When my wife died – too young, she was only twenty-five, a year younger than me – I was left alone in the large house (six bedrooms) that we'd intended to fill with children. Ironically, it was pregnancy that permitted the choriocarcinoma to occur that killed her. That the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage was merely salt in the wound.
I'm not the sort to kill myself, but I did neglect myself for quite some time. My employers (a successful, rapidly growing IT security company whose bonuses had permitted us to buy the house) though understanding, couldn't carry me for ever and I had little enthusiasm for work anyway. With Sal's insurance, I was in no difficulty in the short term; the mortgage paid off and enough in the bank to feed me. Not that I was very interested in food. Friends were very good and rarely a day went by without someone calling, often more than one, but I was going nowhere. At least, until a few months after the funeral. My neighbour, a motherly lady in her sixties, arrived with a beef casserole one lunch time and made me sit at the kitchen table to eat while she boiled a kettle and made tea.
"Now, Pete. This has gone on long enough. I'm not saying forget Sally, or stop grieving, but you need to get up and do something, or you'll be following her."
I shrugged apathetically.
"See? That's what I mean. You've got years of good life ahead and skills and talents that shouldn't be wasted."
I merely shrugged again.
"So ... it's not good that you're alone all the time for a start. You could take in students in some of those empty rooms you've got. As it happens, I know a group who need to get out of their house; there's five of them and they'd struggle to find somewhere this time of year, apart from the fact they'd have to separate."
I couldn't raise the energy to object, so merely shrugged again.
"I'll take that as a yes, then," she said briskly. "I expect they'll be round in the next day or so to meet you." Then she added, "I'll make a start on cleaning up the house a bit while you take a shower and change. They'll have their own bedlinen."
I didn't have the energy or motivation to think about it, so having finished the food I toddled off to shower and get some clean clothing.
It didn't occur to me the students might be female.
There were two blondes – one, I was sure, from a bottle, and three brunettes, one of whom had enough red in her hair to be described as auburn. They were all pretty enough, but in a wholesome sort of way; modestly dressed, the combination saying, 'Okay, we're pretty, and we're girls, but we're ladies and not interested in messing about.'
The taller of the brunettes smiled and held out a hand. "Mr. Botham? It's very kind of you to consider us. I'm Jessica." She turned and indicated the slightly plump girl to her left. "This is Julie..." and turning further, indicated the auburn haired one, "Holly..." then the bottle blonde, "Sam," and lastly the blonde, "Carla."
"I'm Pete Botham," I agreed. "Please, come in." Once they were all standing in the wide hallway, I said, "Missus Harper ... my neighbour ... told you about me? That I'm not a regular ... um ... lodging house?"
"Yes," that was Carla. "She told us you..." she blushed, "I mean, I'm ... we're really sorry about your wife," she stumbled, but carried on, "We know this isn't a shared house, it's your home. We're just grateful for somewhere to stay so we don't have to split up."
I winced a bit at the reference to Sal, but the wound had clearly scabbed over a bit. "Thanks," I said quietly. "Come with me and I'll give you the ten-pence tour."
As I said, it was a large house. In common with many large houses of the era, indoor sanitation was something of an afterthought. The master bedroom had en suite shower, basin and toilet, there was a shower-room with a basin and toilet, a bathroom with basin and toilet, and downstairs there was a toilet and hand-basin; the other bedrooms didn't have their own facilities, though two of them (the two in the attic) had a hand-basin. I pointed out that the bedroom doors didn't have working locks. The first floor (if you're American, that's the second floor, the one above the ground floor) bedrooms had locks but they'd long since been painted solid and lacked keys. The ... facilities had privacy locks with an outside coin-turn; we'd expected children and didn't want them to lock themselves in when they were big enough.
The ground floor had a large lounge or sitting room, a similar sized kitchen where I usually ate, a small study or office and what I called 'The Library', though there were bookshelves all over the house.
Front and rear were gardens – rather overgrown due to my neglect.
The girls were almost awe-struck.
"What a gorgeous house," Jessica said quietly as we arrived back in the hallway. She looked round at her friends, who were nodding and making agreeing noises. "Could we possibly stay? I mean ... are we acceptable to you? We can get references if you like?"
"Come to the kitchen," I said, "would you like tea? Coffee? Fruit juice?"
I sat them round the kitchen table, which is large enough for eight, not that we'd ever had that many guests.
"I'd like coffee, if it's not too much trouble," that was Carla, but the others were all nodding.
"We tend to drink a lot of coffee," Jessica admitted.
"No trouble. Anyone like hot milk with it?"
"I would, please," Sam spoke for the first time.
"Me, too," Carla said.
"I'd usually just have cold milk, but that would be a treat," Jessica said.
"Black for me," finished Julie.
"A girl after my own heart," I smiled, a pang touching my heart as I remembered sipping black coffee with Sal. I made coffee; heated and frothed milk. We sat round the battered, heavy old table. I didn't know how to handle it all, so I was silent.
We sipped coffee. Perhaps there was a little tension there, but I thought it was comfortable, somehow.
"So..." Jessica prompted.
I looked at her and took a deep breath. "I can hardly refuse you..."
"How much would you charge?"
The shock must have shown on my face.
"We don't expect to live here for free."
"I hadn't thought about it. Two days ago I hadn't considered having anyone else living here. What are you paying now?"
"Sixty pounds apiece except Julie. She'd got a smaller room – fifty."
"Joking ... right?"
"You mean ... you're each paying sixty pounds a week for just a room? Heat, light, food extra?"
She shrugged. "It's the going rate."
"Well, it isn't going here," I paused.
Her face fell.
"I think fifty each," I said consideringly. "If you'd be willing to share cooking from time to time ... that would be good."
"Fifty plus utilities?" Her face had brightened.
"Don't be silly. Though I suppose the heating bill will go up. Let's just see how it goes. There's a wireless router for broadband in my office. It's supposed to be powerful enough to be picked up in the attic – I'll give you the key when you move in."
They stared at me. "Are you serious?" Carla spoke barely above a whisper.
"Don't you think it's reasonable?"
"It's more than reasonable," Sam answered, "it's better than I, than we, could hope to find anywhere else. Thank you. Thank you."
And that is how it started. I helped them move in. They were considerate of my space; they didn't wander around in flimsy nighties or come out of the shower in only a towel. No loud music, or coming in drunk. I got used to having them around. We cooked for each other most evenings and, if they weren't going out, sat and watched T/V in the lounge.
At least, they watched T/V. I've never seen much point in X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and so on. But the lounge was the only room apart from the kitchen I kept really warm thanks to a wood-stove. Small radiators kept their rooms not quite cold and they preferred to sit in the lounge or kitchen, or so they said, so the electric bill wasn't boosted much by extra heating upstairs. I ate well and cooked more and better than I would have if I'd been alone.
Once or twice a week each might be out with the current boyfriend. At least, I assumed it was a boyfriend; it may have been a girlfriend, of course, or sometimes they'd all be out together, but not often.
The year wore on. I began to dread the warmer weather, but they continued to sit in the lounge or kitchen rather than their rooms most of the time. Then I began to dread the end of the academic year, thinking they'd all be going home and, what was worse, that they'd find somewhere else to live for the next year.
When the May exams were over, Jessica cornered me in the kitchen one day. "Pete, I ... you've been really good to us. I've a favour to ask. Two, really, I suppose."
"Go ahead." I was uneasy; not exactly anxious, but unsure what was coming.
"Firstly ... Julie and I have placements in the area. Could we stay through the summer?"
I didn't have to think about that. "Of course."
"And ... can we stay next year?"
"Are you happy with our rent? We've been thinking we must have put up your bills a lot. We were thinking, maybe, sixty a week would be fairer."
"Jessica, I'm just happy you want to stay. I was dreading you all leaving."
"Really? We must have impacted your life."
"Oh, you have. You have. But in a good way."
"Well, we love living here. Please, let us pay."
"You want to do this?"
"We're agreed we want to do this. Julie and I will pay our usual. The others will pay a retainer."
"I hardly think that's necessary. The rooms will be here when they come back."
Jessica looked at me seriously. "Well ... we'd budgeted for it, but I'm sure Sam, Holly and Carla will be grateful. Julie and I will be earning a bit, so we can afford to pay."
"Okay, if you insist."
"Oh, we do."
The house seemed rather empty with the three girls away, and Jessica and Julie were out for full working days and more. I got them to tell me when they'd be in so I could give them a good meal in the evening.
Everything went as usual until the beginning of August. Jessica was back from work. Julie had been in and gone out on a date, so we were eating alone in the kitchen. Happily, Jessica'd just taken the last mouthful of my light-as-a-feather-but-incredibly-fattening syrup sponge and custard, stifled a ladylike belch (is there such a thing? It was so discreet) and commented, "That was absolutely gorgeous. I bet I've put on ten pounds. You've really got to stop feeding me like this."
I was about to say something complimentary about her figure when we heard the front door slam and feet stamp their way upstairs.
"That did not sound good," I remarked.
"You're not wrong. I'd better go see," Jessica sighed.
I don't suppose I need to fill in the spaces. Julie had gone out for a date. They'd been going to quite a good restaurant and I was quite sure she expected him to propose. Presumably he hadn't.
Jessica – much later – gave me the bare bones, which were quite enough for me. Julie, being convinced Chris was 'the One', had given him her virginity some weeks previously. He'd made the most of his opportunity; she had at least gone on the pill once she'd decided. But that evening he told her he had a job in Aberdeen and he thought it best that they call it a day as long-distance relationships rarely worked. (I was going to insert here a suitable pejorative term, but couldn't think of one bad enough.)
Anyway, Julie was devastated. Her self-esteem had always been a little fragile. She was the quiet one when they'd come to see me in the first place.
Jessica was furious. So was I, come to that. "If it'd been me, I'd have castrated him with a blunt knife," she said later. "I mean, I know Darren and I won't be together forever and we both understand that, but what he did was just..." she screwed up her face, groping for a suitable word, "caddish, I suppose."
Julie moped about. She kept enough about her to keep up at work, though I'm sure she wasn't performing at one hundred percent. At home, though, she retreated into her shell, ate little and said less. This went on for nearly two weeks.
It was a Saturday evening. Jessica had cooked, insisting on doing so as I'd cooked each night during the week, and I'd waved them off while I did the washing-up. Julie had made a half-hearted attempt to help but I waved them both away. Perhaps that was a mistake, thinking about it.
Anyway, I left the dishes to drain and walked through to the lounge just in time to hear;
"God, Julie! You need to get laid! Don't wait around for Mister Right, take Mister Right Now. Someone you can trust, who is kind and won't screw you over."
I paused outside, listening. There was a murmuring, I assumed from Julie, then Jessica again, "What about Pete? I know he likes you, he's a good guy..."
I walked as quietly as I could back to the kitchen, thought, and boiled the kettle. While the water was heating, I made up a tray. I wasn't at all sure about what I'd heard, how to deal with it. I mean, Julie was a nice girl. If a little ... plumper than is fashionable, she was quite presentable. She wasn't the one I'd have chosen to go for. Actually, of course, I'd made a policy decision not to make a move on any of them. But if I had, my first choice would have been Holly and my second, Jessica.
I picked up the tray and walked firmly to the lounge; manipulated the lever with my knee, pushed the door to open it and went in.
"At last!" Jessica sighed, "we've just been talking about you. Tea! Wonderful!"
I set the tray down. "I thought my ears were burning. So what have I done wrong?"
"Got a guilty conscience, Pete? Why would you think you've done something wrong?"
"I don't. But I know enough about women to know that I don't have to do something wrong to be in the wrong..."
She giggled. "Nothing like that. Now, Pete. You like Julie, don't you?"
"Of course. I like all of you..." I had the feeling of being backed rapidly into a corner.
"I mean, you think she's pretty, don't you?"
"Well, I..." I stumbled a little. Watching the two girls I saw Julie's already downcast face become even more woebegone. "Jessica, when you all came, I made a decision that I wouldn't get involved ... physically, that is ... with any of you. I didn't want to take a chance things would be awkward, I mean..."
Jessica glared at me and my heart sank. She stood, approached me and whispered in my ear, "She's all yours. You'd better do The Right Thing. Or else." Then left the room; leaving me with Julie who by that point had tears pouring down her cheeks.
I don't suppose I'm the only male helpless in the face of female tears. I sat next to her and held out my arm; she climbed on my lap and buried her face against my neck ... and sobbed. My arms closed around her without any conscious intention on my part and I just held her. Despite the situation, something stirred ... and since she was sitting on it, it was uncomfortable. Her tears subsided and I managed to extract a handkerchief from my pocket and hand it to her so she could wipe her face. As she did so, a curious expression crossed her tear-stained features, followed by the first smile – slight, but a smile – I'd seen from her in weeks.
She wriggled on my lap. "You do." And then she kissed me.
Freud reckoned people have three levels in their personality. The 'ego' is the conscious part that we think of as the self. We also have the 'super-ego', often called the conscience, and the 'id'. Now the 'id' is our collection of instinct, animal, biological drives and in theory the ego is balanced between the id and the super-ego. In some, the super-ego severely limits what a person will allow him or herself to do; in others, the id has almost free rein.
What I'm saying here is that for almost a year my conscience had prevented me from even thinking about any of the girls as potential partners, but Julie's distress had weakened my resolve to keep my distance. Her physical contact made me aware – you might say, painfully aware – of her desirability and my 'lackanookie' condition. The last shreds of restraint dissolved in the effects of that kiss and when she took her lips away ... not far ... I followed and kissed her back. She tasted sweet, with hints of what we'd eaten for supper. Our hands wandered. My, but she felt good. I later consoled myself with the thought that she was on top of me and could have backed off any time. Maybe. For me, I don't think there could have been any turning back.
Do you remember the Rastus and Liza jokes? There was one where they were making love on railway tracks. The driver of an oncoming train sounded his horn and applied the brakes and the train stopped bare inches from the couple. When asked why they hadn't moved, Rastus replied, "Well, the train was comin', and Liza was comin', and I was comin' ... and the train was the only one with brakes."
I slid down the seat and Julie slid with me. Her hand was rummaging around my groin even as we were kissing; then my fly was open and she was pulling out my painfully erect penis, pushing aside the crotch of her panties and lowering herself onto me. It was ... well, I wasn't thinking much at the time to worry about what it was like, just that there was heat, slippery moisture and a clenching grasp. I remember frantic movement, groans, gasps and at least one scream about the time the pressure released inside me as I came.
A dam was broken somewhere inside me and I wept, not really knowing why; Julie wept too and our tears mingled on my face, but I held her ... much as a drowning man might cling to a bit of flotsam.
Later she lifted up so she could look in my eyes. "Thank you," she said simply, before laying down on me again. Later still, she spoke into my neck, "We're making a mess." Long after that, "May I use your shower, please? And will you scrub my back?" She got off me, reached out and took my hand, tugging it until I moved. I stood – very aware of my exposed, sticky equipment which I fumbled back into my pants. Aware also of the secretions smeared over my clothes. We made our way to my room, Julie in the lead, and there removed our clothing; Julie stood nude in front of me, spread her arms and rotated slowly, keeping her eyes on me as long as possible. What she saw there must have satisfied her, because she smiled and held out a hand. I took it and she led me into the en suite, adjusted the water temperature to her satisfaction, and pulled me into the shower.
I couldn't help recalling showering with Sal, but perhaps the tears were concealed by the water from the shower as Julie didn't comment; or maybe she just understood.
We'd been silent as we washed each other and as we towelled each other dry; it was only as we stood back in the bedroom and I wondered what came next that Julie spoke.
"Is it too early to go to bed?"
"On whether it's bed together or alone."
"Oh, definitely together ... if ... you don't mind."
"Then it's not too early."
It was ... I hate to use the word 'nice' ... comforting, enjoyable, pleasant and various other adjectives work too ... to cuddle together with a young and attractive woman. As we lay there I fondled her breast, which was a nice, firm handful.
She hummed. "I like that." After a pause, "Pete, do you mind ... I mean, Jessica; plus me, I suppose ... we forced you into this ... I thought ... well, you were crying, weren't you?"
"I was crying..." I said no more for several minutes, but she didn't press me, just lay there making appreciative noises as I caressed her. "I'm not sure why. I think I was just facing my ... loss. Maybe crying for you, too. I don't know, honestly. But what about you? Where are you in all this?
"I'm cuddling, naked in bed, with a man I like and respect, who I believe cares for me. That's enough for me right now."
Much later, in the same position, "Sex changes things," I said.
"So it does. Do you think anything would be more changed if you made love to me now?"
"I don't think so. Shall we try to test the hypothesis with a practical experiment?"