er, listen. I need your preliminary thoughts on paper by 2pm.’
‘You said Monday.’
‘Not Monday, today, 2pm latest.’ And he walked away. This was about the new, and potentially very lucrative job for Piggy. I hadn’t started to put anything together, and it was already nearly 10. I’d planned to leave at 12:15 so as not to be late for Susannah; and, and, and - confession time - for days I had been thinking about the possibility of phoning the office from the pub to say I wouldn’t be returning that afternoon.
But the day had started badly, and was getting worse. I stomped into my office, where Wilby was on the phone, swapping sick jokes with a friend. Under normal circumstances, I would ignore him. These were not normal circumstances. Without thinking, I snatched Blue out of my pocket, and hit him on the head with it.
‘Work, Wilby, we are here to work.’ He put the phone down abruptly.
‘Sorry, Rog, have you heard the one about . . .’
‘I’m in no mood. We’ve got this bank job thing to work out for Hugo, he wants something by 2, but I’m not going to be here after 12.’ There it was, out loud. I was, really and truly, planning to skive off work and cheat on my wife, or at least take one step further towards cheating on her. Blue was still in my hand, like a weapon I might use again on Wilby should he hinder my intent in any way.
For the next hour, he and I brainstormed, starting with the most similar projects we’d done for other companies, and highlighting the differences with this new client’s initial brief, and how we might tackle them. We pencilled down numbers, and alternative numbers for persuading Piggy of the benefits of increasing its market research spend. With one hour gone, Wilby typed up a preliminary draft budget appendix, and I composed my ‘preliminary thoughts’. Blue sat at the back of my keyboard. At midday, we both printed our respective texts, which gave me 15 minutes for the following: to proof read and correct, to take the material to Hugo’s secretary (one yellow post-it note stuck to front saying, ‘Nearly two hours early with this!!!! Sorry, got to run, can’t be back this afternoon - kidz again!’), to return to my office to collect Blue and my jacket, to race through the ever busier and busier London streets to the Lamb and Flag.
I was late. I could see Susannah inside, across the crowded pub, it being too cool to stand outside. I withdrew Blue from my jacket pocket, as if unsheathing a knife from a scabbard, and waved it high above me in the air as I made my way towards her. She laughed, and I laughed, and then having taken her order, pretended to write it down on my hand with Blue, I went to join the scrum to buy us food and drink.
On my return, and while we ate, Susannah tried to hold me to my promise of explaining Blue.
‘Come on, you promised.’
‘No, I didn’t. If I remember right, you promised for me.’
‘Well, I’m asking nicely.’
‘Is that nicely?’
‘Oh come on,’ mock anger, ‘there’s a story, and I want it.’
‘What’s it worth?’
‘What do you want?’ lips more than smiling, eyes more than daring.
And so it went on, though I wouldn’t tell her. We talked of other things, our childhoods, unfulfilled hopes, happinesses and sadnesses.
We had barely touched on Tuesday, this time round, I took her hand in mine early on, and she winced not. I shuffled my chair round next to hers so our thighs could touch, she flinched not. When a silence surprisingly fell between us, I found myself shy to look straight into those hazel eyes, so glanced down at Blue, happily laid between our empty plates. Almost immediately, I looked up again. The incessant buzz and loud music in the Lamb and Flag ceased, as if muted, while all my own sensibilities and common senses were put on pause. I leaned towards her slowly and with more confidence than I had believed possible of myself, to kiss her, lightly, and for a long time. There was little more we could do there and then, though I managed briefly to manoeuvre her hand beneath the table to share or to show off my desire.
I think, on reflection, since Tuesday I had been in love with the idea of falling in love again, of romance, of the possibility of heightened emotional intensity, something I hadn’t experienced since meeting Katherine long before Stevie and Steph came along. On Friday - only two days ago as I write - the idea turned into reality, without any shadow of doubt (Eliot might have expected). Simply put, I did fall in love. I hadn’t laughed with Katherine, like I laughed with Susannah, for months; I hadn’t talked about the meaning of life with Katherine, like I did with Susannah, for years; I hadn’t experienced that exquisite sensuality of lips touching with Katherine, like I did with Susannah, ever!
I know I’m a cliché. Married man, dulled by the routines of marriage and children and work, embarking on a fling. And I know I am being doubly deceitful: in all the intensity of the conversation with Susannah, I craftily avoided any reference to having children. Well, that’s a minor duplicity compared to my infidelity - forthcoming infidelity - towards Katherine.
At a signal from Susannah that she had to leave, I dramatically picked up Blue and declared myself ready this time to ‘phone in sick’. Alas, she said, she was not free that afternoon. Nevertheless, she thanked me for ‘the kiss and you know what’. Perhaps next week, she said, let’s email, ‘let’s find a way’
And so, careless of Katherine, Stevie and Steph, and all things wonderful about my family, Susannah and I have emailed, and we have arranged to meet at her flat, her partner being away, after work on Thursday next week.