Two's Company

Elsa Halling

(1400 words)

From the aeroplane window the city falls away beneath me, my stomach plummeting with it.  I'm a nervous flyer and even with Ray beside me I still feel uneasy.  "It'll soon be over," he reassures me, squeezing my hand and I smile uncertainly.  As I try to relax I think back to the early days of our relationship.

My mind returned to one of our early dates.  The pub was busy, and we were lucky to get a table in the dining area.  "This place always used to be very good." Ray said as he passed me a menu, "It used to look rather 'olde worlde' with horse brasses, dark oak furniture and a roaring fire in Winter," he went on, "then the brewery did it up."  I looked around; pine had replaced dark oak and there was no sign of horse brasses or a roaring fire; pale walls gave the area a spacious feeling.
   "I rather like it", I said, "the menu looks promising too."
   "Yes, it used to be one of Meg's favourites," Ray said absently, studying the menu I'd passed back to him.  It was the first time he'd mentioned his late wife since we had started seeing each other socially and the mention of her gave me a slight frisson.  I wondered what Meg would think of the pub now.
The meal was good, and we enjoyed our evening, but I couldn't shake off the sense that it was somehow illicit; I felt the shadow of Meg shrouding us as we ate and talked, although her name had not been mentioned again.

I first met Ray in the Brickmaker's Arms, his 'local', when I did some part-time work there.  I'd needed something to fill the evenings as my twenty-five year-old marriage had finally fallen apart and divorce was imminent.  Ray's a very sociable guy and I liked him immediately he walked into the bar.
   "Hello there, nice to see a new face in the old place," he said, "pint of McNaughton's please."  I pulled his pint.
   "There you are, sir."
   "It's a long time since I've been called 'sir' in this place," he laughed.

Ray's a wiry man, probably just below average height and when I first knew him had thick blond hair.  His blue eyes crinkled at the corners when he laughed, which was frequently.  I learned that Ray was plumber with a reputation for meticulous work.  Sometimes Meg came to the pub with him.  She was a jolly woman and shared Ray's sense of humour.  Her laugh was distinctive; I could always tell when she was in the pub even if I hadn't seen her come in.  They seemed very devoted and I envied them.  They called in for a drink one evening to celebrate their wedding anniversary.  "We went to the same school," she told me conspiratorially as she leaned across the bar, "I don't think Ray ever went out with anyone else."  Glancing over her shoulder at her husband she chuckled, "I had a few other boyfriends before we started going steady, but Ray was too shy.  He was at a dance with his mates and only asked me to dance because he already knew me!"

When my divorce came through I needed a change of direction.  Leaving the "Brickmaker's" I went back to my old job in the tax office; I even applied for a promotion.  With my settlement I bought a little house.  It was in good condition apart from the bathroom, which needed renovating.  Immediately I thought of Ray.

He did a brilliant job fitting the new suite and tiling the walls, but I almost didn't recognise him when he arrived on my doorstep.  The person standing in front of me was not the Ray I had last seen joking over a drink at the Brickmaker's.  His blond hair was now silver and the calligraphy of fine lines which used to define his face were now deeply etched furrows.  "Hello Jean," he said, "you've changed your hairstyle!"
   "So have you! Come in, it's good to see you," I said, hoping my grin had concealed my shock at the change in him.  But clearly I hadn't fooled him.
   "I'm surprised you still recognise me," he said ruefully.  I made a pot of tea for us both and as he stirred the two spoons of sugar into his he told me what had happened.
   "Meg died," he said bleakly, and explained how she had suddenly been taken ill.  In hospital she had been diagnosed with a kidney disease and had died just five weeks later.  "It was all very sudden," he said, "even after nearly three years I still can't believe it's happened."   I was so shocked and saddened by his news I hardly knew what to say.

We talked a lot during that week.  He hadn't lost his sense of humour but some of the sparkle had gone from him.  Afterwards we met regularly for a drink or a meal and although Ray always brought me home from our dates he never came in.  He rarely mentioned Meg, but like that evening in the pub I often seemed to feel her presence as an unseen third person watching over our outings.  I was becoming very fond of Ray, but the spectre of Meg always seemed to hover, inhibiting any attempts at intimacy.  It's not easy competing with a ghost, and the fact that I had known and liked her made it harder still.

Gradually we began to see each other more frequently.  Often I felt Meg's aura when we were together, but it was quite benign and had ceased to disturb me.  Ray's attitude to me was always warm and affectionate, but very proper.  Then at last to my delight he came in for a coffee one evening, and ventured a goodnight kiss.  It was warm and tender, but with a hint of restraint.  This was more like it!  I wanted our relationship to develop into something permanent, but wasn't sure how he felt.  Perhaps he was comfortable with the status quo.

Then one evening some months later he surprised me with a suggestion.  "Jean," he said as we sat together on my settee, "what would you say to a holiday together, perhaps somewhere like Tenerife?"
   "I'd say it sounds wonderful!" I replied enthusiastically, inwardly ecstatic.
   "I was hoping you'd say that, I've got some brochures in the car."  We sat together choosing a location and hotel.   "Single rooms, of course," Ray said.
   "Of course," I heard myself echoing primly, conscious of the third presence in the room.

Just before our holiday was due the letter arrived.  I poked my finger into the corner of the envelope and tore it open.  It was an offer of promotion.  "Great!" I yelled and punched the air.  I read on; the job was not in my tax office, but in one fifty miles away.  It was a tempting offer; greater responsibility and a higher salary but reality took over.  It was too far to commute; I'd have to move house and it would mean seeing far less of Ray.  The bubble of my euphoria burst instantly.  I had three weeks in which to reply.  The holiday would give me time to think and test the water with Ray.  His reaction to the news would help me decide.

The plane touches down safely, and tension drains away from me like bathwater when the plug is pulled.  Outside the air-conditioned buildings the evening air is still warm and the scent of jacaranda and bougainvillea assails our senses.  I can hear cicadas tuning up for their nightly concerto.
   "I am sorry Mr Bentley," I hear the receptionist apologising in heavily accented English when we check in at the hotel, "there has been some mistake.  We do not have two single rooms for you, but one double only.  The hotel is fully booked; we can do nothing about it."
Before Ray can open his mouth I reply, "That will be fine, I'm sure we'll manage."  Ray's face is a picture as he accepts the room key, his jaw drops then a slow smile spreads across his face.  Somewhere in the back of my head I can hear Meg's fruity chuckle fading into the distance, and a letter of rejection forms in my mind.