This story was related to me by the main character, who shall be known as Roger Wilkinson. It was recorded by me in personal conversation with him over a period of six hours in four sessions, and when I set about writing it, I felt it best to put it in dialogue form because that was how he presented it to me. I offered the outline, drafts and now the finished product to him for his endorsation. He is satisfied that, if not literal, it is an accurate reflection of the past few months in his life. Naturally, all names have been changed to protect the innocent [or guilty], as the case may be.
Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Wilkinson, OBE, Ret. was sitting at his desk in his London office when his secretary informed him that his ten o'clock appointment had arrived. Roger glanced at the clock on the wall and noted that it was ten past ten. He frowned, not being one to easily countenance tardiness.
The middle-aged man who entered his office was tall, with blonde wavy hair, blue eyes, and a slightly puffy look about him. Roger stood and shook the offered hand of his visitor.
"Good morning, Mr. Wilkinson, or should I call you Colonel Wilkinson?" he asked politely.
"Either will be fine," Roger replied. "And you are Mr. Charlton?"
"Yes, Marcus Charlton," he replied somewhat nervously, Roger thought.
"Please, sit. And what can I do for you today, Mr. Charlton?"
"Ah ... well ... you see ... it's like this. I'm a good friend of your wife, Winnie, a very good friend. I thought it only fair to ... bring you up to date on things ... as it were." He had come to a sudden stop as Roger rose from his chair and towered above him. During his entire Army career, Roger Wilkinson had been taught to control his emotions, think logically, act only when necessary, and make sure of the result. The brief, stumbling statement from the man across the desk would put all of that training to the test this morning.
Roger stood stock still, saying nothing, examining his guest carefully before once again sitting.
"Do you mind telling me just why you have come here this morning?" Roger said with as calm a voice as he could manage.
"Why, we ... I ... thought you should know. I mean, it's not as if you hadn't already granted permission. After all, your marital ... arrangement makes that rather clear, doesn't it?" Charlton asked, clearly not sure of his footing at this point.
"My marital agreement is very specific, Mr. Charlton. Winifred knows full well the terms of that agreement, and I can assure you that it does not include her taking a man as her lover." His statement grew with a rising voice and a steely, unflinching stare at the almost cowering figure across his desk.
"Uh ... perhaps we should discuss this at another time, then... ?" Charlton rose, backed away from the desk, turned and quickly left the office, closing the door quietly behind him.
Roger slumped down in his chair. Elbows on the desktop, his head buried in his hands, he tried to come to terms with the brief, but explosive meeting that had just terminated. His mind drifted back to his beginnings with Winnie, or Winifred Burgess, as he then knew her.
He had just entered his last year before retirement, and at the rank of Lt. Colonel, he would have a substantial superannuation, and a comfortable lifestyle. His club membership was a lifetime benefit resulting from his OBE, and life, at age forty-three, should be quite pleasant. There was just one problem -- he had no one to share it with.
He met Winifred at a party hosted by a mutual friend, now retired from the service, and Roger, ever the conversationalist, found her a lively and attractive companion. She hinted at a ribald sense of humour, and was almost openly flirting with him. He was entranced, and he decided then that he would pursue Winifred Burgess. She was irresistible. Roger called her the next day, and she agreed to accompany him to the theatre the following evening. Roger carefully selected a light comedy with some sexual overtones in the plot, to confirm his suspicions of her. He was not disappointed.
It took a while, but Roger and Winifred, or Winnie, as she was happy to be known, became intimate after their fifth encounter, a dinner at her flat in London. A bottle of very nice Bordeaux had been shared, and after the dessert, a snifter of brandy. Both of them were now very relaxed in each other's company, and Roger was indeed certain of his feelings toward Winnie.
"Winnie, my dear, you must know that I have very strong feelings for you," he began, "and I sense that you feel that way toward me as well."
"Roger, you are delightful company, but ... I was rather hoping for something more."
"Oh ... well ... just what was that 'something more'?" He had a decidedly perplexed look.
"Roger, I am not so old that I don't enjoy ... intimacy. Do you understand?"
Roger looked at her for a moment before breaking into a smile. "Yes, of course. And I must tell you that I enjoy and celebrate intimacy as well," he grinned.
"Then we have one more thing in common ... do we not?" It was a coy, but unmistakable message.
"Indeed," he said quietly, as he reached for her. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her passionately, and she responded immediately. Before he knew it, they were in her bed and he was making love to her with great passion and vigor. At least, he thought he was making love. Winnie, on the other hand, was very vocal and assertive in her bed. It was quite a unique experience for Roger. He was, for the first time, not in command of the situation.
Their affair progressed steadily, with sex the weapon of choice for Winnie. She had captured him and she was well aware that he was smitten. It was only a matter of time before he "popped the question."
"Winifred, I love you with all my heart," Roger professed one afternoon while he was rowing their punt along the Thames. "Will you marry me?"
"My dear Roger, I feel the same for you, as well. However, there is something that you must know about me that I fear may give you second thoughts," she said, timidly.
"I must confess that I am an unusual woman ... someone with unusual needs, and I would be less than honest if I didn't make a clean breast of things."
Roger was very curious, but said nothing as he awaited her revelation.
"You see, I am equally attracted to women as I am to men. I have a female lover, Juliana, and I do love her dearly. Unfortunately, I love you as well. It would be deceitful if I did not tell you about my ... affliction."
Roger was stunned into silence. He had never heard of such a thing. And yet, he wanted to find some way that Winnie would choose him over another, regardless of whether it was man or woman. He was sure he was completely in love with her, and this obstacle was something that had to be overcome at all costs.
The price was high. She would marry him only with the understanding that her female lover would be part of the agreement. Roger nodded his understanding when she made her demand, but chose not to decide immediately. He wanted some time to think it over, which she granted him.
It was an arduous ten days that he spent on his own, trying to come to a decision. He was of an age that opportunities for love came along far less frequently, he thought. He had been single all of his forty-three years, and this was only the second time that he had truly fallen in love. The first had died aborning, and now this. Damnation, he thought, why would she have to have this penchant for women as well?
In the end, he rationalized that she might come to love him more, and see that he was the only one for her. He would go to whatever lengths to make that occur, he vowed. He would agree to her terms, knowing full well that he would do whatever was necessary to become her only lover. On the eleventh day, he drove to Winnie's flat and knocked on her door.
"Hello, Roger," she smiled. "I have been expecting you."
"Ah ... yes ... well, I thought it best we talk about your ... proposal," he said uncertainly.
"Oh? I thought you were the one who had proposed," she laughed.
"Winnie, you know perfectly well what I mean," he said sternly.
"Yes ... of course, I do apologize for making light of it. I know it must be a difficult decision for you, Roger. I am anxious to hear what you have decided." Her tone was noticeably more contrite.
"I ... that is ... it is a highly unusual arrangement. I suppose I want some ... assurances ... that I am the exclusive male and that your ... Juliana ... is the only ... co-habitant," he stumbled.
"Why of course, Roger. I'm not promiscuous. I'm simply attracted to women and men. I wouldn't dream of betraying either you or Juliana," she exclaimed.
Roger was silent for a few moments and Winifred allowed him to compose his thoughts.
"Very well, then. I accept your terms. My offer of marriage stands, providing I am the exclusive male and Juliana is the exclusive female," he stated in a positive tone.
"Wonderful! I am so happy, Roger. We will make a smashing couple, mark my words," she enthused.
And so, that was how Roger became a willing cuckold to Winifred's bizarre demands. As time progressed, he was less confident of the arrangement, and when Marcus Charlton had blurted out his confession of their affair, his worst fears were realized.
He drove home that evening to their flat in Chelsea, and knew what must be done. Never one to procrastinate, he would confront Winifred that evening after dinner. He had surmised that the weasel Charlton would not have likely told Winifred of his failure this morning. He didn't seem the type to admit his bungling of the assignment. His use of the word 'we' when he mentioned the affair, made it possible that Winnie had put him up to it. It would be an unpleasant evening, he was sure.
"I think the time has come to have a chat, my dear," Roger began.
Winifred Wilkinson looked up from her evening paper and studied her husband. "About?"
"When we agreed to our ... unusual marital arrangement, it was clearly understood that I accepted your then lover, Juliana, and that we would each be faithful to the other. However, when Juliana was replaced with Muriel, and finally with Amanda, I foolishly looked the other way. At the time, I believed that my role as the male of the family was not compromised. While you found other female lovers, I assumed you were faithful to me. It appears that I assumed incorrectly."
"Roger, whatever are you saying?" she said in strained voice, now concentrating exclusively on him.
"I am saying that you have betrayed me with another man ... Marcus Charlton, in fact. I'm saying that you have broken our agreement and I am saying that I intend to divorce you," Roger concluded. He was looking at her with the unblinking stare of certitude. These were unassailable facts.
"Are you mad?" she said in a bewildered voice. "How ever can you say such a thing?"
"My dear, please do not embarrass yourself by lying about this ... sordid business. Mr. Charlton came to see me about your affair. Apparently he thinks I will simply step aside and allow him to be your intimate companion. He is a fool, of course. But, in this case, he is your fool. When the divorce is final, he truly will be yours."
Winifred's face had lost all its colour as she stuttered and stammered, trying to find something to say in her defence. "I ... I ... you must understand ... it was just ... just a fling. It didn't mean anything." There was a desperate, pleading tone now replacing the more confused earlier attitude.
"On the contrary, Winifred, it means everything ... trust ... loyalty ... honour ... love. You know I hold these things above all others," he stated calmly.
"But I never meant to ... I wasn't going to ... leave," her voice trailed off, weakly.
"Yes, I am sure you had it all worked out how you could have your new paramour, and my income, and Amanda, and everything would be jolly. I'm sorry to spoil all that. However, you knew when you signed the pre-nuptial agreement what the consequences of any unfaithfulness on your part would be." He had skillfully avoided raising his voice or threatening her in any way. The tiny personal recorder in his vest pocket was surely documenting all of this drama clearly enough. There would be no doubt of her guilt.
The garden party was held in the Kent countryside, on a delightfully warm, sunny May afternoon. Roger had been invited because he was always a welcome guest at the estate of his friends, Charlotte and Warren Mantel. They were pleased with his renewed interest in social events following his divorce from Winifred. Neither Charlotte nor Warren could ever quite warm to the woman, even though she was invariably polite, pleasant, and interesting. Their bizarre marital arrangement that Roger had confided to them, was probably the reason. They had never heard of such a thing as a wife with a live-in lesbian lover. It was a relief when it all ended, particularly since Roger did not seem overly distressed at the outcome.
As Roger strolled the grounds, away from the throng gathered on the large stone courtyard, he began to look carefully for a likely companion. Someone to talk to. Someone with wit and intelligence and an interest beyond his, or her, personal world. In time, he saw someone. A woman. She was apparently alone. A striking woman, he said to himself. Age ... undetermined, but not far off his fifty-two years. Almost as tall as he, her blonde hair beautifully coiffed, elegant posture, slim arms and legs, modest bust, straight nose, lightly made up, attractively dressed in a colourful frock — all in all, a very attractive, mature woman. He decided to hang back to learn more about her, without intruding on her privacy. He sipped again at the lovely Beaujolais in the long-stemmed glass. "Just be a bit patient, old boy," he said to himself.
She seemed to be on her own, and after a few minutes observation, he drifted in her direction. He was certain she had detected his presence, but she made no move to acknowledge him as she gazed at the vibrant floral arrangements.
"This really is the best time of the year to view blossom, is it not?" he offered quietly.
She looked up slowly, not at all startled by his voice. "Yes. It is. Colour is everywhere in this part of England," she smiled cautiously.
"Are you a friend or a relative?" he asked.
"My parents are great friends of Charlotte's parents, and I met her many years ago at their home. We have been good friends for many years now," she offered without smiling.
"Ah ... well then, I am surprised we have not met before. The Mantels are old friends of ours ... er, mine that is. I am certain I would have remembered you. My name is Roger Wilkinson."
"Yes, I have heard of you from Charlotte. I am Beatrice Eldridge. My friends call me Bea," she offered with a faint smile.
"Very nice to meet you Ms. Eldridge. I must say, Charlotte and Warren must be thrilled with the weather today. It could not be more delightful."
"Yes, it is perfect." She looked at him more carefully. "Are you alone?" she asked suddenly.
"Yes," he answered, surprised in her forthright question. "And you?"
"Yes, quite. Have been for some years," she said simply.
"Yes. And you?"
"Ahh ... recently divorced," he confessed.
"Sorry to hear that. Messy?"
"No ... not really. I saw it coming, and she pretty much gave me the out on a plate."
"We had an agreement ... pre-marital. She decided to take a lover beyond what the agreement specified. That was that."
"Now you have me confused. A lover beyond?" she asked, clearly puzzled.
"Yes. Unusual to say the least. You see ... Winifred was bi-sexual. I knew that when I married her. She had a female lover and I agreed that she could keep her as long as the inherent integrity of the marital vows was not abrogated. Silly thing to do, I know, but ... I thought I was in love and ... well ... let's just leave it at that."
"How creative. What happened to end it all?"
"She got a bit greedy. Took a male lover. Silly bugger thought he could join the party without an invitation, as it were. I put paid to that in a hurry," he said with a look of smug satisfaction. "Never too old to learn, Ms. Eldridge."
"Please, you may call me Bea. Since I have been so nosy about your personal life, I owe you at least that," she offered contritely.
"I must confess ... I found it very easy to talk to you, Bea. I'm not at all sure why. Very few people, even among my friends, knew of my ... unusual marriage."
"Yes, I expect that would be awkward, wouldn't it," she said, thoughtfully. "Are you looking for someone to ... replace her?" It was another astonishingly forthright question which again caught him unprepared.
Roger blinked and thought for a moment before answering. "Yes ... yes ... I suppose I am. Not good at being alone. Need someone to talk to, you know. Conversation ... the life blood of existence I think someone once said. If not, they should have." He looked at her again and saw the beginnings of a smile.
"My dear Mr. Wilkinson, are you attempting to seduce me?" It was said with a smile, a raised eyebrow and a twinkle in her eye.
"Come to think of it ... yes! Absolutely! Can't think of anything I would rather do," he laughed.
"Well, you are at least honest."
"To a fault, my dear, to a fault."
"I think we might get along all right, Roger. As long as you realize I know what you are up to, and I will not be easily swayed," she grinned slyly.
"I love an equal contest. Swords or pistols, my dear?"
"Swords, I think. Women are always best with sharp things, don't you think?"
"Yes, indeed. Sharp wit and sharp tongue among them," he smiled.
"Tell me about your late husband, Bea," Roger asked as they strolled across the grounds toward the rotunda.
"Malcolm was wonderful. We married young, not long after I came here to England. He was dashing and handsome, and a bit reckless. I loved him dearly and I know he loved me. He worked in London and commuted by train each day, and each evening I would wait for him at the station and we would walk home together. We had two children, girls, both grown and gone now with their own families. It was a wonderful life for as long as it lasted," she said with a touch of sadness.
"Well, that reckless streak caught up with him one day when he was zipping around the local roads in his little sports car. He loved to drive fast, but this time he was caught out. Some cattle were on the roadway, and when he swerved to miss them he lost control and hit a tree. He died instantly, they said." She had relayed the story with only a hint of regret in her voice.
"I'm very sorry for your loss. That must have been very hard to take."
"It was. Even though it was almost ten years ago, I still think of him."
"And so you should. Those would be very fond memories, to be sure," he offered sincerely.
"Yes, they are. So, I have been on my own for quite a while," she said, cheering herself up.
"No other men have come along to tempt you?" he asked, carefully.
"No ... lots of pretenders though. It must be easier for men ... finding someone, I mean."
"Oh, I don't know. Then again, I found you, didn't I," he grinned.
"Finding and keeping are two very different things, Roger," she said sternly.
"Well, I will just have to prove my worth, then." Their banter had been pleasant, always with a hint of humour. He was enjoying himself immensely and said so. "You really are quite a treat, you know. It has been quite some time since I have enjoyed talking to someone as much as I have with you, Bea."
"Oh, put a sock in it, Roger. You don't have to pour treacle on it. I am not hard of hearing ... nor am I a bit thick," she laughed.
"I meant every word. Are you suggesting that I am insincere?" He waited for a response. The look of cynicism on Bea's face suggested she was not buying his approach, and it was time to change strategy. "Well, fortunately, I do not easily take offence. Thick hide and all that," he said, somewhat pompously.
"Does this act work on other women?" she asked, again with a look of disdain.
"Oh yes ... quite well in fact. I have a long string of conquests to my credit. The tried and true is always the best, my dear. Always the best," he boasted.
"I don't believe a word of it. You would like me to think you are a scoundrel, a cad. I don't believe a word of it at all ... but I will give you marks for inventiveness. You really are different. Charlotte said I would find you interesting, and she was right."
"So ... Charlotte has been trying to play matchmaker, has she," he said with mock derision.
"Of course ... that's her role. She was born to it," Bea laughed.
They continued walking in silence for a while, stopping occasionally to admire the flowerbeds on the perimeter of the stately home.
"You mentioned that you came here ... to England ... before you were married. Where are you from?" he asked.
"Canada ... Ottawa in fact. My father was an ex-Brit and was in government service ... some secret project or another. I never knew. He stayed after the war and met my mother and they were married and out popped me," she said quite merrily.
"How did you get here?"
"My father was adamant that I would get the best education, and I was sent to private schools that were almost exclusively run by former Brits. By the time I was finished, I think I was more English that you English," she laughed again. "I came here when I was nearly twenty for a vacation, met Malcolm, and I never left. England is home for me now."
"Lucky England," Roger said, almost under his breath.
"Thank you," she smiled, looking at him. "Have you always had that moustache?" she asked abruptly.
"No ... no ... I have it on good authority that I was not born with it," he chuckled.
"Seriously, Roger, why do you wear it?"
"Well," he paused, "when I was young, I was a bit insecure about myself. Not so cocksure of my way around the ladies. I thought I needed something to give me ... confidence, I suppose. Make me look a bit more mature." he said, turning toward her. "I looked quite ridiculous in fact. I have some old pictures which prove the point. But ... I persevered with it and after a while, it became part of me. I shaved it off a couple of times, but on both occasions I was told I 'looked funny' and should grow it back. So, in the end, I grew into it," he punned.
"I always wondered why men would grow moustaches or beards. It seemed quite incongruous to me," she suggested, as they wandered through the impeccably kept gardens.
"Decorative, my dear. Purely decorative. As women choose to change their hairstyles, men choose to decorate themselves in different ways. Tattoos, now earrings, odd clothing, long hair ... the usual things. We all like to be unique, you know," he said.
"Well, you've certainly achieved that Roger. We have been talking for almost an hour and I have not had a second when I was not interested or intrigued. You have just established a new record. Congratulations!" she smiled genuinely.
"Would you care to join me for dinner, Bea?" he asked mischievously.
"That would be just lovely. Where were you thinking of?"
"I think that table by the fountain would suit us perfectly, don't you?"
"Yes ... perfectly!" she smiled.
He offered his arm and Bea took it, walking elegantly together toward their chosen destination. A sidelong glance by Roger confirmed that their little theatre had attracted Charlotte's attention. They would undoubtedly hear from her at some point.
It was becoming dark, just after nine, and the evening air had cooled. Roger escorted Bea into the historic old home and joined the other guests in the great hall.
"I'm glad I don't have the upkeep on this place, Roger. It would break me in a week," she said seriously.
"Well, as you know, Charlotte and Warren do not have to worry about that. They are rolling in it and have been for ages. Something to do with computers, I think," Roger offered.
"Charlotte had pots to start with," Bea confirmed. "When her parents pop off, she will have even more. The rich get richer," she concluded, her voice trailing off.
"What do you do for entertainment, Bea?" Roger asked, changing the topic.
"Oh ... I read, go to the theatre now and then, do a bit of gardening in my little plot ... the usual," she said wistfully.
"Doesn't sound like it holds a lot of excitement for you. Most of those things can be done alone, can they not?" he suggested.
"Yes ... I admit it ... I am a bit of a loner."
"Well ... here I am to help you change that."
"Oh ... we are back to that are we?"
"Back to what?" his brow wrinkled.
"The seduction ... I thought you might have put it on hold for a bit."
"Really, my dear Bea. Why on earth would I ever not be trying to enchant a lovely woman like you? As long as I breathe," he smiled, speaking softly.
"Stop it, Roger. You're getting away ahead of yourself. I told you, I will not be easy to persuade. Perhaps I should have chosen pistols. It would have been all over with by now." There was a reflective quality to her voice.
"Please do not give up on me, Bea. Do not give up on yourself, either. I find you fascinating and you have already admitted I am not a bore. What more could a woman want?" he grinned.
"Oh, Roger, you really are a caution. What am I to do with you?" she asked, exasperated with the trivialities.
"Invite me to your boudoir?"
"Now that is just plain cheeky," she shot back.
"Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound," he sighed.
Beatrice stood looking at him and suddenly, without hint, began to laugh. It wasn't a belly thumping, deep throated laugh, but it was a genuine laugh all the same.
"You are irrepressible. I think I will permit you to court me," she said slyly.
"My dear Beatrice, I would be honored to prove my worthiness as your companion, and I hope, your lover. I solemnly promise that I shall not disappoint you." It was offered in his most sincere voice.
"Roger, I think there is something I should tell you straight away. I would not want you to harbour any illusions. The next man in my bed will be the last," she said forthrightly.
"I don't think I understand," he said with a wrinkled brow.
"I have only ever loved one man in my life, and it was so perfect and so ... rewarding ... that I promised myself that I would only chose another man if he could give me what I had with Malcolm. I admit, that is a tall order, but, there it is. I will be extraordinarily careful with my choice, Roger," she concluded, with emphasis on careful.
"Hmmm ... quite a challenge," he mused, his hand on his chin. "How will you judge your suitor ... me ... I mean?"
"I have no idea. When I married Malcolm, I was young and impressionable. He swept me off my feet. The marriage might have failed considering how quickly it all happened. But, it did not. It was magic, and I want that magic back again. I will not settle for less," she concluded, looking him straight in the eye.
"Well, you have certainly handed me a challenge," Roger said, nonplussed.
"Do you accept the challenge?" she asked, the challenge now being in her question.
"Yes ... of course. Anything worth having should be earned." He couldn't help feel a bit apprehensive.
Roger invited Bea to the theatre the following week, and then to dinner at his club in London, the week after. He didn't see Bea again for almost two weeks. Two reasons precipitated the interruption. First, he had to travel to Brixham, in Devon, to see an old friend with whom he had often discussed his "life issues." The second was the reason for the first; namely, his indecision on what to do about Beatrice.
Brixham was one of those delightful fishing villages so common along the south coast. It formed the bottom of "the jaw" of Tor Bay, Torquay being the top. It was an unprepossessing little town with none of the "British Riviera" complex. It was mainly a port for commercial fishing interests and largely ignored by tourists, and it was here that Michael Sturrock had made his home, buying a small cottage on the hillside for what was almost nothing in today's property market. He had spent carefully in renovating and improving the modest home, and today, "Rose Cottage" was a little jewel in a lovely Devon jewel box.
Michael was there to greet Roger as he stepped off the Virgin Rail coach in Paignton on a gloomy, drizzly day in early June. "Hah!" Roger thought as he searched the waiting room for his friend, "British Riviera indeed!" He was not in the best of moods. The hours spent in the rail carriage had given him too much time to think. The conundrum of Beatrice Eldridge would not be easy to untangle.
"Roger!" Michael hailed. "Wonderful to see you again. You look fit and ready for battle," he offered heartily.
Michael was a short, stout, tweed-covered caricature of a man. His face was covered in an unkempt grey beard with assorted stains giving it a mottled appearance. His round, red face poked out from behind the foliage, and every time Roger saw his friend, he marvelled at the happy look in his eyes, and on his tobacco-stained teeth. He was perfectly imperfect, thought Roger. Michael was just the tonic he needed now.
The two men shook hands and slapped each other on the back as they headed for the car park. Roger was carrying a single overnight bag, Michael noted. He would not be staying long, he thought, and he wondered what had brought about this welcome visit. It must be something important.
"How are you, my friend?" Michael asked carefully.
"If you mean my health ... I'm fine ... fit as a fiddle," he boasted.
"Ah ... we are in for a problem solving session, are we?"
"Yes ... exactly ... a riddle almost," Roger said, looking at his lifelong friend.
"Well ... that sounds marvellous. I love riddles. What's it all about?"
"A woman, of course," Roger answered with a rueful smile.
"Wonderful. The most difficult of all riddles. I can't wait. Especially since you are such an old hand with the ladies. This one must be a dandy!" Michael exclaimed.
Roger put his bag in the back of Michael's thoroughly thrashed Mini Cooper. While its body had been neglected, its innards were in tip-top shape. In a moment, the little green "brick" had sprung to life and they were off like a shot, blasting their way through the narrow back roads, avoiding the traffic and the local constabulary, Roger noted. Any other person might have been terrified, but his old friend was a master at rocketing through tight spots and around obstacles and traffic circles and within fifteen minutes, they were sliding to a stop in front of Rose Cottage. Roger laughed at the adventurous ride, long used to Michael's "Stirling Moss" complex.
"They've never caught up to you yet?" Roger asked.
"Oh yes, now and then. Mostly I just get a lecture, but I've had my share of write-ups," he admitted.
"I am not surprised. On the other hand, you are not likely to change, are you?" It was a rhetorical question and begged no answer from Michael.
They entered the cottage and Roger was once again reminded of the lovely, quiet surroundings his friend had achieved. When Michael's wife Constance passed away, he escaped London and moved here to reconcile the tragedy of his loss with the memories of their life together. All three of them had gone to school together, and if Michael had not married Constance, Roger certainly would have.
The ghost that she had become in her last days nearly destroyed Michael, but his inherent optimism, and the support of his friends, including Roger, had pulled him through. It had been seven years since Connie had passed, and now Michael was back to his old self for the most part. He boldly pronounced that he would never marry again, since there could never be another woman like Connie, and it was that statement that Roger remembered when facing his challenge with Bea.
"Well, Michael, I suppose you're wondering about this 'woman thing' I came to talk to you about," Roger began.
"Indeed. It has not been that long since you jettisoned Winnie. I would have thought that might have put you off your feed for a bit," his friend replied.
"I have met the most extraordinary woman, Michael. Her name is Beatrice Eldridge and she is originally from Canada. She is living in a cottage in East Sussex, not far from me, and is a friend of friends of mine, the Mantels. She is very attractive and very bright ... just the ticket for an old warhorse like me. We seem to be able to talk to each other and actually have something interesting to say. It is such a change from Winifred and her little troupe."
"Sounds wonderful, Roger. What's the catch?" he asked, listening attentively as he slouched in his old leather chair.
"You once told me that you would never marry again, Michael, because you could never find another Connie," Roger began. "Beatrice is telling me something along the same lines. She loved her Malcolm, and when he died, she vowed not to take another lover unless he was the equal of her late husband. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how I can be another man and win her over."
"You can't! You are quite right. It cannot be done ... should not be done. You are who you are. But tell me about her. What about her first husband?" he asked.
Roger quietly told Michael everything he could remember Bea telling him about Malcolm. When he finished, his friend had a small smile and almost imperceptibly, nodded his head.
"Is she attracted to you at all?" he asked after a pause.
"Yes ... I think I can say that. Yes, I'm confident she is attracted to me, but this condition she set upon me is the frustration. I need some clear-headed thinking, my friend. She is too good to let get away and yet, I just do not quite know how to convince her that I should be her 'last man'."
Michael sat quietly for some time before rising and heading for the little kitchen. Roger watched silently as he removed two glasses and a bottle of very good French brandy. He poured two healthy measures and then added a bit of ginger ale to one, leaving the other alone. He walked back to the lounge and passed Roger the straight brandy, putting the mixed drink down on the small table beside himself.
"This calls for a bit of 'think juice' I reckon," Michael smiled.
"Cheers," Roger offered as he raised his glass. "Here's to wisdom, however we might find it," he said soberly.
"Roger ... I hope you won't mind if I ask you some pointed questions?"
"Of course not. I expect that from you. It is the reason I am here. I mean, besides your wonderful company and friendship, that is," he grinned.
"Yes ... well ... let us try and get to the heart of the matter, shall we?" Michael said, pausing for a sip of his drink. "Did you love Winnie?" he asked suddenly. "I mean, really love her -- that 'cannot do without you' kind of love?"
"I have asked myself that question a thousand times, Michael. It has been hard to get at the truth, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, I suppose the answer is no. That has been a very difficult reality to come to terms with, I can assure you," Roger said quietly. "The fact is, I have to admit to being a fool. I broke every rule I ever set for myself. I submitted to her demands because I thought I was in love with her and I was willing to do anything to have her. I was a forty-four-year-old fool who was getting frightened of being alone in my old age.
"When I lost Connie to you, I couldn't find anyone else to replace the way I felt about her. I hope this doesn't hurt you, Michael, but you see, I was just as in love with Connie as you were. I envied you and I stopped really trying to find someone for myself because every time I did, she came up short to Connie. Sad old sod, aren't I?" he finished.
"No ... no ... I knew all that. But you were too much of a gentleman to ever interfere or do anything to hurt us. We have known each other too long not to be able to read the signposts. But that does not explain Winnie, does it?"
"No ... as I said, it was the fear of getting old and being alone. She was a smashing looker, as you know, and a real terror in bed. I guess that was what made me go along with that absurd relationship. If I could not have her all to myself, at least I could have a part of her and that seemed to be enough. I talked myself into it, I suppose."
"Well, I am just glad Connie was not alive to see it. It would have been very upsetting for her, to say the least. You see, she loved you too, but she was faithful to me. She was never sad or regretful about it. It was just the way things worked out. You were off in some Army place or other, and I was here. I am glad that when she chose me, you and I remained very good friends," he smiled.
"Here's to friends," Roger responded, raising his glass once again.
"So ... back to the problem at hand," Michael began again. "I have to ask you ... have you ever been in love? Besides Connie that is," he smiled.
"I don't think so. But now, I am not so sure. In the past, if a likely lady put up too much of an obstacle to my getting to know her, I would simply move along to the next. Bea has me thinking that I do not want to give up, but I'm damned if I know how to go about proving myself to her. I think she is convinced I am some sort of gadfly ... flitting about from woman to woman with little concern for them. I am nothing of the sort, of course," he said with emphasis.
"For what it's worth, I suspect she is telling you that she is not interested in a casual relationship. What she is looking for is not another Malcolm ... it is another 'love'. Someone totally committed to her the way you described Malcolm to me. This business of meeting each other at the station each night ... that's strong stuff. She told you that because it meant something very important to her.
"I think you have to examine yourself, Roger. You have to know for certain that this woman is right for you. You have been hurt once already and so has she. She is being careful and so should you be as well. This love business is very tricky stuff. If it were not, most of the poets, songwriters and novelists of the past millennium would be out of work," he laughed.
"Yes ... well ... there's the rub. How do I know? What or who will tell me?" he asked, looking away.