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About the Author
Other Books by Sarah Dunant
Praise for Transgressions
It first started four months after she had separated from Tom, although at the time, of course, she didn’t think of it as “It.” At the time, it was simply the morning when she walked into the kitchen and couldn’t find the Van Morrison CD. She hadn’t given it much thought then, just flicked her way through the rack and chose something else.
But over the coming weeks she had missed the album. Called Enlightenment, it was recorded at the turn of the nineties (years that seemed to have passed her by musically) and had a great opening track that roared out of the speakers, high and sassy, suggesting that there might indeed be life after the end of a failed relationship. In those scorching, high-summer days when there was so much sun that even the plants were calling for mercy, it had become a kind of anthem for her, offering a vision of a future that she couldn’t quite let herself believe in.
It had been her custom to play it first thing in the morning, as she opened up the French windows onto the garden and laid breakfast for herself on the slowly yellowing lawn. The day after Tom had moved out, taking his half of the kitchen with him, she had gone to the local department store and bought a whole set of absurd, brightly colored plates and breakfast cups and a shiny black cappuccino maker, stylish, very Italian. It had taken her a while to fathom the instructions—she was one of those independent women who nevertheless left the electronic part of her life to whichever man was in it at the time—but once she had mastered it she was able to conjure up fabulous cupfuls of frothy coffee, which she sipped luxuriously while sitting on the lawn and which left thick white mustaches on her upper lip. There was, of course, no one to lick them off. Not that she minded that. On the contrary. After so long living in the shadow of a slow death, she felt a quiet, almost triumphant sense of release.
Still, she missed the Van Morrison. There were other albums of his she could have played, but they all came from different parts of her life, fragments of a musical autobiography that predated Tom, and were therefore so long ago now that it was hard to remember that they had happened to the same person. The pleasure of this album was that it felt new to who she was now. It had come the same week as the breakfast set, along with a brooding, melancholic version of Leonard Cohen songs sung by an American singer named Jennifer Warnes with a voice like raw silk, flaws and all.
This new music became a kind of benchmark of her progress. One day when she was in the car, “Famous Blue Raincoat” turned up to top volume, she imagined herself hearing it again in a couple of years, when the emotional landscape was different, and saying to herself, “Ah, yes, that was one of the records I split up with Tom to,” as if the act had been just another event in a life unfolding and not the end of it, as it so often felt now.
So much did she miss the Van Morrison that after a week or so she began a systematic search, taking down every CD from the shelf and checking it, to see if Van had somehow bedded himself down with Morrissey or Bryan Ferry by mistake. But the shiny little disc was nowhere to be found. It puzzled rather than worried her. She wondered briefly about Tom. Maybe he had appropriated it during one of his lightning raids on the house.
The atmosphere around the split-up had been so acrimonious that for a while it had seemed impossible for them to be in the same place at the same time. It was agreed that anything he needed he would take while she was out. He sent her notes: painful, formal little lists decorated with unpleasant remarks, detailing what and when. The “when” he honored, the “what” proved more problematic. In those first months she would often find herself looking for a certain plate or book, only to realize that it had gone missing. Of course, some of these things were genuinely theirs, rather than his or hers; seven years of shared life made it hard to remember what exactly belonged to whom. But that album, she knew, was hers. He didn’t even like Van Morrison, for God’s sake. She had thought about contacting him to check, but four months on, it still felt too soon to hear his voice. He might be tempted to read it as her needing an excuse to get in touch, and she couldn’t bear the idea of feeling vulnerable to his arrogance. Not yet. Not anymore. After a while she assumed she had just mislaid the disc somewhere. She got used to not hearing the music and gradually forgot all about it.
Toward the end of the summer, she went to New York for a couple of days’ work, staying at a hotel on the edge of Central Park. She had been looking forward to the trip, her first as a single woman again, had even extended it by a few days to include the weekend. But when the time came she found herself inexplicably depressed by it. The city was rank, exhausted by the summer’s heat, and the work dull. On the second evening she left the hotel for a stroll down Broadway, but the swelter left her dripping by the fourth block and she escaped instead into Tower Records, where the air was secondhand but bearable, and the music, by chance, Van Morrison.
It was a live double album recorded in San Francisco in 1994, proof that he had not only survived the eighties intact but managed to squeeze some creativity from the decade. She bought it instantly, along with an earlier concert—Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast—and a replacement for the CD she had lost earlier. Once she’d started riffling through the racks, she found she couldn’t stop. The Czech company that had sent her to help run its trade fair had given her three days’ expenses in hand. She spent it all in the next twenty minutes, plundering the backlists, buying up bands she had once danced or sung along to but couldn’t be bothered to replace with CDs because they were too expensive and she would only ever be able to play them when Tom was out. In retrospect she wondered if their musical incompatibility hadn’t been the source of all evil: what hope could there ever be for a rock ’n’ roll girl and a classical lover? The thought returned to her now as she defiantly picked out new bands she had barely heard of, let alone listened to. New music for a new life. On her way back to the hotel she stopped by an electronics store and bought a portable CD player on her Barclaycard just for the hell of it. She spent the rest of her trip curled up in bed, channel-surfing on the TV with the sound down and the headphones on, the music feeling more real than the place. And when the music got too powerful she danced around the hotel room, getting the shock of her life when she turned to find the Puerto Rican maid standing an inch behind her proffering new towels. They both broke into a cascade of laughter and she felt a sudden sense of warmth to the world, as if the trip had after all done some healing.
When she got home, the summer was on the wane, and it wasn’t long before she had to wear a sweater for her breakfast outside, but still she persisted. The music went with her, pounding out from the French windows, louder now, less melancholic. Thanks to the capriciousness of Victorian suburban planning, her garden and the o
The sounds moved her feet as well as her mind. She bopped to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger as she deadheaded the roses and weeded the ground elder from between the dahlias, while inside she cleaned the kitchen to the beat of Counting Crows, Radiohead, and a handful of other new bands whose songs were becoming familiar enough for her to sing the words to. It was, she realized, a long time since she had heard so much of her own voice. It still surprised her that such a confident sound should emerge from such an otherwise shy personality.
It struck her that all this singing might mean that she was happy, but the word didn’t carry any meaning, and despite the music she would still have days where she would wake at four A.M. feeling as if the world had ended during the night and she was the only one left alive to mourn it. Seven and a half years. Too long for an affair, too short for a lifetime. The question of who she was now remained unanswered.
Maybe it would have been easier if she had seen Tom again, to remind herself of what she had escaped from. But although she had a number for him (he had fallen on his feet—a work colleague had gotten a post in Saudi and left a bachelor apartment in the Barbican needing a new tenant) she never rang it. And he never called her. Friends of friends told her he was doing fine; busy, looking good. Did that mean he never thought of her, never missed her at all? Did she miss him? Yes, was the honest answer to that, sometimes, even though their last eighteen months had been increasingly unbearable, the rows moving from voice into violence with long frozen truces in between.
The corroding of emotion had already infected the sex, or what remained of it. For a while it had made it almost exciting—angrier, more selfish on both sides. But it also held the seeds of a contempt that in the end would have poisoned them both. They both understood that, but it was she who had rebelled first, putting a stop to their mutual destruction. Abstinence brought its own tension, which neither of them chose to talk about. Add it to the list of unfinished business. Maybe with someone else he would make love differently: playful, creative, curious, the way they used to a million years ago. Maybe she would, too.
Not that she could imagine it. She didn’t miss the sex. On the contrary, she rather relished her new celibacy. She enjoyed the new expanse of the bed and its cool, empty spaces. It was part of a deeper enjoyment of the intimacy of being alone. She would spend long hours in the bathroom, a woman at her toilet—crimping, waxing, creaming, and pampering a body that was not to be seen by anyone but her. It was like being a teenager again—the pleasure being in the indulgence, cut off from any threat of disillusionment with reality.
Only very occasionally did her body betray her. One night, a few weeks before her trip to New York, she had the fiercest, most unexpected of erotic dreams: an old lover in a motel room on the edge of a desert, taunting, denying her, then finally giving. She woke up in a sweat of desire scared half to death by the power of the feeling—the power and the vulnerability that it exposed.
She had missed the Van Morrison album more than ever that morning. My, how that man could make love with his voice: the long, slow, sensuous kind, rather than the wham-bam pelvic thrust she had become used to in the last days of the destructive rutting match with Tom.
She had opened the windows and stood on the grass, cradling her mug of frothy coffee against her body, enjoying the solitude and, for once, the quiet. Across the long expanse of gardens belonging to the Victorian houses opposite was a jigsaw puzzle of windows and rooftops. The city was full of people she didn’t know and would probably never meet. The anonymity of it all, of herself within it, was surprisingly exciting. It gave an edge to her loneliness. For a while she even found herself looking at men again, wondering what they would be like in bed, if they in their turn might fancy her. But it took energy, pushing her thoughts outward, and by the time she got on the plane to New York she had lost it again.
Back home she made a last stab at conviviality. She threw a dinner party, going through her address book and inviting seven people, including a spare man—a friend of a friend—to even the numbers. She cooked all day, laid a Good Housekeeping table, and chattered her way through the evening, high and vital. Two of the guests wrote notes saying how lovely it was to see her in such good form. But the adrenaline faded with the washing up and she was depressed for days afterward.
Toward the end of October it became, finally, too cold to breakfast outside. The French windows were closed up and it was only the squirrels and the cat who did any gardening, Millie scratching up the bulbs with her claws or standing in the middle of the lawn in endless standoff with a sleek black tom that had taken to stalking her territory, green-eyed and taunting.
She stood behind the glass watching it all from inside. She didn’t mind. She still played the music, staring out as the rain rolled in, but she had other concerns now. One of the publishing houses that she translated for had just arrived back from the Frankfurt Book Fair with a hard-boiled thriller by a new Czech writer, and they were in a panic to get it translated because there was movie interest in the synopsis, with names like Brad Pitt and Irène Jacob being bandied about. She had read it some months before—the tale of a New York cop brought in to bust a Mafia drug ring in Eastern Europe—and though she had reservations about its originality she’d decided to do it anyway, partly because the money was good and partly because living in another language would allow her to live less in herself, or at least the self that she associated with Tom.
She upgraded her hard drive and bought a set of slang dictionaries to mark the occasion. The novel was long, an Eastern European attempt at a blockbuster, and its translation would take her the rest of the year and into the new one. Why not? She had nothing better to do with her life. When this is finished, she told herself, I’ll be ready; I’ll emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon, transformed, reborn, ready to take on the world.
She bought a bottle of champagne to mark the beginning of her confinement. At six-thirty on the first evening, with the light already fading in readiness for winter, she went down to the kitchen to open it. She had been playing the Morrison live San Francisco double album almost constantly that week—good way to prepare her for translation, appreciating how someone else could make words dance. But when she pushed the button to start the music, nothing happened. She pushed it again, then opened up the machine only to discover that the CD wasn’t in it. Surely she had had it on the turntable that morning? She certainly hadn’t played anything else, and the case was still sitting on the counter. She checked inside. The second disc in its place safely at the back, but the other one, the one she’d been playing, was not.
As she searched further, the cat flap snapped open and Millie streaked in like a bat out of hell, trying, too late, to look dignified and victorious. On the lawn, twenty yards away from the doors, a big black tomcat was poised, stock-still, staring in silent triumph. She went up and hammered on the French windows. It stood its ground, then drew back its ears, turned, and sauntered lazily away. Millie curled herself around her owner’s legs, yowling, eager for affection. “Come on, girl,” she muttered. “It’s your garden. Don’t let some man get the upper hand.”
She went back to her search. But the longer she looked the more obvious it became that the disc wasn’t there. It didn’t make sense. It had been in the machine, now it was gone. If she hadn’t taken it out, then who had? With the exception of an hour or so in the middle of the day, when she’d gone out for a swim and to buy the champagne, she had been in the house all the time.
It was then, for the first time in months, that she remembered the other Van Morrison CD and its equally sudden disappearance. And it was then also that she began to wonder seriously about her ex-lover.
“But why? What could he possibly gain from it? Anyway, I thought he only liked classical stuff.”
“So the answer is, I don’t know.”
“But you think it’s him?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I think you probably mislaid it somewhere.”
“Not ‘it.’ Them. And I’ve looked, and I didn’t.”
“So was anything else missing? Anything valuable?”
“No, nothing. I checked.”
“Well, if it is him, it’s a rather subtle way to go about getting to you. I would have expected something more direct from Tom, mean bastard.”
“Is he?” she said, surprised.
Sally laughed. “Sweetheart, you know he is. God, when you two were together you couldn’t get through an evening without him bitching at you, undermining you in a dozen different ways. He didn’t want a lover, he wanted an acolyte. It was okay while you fit the role, but as soon as you didn’t . . . Patrick and I would talk about it afterward.”
How strange, she thought. When we were together nobody thought to mention how ill suited we were. Now people can’t stop telling me. She sat across the table watching Sally dissect a lettuce leaf as if it were a cadaver. “What? Sorry?”
“I said, does he still have a key?”
“Er . . . yes. He was moving stuff out and then I never bothered to ask for it back.”
“Hmmmn, nothing, Sally. I just forgot, that’s all.”
“Yes, well, if I were you I’d ask for it now.”
In the little silence that followed she felt Sally’s concern like a comfort blanket around her shoulders. It was hard to know whether to pull it tighter or throw it off. She wondered if she should order the bill.
“Oh, by the way, I bumped into Karen the other day. She said you’d had a dinner party and that you were in great form. I was impressed.”
She shrugged. “So was I, at the time. It took me weeks to recover.”
“Still, it’s a step in the right direction.”