Scene: Rural England. Time: The 1950s.
Mrs Wagstaff's Ladies' Circle had an unspoken code with regard to each other's husbands, but as it was never spoken of, there was no agreement as to what it entailed. The more conservative among them assumed that it put all the other ladies' husbands completely out of bounds in every way. Some even took it upon themselves to report any observed signs of wayward behaviour by the husband of a fellow member of the circle, in order that the wronged wife might apply the necessary sanctions to bring the errant male to heel. The more adventurous ladies of the circle, however, interpreted the code less stringently, supposing that it regulated not what might be done, so much as how it should be done. In their view dalliance was permissible, provided that it was discreet and did not threaten a marriage or cause distress.
Sophie Kendall's views on the matter were, without doubt, on the extreme wing of the liberal side. She dearly loved her husband Alan, the local doctor. He was sober and reliable, as one might expect of a professional man. He was devoted to her, and, she was sure, utterly faithful. He was everything that a girl might wish for in a husband. But, she thought, contemplating his virtues, did that not make him, well, a trifle dull? When she had first met him he was still a medical student, and they had shared a carefree romance, pursuing a life of fun and pleasure. During his years as a houseman, however, gaiety had been replaced by responsibility, and the effervescence subsided. Now, with eight years of marriage and her thirtieth birthday behind her, she found herself hankering for something to put the fizz back into her life, and her roving eye settled upon Andrew Riley, the owner of the hardware shop.
Andrew's parents had been stall holders in an East End market. He had passed the scholarship examination and gone on to grammar school, but his hopes of getting a degree or professional qualification were dashed when both his parents died before he had taken his Higher School Certificate. He left school in order to run the family business, and found himself getting a second education in the cut and thrust of market trading. He was as adept commercially as he had been scholastically. By his mid-twenties he had acquired some capital and could afford to marry his childhood sweetheart, Rosalind, and start a family.
Andrew was not ashamed of his working class origins, but he wanted to give his offspring a better start in life. When Stanley Gold's drapery shop in Nutcombe came onto the market, he seized the chance to move out of London and into the middle class. He knew that the business was being sold because Stanley had died in debt, but he believed that he could make it a success. And that he did, by hard work and commercial acumen, with the unfailing support of his wife, who ran his household and helped with the business. Fifteen years after marrying as a market trader in the East End of London, he was now a prosperous shopkeeper in a rural community, with a thriving business, a loyal wife, and a captivating eight year old daughter.
Andrew could not deny that he had everything he had hoped for, and yet he did not feel satisfied. He missed the easy-going rough and tumble of the street market, the repartee, and the saucy innuendoes. Rosalind was a model wife, but were there not other, more exciting, relationships a man could have with a woman? And so, when Sophie Kendall began to flirt with him in an unmistakable, not to say outrageous, manner, he responded in kind. It was, after all, merely a form of harmless entertainment, was it not? There was no chance of their actually consummating an affair, was there? Not in Nutcombe, where little escaped public notice. It was, therefore, with an easy conscience that he exchanged looks and glances with Sophie, indulged in suggestive banter with her, stroked her palm when shaking hands, slipped an arm around her waist when no-one was looking, patted her backside if opportunity allowed, and exchanged a kiss or two when they were alone for a moment. It didn't mean anything, did it? Not anything serious, anyway.
One Friday morning late in August, when he was alone with Sophie in his shop, she asked, "You will be going to the Nutchester Fine Arts Ball, won't you?"
"Of course," he assured her, "and I expect we'll see you there?"
"You'd better believe it, lover boy. I've booked us a room."
Innocently he replied, "Yes, we've taken a room too."
She looked at him pityingly. "You and Rosalind may well have taken a room. Alan and I have taken a room as well. But I've taken another room, a room for us, for you and me, pour toi et moi, tu comprends?"
"But . . ., but . . ., but . . ." he stammered.
She laughed, "You sound like a motor boat!"
"But we'll never get away with it," he protested. "We'd be certain to be missed."
"You're really not very good at this, are you? I think I like that. Don't worry, I've worked it all out. This is how we'll manage it." And she explained what she had in mind.
The following day, Sophie called upon Rosalind Riley, and over coffee she confided, "Ros, I'm worried that Alan might not be faithful to me."
Rosalind was shocked. "Oh, Sophie! Are you sure? Who's the other woman?"
"Oh, I don't think there's another woman, not yet anyway. I just get the feeling that he is thinking of having an affair."
"Are you sure you're not just imagining it? Who would he have an affair with, anyway?"
"Well, with you, perhaps."
"Sophie! How can you suggest such a thing? I'm sure I've never done anything to encourage any such idea!"
"I know you haven't, Ros. Don't get me wrong. I'm not accusing you of leading him on. But haven't you noticed the way he looks at you sometimes? I have."
"Well, I can assure you, Sophie, that if he ever makes a pass at me, I'll let him know just where he gets off, that's for sure."
"No, Ros, don't do that. I'd rather you played him along a bit."
"What? What on earth for?"
"Well, for one thing, it's no good a husband being faithful just because he's never had the opportunity to be anything else, is it? I want to know that he can resist temptation. I want you to test him for me. And apart from that, right now I know who he's got his eye on — you — and I know I can trust you. But if you turn him down, who knows who he might turn to, and how far she might go? Good heavens, suppose it was the mademoiselle?"
They both giggled at the thought of Alan falling into the clutches of the local man-eater, Mlle Eugenie Lascelles.
"But seriously, Sophie, you're not suggesting that I should actually have an affair with your husband?"
"No, of course not, not all the way at any rate. But just test him to see how far he will go, and if he goes far enough, I can catch him in a situation where he won't be able to deny what he's up to. That should be enough to teach him a lesson."
"Well, if that's really what you want. But I don't see how you expect to catch him."
"I'll think of something. Come round for a meal and I'll let you know what I've come up with. How would Tuesday suit you?"
That night, as Rosalind sat at her dressing table getting ready for bed, she turned over in her mind what Sophie had told her. She found it unsettling, an unexpected disturbance to the tranquillity of her married life. She loved Andrew, and did not mind being his "other half," subjugating her own desires to his. She had willingly eschewed youthful indiscretion for middle-aged conformity, forgoing the furnace of dangerous passion in favour of the comfortable warmth of conventional domesticity, because that, she believed, was what her husband expected of her. She had never regretted it, and indeed had never once considered that there could be any alternative — not, that is, until now. The idea that a man other than her husband found her attractive, perhaps even lusted after her, was, she found, not entirely distasteful. That the man was the young, successful, and good-looking Alan Kendall made her feel proud rather than ashamed. Ordinarily, she could not have treated him as anything closer than a family friend. But, if Sophie was to be believed, things were not ordinary. She could, it seemed, have her cake and eat it. She could flirt with Alan for his own good, and with his wife's consent, at his wife's urgent bidding even. Her initial unease gave way to pleasurable anticipation.
On Monday morning Alan Kendall made a purchase in the hardware store. There was no other customer in the shop, and he was about to leave when Andrew said to him, "By the way, Alan, I hope my wife hasn't been making a nuisance of herself."
"A nuisance? Rosalind? No, not at all. In fact, I don't think she has consulted me for months. There's nothing wrong with her, I hope?"
"I don't mean professionally, Alan, I mean personally. I hope she hasn't been pestering you."
"Pestering me? What do you mean? Why should she?"
"Because she fancies you, of course. Don't tell me you haven't noticed?"
"Fancies me? Oh no, you're mistaken there, Andrew, honestly you are. There is absolutely nothing going on between us, I assure you."
"I know that, Alan, and you know that, but I don't think Rosalind does. She fancies her chances with you."
"Well, if you're right, and I'm still not sure you are, I shall have to disabuse her the next time I see her."
"Oh no, don't do that, old man, please. It would hurt her feelings, and besides, so long as it's only you she's making a play for, I can rely on you not to let it get out of hand. If you turn her down, who knows who she'll look to on the rebound, that cad Snoad maybe."
Alan shuddered. "Ugh! I wouldn't wish him on any woman. But I still don't understand what you expect me to do. You surely don't want me to respond to her advances? If she makes any, that is, which I don't think she will."
"Well, not all the way, of course. But perhaps just enough to get her to commit herself. If we arrange it so that I can catch her in a compromising situation, as they say, I think it would give her a scare and bring her to her senses."
"And how are you going to arrange this dénouement, then?"
"You've invited us to dinner tomorrow, haven't you? I'll have something worked out by then."
That night Alan thought over what Andrew had told him. There had been a time, in his youth, when he would have considered it "a bit of a lark." Now, however, he found it disturbing. Why was that, he wondered? Was he now a different person to the one he used to be? Or was he trying to repress his true personality in order to conform? He behaved as his professional code demanded, and as his wife expected him to. It was his duty to provide stability in their marriage, to be a steadfast pillar of strength. Sophie did not want a Lothario or a gay dog — she wanted a husband, a good, solid, reliable husband. But was that really him? Perhaps this was his chance to find out. Here was an opportunity to practice a little philandering, with absolutely no danger. He would go slowly, so that if Andrew was wrong, and Rosalind did not fancy him, he could back off without having betrayed himself. But if Andrew was right, if his advances were not rejected, who knows what might happen? Rosalind was an attractive woman. It would be no hardship to flirt with her. He might learn something about himself, and he might have a little fun, all in complete safety. Nobody would be deceived, so nobody could be hurt.
When Andrew and Rosalind Riley arrived at the Kendalls' house that Tuesday, Sophie took Rosalind upstairs on the pretext of showing her some new clothes. Once safely out of earshot of the two men, however, she revealed her true intent.
"Listen, Ros, I've thought of a way to test Alan. I want you to arrange a tryst with him at the Fine Arts Ball. Tell him you have booked a room where you two can be alone. But before the time of the assignation, you and I will exchange costumes, and it will be me waiting for him instead of you. I'll keep my face hidden until he has said something incriminating, and then, wham! I'll reveal myself, and he won't have a leg to stand on!"
Rosalind frowned. "It sounds a bit complicated, Sophie. Are you sure it will work?"
"Of course it will. I've already booked the room, Room 102. When we come to choose our costumes, you and I will pick something to make the changeover easier. With a bit of luck we can find two costumes where we only have to exchange accessories in order to swap characters."
"Well, if you're sure. I'll give it a go then."
"Good. After dinner, I'll get Alan to do the washing-up. You volunteer to help him, then when you're alone with him in the kitchen, you can do the deed. I'll make sure that you're not disturbed. Don't forget, Room 102."
As soon as their wives had gone upstairs, Andrew button-holed Alan. "Listen, Alan, while the girls are gone. I think I've found out what Rosalind is up to. She has booked an extra room at the hotel for the night of the Fine Arts Ball. It can only be because she hopes to entice you up there."
"But I've thought of a way to hoist her with her own petard. If she suggests a cosy rendezvous for the pair of you, pretend to go along with it. But before the appointed time, you and I will switch costumes, and I will go up in your place! I'll not reveal my true identity until the last moment, then voila! she'll have been caught, well, not in flagrante exactly, but as near as damn it!"
"Sounds a bit fraught to me, old man. All sorts of things could go wrong."
"Not if we play our cards right. To make it easier, we two can choose costumes that are distinctive, but easily switched without too much bother. Look, after dinner, why don't you volunteer to do the washing up? I'll get Rosalind to go and help you. That will give her the chance to proposition you while you're in the kitchen."
At dinner the conversation turned to the ball and the costumes they would wear. Alan and Rosalind both favoured an attempt at co-ordination, suggesting that each couple should go as a pair. Romeo and Juliet were suggested, or Napoleon and Josephine, or even, amid laughter, Adam and Eve. Andrew and Sophie, however, both strongly urged independent choice, arguing that it was more amusing to see Henry VIII escorting Boadicea, or Captain Bligh with Cleopatra. They won the day, and it was agreed that the four of them should go together to the costumiers in two weeks time, and that they should each choose their own costume.
After dinner, Sophie said to Alan, "Seeing that I cooked the meal . . .," but he had already pushed back his chair, saying, "You lot stay and finish the wine. I'll do the washing up."
"I'll give you a hand," Rosalind offered, and the two of them cleared the table and repaired to the kitchen. "I'll wash and you wipe. You know where things go," Rosalind suggested. "Have you got a pinny I can wear?"
Alan took an apron down from a hook behind the door. When he turned back to her, she had already donned a pair of yellow rubber gloves and was standing, waiting for him to put the apron on her. He slipped the neck band over her head, which brought him closely face to face with her.
"Cross the belt behind and tie it at the front," she breathed, and raised her arms to give him easier access.
He took the tapes in his hands and reached around her, his arms around her waist. She stepped forward into him and raised her face, her arms over his shoulders. They stood motionless for a moment, holding the pose.
He was thinking, "Andrew was right: she is definitely making a play for me."
She was thinking, "This is it. If he doesn't kiss me now, I'll know Sophie was wrong."
He kissed her.
They broke, and he finished tying the apron strings, his eyes looking down at what he was doing.
"That was nice," she said, "but we've got some dirty dishes to see to."
She turned to the sink and began to wash up, leaning forward a little more than was necessary, projecting her bottom backward. As she finished each item, instead of placing it to drain, she held it out for Alan to take, not holding it back towards him, or even out sideways, but rather forward of sideways, so that he had to reach across her to get it, his hip unavoidably brushing her backside. Each time this happened, she did nothing to avoid the contact, but pushed back against him.
When they had finished the washing up, she removed the gloves and apron and said, "I've taken an extra hotel room for the night of the ball. I'll be waiting there for you, if you want me. Room 102. Don't forget." Without waiting for a reply, she left the kitchen and joined the others.
The following week, Andrew and Rosalind invited the Kendalls to dine. After the meal, Andrew and Sophie volunteered to wash up.
As soon as they were gone, Rosalind sat next to Alan and said urgently, in a low voice, "It's no good, Alan, I've got to tell you. You must forget that business between us last week. It wasn't my idea. Sophie put me up to it, to get you to come to my room during the ball. Only, she and I were going to change costumes, so it wouldn't be me waiting for you, it would be her. But I can't go through with it. You're too nice a guy."
She looked at Alan apprehensively, expecting him to be angry at the deception. To her astonishment, after a moment's pause to take in what she had said, he collapsed into laughter.
"Well, I don't know what there is to laugh at. I don't see anything funny in it."
"You will when you hear what I've got to say. You see, my accepting your alluring invitation was also a put-up job. Andrew talked me into it. At the ball, he and I were going to exchange costumes, so when you welcomed your lover to your room, it wouldn't be me, but him."
"What? But if Sophie took my place, and Andrew took yours, then . . ."
"Exactly! It wouldn't be me going up to you, it would be Andrew going up to Sophie! And you would have conspired to put Sophie in your place, and I would have conspired to send Andrew up in my place, so neither of us would have been able to complain!"
"Well, of all the . . .!"
"Yes, isn't it a beauty! I detect Sophie's fine hand in it. With all due respect to your Andrew, I don't think he's got it in him to invent as crafty a plan as that. It's got Sophie's hallmark written all over it. It's just the sort of scheme she used to come up with when we were students. You should have seen the pranks and stunts she used to pull. What a girl she was!"
"All the same, just wait till they come back in! I'll have a thing or two to say to the pair of them!"
"No, don't do that, Rosalind. I've got a better idea. Don't let on we know. We're one up on them now, and I think I can see a way to turn the tables on them."
Later that week Alan went into Nutchester alone. First he went to the Imperial Hotel and booked a room in the name of John Doe for the night of the ball. He was offered Room 151. He told reception that there would be some advance luggage delivered, and he would like it to be in the room when he arrived. He left a substantial tip to seal the bargain, and took a few sheets of hotel notepaper with him when he left. Next he visited the costumiers and had a long consultation with the manager, during which money changed hands. He then returned to Nutcombe.
A few days later the four friends went into Nutchester to choose their costumes for the ball.
Before they left, Sophie took Rosalind aside and said, "Don't forget, we've got to choose outfits that will be easy to swap."
At the same time, Alan was receiving a similar caution from Andrew. Alan had already given special instructions to Rosalind that she was not to choose any costume unless the assistant had said, "That suits you perfectly, madam." He promised to explain later, but impressed upon her the importance of hearing those key words before accepting any outfit.