The List

Short story

Helen heard the news at the monthly lunch party. All the wives who regularly gathered at the home of one or another of them knew about the problems that Sally and Tom Stewart had been having in their marriage. It was such a pity, everyone agreed, because they had such a beautiful house and three lovely girls.

Recently, though, new information had arisen. Tom, it appeared, had been seeing a psychiatrist. And now Judy, the Stewarts’ next-door neighbour, could no longer contain herself. ‘I shouldn’t tell you this,’ she confided, ‘but, as I understand it, Sally has found a list.’

‘A list?’ enquired Emily, the young newcomer who worked as a co-ordinator at a mother and toddler group.

‘Apparently the psychiatrist suggested it,’ Judy replied, lowering her voice so that everyone else had to lean over their plates to hear. ‘He thought it might make it easier for Tom to come to terms with the way he’s been behaving towards Sally if he made a list of….’ She paused.

‘Of…?’ queried dreamy Alice. She was very sweet, but slightly off the pace.

‘….his other women,’ said Judy triumphantly.

Eyes had already widened. Now gasps followed each other around the room.

Only Helen didn’t respond. She was suddenly feeling rather hot. She put a knapkin to her face.

‘And Sally found it? Oh my God!’ Annabel, whose turn it was to host the lunch, groaned.

Somebody else giggled nervously, and then went quiet, embarrassed.

‘His other women..?’ Helen asked at last, trying to keep her voice steady, setting the muscles in her face into a rictus of casual curiosity.

‘Those he’d had sex with,’ Judy spelled it out. ‘The psychiatrist suggested he make a list, so that was what he did. Then the idiot left it lying under his unpaid credit card bills for Sally to find. I don’t imagine the psychiatrist recommended that.’

Helen couldn’t eat. Actually she could scarcely breathe. But then nobody else was doing much eating either as Judy explained how she’d only just been told the news herself by the cleaner who she and Sally shared on a Wednesday. Now Sally was inconsolable, hiding in the house, which was why she’d made a  migraine excuse and why there was an empty place at the table.

‘Perhaps subconsciously Tom wanted Sally to find the list,’ suggested Sarojine. She’d just begun an adult education course in psychology. Everyone ignored her.

‘So, who exactly are these women on the list?’ Alice wanted to know.

Judy shook her head. The cleaner hadn’t been told. ‘One will be a girl at the office, I’ll bet. That pretty secretary with the bottom who came to their fifteenth anniversary party. Half the men there were looking at her. She seemed the sort who…’

She broke off as several of the lunch party went into an ensemble nod. Those secretaries were a daily temptation.

‘What do you think, Helen? You know Sally best,’ Annabel asked when the clucking eased.

But Helen couldn’t think any more than she could eat or breathe. She didn’t know Tom’s secretary. But, if there was a list of Tom Stewart’s lovers, there would be one name on it she did know.

She struggled through the rest of the lunch, pleading the strictures of a new diet to explain her tiny appetite, and by three-fifteen she was back in her own home, trembling, sick with fear.

In her bedroom she took a Diazepam to sooth her nerves, then, realising that she was sitting on the edge of the very bed where her act of adultery with Tom Stewart had taken place, she leapt up, as if burnt by the floral counterpane. Had he also written down when and where they’d been to bed? Was Sally even now being mentally ripped apart by the knowledge of her friend’s betrayal, and already planning to tell Harry?

Harry! Fourteen happy, married years. What would he say? What could she say? Divorce? Helen put a hand to cover her eyes. Her forehead was damp.

But it had been nothing, she told herself, just a few minutes’, well, maybe an of  foolishness fuelled by drink at the Greenes’ leaving party. It wasn’t as if she’d planned it. The thought had never even crossed her mind when the evening had begun.

How could she have known that Sally wouldn’t be there, that she’d taken the children to see her mother? Or that, with the boys away on a school ski-ing trip, Harry would decide to stay an extra night in York to complete an accounting job.

For the first time in eleven years the house had been empty apart from her. Had she mentioned that to Bill Stewart in the Greenes’ kitchen when she’d gone looking for another drink? She knew she had.

It had started there, two people pecking around the perimeter of each other’s lives, keenly interested in what the other had to say, gradually getting closer, and step-by-step beginning to flirt.

Naturally, they’d been totally discreet, making sure that none of the other neighbours had noticed, she turning to talk to Sarojine and Vikram about schools, and Bill chatting to Annabel’s husband about cars. But as the evening had progressed they’d inevitably gravitated back towards one another.

She’d always fancied Bill. Who wouldn’t? He was a cheerful, fair, good looking, sporting man in his mid-forties. Probably half the wives in the road had had little fantasies about him.

And his job as a fund manager, whatever that might be, seemed quite a bit more exciting than Harry’s career as an accountant. While Harry went by train to York, Bill Stewart took the Eurostar to Paris.

Normally Helen would have left the party at around ten-thirty, because she didn’t like leaving the boys alone for too long. But with them away, too, she’d lingered until the end, when Bill Stewart had offered to escort her up the road on his way home.

It had been a balmy evening, and, in no hurry, they’d stopped beside the weeping willow at Helen’s garden gate and continued chatting for a few moments about how strange it would be going into an empty house. That was when Helen had realised.

‘It isn’t very late,’ she’d said, hardly daring to look into his eyes. ‘But, if you’d like another drink or a cup of coffee…’

They never got the coffee. And they certainly didn’t need another drink. From kisses in the hall they’d moved quickly upstairs to the bedroom. Everything seemed to be happening to a pre-ordained plan. They’d been dancing around the subject of adultery all evening, everything they’d said, every accidental-on-purpose touch being part of the ritual.

And the sex? Even now two years later, sitting at her dressing table, sobbing with fear, Helen could remember. It had been bliss, the way she’d remembered it from before her marriage, from those moments when she’d been a pretty girl with a new and exciting boyfriend and neither had known where a first night might lead.

Even the next day there’d been no regrets. No guilt. Not really. He’d made her feel wonderful, young again, prettier. She’d almost forgotten what the thrill of being desired by anyone other than Harry was like. That had ended, if not quite on the day she got married, then certainly the day she stopped work in the library. From then on she’d been an invisible mum.

Of course, she’d told herself that the hour with Bill had been a one-off, something absolutely not to be repeated. It was far too dangerous for both of them. And clearly Bill must have had the same thoughts because when they’d met subsequently at the school fete and then the carol singing, there’d been no secret eye signals, not even the suggestion of a flirt.

Now and again she’d day-dreamed that if perhaps Harry and the boys happened to be away again some time at the same time that Sally and her children were away, then, perhaps…

But the likelihood of that happening was practically nil, meaning that when she and Sally went shopping or played tennis she almost managed to forget how she’d betrayed her friend’s trust.

Had she realised before the mention of the list that she might not have been Bill Stewart’s only other woman? She’d liked to think she had been, that the passion of the moment had been something he couldn’t resist either.

But, obviously, she hadn’t broken off in mid-ecstacy to enquire if this was his first act of adultery, too.  So the news of the list had come with a stab of disappointment as well as one of fear. And now she had a new thought. How many names made a list? Two? Three?

The afternoon wore on. Silently Helen moved around her house, suddenly loving every inch of it all over again, checking on the boys’ bedrooms, picking up and folding a football shirt in one, opening a window in another.

It was a windy, bright April day of blues skies and hurrying white clouds. On the way to the lunch she’d been thinking how summer was just around the corner, how they’d soon be able to eat outside, and that they should book the family holiday.

Now she wondered if there’d be a family holiday this year. Would there even be a family when Harry found out that her name was on the list?

In a moment their lives, had been ruined. Nothing would ever be the same. She loved Harry. He was everything she could have wished for in a husband. She loved their children. They were a happy family.

Now everything she held dear was about to be destroyed. Perhaps it already had been. Perhaps Sally had already phoned Harry at the office and told him that his wife had been to bed with her husband?

No, she stopped herself. She was beginning to panic. She was sure Sally didn’t even know where Harry worked.

She looked at her watch. It was almost four. The boys would be home from school soon. At that moment the telephone rang.

‘Hello?’ she could hear the croak of fear in her voice as she answered.

‘Helen…it’s Sally!’

She couldn’t answer. Her heart beats seemed to be filling her throat. She swallowed.

‘Helen?’ Sally said again, questioning this time. Her voice was breathy from crying.

‘Yes…Sally, I….’ she began, then stopped as she heard a sob from the other end of the phone.

‘Helen, could you come round? Please.’ At that point Sally began to cry.

What choice did she have? ‘Yes,’ Helen said dully. ‘I’ll come now.’ She put the phone down.

Guilt and fear tortured her as she set off up the road to the Stewarts’ house. She had to explain, to make Sally realise how ashamed she was, how she would always be ashamed.

Sally opened the door at her first ring of the bell. She must have been waiting in the hall. Her eyes were puffed and her pretty face streaked with tears. Her usual fresh confident looks had begun to disintegrate months ago when the rumours about her marriage had begun to leak. Now she looked wrecked.

‘Sally, I…’ Helen began. But she didn’t get any further because suddenly Sally threw herself at her. For a moment she thought she was being attacked and staggered back to ward off the expected blows. But all she felt were hot tears on her neck as Sally clutched her, sobbing into the collar of her coat.

‘I knew there was something wrong,’ Sally sobbed. ‘But I’d no idea…’

‘No, well…’ Helen began again.

Sally wasn’t listening. ‘I thought we were happy…’

‘I’m sure he loves you very much…’

‘No. He just can’t stop being unfaithful. Look! He’s made a list. See!’ And Sally tried to push a tear-stained envelope into Helen’s hand.

Helen pulled away. The last thing she wanted to see was the list.

Sally, however, was insistent. ‘All these names…all these girls… His secretary, a girl in Frankfurt…another in Paris…even one in Woking. Look!’

Suddenly it struck Helen: Sally hadn’t yet accused her of anything. Now, she did look at the list. She didn’t understand. There was no Helen. No Helen!

Relief. He hadn’t named her. Sally didn’t know. Harry need never know. Bill Stewart had kept their secret. Her family was safe. Thank you, Bill, she found herself thinking. Thank you, God! And she hugged Sally, Sally her best friend.

‘Thank you for coming round,’ Sally was sniffing. ‘I just don’t know what to do, faced with knowing about his Top .’

Helen blinked. ‘His what?’

‘His Top Five?’

‘Top Five?’

‘Oh, yes! These were just his favourites.’ And Sally moved her thumb from the top of the envelope where the three words, My Top Five, headed the list.

Suddenly Helen’s sense of relief was beginning to curdle. No Helen? No Helen! Then slowly, as Sally blew her nose and dried her eyes, she began to realise. It might have been a night of glorious passion for her, something she’d treasured and fantasised about ever since.

But for Bill Stewart the night must hardly have registered. That was why he’d shunned her at the school fete and the carol service. He hadn’t put her name on the list his psychiatrist had suggested he write because she’d been totally unimportant to him.

The boys were in front of the television when she got home. She stood watching them for a few moments and then went upstairs to her bedroom. Sitting down on the end of the bed she remembered the night. All the afternoon’s terrors of exposure were now gone. Instead humiliation and indignation welled in the corners of her eyes.

She hadn’t even been in his Top Five!