The man sitting opposite, talking on his mobile telephone, was lying to his wife. His shoulder was hunched towards the table, his eyes fixed on the flying countryside, his voice low. Strong, well-manicured fingers, one bearing the weight of a broad gold ring, beat a restless tattoo on the table top and, from time to time, his breast expanded in a huge, silent, irritated sigh.
‘Haven’t we done all this, darling?’ A savage impatience echoed warningly beneath the politely posed question and the ‘darling’ was almost an insult, as much an endearment as a slap on the cheek. ‘I told you, didn’t I, that I probably wouldn’t be able to get home tonight?. . . Actually, I’m not terribly interested in how long Jill thinks the meeting should last. She knows nothing about it. . . OK, so she knows that Lisa will be there, too. . . We did agree, didn’t we, that it’s not very sensible of you to interrogate my colleagues’ wives every time you have one of these. . . well. . . attacks?. . . I know it did but I told you the truth. She happens to be a member of the department and we’re working on this project together. Nothing more. . . Of course it’s difficult but I can’t ask them to sack her because she’s young and attractive. . . Oh, for God’s sake. . . ’
His voice rose, impatience no longer reined in, and he glanced warily across the table, his expression, sulky, irritable. Embarrassed to be caught watching him, Louise looked swiftly away, out of the window. In a field which sloped to a narrow gleam of water a young woman stood, her child in her arms, gazing up at the passing train. She waved, encouraging the child to wave, too, and then took his hand and waved it for him, laughing, jogging him on her hip, whilst he sat staring impassively, his face upturned. Louise stared back, shocked by recognition into a brief second of immobility, before leaning to wave, almost violently, until they were out of sight. Breathing quickly, she leaned back in her corner and tried to control the uprush of emotion which so suddenly possessed her.
Her fellow traveller had finished his conversation and was watching her curiously. Without looking directly at him she knew that he was assessing her, summing her up as a fisherman might weigh up the possibilities of a pool; she saw, too, the exact moment at which he decided that he would test the water.
‘Friends of yours?’
It was an innocent enough lure, a pretty fly, bobbing lightly, charming, faintly diverting. She decided that she might swim a little way towards this welcome distraction from her confused reaction to the sight of the woman with her child..
‘No, no. A reflex reaction, I suppose. If someone waves it seems natural to respond, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Well, I’m not certain about that.’ He shifted in his seat, stretching his legs diagonally towards the empty seat beside her. ‘It all depends on who’s waving.’
His smile, the brief quirk of the brows, suggested that if it were she - or presumably some other attractive young woman - he would be prepared to follow it up and she hid her own reaction to his utter predictability.
‘You have a point.’ She swam idly around the lure, appeared to reject it.
‘I’m sorry to have burdened you with my. . . uh. . . private problems.’ He spoke quickly, indicating the mobile telephone which now lay between them on the table. ‘Rather bad form but. . . ’ he pursed his lips humorously, inviting her complicity, ‘. . . these suspicious wives. . . ’
The fly trembled temptingly, encouraging further inspection.
‘How do you know,’ she asked casually - but with a hint, just the least hint, of amused flirtatiousness, ‘that I am not just such another suspicious wife?’
He settled more comfortably, confidently, so that she could imagine the tilt of the hat over the eyes, whilst his hand held the rod light but firm.. ‘Oh, you don’t look the type at all. Much too pretty.’
‘You think so?’
A bite? Metaphorically, he prepared to wind in the line a little. ‘Oh, definitely. And confident too, I suspect. Only insecure women get jealous. And plain ones, of course.’
‘Is your wife plain?’ She toyed lightly with the bait, appearing to invite disloyalty. ‘Or insecure?’
‘Difficult age.’ He shrugged a little, exhibiting a touch of pathos. ‘Just the least bit unbalanced. It gets rather wearing after a bit.’
‘So it’s all in her imagination?’ She sounded almost disdainful, the bait proving, after all, to be unexciting; rather tasteless.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that.’ He set the lure dancing again, the roguish smile promising experience, pleasure. ‘What the eye doesn’t see. . . ’ He shrugged.
‘It sounded as if she’s seen more than you suspected.’
He laughed, then, unexpectedly, infectiously, and she smiled at this genuine response, oddly drawn to him, despite herself.
‘Touché,’ he admitted and smiled back at her. . . A pause as they stared at each other. The line taughtened.
‘It must be rather tricky. . . ?’ She let the question hang in the air for a moment. ‘Perhaps I have a suspicious husband.’
‘I can’t say I’d be the least bit surprised.’ His voice was warm. ‘He’d be a fool if he weren’t.’
‘So.’ She leaned forward, elbows on the table, pretending intimacy. ‘How do you manage?’
‘Ah.’ His smile was very nearly complacent and she had the sensation of being drawn gently but inexorably through deliciously warm water towards him. ‘It’s my friend, here, you see.’
He lifted the mobile telephone and she stared at it, puzzled. He chuckled.
‘I have it with me always. No odd phone calls to my home number that pretend to be wrong numbers when my wife answers. I can be reached wherever I am. I can text messages. Well, always assuming the other person has a mobile phone. Nothing shows up on the phone bill or hotel bills. Of course,’ a tiny wink, ‘ I switch it off when I’m in. . . . meetings.’
‘That’s right. You can write what you like to the person you love. No need to speak. You can stay in touch that way. Then it can be erased in a second. No evidence lying about. Don’t you have one?’
‘No,’ she said slowly. ‘No, I don’t have one.’
He leaned closer, smiling again, as though he could imagine her tucked up safely in his creel. ‘Perhaps you should get one. I’d be very happy to advise you. . . ’
She stared at him for a long moment until her attention was caught by something beyond the window.
‘It’s my station,’ she said.
‘You’re not getting off here?’ He stared incredulously, line snapped, his prey slipping away, his reel whizzing helplessly. ‘Where are we? Totnes?’
‘That’s right.’ She slipped her bag on to her shoulder, picked up a coat. ‘I’m on holiday for a fortnight. Thanks for the tips.’
‘Wait.’ He was scribbling a number, tearing a sheet from his filofax. ‘Just in case you get bored. . . ’
She shook her head, laughing. ‘I shan’t be bored. Enjoy your. . . meeting.’
The doors opened and shut behind her. Presently, the train stopped, he watched her walking along the platform.
‘Shit,’ he muttered. He dialled a number, his expression moody. ‘Hello, Lisa. . . Of course it’s OK.’ He settled back into his corner as the train drew out, his expression brightening. ‘Poor darling, were you panicking? Everything’s fine. Just leaving Totnes. No, a deadly trip. I’ve been working all the way down. . . ’