I'd known Keith and Jenny Ainsley forever: well, maybe not exactly that long, but certainly a lot of years. We had all started off together at the local primary school, when Jenny was still Jennifer Brent, and then we'd progressed right through our educations until it was time to head off to university. By this time Jenny and Keith had been an item for several years and had places on undergraduate courses at Bristol University, where Jenny read Sociology and Keith History, while I, Neil Hotchkiss, was going to the University of Kent to do my degree in Architecture.
Keith and I had both been interested in History and although Jenny was very bright in her own right, I suspect that she only took the subject at school because Keith, her first boyfriend since 14, did. We were fortunate to live in the suburbs of a major city and once we were old enough we often took a bus into the centre and spent hours visiting museums and sites of historical interest. These visits were more than just academic curiosity, however, we generally had a good laugh and honed our social skills at the same time and often Jenny would rope in one of her female friends to keep me company. As I got older I had fleeting relationships with some of these girls, but never formed the same kind of deep relationship as my two best friends had.
Having said that, however, it was during those heady days of adolescence that our future paths started to develop, as Keith leant more towards social history and I became increasingly interested in old buildings.
I'm maybe giving the impression here that we were all a bunch of nerds and swots, whereas, in fact, we were kids who did all the things that other kids did and still enjoyed most of the contemporary cultural interests of our time. During our mid- and later-teens we were allowed greater freedoms by our parents and we became more adventurous. I'm sure that Keith's and Jenny's respective parents knew and accepted that they were sexually active, and I was no virgin, although I had no regular partner. We often went camping during our summer breaks from school, with either a girl I was going out with at the time, or sometimes with other school friends; and although we never shared, sexually, a degree of public nudity was usually a regular occurrence during these trips.
At this point I should perhaps say something about my relationship with Jenny. I have older sisters whose friends were around when I was growing up, so when I started school my female classmates weren't alien creatures, they were just other children. I can't even remember how Jenny and Keith and I became friends: it was just a collection of circumstances that just happened over time. It helped, I suppose, that we three and our mothers who took us and collected us each day, all lived in fairly close proximity to each other, albeit in different streets, and we made the return journeys each day on foot; giving the adults time to chat as we walked. And so although we were friendly towards our other classmates, the three of us had that special affinity with each other.
Anyway, getting back to me and Jenny. For a long time, Jenny was just a girl that I saw almost everyday and liked a lot; same as I did Keith. We didn't see much of each other outside of school when we were younger, although we went to each other's birthday parties and sometimes our mothers got together for coffee and gossip at weekends. I must have known that Jenny was quite pretty, but it was never something that Keith and I ever commented on.
I guess that of the three of us, I was the most naïve and least worldly, so as Keith and I reached puberty and he started to talk about Jenny as being someone who was maybe more than just a friend, I didn't really understand what he meant; and when he eventually asked her out on a date during our early teens, I was never jealous that I was now excluded from their activities; in other ways nothing really altered. Again the changes seemed so natural that it was just absorbed into our everyday lives.
Of course, when the time came for Keith and Jenny's relationship to become sexual, he and I talked about it before and afterwards. We both had a theoretical understanding about sex by that time, but after the deed was done, so to speak, I was only left to imagine what my own first experience would be like; and as I said before, by the time that we began to go camping together during the summer months of our mid-teens, I was also no longer just imagining. Jenny and I often exchanged hugs and chaste kisses when greeting or saying goodbye to each other, but I don't think that I ever seriously thought of her as anything other than a close friend: she was easy on the eye and sexy, but otherwise forbidden fruit as far as I was concerned.
By the time that we all finished our A-levels and were about to leave that phase of our education, we all knew that our lives were about to change fundamentally, and that significant changes in our relationship were also inevitable. The summer prior to us leaving for our respective universities was largely spent with us all working to try and earn some cash to help ease the financial burden of the next three years, with the prospect of inevitable student loans to come. I found work in a pub, but Jenny and Keith had jobs working regular office hours, so unless they came to see me during my split shifts, we didn't see so much of each other during those months. Our original plan was to all holiday together for at least a couple of weeks before the university term started in the autumn, but for one reason or another, that never happened.
All too soon it was time to start the next chapter of our lives, so after an evening of reminiscing and alcoholic over-indulgence with a few other school friends, we said our goodbyes. A few days later, Jenny's father packed hers and Keith's belongs into a hired van and they set off for Bristol, while my things were loaded into my older sister's car for the trip to Canterbury, Kent.
The three of us stayed in touch during the university years and spent time together when we were all home during the vacations, or I sometimes stayed with Jenny and Keith in their off-campus accommodation, as they both had jobs to make ends meet and so didn't always travel back to their parents' homes; although we always tried to get a little vacation time, either in the UK or the beach resorts of southern Europe. I think that they had talked about marriage for some time, but sensibly were waiting until they both had a chance to get jobs and save some money after finishing their degrees. I also knew that if I wanted to be a practicing architect I would need to do some more, post-graduate, studying.
So now we jump ahead a few more years: Keith and Jenny were by now both teachers; Keith in a Secondary School and Jenny in a Further Education college. I was qualified and was fortunate to have gained employment with a quite well-known architectural practice in London. I still saw my two best friends, but only a handful of times a year, if I was lucky. Jenny had had a daughter, Miranda, a name which had somehow become abbreviated to 'Manda'. Jenny of course had to temporarily interrupt her teaching career, but both she and Keith appeared to have embraced parenthood wholeheartedly. I had tried to visit them at least monthly during the pregnancy and afterwards, and although none of us were really religious, I was designated the baby's godfather. My story begins just after Manda's second birthday.
I got a phone call from Jenny on Friday evening:
"—Hi, Neil! Fancy popping round in the morning, we haven't seen you for a few weeks."
"—Sure, Jen—any particular time?"
"—No—but if you get here early I'll make you one of those nice bacon sandwiches you like, with crusty bread. Ooh, you couldn't stop on the way and pick up a loaf, could you."
"—Sure, no problem! See you in the morning."
The promise of bacon sandwiches reminded me of those camping trips we used to take before life got in the way of fun. Jenny was always a better cook than either Keith or I, so first thing in the morning either me or Keith or both of us, would go for fresh bread and any other bits and pieces we needed while Jenny and whoever I was with would use the camp's shower facilities when we were gone. Then if both Keith and I went for supplies, we would have time for a quick shower while the breakfast was cooking.
I remember, too, that British weather permitting, Jenny would spend much of the time in a bikini, with additional clothing added as circumstances dictated; and if our location permitted it, she and my then girlfriend would lose one or both pieces of the bikini if they could. Keith and I would do the same, so our bodies were never a mystery to the others. Therefore once again in the privacy of our homes it was not unusual to walk naked between bedrooms and bathrooms without embarrassment; and of course I was used to Jenny baring her breast as she fed Manda when I visited them.
Just before I reached the Ainsley's home, I called ahead to let them know I was nearly there. Jenny told me not to ring the doorbell, she'd leave the door latched and I could let myself in. So, crusty loaf in hand, I did just that.
A few seconds after the front door closed behind me, Jenny appeared with Manda supported in the crook of her arm. On seeing me, my goddaughter smiled, and wriggling in her mother's arms, held out both of hers to me. Jenny closed the gap between us and I willingly took the little girl from her, at the same time handing over the bread. As Manda's small arms encircled my neck, Jenny leaned in and kissed my cheek. Still holding Manda and talking quietly to her, we followed Jenny into the kitchen.
"Where's Keith—still in bed, or gone for a newspaper?" Jenny looked at me and I could tell that something was wrong.
"He's gone, Neil: just over two weeks ago. I've been at Mum and Dad's since then, but I've got to go back to work next week."
"What do you mean gone—he's left you?" I was having trouble trying to get my head round what Jenny had just told me. She looked sad and nodded her head. I walked over to her and extended my free arm and she pressed herself into my body and I held her: her face was buried into my chest, but I could feel her body shake with her silent sobs. After a few minutes she composed herself.
"Come on, let's sit down and you can tell me all about it." Still holding her, we made our way into the sitting room and sat on the sofa. "Is there someone else, Jen?" She sighed.
"Her name's Cathy Macdonald; she works at Keith's school. Apparently it kind of started when I was pregnant. I don't think they were sleeping together then, but that's when they started to get closer."
"I take it you know her, then?" I asked.
"Yes, although not that well. Keith said she's divorced. I'm not sure who seduced who, but I did cut him off for a few months before Manda was born, and it was a while afterwards, while my body settled down. You know how we've always been quite active, sexually, but we talked about it and he seemed okay—but obviously not—"
By now Manda had grown tired of hanging onto her favourite godfather's neck, so I placed her on the floor, where her little legs carried her to a toy box in the corner of the room.
"So how were things otherwise between you?" Jenny shuffled closer to me and I put my arm around her.
"Well, to be honest, Neil, I think things have been a bit strained for a while now: we didn't argue or anything, but we've been together a long time, and I think we both took things for granted. We talked about it, and I think we hoped starting a family would change that. We had two reasonable incomes, so the timing seemed right; but, with hindsight, perhaps it was the wedge that finally pushed us apart."
"And this isn't just a glitch?" I offered.
"Afraid not! Even if his thing with Cathy doesn't last, I don't think I'd want him back. We just need to sort out the legal and financial details: he's accepted his responsibility towards our daughter, and he wants some active involvement in her life. Anyway," she continued, extricating herself from my arm and standing up, "life goes on and we have to make the best of it. Can you watch Manda, Neil, while I go and make us some breakfast. You do know that I really appreciate you being here, and I hope you stick around in case I need that shoulder of yours again." I smiled.
"Of course—and you know that my shoulder, and whatever else you need, is completely at your disposal." Jenny returned my smile.
"Thank you, Neil! Yes, I did know that—I just didn't want to take you for granted as well."
When Jenny left the room I turned my attention to the innocent victim in all this: Manda was fortunately in a world of her own, pulling things out of her toy box. I took off my jacket and joined her on the floor, where she looked up at me and smiled and then started moving her many things to show me. I didn't see her that often, but we had bonded; which was something else that made Keith's actions more difficult for me to understand; he had a great wife and child, a nice home and a job he enjoyed, and he apparently willingly gave some of these things up for, what—mere sexual gratification? My thoughts were disturbed by Jenny calling from the kitchen: "Grab Manda, it's on the table—"
"Let's go and get some breakfast, Sweetie," I said as I plucked my goddaughter from the carpet and carried her through.
She was still too young to manage bacon, so while I sat and worked my way through several crusty 'doorstep' sandwiches, Jenny skilfully balanced Manda on her lap as the two year old still rather ineptly dipped a small pile of buttered bread 'soldiers' into the runny yolk of a boiled egg. Manda was obviously enjoying herself, and Jenny seemed unconcerned about the mess her daughter was making.
"It's shaping up to be a cracking day—do you fancy doing something later?" I asked my friend.
"Whatever you want: a couple of hours in the park; or we can make a day of it. We should be able to transfer your car's baby seat to mine, then head for the coast, or something."
"Okay!" Jenny said, smiling, "The coast sounds cool! How about you see if you can sort the seat out while Madam and I have a quick bath. You should even have time to pick up your beach togs; if you don't want to go all the way home, though, you can drive to town in ten or fifteen minutes."
"Yes, that might be favourite. Give me your car keys and I'll make a start on the seat; it shouldn't take too long."
Jenny gave me her car key then kissed my cheek. "Thank you!" she said, quietly, before heading upstairs to the bathroom.
Most new-ish cars have standard fittings for child seats, so it was only a matter of about twenty minutes to install the one from Jenny's Volkswagen Golf into my 5 Series BMW. That done, I collected my jacket and set off in search of a place to buy swimwear. While I was out, I also bought a pair of shorts, some sunblock, and a twelve-pack of bottled water. By the time I got back to Jenny's, they were dressed appropriately and Jenny was bustling around collecting the things that she thought we'd need. I slipped off to a bedroom and exchanged my jeans for the shorts.
"So where are we going?" Jenny asked me.
"Well, I thought Kent, it has nicer beaches."
"Right, then; lead on!" she replied.