Over time the intensity of a relationship can wilt away. A partner can transform slowly from a passionate lover into a glorified comfort blanket.
It is an organic process, one that does not allow for fault or blame; neither party able to rifle through their memories of routine disappointment, diminished attraction, and growing resentment – isolate one specific moment in time and say with any certainty “that was it, that was the moment that killed it for me”.
Derek and Mary Pryce had no such problem – the reason for their parting was very clear and well-defined.
The incident in question occurred on the 6th of November 2015, at 22.17, to be precise.
After brushing their teeth and changing into his pyjamas, Derek sidled into bed next to his wife of several years. Ostensibly a timid man Derek privately nurtured a great idea, a fantasy that had smouldered at the back of his mind for some time. Feeling inexplicably emboldened that night he forced it right to the tip of his tongue:
‘Darling – are you feeling a little naughty tonight?’
‘What’s that love?’ Mary looked up from the book she was reading – Wuthering Heights for anyone interested in the little details.
‘I said, are you feeling naughty tonight?’
‘Oh – right. Darling, no. Another time.’
Derek knew then he had arrived at the Rubicon. Mary would never know if he turned quietly back.
‘Another time. Of course. Darling – actually could you put the book down for just a moment? Darling, I was thinking, we’ve been married a good while now. Perhaps we might like to, you know, stir things up a little? Variety being the spice of life and so forth.’
Mary did put her down book. After holding a quizzical look she eventually asked, ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean in the bedroom. Do you think we could perhaps experiment? Let me be absolutely frank and candid here, I am talking about our – you know.’
Mary did not know.
‘Our sex life,’ Derek whispered.
‘Experiment? How?’ came her brisk, affronted reply.
‘I don’t know, darling – perhaps you have some ideas?’
‘I certainly do not. Clearly some grubby notion is in your head however. Go on – spit it out then.’
Derek outlined his idea: another couple they frequently dined and drank with were of comparable age, had been together a similar length of time and might just be interested in getting, you know, involved.
They would not have to participate in any wild group action of course, but some occasional partner-swapping might well be of interest to all concerned. After all, Derek had always felt that there could be something between himself and the other woman, and surely Mary had noticed the way the other man occasionally glanced at her ample bosom; if she was truly honest, she must admit she liked the attention?
The next morning Mary left for her sisters. Within the week the divorce papers arrived. By Christmas that year Derek was preparing for life as a bachelor.
As the years rolled by Derek came to realise there was a lot to like about bachelorhood. The split custody of their two children gave him nights off fatherhood – that was a big plus. He was able to make habits catering exclusively to his own predilections: a TV was set up in the bedroom, he could watch it as late as he wanted, never once arguing about which channel to watch.
There were things about his wife he missed, of course. Derek never learned how to cook and had no real intention of doing so now. Quickly he fell into a culinary regime of convenience foods: Monday night sausages; lasagne Tuesdays; Wednesday Fray Bentos; so on. As the news broke that a pre-prepared meal bought for just 99p contained all sorts of cut-corners, Derek supposed he had eaten a quantity of horse meat roughly equivalent to the amount consumed by Napoleon’s Russian invasion. He reflected on that and decided did not bother him much: eating horsemeat was probably a little like sleeping with a transsexual – surely a pleasant experience judged on its own merits, but a source of upset if the feeling is one of false advertisement.
His diet was an issue. Though it wasn’t the only one: Derek’s clothing became so resplendent in stains that a careful observer could deduce his last few meals; the smell of his feet and trainers was perceptible at twenty metres; and not one person felt close enough to advise against growing his hair into a pony-tail.
Mary might have straightened him out, they remained in close contact of course, and yet intense feelings of guilt prevented her from taking the requisite firm hand. Somewhat ironically – given her impetus for their immediate separation – within six months Mary had met someone new.
‘His name is Martin and – unlike you Derek – he actually enjoys being alive: we go salsa dancing on Mondays, the cinema most weekends, and he buys me flowers because he likes making me happy and not just by way of apology… There’s no use getting angry or upset now – I gave you enough of a chance, Derek, you ruined it for yourself.’
Mary’s guilt clearly manifested primarily as a defence mechanism.
Truthfully Derek wasn’t angry or upset about her new relationship at all. On the contrary, he wished happiness upon her if it allowed him to approach a long-standing crush from his workplace with a clear conscience. Linda from downstairs was nice to him sometimes. She even given him her phone number one day before a work do; why else would she do that if not to hint that she liked him? Derek spent the week working up his confidence and finally approached her on a Friday morning with the offer of a date.
Linda declined. The dozens of texts he sent her over following days sought to learn exactly why. Eventually Linda offered one truthful answer, informing him that, sorry, but his hygiene could be a little better.
Her answer was not taken as a definitive no. Derek began the process of de-bachelorisation, the rituals of cleanliness and upkeep necessary to re-enter legitimate society. Without that hope there would have been little purpose to all that pruning and scrubbing. In fact it used to bring to mind a character from one of his wife’s books: that jilted spinster Miss Havisham of Great Expectations. What difference was there between her mouldy wedding dress and his trimmed pubic hair? Both expressed a futile hope of a visitant, from a person fully aware they would be dining alone that night.
Clipped, cleaned, and with his pony tail shorn, Derek readied himself for a second attempt. That morning he ironed his finest shirt, invested in a fancy cologne and drafted his pitch: ‘Linda, thank you for your advice. You were right, I let myself go a little following the divorce. Call it depression, call it a lack of a feminine touch in my life…but this old dog can still learn new tricks. If you’re willing to take a punt on me I promise you I will give a hundred percent. A more loving committed partner would not be possible. I will clean up my act, make sure…’
‘Derek I’m sorry,’ she interjected, standing from her desk. ‘You’re a nice man. But it was never just a case of “have a shower and we can be together”. I just don’t see you that way. Don’t push it any further – no more messages, please?’ Linda walked away to sit in a toilet cubical and text her friends that the creep from work was at it again.
Derek nodded sadly at no one in particular, before walking away to sit at his computer where he did absolutely nothing all day.
Clearly none of this was fair. He had put real effort into his appearance – if Linda couldn’t appreciate that than perhaps someone else would? The more he reflected on this, the more ‘someone else’ became an appealing prospect. How do you meet other people these days? There was the internet of course, a sort of fancy teletext that operates on computers as well as fancy modern phones and televisions. By all accounts, mastery of that world would open many romantic and erotic doors. He could meet singletons in his area, or purchase them from Russia or Thailand.
As tempting as that sounded, the last time his son had tried to show him how to use a computer Derek had suffered a mild panic attack. How then do the analogue meet and date in a digital age? The question chased itself around in his head until lunchtime. Derek went for his usual round-the-block walk. Passing a newsagent a headline from a local paper caught his eye. He picked up the paper and read a story of strange goings-on. The journalist wrote in dismissive, scathing tones, clearly preferring to indulge their sense of superiority than understanding these fevered rituals of romantic liberation. For Derek it awoke in him the second great idea of his unassuming life.
Thrilled, he ran back to the office and told a nonplussed Linda that everything will be alright after all. The rest of the day dragged as he sat impatient and giddy with excitement.
Monday’s sausages tasted of nothing, they were little more than an inconvenience, a chore in his mouth.
The long summer evening was unwelcome. Unable to concentrate on the TV, Derek went outside to empty his car, hoover and dust the inside and wax the exterior.
As the sun eventually set Derek showered, brushed his teeth and deodorised. On his way out he picked up a CD – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? – and began the drive.
His destination was just out of town. As he drew close, Derek could see three other cars parked in a small cluster, all empty. There was no one to greet and direct newcomers, no signage to point the way. He disembarked and took a brief tour of the area until he caught the sound of voices a little way off the lay-by, down among the trees.
Derek followed the voices. Less than a minute’s walk from the roadside he came across a large woman leaning back against a tree, smoking a cigarette and hitching a skirt to show her underwear. Three men were stood by, one of them wore a balaclava. Another had his penis out, pulling at it almost lazily. Derek cleared his throat as he approached, not intentionally but out of nervous instinct. Balaclava turned to him.
‘Yes, mate?’ he asked.
‘Hello, my name’s Derek. I was wondering, is this – is this dogging?’
‘That’s one name for it, yes,’ Balaclava replied.
‘And absolutely anyone can join in?’
‘That’s the idea.’
‘By day I’m a librarian. At night I am for public use,’ the woman declared proudly.
Derek didn’t know what to say. He felt his cheeks flush.
‘When you say “public use” does that mean just as a masturbatory aid or…’
‘Oh, you can fuck her alright,’ Balaclava clarified. ‘Do what you like to her really, just so long as you show respect – she’s still my wife at the end of the day.’
Derek’s heart skipped a beat. This is all he’d ever wanted: a new experience, some excitement and romance finally in the bedroom – even if there were three strangers watching him and the bedroom was technically a lay-by.
The thought I am Derek Pryce, and I go dogging! ran triumphantly around his mind as her dropped his trousers and approached a woman. The thrill was clearly affecting him, her skin seemed to be glowing a sort of sexy kind of blue colour. Well, not glowing but sort of flashing. Is it something doggers do? Is that normal in this world?
Derek reached out and touched her just as a stern voice commanded him to stop right there. He was momentarily ready to dismiss it as his conscience, before the voice slapped handcuffs on him and arrested the lot of them for indecent exposure.
JAKE KENDALL writes sad jokes and nonsense from his hometown of Oxford. His writing can be found in Here Comes Everyone, Burning House Press, Idle Ink, Coffin Bell Journal, the Mechanics Institute Review and the Cabinet of Heed. His Twitter handle is @jakendallox