"Mary, I think you ought to sleep with my husband."
The sluggish overhead fan had completed quite a few revolutions in the humid tropical air before Mary's synapses could fully cope with that one. She became aware that her jaw was sagging, and that her copy of Time magazine had slipped from her grasp. She had been in the middle of the cover story, "Nixon re-elected!", when Virginia Allen had dropped her bombshell.
They were the only two teachers left in the staffroom, as they had a free period directly after the lunchbreak. Outside, pupils taking a PE class seemed to shimmer in the heat coming off the playing field. Mad Englishmen in the noonday sun.
"And why do you think that?" was the best reply she could muster.
"He asked me to ask you. He thinks you are spunky."
It was a while since anyone had called her spunky. And why should they? She was married to a high school science teacher and had three young children. In fact, this was her first year back at work since completing her certification year after training college. They had started a family right away, having married just after John's graduation. Those were the days when breeding was considered virtually automatic once the knot had been tied, and they never stopped to consider that they had any other option.
But take Virginia. She was spunky. Five years younger, childless, a tall, big-boned red-head. And she had boobs. A fine handsome woman by anyone's reckoning. What would her husband want with Mary?
"Um... really? Me?"
"Yes, you! Derek has a thing about brunettes. And you are quite huggable and squeezable, you know."
Mary's surprise was starting to turn to shock. This conversation was real, it was happening, she didn't think she was dreaming any of it. She was very straight- laced. And hadn't found sex to be any kind of big deal. Why did people make such a fuss about it? When she saw the weird and innappropriate behaviour of some of the ex- patriates in this colonial backwater, sex was usually at the bottom of it. Why did it drive people so? There must be something she was missing.
"You don't have a problem with people sleeping with your husband?"
"Not if he asks me first, and I give the okay."
Mary didn't know what to say, but thought to herself, "How very... liberated!"
Although there was only five years between them, it was really an inter-generational gulf. Virginia had been part of that Summer of Love thing the magazines often used to write about. As soon as Mary had become a mother she no longer bothered with cultural trends, not since the time when Neil Sedaka was hot news and a certain moptop quartet from Liverpool was only just beginning to sell records by the truckload.
"I... I really don't think so, Ginny."
Virginia patted her on the knee.
"Have a think about it. We re-locate back to Australia in a month, so you could just sleep with him once and then we're gone. No possibility of awkward recriminations."
She gathered her things and stood to go.
"Time for Art and Craft, and I have to look after Suzie's class as well."
Susan Fletcher had a vicious alcohol habit that often caused a dereliction of her duties. Something had to be done about it; the other staff couldn't go on carrying her teaching load forever.
Virginia went, leaving Mary still stunned. She gazed out the window again, past the kids taking PE, staring unseeingly across the road, beyond rusty old iron quonset huts built by the Americans during the war, coconut trees, to the sparkling blue sea beyond.
This was a weird bunch of people over here. Colonial Service misfits, who either drank themselves stupid or fucked themselves stupid. Or both. Petty officials recently evicted by the independence movements in Tanzania and Kenya, but who couldn't face going back home.
Or the other clique, idealistic adventurers looking to expand their horizons through travel, and do their bit for the third world. For many it was their first experience of being a white minority in an almost entirely black country. Not that it brought much hardship in those days. They were part of the elite, looked up to by the locals. Mutterings about independence and localisation and the shackles of colonialism were only just beginning in the capital. People in the outer islands were practically stoneage, often still pagan. Power politics came second to high infant mortality and a life expectancy of about forty-five, in their analysis of the issues of the day.
Mary would have put herself and Virginia into the "adventurer" category. And up until this moment, she had regarded Virginia as one of the more normal of her acquaintances. Being pretty square, she was almost offended by Ginny's blunt proposition.
Almost... but not quite.
There tickled within her a faint pinprick of fascination with the very idea of it. Sure, she got fascinated by horror movies too. But there were one or two braincells inside her (albeit heavily outnumbered) that seemed to view this particular "problem" more as "opportunity".
And hey! What girl doesn't like hearing herself being described as "spunky"?
But she couldn't. It really was out of the question. She was married, fer chrissakes! With three kids, aged ten, eight and five. John, now a Head of Department for the first time, was having a ball in this tropical paradise with the small sailing boat he had just finished building.
She had only ever known one man. And that was the way it was supposed to be.
"Come on, Hazel! We'll be late for Mass."
Her step-sister was taking far too long about getting back into her black serge tunic, and was still fiddling about with the buttons of her white blouse. Why did the St Theresa's uniforms have to be so labour-intensive? Cold fingers in wintertime were hard pressed to cope.
They were the last ones out of the changing sheds after the swimming class. It was the only time during school hours when it was okay for their skinny limbs and flat chests to be on show. And probably only because the icy cold water was supposed to be good for their character. The nuns were strict about modesty. "Bold girl!", they would say to anyone who dared to leave a couple of top buttons undone.
But Hazel was in no hurry. She was in deep shit already.
There'd been the small matter of a three-shilling discrepancy when she'd returned with the staff lunch orders that day. If it had happened to Mary, the presumption would be that she'd got diddled by that unscrupulous shop-keeper. But Hazel would have pocketed it herself, in their estimation. The telephone message by now would already have been relayed by Sister Rosemary to their mother. Who would tell their stepfather when he got home that night from work. Who would then give Hazel a hiding. The bruises were still there from the last one.
Mary also got hidings, but not with the frequency of Hazel's.
Still, if they could get to Mass on time, they would have another hour in which to pray about it. And if they didn't get there on time, then Mary would be getting a hiding too.
Whenever Hazel screwed up, their parents always spoke of bad blood.
Hazel had been adopted. Mary's mother was a war widow; in fact Mary never saw her father, as he was already on active service abroad when she was born. His grave was somewhere in France. Well-meaning relatives said another child should be adopted, to be a playmate. Enter Hazel, same age as Mary. A series of foster homes had already left their indelible mark. Hazel trusted no one, and didn't feel that she owed anything to anybody. But circumstances made the two of them close. Her escapades would get both of them in trouble, and their shared beatings bonded them in adversity.
And post-war, their mother remarried and had another five kids. Go figure!
The Ford Prefect was rocking quite insistently now. From the front seat, looking straight ahead through the spray-spattered windscreen at the dismal grey seascape beyond the parking bay, Mary said;
"Hazel, what are you doing now!"
Some gasping noises, and the rocking didn't slacken.
"Keep quiet, and look front!"
Hazel sounded muffled and out of breath. And strangely her voice was coming from somewhere well down behind the front benchseat of the Ford.
She should never have agreed to come along on this drive with Hazel and Tom Winters. But Hazel had begged her to, knowing that she wasn't allowed to move a muscle these days without Mary as a chaperone. If Mary had arrived home from school without Hazel in tow, there would have been big trouble.
Practicing strict self-censorship, Mary kept her eyes straight ahead. She didn't dare look back, not knowing what she would see if she did. It sounded serious, all these animal noises from the back seat. Suckings, and slurpings, and soft moans. She turned on the radio to drown it out. Frankie Avalon was in mid-croon.
Hazel had a protruding clit. And Mary didn't. Except she didn't know it was called a clit. No one had ever called it anything in her presence. Such things were not discussed in their household. But she had seen Hazel's. When they were younger they often shared the same bath. It was big and pink. The clit, that is; not the bath. It poked well out from the tent-like fleshy hood that stretched around it, and was the most prominent feature of Hazel's pussy landscape. Even when she got her fanny hair, you could still see it.
Mary had to poke around a bit before she could find her own clit. She had done it in private. Getting caught playing with her genitals would have seen her put on a diet of bread and water for a month. But she had to try and find it. She couldn't understand why hers was tucked so out of sight, while Hazel's could be seen practically any time she was knickerless.
Could it explain why Hazel liked boys? And why boys liked Hazel? The girl was a boy magnet. Not just any old boy. Boys with cars, too!
Mary, on the other hand, was a wall-flower. The few times they were allowed to go to dances, no one had ever asked her to dance. Yet she was not too bad looking. But she often risked getting trampled by the rush of boys wanting to ask Hazel to dance. Hazel seemed to exude that certain something, that je ne sais qoi, that caused boys to get lumps in their throat and lumps in their trousers.
"It's getting late. We really should be going home."
Now it was Pat Boone's job to drown out the groans from the back seat, but he lacked the rhythm to blend in well with the car's joggling. You would have needed Chuck Berry for that. And Chuck Berry was considered far too radical for any airplay in this here town.
If Hazel and Tom were really doing what she thought they were doing, it was hard to imagine how they could manage it. We are talking English Ford here, not American Ford. Designed for English lanes and colonial "roads", the Pride of Dagenham was built small, light, easier to lift up out of bogs and ditches. But despite the lack of elbow room and knee room, in this country there was many a cherry got popped on the back seat of a Ford Prefect.
John had practically been chosen for Mary, by her step- father. Well, not specifically chosen. But he was one of a bunch that had passed an initial screening process.
Mary had been nagging her parents that she didn't know any boys, she wanted to get to know some boys, could they please fix it for her so she could meet some boys. Putting her head into the lion's mouth, you might think. But her step-dad actually had a bit of a soft spot for her. And her parents thought it best that they engineer the boy-meeting process themselves, since it was probably going to be inevitable. They didn't want her to turn out like Hazel, who seemed to attract completely the wrong sort.
It was decided that they would hold a teenage party. Mary's step-dad coached a sports team of lads about Mary's age, and he hand-picked some of his charges to come and attend the party. John was one of them.
The party itself was pretty boring. Tightly supervised, music kept low, rug-rat brothers and sisters performing unspeakably embarrassing acts of disobedience.
And John didn't really stand out from the bunch. There was another boy she found much dishier. But by the time the night was through, it was John who had murmured an invitation for her to go with him to a dance the following week.
A date! A real, live date!
He came to get her at the appointed time, and they walked the two or so miles down to the Community Hall. Hazel could get guys who had cars, but Mary would have to walk. John seemed pleasant enough, and very sweet. But he promptly abandoned her at the hall while he went and talked to his sports-team buddies. It seemed an eternity before he retrieved her again. She put it down to first date nerves.
The dance itself was fairly uneventful, though it gave her a chance to find out more about him. Like her, he was a bit of a reject. Well, different, anyway. His father was general manager of a small factory; plastics, or something. Socially, they considered themselves a cut above. His elder brother was in business, having been given a generous start by the old man. His sister was married to a businessman, a bit dense but old money so in their view she had "married well". John wanted to be a scientist, so was definitely a square peg in a round hole. It did not fit into their image at all. He got absolutely no support from them for this vocation, finan- cial or otherwise, but he was determined to stick it out.
He walked her home. Soon would come The Kiss. And, hopefully, a request to see her again.
She had already decided in advance that if he slipped her any tongue, then she definitely wouldn't see him again. French-kissing on a first date would be too forward for words.
Fortunately, he didn't slip her any tongue.
On such simple little things our fate is often decided.
Inevitably, Hazel got pregnant.
The nuns held a Council of War with her parents, and next thing she was sent away to a Catholic Home for Wayward Girls. There she was taught useful life-skills like how to sew buttonholes and darn socks, until the baby arrived. It was immediately put up for adoption, and a job was found for Hazel in a garment factory.
As soon as she had saved up enough money for a one-way ticket, Hazel hopped on a plane to Australia. Her life there became a string of menial jobs and unhappy relationships. She never once wrote or called. It was to be another twenty years before Mary ever saw her again.
Meanwhile, Mary and John were going steady. He had become besotted with her. She had become accepting of him, more or less by default. He was now at University doing his Bachelors degree, and she had begun her teacher training.
She didn't really want to be a primary school teacher, but her grades had limited her choices somewhat. She was no Einstein anyway, and it was almost impossible to get much study done in that madhouse she called a home. Her younger siblings all needed looking after, and she was expected to do much of it. Her mother had kind-of given up after the twin boys arrived on the scene.
When it all got a bit too much for her, she would phone John and sob, "Take me away from it all!" He would put aside his textbooks, venture out into the cold night air, buy a newspaper-wrapped serving of hot fish and chips, and meet her at the bus stop about halfway between their homes. Sitting there wrapped up in heavy coats, he would hold her hand and restore her sanity for another few hours.
They intended to get married as soon as he graduated. And then put a large tract of water between themselves and their families.
It was funny when they had announced their engagement. On hearing the news, John's father called at Mary's house, primed up by John's mother to give a speech. He was taken into the front room by Mary's step-dad, whereupon he delivered his speech.
He did not approve of any uniting of their respective Houses. As far as he was concerned, Mary was from the wrong side of the tracks. She was second-generation Irish immigrant, and a Catholic, whose father worked in the railways. No son of theirs was going to marry into such a white-trash family.
Mary's step-dad said he agreed wholeheartedly, he was no fan of the match either. He hadn't wanted John to team up with her at all. It was another boy among the initial selection that he had wanted her to start seeing. And no way did he want to become related to a capitalist-bourgois Anglo-Saxon Protestant sassenach like John's dad.
That done and honour satisfied, they cracked open a bottle of whiskey and spent the next three hours yarning convivially about sports.
The wedding took place the week following John's graduation with a BSc in Chemistry. It was a small affair, though far too big for John's liking, as he wanted to keep as much money in reserve as he could for their new life together. Having entirely paid his own way through University, he had become paranoid about money.
Mary was a virgin on her wedding night. During their courtship they had done a certain amount of slap and tickle, but no penetration. He'd wanted to, but she had a morbid fear of getting pregnant. Look at what had happened to Hazel. Mary didn't want to be whisked away in the dead of the night like that, and be only spoken of in hushed tones for ever after.
Sex was a disappointment. Neither of them had a clue. It was painful for her at first, and his preparation of her was usually minimal. As time went by he got better, but he only ever used his fingers on her. If they knew about oral sex at all, it was only that it was for nasty people. After a while the sex was not unpleasant and good for the feeling it engendered of intimacy and closeness, but she never came. She got pregnant within the first year, stopped working and became a full-time home maker for the next decade.
John felt stifled in his job. Holding a junior science position at an austere and conservative boarding school for boys, he knew what was needed for advancement but couldn't bring himself to do it. The general idea was you had to stay in the same institution for forty years, drink beer with the principal on Friday nights, play golf with him on Sundays, and if you were of the right stuff you could eventually become a Head of Department, a Deputy Principal, and so on.
John thought that such brown-nosing was for the birds. And he didn't agree with half of the school rules that he was meant to enforce. So he opted for adventure rather than status, and started applying for teaching jobs in various islands of the South Pacific.
"Penny for your thoughts!"
Mary snapped out of her reverie at once. No way could she tell John that particular thought! Standing at the kitchen bench slicing chuck steak for a pot of stew, she had found herself gazing at the lush jungle vista from their kitchen window, going over Virginia's propositon in her mind.
"No, it's nothing" she lied. "Call the kids, I want them all washed and ready for tea soon."
Coming here had been great for the kids. They seemed to spend most of their time running around in the jungle behind the staff quarters, playing cowboys and indians and committing God knows what acts of mayhem with the children of other staff members or from the village nearby. Sometimes she worried; after all, in this place they had real poisonous snakes, and scorpions, and centipedes and things. On the other hand, they had become so capable, and seemed aware of all the dangers. She couldn't keep them housebound all the time.
Her thoughts came back to Virginia's husband, Derek. He was reasonably handsome, better-looking than John, though starting to develop a bit of a beer belly. He was quite charming, from the contact they'd had so far. No obvious social defects. She still couldn't quite believe Virginia's claim that he had a yen for her. Wonder what he's like as a lover?
These days John was tending to piss her off. Things she had taken for granted in their relationship, she was now inclined to question. His tight grip on the family cheque book, for instance. When they argued, it was usually about money. He'd always been the breadwinner, and this was her first year of real work now that her youngest was school-age. She'd been accustomed to John calling the shots about how income was disposed of when it was entirely his income. But she felt she wanted to have a bit more say, now.
And he patronised her in conversation. They would have people around for tea, or barbecues, and he always had to hold the floor. He seemed to have an opinion on just about everything, and loved verbal jousting just for the sake of it. Okay, so he was the intellectual and knew stuff that she didn't, but she liked to have a chance to speak too, you know. Starting work again was rebuilding her self- confidence. People at the primary school were willing to accept her for who she was, rather than just as an appendage of John.
But he didn't seem to get it.
At least once a month now they would have a blazing row, which the children found very upsetting. Sometimes it got physical, when she would try to hurt him in some way, just to try and get through to him. Pinches, punches, thrown objects. Stuff that was normal to her during her childhood, but her own kids had not been exposed to that before.
And their sex was still pretty ordinary.
The end of the school year was coming up. Part of his job at the Government boarding school was to supervise students during their return by inter-island ship to their villages for the vacation. He would return in about two weeks time, leaving the students to begin the back-breaking task of cutting enough copra to pay their own school fees for the next academic year.
Mary had gone with him the first time, but never again! Everyone had to sleep on the heaving deck, and her lasting impression was of sea sickness, the smell of pigs and chickens, diesel oil, and no proper toilet facilities. She was not planning on going this time.
This would be a window of opportunity, said those brain cells who saw her "problem" as "opportunity". More and more braincells had been coming over to that way of thinking. "You only live once!" they kept murmuring. A referendum of brain cells could now could go either way.
You only live once...
The kids wanted to go to the Patterson's for a "Midnight Feast". The Patterson kids were very English, and spent much of their waking moments reading books by Enid Blyton. "Midnight Feasts" seemed to feature prominently in these stories about the Secret Seven, Famous Five, and so on. In common parlance, it meant the kids wanted to sleep over, and be allowed to stay up very late.
With John away and kids out of the house for an entire weekend, it meant that the coast would be clear.
You only live once...
She wasn't sure how to approach Virginia, though. What if Ginny burst out laughing, said she was only joking, had just wanted to see what Mary's reaction would be? It would be so humiliating.
Next day they were on playground duty together.
"So... does your husband still think I am spunky?"
"Ooh Mary! You've been giving it some thought!"
"Well, it's hard to drive a revelation like that out of your mind."
"Our place or yours?"
"Hey! I haven't said Yes!"
"You must be about to, or you wouldn't have raised the subject."
"All right then! My place."
"Can I come, too?"
Now Mary really was shocked. The idea of borrowing Ginny's husband was already beyond the pale. Having Ginny watch them at it was simply debauched! Besides, it would evoke unpleasant memories of Ford Prefects.
Ginny realised she'd over-stepped the mark, and moved swiftly to retrieve the situation.
"Fine! Whatever you are comfortable with."
She gave Mary's arm a squeeze.
"You won't regret it. He's quite good, though I say so myself."
Saturday. By now John was bobbing up and down somewhere on the briny deep, and the kids had been dropped off at Pattersons. She had all of Saturday afternoon to get ready for her guest. She thoroughly spring-cleaned the bedroom. Got a posh dress ready, and her best knickers. Located their one bottle of whiskey in case some extra confidence was needed. Prepared a few snacks, as he might want to munch on something else before he munched on her.
Darkness had fallen when the Allen's rusty old jeep pulled up into the drive way. He was well scrubbed up, too. Long pants and a Hawaian shirt, beard neatly trimmed. He had a bunch of flowers. The same kinds of flowers she could easily have picked in her own garden, but hey, nice touch! He brushed her cheek with his lips, and she led him to the cool verandah to sit and see what witty repartee he could come up with.
"Good to see you, Mary, and I must say you do look lovely tonight."
A good start, she thought.
"Orange juice? Or whiskey?" she asked.
She hoped he wouldn't say beer, because she didn't have any.
"Whiskey and water would be great."
She did one for him and one for her, and directed his attention to a tray of nibbles. She sat, and drew a deep breath, inhaling the thick, heavy smells of the tropical night; the sweet scent of flowers combined with musty earth still damp from the downpour earlier that afternoon.
"So... Ginny says you think I am spunky."
"Oh yes! I've thought so for quite some time."
"Do you often have your wife procure women for you that you think are spunky?"
"Not all that often. But I fancy you something rotten, and since we leave very soon I thought, well, its now or never!"
"I can't believe that Ginny doesn't mind you carrying on like this!"
"This is nothing. We were living on a commune back in Australia. Half the time nobody knew whose kids were whose. Ginny and I don't feel permanently attached; in fact we only got married so that we could qualify for the bigger-size married quarters over here."
Mary found this all quite mind-blowing. I mean, she had read about communes and such, but not come face to face with any practioners of that lifestyle.
"So you don't care about the fact that I am married?"
"No, not really. As long as John won't come and shoot me, or anything silly like that."
"Well, he might! But he is not to find out. And don't you want to know why I am doing this?"
"Presumably because you are fond of good sex."
Hmmm, flattering himself already. Well, that remained to be seen.
"Actually, its because I don't know if I am fond of sex, or not."
He was quiet for as bit, probably considering how to handle that one sensitively.
"You mean... John doesn't, how should I put it, light your fire?"
Though not familiar with the music of The Doors, Mary knew what he was driving at.
"Well, I don't know, I mean, what's supposed to happen?"
"If it had happened, you would know."
They lapsed into silence, gazing out at the hibiscus hedge, listening to the crickets chirping, seeing the occasional firefly go past. This assignment would be tougher than he thought, but he was up to a challenge.
He spoke up first.
They went inside to the darkness of the bedroom.
He put his hands on her waist, bent forward and kissed her chastely upon the lips. He smelled good. Half the time you had to remind John to go and brush his teeth first. Another kiss, that lingered longer this time. No tongue yet, though.
His hands started wandering. Gliding up her sides, narrowly missing her bra-less breasts under the long cotton frock she wore. His kisses radiated outward across her cheeks, and along her neck under her ear, his soft dry lips gently brushing her skin.
It was hard to believe this was really happening. Familiar surroundings, but a strange man. It was like a dream.
He was running his hands across her backside now. An unfamiliar touch, but pleasant all the same. He was gently biting into the top of her shoulder, and licking up to her earlobe. Then he brought his hands up onto her breasts for the first time.