ALL THE GUESTS were seated around the breakfast table when Muriel Arbuthnot strode into the room, clutching the morning post. She extracted a long white envelope from the pile and handed it over to her oldest chum.
A puzzled look came over Anna Clairmont’s face. Who could possibly know that she was spending the weekend with the Arbuthnots? Then she saw the familiar handwriting, and had to smile at his ingenuity. She hoped her husband Robert, who was seated at the far end of the table, hadn’t noticed, and was relieved to see that he remained engrossed in his copy of The Times.
Anna was trying to wedge her thumb into the corner of the envelope while keeping a wary eye on Robert, when suddenly he glanced across at her and smiled. She returned the smile, dropped the envelope in her lap, picked up her fork and jabbed it into a lukewarm mushroom.
She made no attempt to retrieve the letter until her husband had disappeared back behind his paper. Once he had turned to the business section, she placed the envelope on her right-hand side, picked up the butter knife and slipped it into the thumbed corner. Slowly, she began to slit open the envelope. Having completed the task, she returned the knife to its place by the side of the butter dish.
Before making her next move, she once again glanced across in the direction of her husband, to check that he was still hidden behind his newspaper. He was.
She held down the envelope with her left hand, while carefully extracting the letter with her right. She then placed the envelope in the bag by her side.
She looked down at the familiar Basildon Bond cream notepaper, folded in three. One more casual glance in Robert’s direction; as he remained out of sight, she unfolded the two-page letter.
No date, no address, the first page, as always, written on continuation paper.
‘My darling Titania’. The first night of the Dream at Stratford, followed by the first night they had slept together. Two firsts on the same night, he had remarked. ‘I am sitting in my bedroom, our bedroom, penning these thoughts only moments after you have left me. This is a third attempt, as I can’t find the right words to let you know how I really feel.’
Anna smiled. For a man who had made his fortune with words, that must have been quite difficult for him to admit.
‘Last night you were everything a man could ask from a lover. You were exciting, tender, provocative, teasing, and, for an exquisite moment, a rampant whore.
‘It’s been over a year since we met at the Selwyns’ dinner party in Norfolk, and, as I have often told you, I wanted you to come back home with me that evening. I lay awake all night imagining you lying next to the prune.’ Anna glanced across the table to see that Robert had reached the back page of his paper.
‘And then there was that chance meeting at Glyndebourne – but it was still to be another eleven days before you were unfaithful for the first time, and then not until the prune was away in Brussels. That night went far too quickly for me.
‘I can’t imagine what the prune would have made of it, if he had seen you in your maid’s outfit. He’d have probably assumed that you always tidied up the drawing room in Lonsdale Avenue in a white see-through blouse, no bra, a skintight black leather skirt with a zip up the front, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, not forgetting the shocking-pink lipstick.’
Anna looked up again and wondered if she was blushing. If he had really enjoyed himself that much, she would have to go on another shopping trip in Soho as soon as she got back to town. She continued to read the letter.
‘My darling, there is no aspect of our lovemaking that I don’t relish, but I confess that what turns me on the most is the places you choose when you can only take an hour off work during your lunch break. I can recall every one of them. On the back seat of my Mercedes in that NCP carpark in Mayfair; the service lift in Harrods; the loo at the Caprice. But most exciting of all was that little box in the dress circle at Covent Garden during a performance of Tristan and Isolde. Once before the first interval and then again during the final act – well, it is a long opera.’
Anna giggled and quickly placed the letter back into her lap as Robert peered round the side of his newspaper.
‘What made you laugh, my dear?’ he asked.
‘The picture of James Bond landing on the Dome,’ she said. Robert looked puzzled. ‘On the front of your paper.’
‘Ah, yes,’ said Robert, glancing at the front page, but he didn’t smile as he returned to the business section.
Anna retrieved the letter.
‘What maddens me most about your spending the weekend with Muriel and Reggie Arbuthnot is the thought of you being in the same bed as the prune. I’ve tried to convince myself that as the Arbuthnots are related to the Royal family, they’ve probably given you separate bedrooms.’
Anna nodded, wishing she could tell him he had guessed correctly.
‘And does he really snore like the QE II coming into Southampton harbour? I can see him now, sitting on the far side of the breakfast table. Harris tweed jacket, grey trousers, checked shirt, wearing an MCC tie, as thought to be fashionable by Hare and Hound circa 1966.’
This time Anna did burst out laughing, and was only rescued by Reggie Arbuthnot rising from his end of the table to enquire, ‘Anyone care to make up a four for tennis? The weather forecast is predicting that the rain will stop long before the morning’s out.’
‘I’ll be happy to join you,’ said Anna, secreting the letter back under the table.
‘How about you, Robert?’ Reggie asked.
Anna watched as her husband folded up The Times, placed it on the table in front of him and shook his head.
Oh my God, thought Anna. He is wearing a tweed jacket and an MCC tie.
‘I’d love to,’ said Robert, ‘but I’m afraid I have to make several phone calls.’
‘On a Saturday morning?’ said Muriel, who was standing at the laden sideboard, filling her plate for a second time.
‘Afraid so,’ replied Robert. ‘You see, criminals don’t work a five-day, forty-hour week, so they don’t expect their lawyers to do so either.’ Anna didn’t laugh. After all, she had heard him make the same observation every Saturday for the past seven years.
Robert rose from the table, glanced towards his wife and said, ‘If you need me, my dear, I’ll be in my bedroom.’
Anna nodded and waited for him to leave the room.
She was about to return to her letter when she noticed that Robert had left his glasses on the table. She would take them through to him as soon as she had finished breakfast. She placed the letter on the table in front of her and turned to the second page.
‘Let me tell you what I have planned for our anniversary weekend while the prune is away at his conference in Leeds. I’ve booked us back into the Lygon Arms, so we’ll be in the same room in which we spent our first night together. This time I’ve got tickets for All’s Well. But I plan a change of atmosphere once we have returned from Stratford to the privacy of our room in Broadway.
‘I want to be tied up to a four-poster bed, with you standing over me in a police sergeant’s uniform: truncheon, whistle, handcuffs, wearing a tight black outfit with silver buttons down the front, which you will undo slowly to reveal a black bra. And, my darling, you’re not to release me until I have made you scream at the top of your voice, the way you did in that underground carpark in Mayfair.
‘Your loving Oberon.’
Anna raised her head and smiled, wondering where she could get her hands on a police sergeant’s uniform. She was about to turn back to the front page and read the letter again when she noticed the P.S.
‘P.S. I wonder what the prune is up to right now.’
Anna looked up to see that Robert’s glasses were no longer on the table.
‘What scoundrel could write such an outrageous letter to a married woman?’ demanded Robert as he adjusted his glasses.
Anna turned, horrified to see her husband standing behind her and staring down at the letter, beads of sweat appearing on his forehead.
‘Don’t ask me,’ said Anna coolly, as Muriel appeared by her side, tennis racket in hand. Anna folded her letter, passed it over to her oldest friend, winked and said, ‘Fascinating, my dear, but for your sake I do hope Reggie never finds out.’