It was four years before I saw André again: the back of his neck, going down the stairs in the National Concert Hall, that great ‘Gone with the Wind’ sweep of steps. He appeared, disappeared, appeared, disappeared in the well-mannered jostle of the crowd. We were about ten steps apart as we descended. It wasn’t my brain that recognised him first. The back of his neck was unmistakeable to me. I could feel the ghost of it in my chiropractor’s hands. It was the muscle memory in my hands and the reflex spurt of hormones into my bloodstream that triggered my instant recall of things I would rather forget. I had to remind myself that I no longer desired him and didn’t particularly want to meet him. I caught another part of my brain speculating, wondering whether he was alone. He wasn’t, of course.
He was moving in tandem with a woman I didn’t know, a slender woman a little shorter than he was. He kept his hand just below the small of her back, about an inch too low. Not his wife. I slowed down so as not to catch up with them and found that I was blocking the path of some music lovers, impatient to get to the bar. I muttered an apology and let them pass. I lost sight of André and his companion as the two sets of steps converged.
My partner, Hugo, was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, surrounded by an over-excited gaggle of his fellow choristers. I kissed Hugo and offered obligatory congratulations all round. I’m not tone deaf and I like Handel’s Messiah as well as the next person, but I have limited tolerance for long, technical dissections of performances. Hugo, however, becomes possessed by the music. That is the only way I can describe it. He usually becomes abstracted, almost non-verbal, for several hours after a performance. He smiles and nods at his colleagues and they take that for agreement. They were discussing the bass soloist and one of them, a soprano, asked me what I thought. I racked my brains.
‘The trumpet shall sound’ ... I began. I was definitely awake for that bit. It was loud and near the end.
‘Omigod, you’re so right’, she shrieked. ‘Not his finest hour’. She interrupted her critique to shriek ‘Amanda!’ and turned to throw her arms around a woman who had materialised beside her. It took me a couple of seconds to process the information that this was André’s companion, seen now from the front. Phyllida, the soprano, began introductions but became somewhat flustered when she got to me.
‘... and this is Hugo’s ... this is Darina?’ she said, clearly unsure of either my status or my name.
‘Hi, I’m Doireann, Hugo’s partner.’ I held out my hand to Amanda and solved Phyllida’s dilemma. Amanda took my hand, rather limply, then turned and spoke to Hugo.
‘Which line do you sing?’ she asked. I was taken aback by the rudeness of her dismissal.
‘Bass’, Hugo replied from the depths of his abstraction.
‘You don’t look like a bass’, she said, dismissing him as well.
‘No facial hair’, commented one of the tenors, rather wistfully.
Amanda transferred her attention to him, and I moved closer to Hugo.
‘Hello Doireann.’ André’s voice, close to my ear, startled me and struck a chord somewhere deep in my viscera, that I tried hard to ignore. My hands remembered, with uncanny accuracy, the exact texture of the skin of his lower back when I pushed his sweater and shirt aside to work on him. Now he trapped my wrist in a noose of his thumb and index finger. He spoke into my hair.
‘Not a word’, he said. Amanda’s back was turned, as she flirted with the tenor, who was, I was certain, gay. Hugo smiled vacantly in Phyllida’s general direction. She had returned to her criticism of the bass soloist and was talking with animation, swinging her glistening mane of hair. I detached André’s hand from my wrist, linked my arm through the crook of Hugo’s elbow and gently disengaged him from the crowd. My smile masked the furious anger that roiled through my system.
I drove us home and took advantage of Hugo’s silent absorption in his music to allow my mind to drift back to my affair with André, if indeed it could be called an affair. The whole episode does not reflect well on me. It was wrong on so many levels.
I met André, who used to be called Andy, through a colleague of his wife, Cecile. She is French and was teaching in a girls’ secondary school. She always used the French version of her husband’s name. Her colleague, Marcella, came to me for treatment after she hurt her back in a fall. She was, apparently, so fulsome in her praise of me that Cecile suggested to her husband that he should come to me for treatment for severe back pain from a whiplash injury. He had been unable to drive since his accident, so he and Cecile came to me together and discussed his treatment. She came back to collect him at the end of the session. Her apparent solicitude was somewhat surprising. Her persona seemed cool and detached. She neither touched André nor addressed any endearments to him, at least never in my presence.
At the end of his third session, André sat up on the treatment table, looked away from me and said in a low voice ‘You want me, don’t you?’ There was a strange, resonant timbre to his voice that set up a sympathetic vibration deep within me. I turned away to compose myself. This is the kind of approach that normally repels rather than excites me. I tried to find my voice to say that it would be better if he didn’t come back, that I would give him the name of another chiropractor, when I heard the clipped rhythm of Cecile’s steps coming down the corridor outside. They made an appointment for the following week and left.
That evening, Hugo had a rehearsal, so I was home alone. I sat on the couch and looked at my hands, the tools of my trade. I have always been able, whenever I work on a patient, to see her or him merely as blocks of muscle connected by tendons to bones. Chiropractic is for me the solution of mechanical problems. Bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, nerves. I am aware of blood flow beneath the skin, the warmth of a breathing human, but I have always been able to switch immediately into that problem-solving mode that sees my patient merely as a system. I don’t lack empathy. I can see pain and feel the firing of synapses, but I can disengage from all that. I have to do this, to be able to do my job. That evening, my hands seemed unfamiliar to me. They had taken on a will of their own. They were empty and ached with their emptiness. When Hugo came home, I tried to fill my hands with him. It nearly worked.
When André came for his next session, we listened to the diminishing echo of Cecile’s footsteps before my hands slipped the tether of my brain and reached out to fill their emptiness. He responded in kind. Each of us had a bit of brain on sentry duty, keeping an eye on the clock. With ten minutes to spare, we pulled apart. We were like Adam and Eve, suddenly conscious of their nakedness and we looked away from each other in embarrassment. By the time Cecile arrived, I had tidied myself, drunk some water, opened the windows and wiped my hands with sanitizer. André organised his clothes and ran his fingers through his hair. After they had left, I went into the small bathroom and regarded myself in the mirror. My short hair was only slightly disordered, but my face was flushed and my eyes had a feverish glow. My hands, though, felt strong and full of power. I went home and cooked Hugo’s favourite meal, a complicated lasagne involving spinach and chicken livers and a deep, rich sauce enlivened with wine. The béchamel sauce was infused with aromatics and was smooth as velvet. The whole dish needed a lot of fine chopping and careful stirring. Hugo was surprised by the power and skill in my hands.
My appointments with André took on a regular pattern. They were always last thing in my working day. As soon as we heard Cecile’s steps retreating, André would lie on the treatment table, and I would work on him for about twenty minutes. Then we moved, by mutual consent and with perfect synchronicity, into a different mode. Ten minutes before Cecile’s expected arrival, we would return to our everyday selves and I would re-create my crisp, antiseptic, professional persona. Our calculated approach to time was just one facet of the coldness of our non-relationship. I cannot claim that we were carried away by passion, much less by love.
During my involvement with André, Hugo was singing a long and difficult choral piece – Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius – and was even more abstracted than usual. I continued to cook delicious meals for us and to give him the benefit of my inspired hands. Hugo might as well have been eating sawdust and he was monosyllabic, lost somewhere in his own strange musical world. Sometimes I would wake in the night and find him lying beside me, staring at the ceiling, like a marble crusader on a tomb. I do not for one minute believe that Hugo’s retreat into the weird, in-between world of the recently dead in any way either motivated or justified my carry on with André. “Carry on” is a much more accurate term than affair. As I have been at pains to point out, I didn’t love André or even like him. In truth, I didn’t even desire him very much. At least, I didn’t yearn for him when he wasn’t there. I didn’t count the days between one chiropractic appointment and the next. But as soon as we were in the same room, my hands seemed to move of their own volition. I didn’t feel good about this. I knew it was deeply unprofessional. André also knew this and in an unspoken way reminded me of it at our every meeting. I can’t explain this in any logical way. I was being blackmailed, albeit tacitly, but I was, at the same time, complicit in the process.
Of course, it ended messily. One evening the red-soled clip of Cecile’s feet was suddenly audible, twenty minutes earlier than usual. André and I engaged in an undignified scramble to present ourselves acceptably, as the door opened. My flushed face and disordered hair could, I thought, be ascribed to chiropractic work. My neat professional white smock, my anonymous black trousers and my flat pumps were all in place. André wore his usual expression of half-amused sarcasm. Cecile reminded him that they had an early dinner-party date and therefore they didn’t have time to make another appointment. She shook her car keys irritably. As they went out, André threw me a glance over his shoulder and grinned broadly. My instinctive chiropractor’s reaction was a quick flash of pride. He couldn’t have done that six weeks ago. He made a strange ambiguous gesture, a flourish of his arm. I followed its direction and noticed something white on the floor. My innocent, unadorned, organic cotton knickers. The sordidness and humiliation realigned my defective moral compass and awoke my professional anxiety. I decided that, when he phoned for a new appointment, I would be unavailable.
The following morning, I arrived at my treatment room at the usual time, set out water, tissues and towels in the normal way. My first patient was an elderly man whose injured back was showing significant improvement, after several weeks of treatment. I helped him on to the table and prepared to begin work. My hands felt weak and limp. I rolled back my cuffs, flexed my fingers. My hands began to shake uncontrollably. I reminded myself of the muscular structure beneath the skin. I tried to formulate it as a mechanical problem. My hands continued to shake. I apologised to my patient and told him I had been taken ill. He looked at my tremors, my flushed face and the perspiration on my forehead and immediately believed me.
‘You take care of yourself, love’, he said as he went out. I cancelled all appointments for that day and went home. I swallowed some paracetamol with a herbal tea and went to bed. Hugo was performing his choral piece that night and I was not entirely disappointed to be unable to attend. He arrived home after midnight and was gently solicitous in his abstracted way. The next morning, I was no better and cancelled all appointments for the week. The doctor diagnosed a ‘virus’ – the modern term for an evil spirit – and suggested bed rest and hot drinks. My fever subsided over the following week, but as soon as I began to think of chiropractic, my hands ached and shook.
I had to cancel another week of appointments. André did not phone. I began to fear that he had reported me to my professional organisation and took to watching every mail delivery, dreading every official envelope. I re-assigned my patients to colleagues and closed my practice. I heard that Cecile had taken a career break and returned to France. I assumed that André had gone with her. I heard no more from him. It took two years and a refresher training course before I could return to chiropractic. It took a further six months to re-build my practice. I never told Hugo the reason for my collapse. He is a person who deals in straightforward, physical explanations. He put it down to the after-effects of a virus.
The evening I met André again, I was forced to confront my buried anxieties. I had never told anyone about the episode and had only recently stopped looking over my shoulder. André’s admonition in the Concert Hall (“not a word”) could be taken either as a threat or a reassurance. Worse still they could signify a conditional promise – ‘I won’t say a word if you do what I want’. I lay awake beside Hugo and realised that he too was awake. The air of the bedroom was electric with tension. About 3am I could stand it no longer. Hugo appeared to have finally dozed off, turned away from me. I slipped silently out of bed and went down to the kitchen. I sat at the worktop, cradling a mug of herbal tea and went round and round on the hamster wheel of my possible options. I took out a notepad and pencil and began to write them down.
1. Tell Hugo
2. Get a new mobile number.
3. Give up chiropractic and re-train ... as what?
Every option gave rise to a new string of “what ifs”. I tried to re-formulate the list of possibilities as a flow chart, but the negative possibilities seemed to outnumber the positive possibilities by a significant margin.
At about 5am, I heard footsteps on the stairs and Hugo came into the kitchen. He was pale, unshaven, hollow-eyed.
‘Do you want some coffee?’ he asked, reaching for the kettle,
‘No, it’ll keep me awake’. I realised how fatuous I sounded. Neither of us was going to sleep again that night. He measured out coffee and stood with his back to me as he poured in the almost-boiling water.
‘You know, don’t you? I saw how you looked at her tonight.’ He kept his back to me as he spoke.
‘What? How? Who?’ I sounded like a demented owl.
‘Phyllida’, he said.
He pulled up a high stool and sat beside me. His long fingers pushed down the plunger in the cafetiere.
‘Who?’ I repeated, stupidly. ‘Oh, the shrieking soprano’, I suddenly remembered. ‘What about her?’
‘I slept with her’, he muttered. ‘The night of Gerontius.’ He stirred his coffee vigorously, sipped it and winced.
It took a second for my brain to catch up. This conversation was backwards. Had I just confessed? What was he talking about? Then his meaning hit me, a punch to the stomach.
‘What?’ I said, my foolish owl’s voice changed into something thin and insubstantial.
‘Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. You weren’t at it. You were ill.’ He managed to sound accusing.
‘That was all of four years ago’, I said drowsily. A question roared its way through my consciousness. ‘Have you been seeing her all this time?’
‘Well ... we have coffee sometimes and talk about music and things. I haven’t slept with her, though, except that once.’ I was suddenly awake.
‘Do you fancy her?’ Did I want an answer to that question?
‘She has a truly wonderful voice’, he said. ‘A range of four octaves.’
That probably meant “yes”. My singing voice could best be compared to a corncrake’s.
‘Is she married?’
‘She’s married to Simeon, that tenor we were talking to tonight.’
‘I thought he was gay.’
‘Yes, well ... sometimes she needs someone to talk to. That night, the night of Gerontius, Simeon went AWOL. I saw her home. One thing led to another ... I really don’t want to sleep with her again ...’ An unspoken “but” seemed to be hanging there.
I raised my eyebrows. He accepted the challenge of my gaze for a brief moment, then sighed and looked away.
‘Really, Doireann, you know you mean everything to me.’
Which “really” was real?
He put his head in his hands and began to weep.
On one level, I had a desire to smile ironically at the banality of his confession. His relationship with Phyllida seemed so trivial and innocent compared to my sordid affair with André, but he still felt so guilty. I closed my notepad of dilemmas and slid it away across the worktop. But, on the other hand, he’d had a clandestine, emotional relationship with another woman, a relationship that had gone on for a full four years and was maybe still continuing. What scale could one use to measure degrees of unfaithfulness? I decided to be generous and forgiving. I put my arms around him and eased the tension in the muscles of his back with my strong, competent chiropractor’s fingers.