This is a little story cut from a longer piece – a tale of two halves. They say that a short story is all middle, but this is a beginning and an end juxtaposed to make a story. What happens in the middle is up to you.
Vera is married to Leonard, who is a distinguished medical consultant. But Vera had not been first in line for Leonard. At medical school he had been engaged to brainbox Emily until Emily got glandular fever and went abroad for the summer to recuperate and (accidentally) fall in love with and marry an even more handsome French doctor. The accident arose from the fact that Emily did not meet this handsome doctor in the course of his professional activities, but outside a cinema when the last bus had gone and no taxis were to be found. She had been very much recuperated by this stage and was happy to be rescued from a damp pavement and taken to a bar by the charming Frenchman who happened to be passing that evening, having just delivered a baby. He introduced Emily to medicine from a different perspective, encouraging her to study forensics. She is now an international expert based in Paris, chairing all sorts of important committees.
Leonard, being a decent man, had waited all summer for Emily, but seemed adaptable enough when he turned his attention to Vera, who fitted around his demanding life as a doctor in the making. Vera was studying English Literature, and had met Leonard as he dropped by the halls of residence, where she and Emily lived as undergraduates. Vera shoehorned in her own career alongside being as supportive as possible to Leonard. No doubt Emily would have done it all very efficiently, having had five brilliant children by her French doctor, and still managing to becoming a forensic specialist called in by the Sûreté.
Not that Vera feels jealous about that. She has reached a respectable stage in her own career, as Head of Department in English at the local comprehensive. No, Vera is not jealous that Emily is so successful. She cannot see the advantages of having to examine tissue samples and stomach contents of some poor murder victim in the wee small hours, in a white-tiled shiny room, whilst a young French policeman smokes outside in the corridor having thrown up most of the contents of his own stomach at the grisly scene. That Vera has never taken up Emily’s invitation to stay with her in Paris for all these years is something that she does not examine closely. Vera has had her career moments – minor papers in educational journals, the occasional involvement in some high-level committee. And she has three successful (if not quite brilliant) children.
Vera used to have frightening dreams where Emily had not had glandular fever, and Vera was left husbandless and childless. The women have not seen each other for 35 years. Even now, she imagines that Emily has kept her looks and figure, despite five children. They exchange Christmas and birthday cards, but no longer correspond. A visit would remind Leonard of what he has missed out on for thirty-five years. Vera looks at the old photograph of Emily, seductively willowy with seductively blonde, willowy hair. Vera has become heavy of hip, and her waist is no longer slender; her hair is twined with grey threads.
Vera does the things middle-aged women do to counteract the inevitable changes. She goes to the gym, has highlights, tries detoxing and consults a beautician about dubious procedures to conceal wrinkles (keeping it secret from Leonard). Leonard seems unmoved by any improvements that may have ensued. She starts jogging, and, after a few rude comments from passing motorists, takes obscure routes away from main roads. One wet night, after work, she jogs to the top of the small bluff that overlooks the village, and the comfortable house that she shares with Leonard. She turns to complete her target for the evening – the top of the hill. A tree root catches her foot, and she falls, helpless, at the side of the road in the rain. She does not have her phone. Unexpectedly, a motorist, presumably out of his way, stops.
Emily wakes. The phone; they always phone her at night. She is used to it, after many years of forensics. But now, she has gone into part-time consultancy. She hopes that her husband will not be disturbed. He needs to rest. His health is not so good after a lifetime of overwork and smoking. She has been caring for him for over a year; he hasn’t so long to go. Poor Gerard. He was so handsome, so sexy. He had swept her off her feet. She was 20. Quite recuperated from glandular fever. That wet night on the street outside the cinema… a young woman alone… But Gerard had arrived, her knight in shining armour, in a Citroen 2CV. He leaned out of the window and blew her a kiss. She, an engaged girl. It had been love at first sight. Poor Leonard. She had loved him, she thought, before Gerard drove alongside and they spent the rest of that wet night in a café, talking till dawn. But Emily knew Leonard would be snapped up soon enough. She often wonders about him, even now. She has avoided the reunions for fear of embarrassment. Vera was always so controlled, so smart. She would have kept her looks. Emily is worn-out with caring, her waistband soft, her face lined. The call must be a police emergency; she still gets the worst cases.
A man’s voice. He is speaking English. At first it makes no sense.
‘It’s been a long time, but I thought you’d like to know… ‘