It was the smell of cigarette smoke that clinched it. I gave up smoking at the age of eleven. I'd managed to smoke my way through a ten pack of my mother's fags and wasn't feeling particularly well. My brother laughed at me, telling me I wasn't doing it right. Later that day I spoke to my favourite uncle, a sailor and a smoker himself.
"You'll never have any money if you smoke, Tosh. I wish I'd never started." He always called me Tosh, I think it was a term of endearment from his Navy days
I loved my uncle, and a short chat with him had me wondering why I wanted to smoke in the first place. The reason was obvious: I wanted to be like the big boys, like my brother. I wanted to be accepted. It didn't take long to figure out that they wouldn't really be impressed. I wouldn't be accepted by them, I was too young. What's more I realised that I didn't really like the people I was trying to impress.
So that was it, no cigarettes for me. I wavered a bit when I started chasing girls. I wanted to impress them with how macho I was. Hanging around on street corners with a fag hanging out of your mouth seemed to be so cool. I was weakening right up to the point when the coolest girl in the school, Rebecca Davies, let me kiss her. Rebecca was a smoker, and so cool. She hung out with people my brother's age, and she let me kiss her! I was in seventh heaven, until I got the taste.
"Yeuk! If that's what smokers taste like, I want none of it."
I passed on Rebecca, who seemed very offended, and carried on as before: the un-cool non-smoker. I'd always been seen as a bit of a cold fish. Right from the days of being bullied in the playground, I'd made a point of not showing emotion.
"Hit 'em hard and hit 'em where it hurts" my uncle had said, "But above all never let anyone see they've hurt you. That's what they want, and if they don't get it from you, they'll move on to someone else."
It worked against the bullies, but it left a side effect that was a little less desirable. It left me with the inability to show emotion.
The years went by, and I found myself a nice little non-smoking girl. Barbara was her name, and we hit it off straight away. Within eighteen months I'd asked her to marry me, and she accepted. That was 23 years ago. A lot of water has gone under the bridge. We have two grown up children: Henry, who has just graduated from University; and Zoe, who is coming to the end of her first year.
With Barb I could be the real me. I could let my defences down a little. When my brother died of lung cancer he was only forty-two, and it hit me harder than I expected. For weeks after he died, I would be alone and suddenly find myself in floods of tears. Barb was always the one who found me and held me until I stopped crying. Not a day went by without me telling her I loved her.
Her friends would ask her what it was like to be married to a man as unfeeling as me. Her response was always the same.
"You don't know him. You see a cold logical man. I see a warm hearted man who'd do anything for his family. He gets angry, like any man, he just doesn't shout and scream like some. Frank goes quiet and seems even more calm. If you didn't know him you'd never know he was angry."
We've become empty nesters, and I've been loving it. Barb's libido seemed to pick up and we've been getting more adventurous. Even after all this time, my heart does somersaults when I look at her. I've always been proud to be seen with her, but as she started to take more trouble with her appearance I was doubly thrilled. That's why I didn't notice straight away. I though it was me getting more excited and wanting her even more. The smell in our bedroom that Thursday evening made me reflect on things, and I realised it wasn't me trying more often; Barb had been pushing me away more often.
Now Barb's never had much of a sense of smell, whereas mine was always keen. She didn't notice things, but I caught everything. Some smells I loved, like the smell of Barb as I slipped into bed beside her. Other smells I hated. The smell I hated most of all was cigarette smoke. I hated the way it got into your clothes and hair and just lingered. I'd only have to spend an evening in the company of a smoker and I'd smell it on my clothes for days. So smelling it here in my own bedroom rang all sorts of alarm bells. I asked Barb about it, but she couldn't smell anything. She told me I was imagining things. I might have believed her had I not smelt it again on the following Tuesday. I called Barb into the bedroom and asked her about it, and again she denied there was any smell. On Thursday the room smelt of air freshener. That made me really suspicious. I went over to the window and sniffed the curtains. There it was again, cigarette smoke. This was serious. Someone had been smoking in my bedroom, and Barb was trying to cover it up. There was only one conclusion to come to.
It took me two weeks to get all my ducks in a row, so the confrontation came on the Tuesday evening two weeks later. We both sat down to dinner, and Barb had just started to chew on a tasty piece of chicken, when I asked her.
"Who is he, Barb?"
The sharp intake of breath caused her to suck the chicken into her throat and choke violently. I thought I was going to have to try the Heimlich manoeuvre. She recovered, and I got her a glass of water.
"Who is who?" she asked, trying to bluff it out.
"The man you've been allowing to smoke in our bedroom. Who is he?"
"I don't have a clue what you are talking about. What are you accusing me of?"
"It's quite simple, Barb: I'm accusing you of inviting a man into our bedroom and allowing him to smoke. I know it's true. I can smell it."
"You're mad. All that quiet, calm exterior, and you've finally flipped. You want to get that nose checked out. There is no smoking man."
I stopped eating and got up. Looking down at her, I pointed to my plate.
"That really is fantastic chicken, by the way."
I walked down the hall to our bedroom, picked up a little round object, and returned to the table. I went over to the corner of the living room that I used as an office, and came back with my lap top. I sat down and started eating again.
"This really is excellent, Barb. You should try a bit more. A fly couldn't live on what you've eaten."
"I've lost my appetite. Now what have you brought this stuff out for?"
After another mouthful of chicken, I wiped at my mouth with a tissue. I picked up the circular object.
"This, my dear, is a Wi-Fi web cam. You see the little antenna on the back here? I left it in our bedroom today." I moved over to my laptop. "Now you know this is my laptop, and I guess you know it has Wi-Fi capability. It can connect to the web cam without wires. Today it's been running a program that records the output from the camera whenever there is any movement. I wonder what it recorded this afternoon? Maybe a man smoking in our bedroom. Perhaps he was even sitting on our bed. Maybe with my darling wife lying beside him. Shall we take a look?"
Barb reached out and closed the laptop. "No, I don't want to look at it. I don't want to. It's all true. There, I've said it. Does that make you feel happy?"
"Happy? You think I should be happy to know my wife has been entertaining another man in my bedroom, and lying there while he smoked in our bed? No, I'm not happy. Now I'll ask you again: who is he?"
"I can't. I can't tell you. You'll want to hurt him, and if you do that they'll lock you up. I couldn't stand that. I love you."
"Barb, I promise you I won't touch him. Now who is he?"
"You promise, you really promise you won't hurt him?"
"Barb, I gave you my promise — I won't touch him. Now, have I ever broken a promise to you?"
She stopped, and thought for a moment "No. You haven't."
"OK, so now that's out of the way. I repeat — who is he?"
Her head went down, and she was looking at her feet. "His name is Richard Bryant. He's a student at the college."
"I see, and you, as the head of student services, were just doing your job, servicing the students."
"That was uncalled for, and beneath you, Frank."
"OK, so now it's all out in the open. What do you want to do? You want a divorce so you can marry him?"
"NO, I don't love him! I love you. Don't leave me Frank, please! Please don't leave me."
"What then? Are you going to give him up?"
"I'm not sure I can. I'd like to say I would, but I won't make promises I can't keep. Can't we just let it run its course? I know it's just an infatuation, and I know he'll tire of me. He's only twenty, for god's sake. He'll want young girls soon enough, and it will be all over."
"And If I say no?"
"Then I'll try to give him up, Frank, I really will try; but the pull of this thing is so strong. I feel so alive when he's with me. I'm not sure I can make it, Frank."
"And I don't make you feel alive?"
"It's different with you. I feel loved when I'm with you. I feel so proud to be with you, but it's just not the same. Please, Frank, please say you'll try, I really don't want to lose you. Can you try, Frank, please?"
"I don't know. I'll think about it and let you know tomorrow." I got up and started clearing the dishes away.
"You mean it, Frank, you really mean it? You'll think about it?"
"I just said so, didn't I? Now I'd better get started moving my stuff into the spare room."
"No, Frank. I don't want that. Really I don't. Please don't move out."
"I have to, Barb. I know what young men are like. He'll be spreading wild oats all over the place, and I certainly don't want to pick up anything. I'll let you know tomorrow."
.... There is more of this story ...