When Anne, Risley and I were having supper, I got a text message from Alec asking me to contact him when the coast was clear. After the meal, I went to the study and phoned him. ‘I’m staying at a hotel in Chester,’ he said. ‘Everything is O.K. and I hope to be back tomorrow afternoon…Just wanted to tell you that I’ll be back on the road the day after that. An emergency haul from a warehouse near Orly Airport. Fifty pallets of champagne. I spoke to Maurice just now and he’s not happy. He wanted to spend some time with me.’
‘Champagne?’ I asked. ‘Bit of a short notice, isn’t it?’
‘True. Could not be done otherwise, nearly all the drivers are on sick leave or in quarantine. I’ll stay in France overnight and I’ll be back on New Year’s Eve by the end of the afternoon. Might as well do it. That idiot hasn’t left yet, has he?’
‘No, and I wouldn’t know where Maurice is now.’
‘At his sister Kitty’s. Bit of a mess. She’s at home giving her students some extra online tutoring for the new term and he’s got to work from home as well. Her flat is mighty cramped, they’ll be at each other’s throats soon.’
So Maurice was still on speaking terms with Alec. He had not even read my text messages.
When I took some clean towels upstairs, I found Risley on the landing juggling miniature plush footballs. Furball Two and her brother Benny and her sister Jiffy were jumping up and down.
‘Catch the ball, Messi,’ Risley squealed. Benny chased it and ran it home between Risley’s legs.
‘Goal!’ our guest roared. ‘Encore!’
He liked cats and he was having a good time now. It was almost nice.
The next morning, he complained about a stiff neck. He had slept in an uncomfortable position because Clivie had claimed the pillow.
Alec got the tale first-hand as soon as he came home. ‘Nice one,’ he said. ‘Clivie usually sleeps in my bed. He must like you a lot, Claude.’
Then things got worse. Alec grabbed a well-deserved can of Carlsberg from the fridge and offered some to Risley. ‘No, thanks, dear, I’d rather have some water,’ the professor said.
‘Yer not much of a party animal, are ye?’ Alec grinned. ‘Fuck me, how can you stand it? Being vegan and all? Nothing wrong with a good take-out kebab and chips and vinegar with lots of garlic, as long as you don’t run out of bog rolls to deal with what comes after that.’
They both burst out laughing. I left the kitchen and found Anne in the drawing-room downing a glass of pinot gris and smoking her umpteenth cigarette. ‘They’re totally getting along,’ I said as I sat down next to her. ‘Alec even gets to use Risley’s first name. He never grants this privilege to any other man as far as I know.’
She was as lost as I was. ‘I wish Maurice were here,’ she mumbled.
Dinner consisted of pasta in a creamy blue-cheese and bacon sauce. Risley had his spaghetti aglio e olio and nibbled celery sticks, offering some to Alec, who crunched along happily.
Risley had now taken to praising Alec’s beauty and wit. I could tell Anne was about to throw up.
‘Maurice is a lucky devil,’ our guest said. ‘He’s got a godlike creature for a life partner.’
‘No, an electrician,’ Alec protested with a grin.
‘A trucker,’ Anne added.
‘No, love,’ Alec corrected her sweetly. ‘Only a guy who happens to have a heavy transport license. Real truckers are motorway cowboys, always away from home, sleeping in their cabin bunks and eating roadside junk food.’
‘Sounds divine,’ Risley said approvingly.
Alec patted his hand. ‘Well, I was gonna ask you anyroad, but if you like it, why won’t you come with me tomorrow? I’m due to load a freight outside Orly. It’ll take yer mind off things a bit before your term at the varsity starts in January.’
‘I’d be delighted, Alec. Are you sure it’s no trouble?’
‘Nooooo, as long as your Covid jabs are up-to-date and you don’t mind not seeing any sights. It’s a straight run from Slough with an overnight stay in France and back. We’ll take my Lancia to the yard where I pick up the truck. Just be ready to rock and roll by five tomorrow morning.’
‘As I said, I’d be delighted.’
Risley finished his water and gave me a sweet look. ‘Will you look after my BMW, Clive?’
I nodded, too dumbfounded to protest or to figure out why Alec had grown to like Risley.
Anne must have been shaking me for God knows how long, because when I opened my eyes, I read panic in hers. ‘Good heavens,’ she whispered. ‘You were so far gone and having nice dreams by the looks of it.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Half past four. Alec and Claude are leaving soon.’
We got up yawning and tottering, hunted for our dressing gowns and our slippers and went downstairs. Alec and Risley were having coffee in the kitchen. Risley was wearing a pair of old jeans, a polo jersey and a fleece cardigan with a hoodie. Their bags were in the hallway.
Anne produced some Tupperware boxes. She must have filled them the night before. ‘There you go,’ she said to Risley. ‘Carrot and celery sticks and some leftover chick pea salad.’
He thanked her with a kiss, which made her grin.
Then she hugged Alec and ran her fingers through his gel-drenched hair. ‘Take care,’ she said, her voice sounding warm and desperate. ‘And please text me as soon as you come out of the Chunnel.’
He promised her and held her in his arms.
Ten minutes later, she and I were in bed again, listening to the reluctant starting sounds of the Lancia.
We remained silent for some time. She did not protest as I snuggled up to her and hugged her from behind. Something was going on in my boxer shorts. She felt it and showed no response.
Risley had driven Maurice out of the house and was about to have a big adventure with Alec. It therefore surprised me that she did not reprimand me for my state of arousal.
‘All this must be tonight, love,’ she sighed. It was an unspoken rule between us that sex was only to be had after work and never before.