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A great wave of despair came over her. She knew she must not lose her temper, that the whole visit would have been useless if it ended in a row. She could hear Joe asking her mildly why on earth she took such long, wearying journeys if it only ended up making them all tense and unhappy.
Joe had life worked out all right.
She felt an ache, a physical ache to be with him and to sit on the floor by his chair while he stroked her hair.
She hadn't known it was possible to love somebody so intensely, and as she looked at the troubled man and woman sitting obediently on the sofa in front of her, she wondered if they had ever known any fraction of this kind of love. You never could think of your parents expressing love, it was gross beyond imagining to think of them coupling and loving like real people did . . . like she and Joe did. But Anna knew that everyone felt that about parents.
"Listen," she said, "I have to make a phone call. I want you to stop worrying about dinner for a moment, and just talk to each other about what you'd really like, then I'll start organizing it. Right?" Her eyes felt suspiciously bright. Maybe the little drinks hadn't agreed with her.
She went to the phone. She would find an excuse to talk to Joe, nothing heavy; just to hear his voice would make her feel fine again. She would tell him that she'd be home a little earlier than she thought, would she get Chinese take-out or a pizza or just some ice cream? She wouldn't tell him now or later how bleakly depressing her old home was, how sad and low her parents made her feel, how frustrated and furious. Joe Ashe wanted to hear none of this.
She dialed her ownnumber.
The phone was answered immediately; he must have been in the bedroom. It was a girl's voice.
Anna held the phone away from her ear like people often do in movies to show disbelief and confusion. She was aware she was doing this.
"Hello?" the girl said again.
"What number is that?" Anna asked.
"Hang on, the phone's on the floor, I can't read it. Wait a sec." The girl sounded good-natured. And young.
Anna stood there paralyzed. In the flat in Shepherd's Bush, the phone was indeed on the floor. To answer it you had to lean out of bed.
She didn't want the girl to struggle anymore; she knew the number.
"Is Joe there?" she asked. "Joe Ashe?"
"No, sorry, he went out for cigarettes, he'll be back in a few minutes."
Why hadn't he put the answering machine on? Anna asked herself. Why had he not automatically turned the switch, like he did always when leaving the flat? In case his agent rang. In case the call that would mean recognition came. Now the call that meant discovery had come instead.
She leaned against the wall of the house where she had grown up. She needed something to give her support.
The girl didn't like silences. "Are you still there? Do you want to ring him back or is he to ring you or what?"
"Um . . . I'm not sure." Anna fought for time.
If she got off the phone now, he would never know that she had found out. Things would be the same as they were; nothing would have changed. Suppose she said wrong number, or it doesn't matter, or I'll call again. The girl would shrug, hang up, and maybe might not even mention to Joe that someone had called and rung off. Anna would never ask, she wouldn't disturb what they had.
But what had they? They had a man who would bring a girl to her bed, to her bed, as soon as she was out of the house. Why try to preserve that? Because she loved him, and if she didn't preserve it, there would be a big screaming emptiness and she would miss him so much that she would die.
Suppose she said she'd hold on, and then confronted him? Would he be contrite? Would he explain that it was a fellow actress and they were just learning their lines?
Or would he say it was over? And then the emptiness and ache would begin.
The girl was anxious not to lose the call in case it might be a job for Joe.
"Hang on, I'll write down your name if you like, won't be a jiff, just let me get up, should be up anyway. . . . Let's see, there's some kind of a desk over here by the window. No, it's a dressing table . . . but there's an eyebrow pencil or something. Right, what's the name?"
Anna felt the bitter bile in her throat. In her bed, lying under the beautiful expensive bedspread she had bought last Christmas, was a naked girl who was now going to carry the phone across to the simple table where Anna's makeup stood.
"Does the phone stretch all right?" Anna heard herself asking.
The girl laughed. "Yes, it does, actually."
"Good. Well, put it down for a moment on the chair, the pink chair, and reach up onto the mantelpiece, good, and you'll find a spiral-backed pad with a pencil attached by a string."
"Hey?" The girl was surprised but not uneasy.
Anna continued. "Good, put back the eye pencil, it's kohl anyway, it wouldn't write well. Now just put down for Joe: "Anna rang. Anna Doyle. No message.'"
"Sure he can't ring you back?" A hint of anxiety had crept into the voice of yet another woman who was going to spend weeks, months, even years of her life trying to please Joe Ashe, say the right thing, not risk losing him.
"No, no, I'm with my parents at the moment. In fact, I'll be staying here the night. Could you tell him that?"
"Does he know where to find you?"
"Yes, but there's no need to ring me. I'll catch up on him another time."
When she had hung up, she stood holding on to the table for support. She remembered telling them that the hall was the very worst place to have a telephone. It was cold, it was too public, it was uncomfortable. Now she blessed them for having taken no notice of her.
She stood for a few moments, but her thoughts would not be gathered, they ran and scurried like mice around in her head. Finally, when she thought she had at least recovered the power of speech, she went back into the room where her mother and father sat. They who had never known the kind of love she knew or the kind of hurt. She said that if it wouldn't put them out, she'd like to stay the night, then they'd have all the time in the world to discuss the plans.
"You don't have to ask can you stay the night in your own home," her mother said, pleased and fussing. "I'll put a hot-water bottle in the bed just in case, the rooms are all there for you, not that any of you ever come and stay in them."
"Well, I'd love to tonight." Anna's smile was nailed firmly on her face.
They had gotten to the actual numbers that should be invited when Joe rang. She went to the phone calmly.
"She's gone," he said.
"Has she?" Her voice was detached.
"Yes. It wasn't important."
"No need for you to stay over and make a big scene and meaning-of-life confrontation."
"Oh, no, none of that."
He was nonplussed.
"So what are you going to do?" he asked.
"Stay here, as I told your friend."
"But not forever?"
"Of course not, just tonight."
"Then tomorrow night after work . . . you'll be home?"
"Yes, indeed, and you'll be packed."
"Anna, don't be so dramatic."
"Absolutely not, calmness itself. Stay there tonight, of course. No, for heaven's sake there's no need to go immediately. Just tomorrow evening. Right?"
"Stop this, Anna, I love you, you love me, I'm not lying to you."
"And neither am I to you, Joe, about tomorrow night. Truly."
She hung up.
When he called back ten minutes later, she answered the phone herself.
"Please don't be tiresome, Joe. That's a great word of yours . . . tiresome. You hate when people press you on things and ask you about things that concern them, tiresome you call it. Maybe I'm learning from you."
"We have to talk. . . ."
"Tomorrow after work. After my work, that is, you don't have any work, do you? We can talk then for a bit like about where I'm to send your mail, and there won't be any answering machine messages, so you'd better set something else up."
"But . . ."
"I won't come to the phone again, you'll have to talk to my father, and you always said he was a nice bloke with nothing to say. . . ."
She went back to the discussion. She saw that her mother and father were wondering about the phone calls.
"Sorry for the interruptions, I've been having a row with Joe Ashe, my boyfriend. It's very antisocial to bring it into this house, if he rings again I won't talk to him."
"Is it serious, the row?" her mother asked hopefully.
"Yes, Mother, you'll be glad to know it's fairly serious as rows go. Possibly final. Now let's see what people should have to eat."
And as she told them about a very nice woman called Philippa who ran a catering business, Anna Doyle's mind was far away. Her mind was back in the days when things had been new and exciting and when her life was filled to every corner by the presence of Joe.
It would be hard to fill up all those parts again.
She said that they could ask for sample menus and decide what they wanted. They would write to everyone in very good time, individual letters, personal letters with the invitation, that would mean it was special.
"It is special, isn't it? Twenty-five years married?" She looked from one to the other, hoping for reassurance. The cozy, claustrophobic sense of family that the Doyles had managed to create around them. To her surprise and regret it didn't seem to be there tonight. Mother and Father looked uncertain about whether a quarter of a century of marriage had been a good thing. This was the one time in her life that Anna needed some sense that things were permanent, that even if her own world was shifting, the rest of civilization was on fairly solid ground.
But maybe she was only reading her own situation into it all, like those poets who believed in the pathetic fallacy, who thought that nature changed to suit their moods, and that skies were gray when they were gray.
"We'll make it a marvelous occasion," she told her father and mother. "It's going to be even better than your wedding day, because we're all here to help celebrate it."
She was rewarded with two smiles and she realized it would at least be a project for the great, yawning, frighteningly empty summer that lay ahead of her.