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."
I left Barb sitting at the table crying while I spent the rest of the evening moving all my belongings out of the master bedroom. The following evening Barb cooked a beef stroganoff — my favourite, especially the way Barb cooked it. Once again she barely touched hers, just pushed it around the plate. When I'd finished eating, she sat there looking at me until curiosity got the better of her.
"Well, have you made your mind up?"
"Yes, Barb, I have."
"Well don't keep me in suspense, what 's it going to be?"
"It ends. It ends right here, right now. From this moment you'll have nothing more to do with him. If he comes into your office you'll send someone else to deal with him. Is that clear Barb? It ends now!"
"And will you stay with me, Frank, will it be like it was before?"
"Maybe, I don't really know. This has never happened to me before, but yes, maybe, in time, I'll get over it."
"Thank you, Frank. Ill try, I really will."
"You'll do more than try, Barb. If you want us to stay together, you'll succeed. God knows I love you more than anything, but I won't let you humiliate me."
"Will you move back into our bedroom?"
"Not yet. If I'm in the same bed as you I won't be able to keep my hands off you. I think we both need to get checked out for STDs first. I'll make an appointment in the morning."
"I don't think there's anything to worry about, I sure he's clean."
"Nevertheless. we both get tested. Like I said. I know young men. I used to be one. If he's doing you, he's probably poking someone else as well."
"FRANK, do you have to be so crude?"
"Just telling it like it is, Barb. Now once we're both declared clear I'll consider moving back in with you."
Over the following month things went well. Barb seemed to be acting more like her old self. She did her best to tempt me back into the bedroom. She got changed when she got home, so by the time I got home she would be wearing short skirts or very tight jeans with a very thin blouse, usually without a bra. In the evening she would sit on the sofa next to me, hugging my arm, pushing it against her soft breast. At the end of the evening she would look at me and say, "Oh well, I'm going to bed, care to join me?"
I was really starting to weaken. I'd been determined to wait the full three months incubation period for HIV, but after only a month I wasn't sure if I could keep it up. I loved her like there was no tomorrow. I desired her constantly. I'm not a religious man, but I prayed that she would stay away from him. Then my nose did it to me again.
She was standing at the sink draining the vegetables. She wore jeans that she must have been poured into and a thin white tee shirt. Even from behind I could tell she was braless. In that moment I lost control. I walked up behind her, slipped my hands under her arms, and started to squeeze her breasts. She put the saucepan down, brought her hands up to cover mine and her arms down tight against mine.
"Mmm, that feels like my hunky husband" she said. She leaned back into me. As she did so my nose pushed into her hair. There it was, that smell. Cigarette smoke, same cheap brand if I was not mistaken. I stepped back. She stumbled a little as I pulled away from her.
"What? What's wrong?"
"I shouldn't be doing this."
"What do you mean, you shouldn't be doing it? You're my husband dammit. if you shouldn't do it who the hell should?"
"I'm sorry, I lost control for a minute."
"Good, I've been trying to get you to lose control for the last month. I want you to lose control! I want my husband back."
"Do you really want me back. Is that what you really want?"
She looked into my eyes, searching for something to tell her what was going on. "Yes it's what I want. I've been telling you for the last month it's what I want.
"Are you sure? I mean are you sure it's me you want, not your young lover?"
"No, of course not. I did what you said, I don't see him anymore."
She was good, but not good enough. She always fingered her wedding ring when she lied, and I saw she was doing just that. There was also that tremor in her voice.
"I need to think. I'm going out for a while."
"Can't it wait until after dinner? I'm almost ready to serve."
"Just put it on a plate and cover it. I'll heat it up when I get back."
I drove out to the lake and sat there watching the windsurfers taking advantage of the evening sunshine. I sat there until the sun went down, then drove back home. Barb met me at the door, grabbing my arm and putting her head on my shoulder.
"Have you done your thinking?"
"I wish sometimes you'd let me know what's going on in that head of yours."
"No Barb, I really don't think you'd want to know."
I ate alone as Barb hung around watching. After dinner I went to bed, leaving Barb watching TV.
The following day found me sitting outside a solicitors' office waiting for them to return from lunch. The solicitors' office was just across the road from our local college. I was sitting there in my van, watching the students come and go, when I noticed a group of six students walking in my direction. To be more accurate, five students and Barbara. They were all laughing and joking as they made their way across the road and into the pub on the corner. I have to admit it took me a while to recognise her, she looked so at home amongst them. I sat in the van watching the door of the pub, never noticing the solicitors and their secretaries returning to work. The sky clouded over, and a light drizzle started to fall.
I must have been there for forty-five minutes when I saw her come out. She was on her own, and decided to run back to work to avoid getting too wet. I crossed the road and walked into the bar. I could see them all grouped around a table by the window. I bought myself a pint of old peculiar and took a seat at the table next to them. The girls all got up and went to the toilet together. I sat there tuning in to their conversation,
"Are you serious, Ritchie man? Like anything at all? What about blow jobs? Does she do blow jobs?"
"I told you, Boz, anything! I'm going to have to start watching porn just to get some new ideas."
"So what are you gonna do with her, then? I mean she's a bit old Isn't she?"
"Maybe she is but she can more than keep up wiv me."
"Tell you what, Rich, you can pass her on to me when you've finished."
"Wassit worf then, Jonesy."
"You mean you're going to dump her?"
"Maybe, depends if I can get into Stephanie's knickers."
"I'll give you twenty quid for her."
"Twenty quid wouldn't even buy you a night, Jonesy boy. Hey, now there's an idea! I could rent her out!"
They all laughed as the girls came back.
"What 's so funny?" asked one of the girls.
"Richie's thinking about renting his MILF out" said the one known as Jonesy.
"Don't be so cruel." Said the other girl. "I think Babs is lovely, I wish my mum was like her."
"I wish I had tits like hers" said the first girl. "It beats me what she sees in you, Ritchie."
"She loves my big dick. Her old man can't get it up anymore. They sleep in separate rooms."
I felt anger and immense sorrow. How could the arsehole she'd risked so much for, disrespect her in such a way? I wanted to force his teeth down his throat. I wanted to castrate him with a beer glass. My promise to Barb kept coming back to me. "I won't touch him," I'd said. How could I be so stupid?
All through the conversation Ritchie had been watching the rain outside. Now I noticed him reaching into his pocket and fetching out his cigarettes. As he got his lighter out, Jonesy spoke to him.
"You can't light up in here, mate, it's against the law."
"Well I'm not going outside, it's pissing down out there. I need a fag, and if people don't like it they can fucking lump it."
I picked up my beer and went to sit at the bar. Despite my best efforts water was forming in my eyes. I wiped one as the landlord came over.
"You alright, mate?"
"What? Oh yeah, yeah, I'm fine, it's just the cigarette smoke. It's always made my eyes sting."
The landlord looked around the bar. Ritchie was trying to hide his cigarette in his cupped hand, but the rising smoke gave it away,
"Right, you lot get out."
Richie pinched out the cigarette and showed it to the landlord. Alright, alright, keep your hair on. It's out, look. OK?"
"Keep your hair on, that's a good one, Ritchie" said Jonesy, looking at the landlord's bald head.
"I didn't tell you to put it out. I told you to get out. Now you've got ten seconds before I get the dog."
He started to count down from 10.
"OK, were going. Never liked this fucking pub anyway."