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Text of Chapter 1
A New History of Love
by Alison Bacon
1. Oubli (Forgetfulness)
Bel got ready to make her move. This was her last chance to get her man. She watched him as his eyes flicked round his audience, taking them all in: the bright and the drowsy, the note-takers, and those who surreptitiously rolled back a cuff to check the time. His presentation was coming to an end and he was summing up. Bel met his eye and saw him look back. His smooth brown hair was cut to a pelt. His face was lined but not haggard. She glanced at the conference programme to check the name. Ric Falcone.
As he thanked them for their attention, the rest of the audience moved to the door. Bel went forward. Ric was unplugging leads from his laptop. Hearing her footsteps he glanced at her over his shoulder.
She smiled. ‘Do you have a minute?’
He put down his leads and straightened up. ‘Of course,’ he took her in without making it too obvious, ‘I might even have two.’
At her age she rarely had this kind of compliment. Even if it was from a salesman it was enough to produce a tiny twang of pleasure. She explained about the training event her boss was organising. ‘She should have been here today. I’m just the stand-in.’
‘Really? I’m standing in too.’ Under his jacket he wore a tee shirt and a silver chain that came and went around the neck.
‘Well,’ Bel said, ‘we’re really keen to have you people along. Do you think you can make it? ’
Ric Falcone made some mental calculation. ‘Well, my colleague would really be your man. I could put you in touch, or his address is in the handout. Sorry, I didn’t catch your name.’
‘Bel, Bel Browning.’ She gave him her contact details and made for the door.
On the train, Bel lowered her carrier of conference bumf to the floor and steadied it between her legs, then wriggled out of her fleece jacket and held it on her lap with her briefcase. She was hot and tired and leaned back, closing her eyes and stretching her toes inside her shoes.
She had thought she might sleep but the girl next to her had a walkman that gave out a tinny jangle. The ragged ends of conversations farther down the train alerted her interest then were lost. Outside the deepening dusk conspired with the murky residue of rain on the window to reflect the passengers’ faces back on themselves. It did her no harm to get out of the library from time to time, and her trip to the conference should bear fruit.
Ric worked for OLTA, the Oxford Language Teaching Archive, a project to digitise a vast corpus of modern language texts and put them online. Oxford, even in the year 2000, the age of the computer, it was still the centre of things academic, but Bel rarely connected it with her own past, the years before Miles. It was Miles who had first called her Bel instead of Isobel, and she’d got used to it. She had cut off her curly frizz. Short name, short hair; she liked them both. They made a useful dividing line between her past and present lives. And some memories were best avoided, just as the girl manoeuvring down the gangway was avoiding the protruding bags and elbows that threatened her stability. Bel closed her eyes. She would be home in two hours.
On the doorstep she fumbled for her key. A flicker of blue light escaped from the lounge window. Miles was home, watching T.V. or more likely dozing in front of it. Once inside, she kicked off her shoes and stood on the mat, contemplating the expanse of bare floorboards. Next year, Miles said, when the maintenance was less, then they would get a carpet. She closed her eyes and summoned up the one she’d picked out in the shop on the corner. Its colour was nimbus grey. She imagined its yielding pile beneath her feet then opened her eyes and commenced her journey across the gritty floor.
Since there was no sound from the lounge, she went straight to the kitchen. On the worktop there was a note.
‘Food and wine in fridge. Disturb me! X’
The ends of the X flicked around like a loosely tied bow. Bel poured herself a glass of wine and perched at the worktop to eat, but found she was full after a couple of mouthfuls. Too restless to slump with Miles, she unpacked her bags and started sorting her notes and leaflets into piles. A glossy A4 sheet, the OLTA leaflet, slithered out onto the floor. On the front a half-tone photo of the Radcliffe Camera loomed out of a soft-focus mist. She turned the leaflet over to read the names of the contacts.
‘Sales and Support, Midlands and North
Dr. Ric Falcone, M.A. (Oxon), D. Phil. email@example.com’
She thought again of Ric Falcone and his Italian style, but he’d said his colleague would come.
‘Sales and Support, Southern Region, Alec Guthrie, M.A., Cert. Ed. firstname.lastname@example.org’
She read it again, then twice more. She got up and walked around the room, then sat down again, assailed by what had nudged at her in the railway carriage: a leap of the heart, a knife in the gut.
She was stupid not to have thought of it before. She had been too busy speculating on Ric himself to think about the interlude that had been Alec. Ten, no, fifteen years had passed, but it was no surprise he was still in Oxford. It was where she had always pictured him, in a solid house on Banbury Road with a swing in the garden, Julia in the kitchen preparing for guests, thumbing through a French cookery book.
She slid the chicken off its plate into the bin. Alec could have been there today. The alien beast inside her went into paroxysms. She washed up her plate and refilled her glass. Maybe Alec’s diary would be full. Maybe he wouldn’t come. The trouble was, she didn’t want that either.
In the lounge, Miles was watching television, his arm along the back of the sofa and his slippered feet stretched out in front. Bel walked over and stood behind him, smoothing his collar. His hair, which curled over the neck of his shirt, was the same grey it had been when they met. He reached up to squeeze her hand. There was a pile of school exercise books on the coffee table.
‘Finished marking?’ He waved his arm without looking away from the screen. It was a film they had seen countless times.
‘Good day?’ he asked.
Soothed by the feel of Miles’ hair beneath her fingers, Bel watched as Clint Eastwood searched for handholds on the Eiger, roped up to his climbing companions.
‘Do you think they’ll make it?’
‘Not with those crampons they won’t.’ It was a joke, as well worn as the film. Miles had been a rock climber in his youth. Bel watched until the part where it turned out Clint’s best friend was the bad guy, then kissed the top of Miles’ head and went out.
When she got into bed the room swam. She had had more wine than food and fell asleep quickly. She dreamed she was standing in an ultra modern kitchen. Alec Guthrie was leaning on a glass-topped table, dressed in mountaineering gear. Bel’s boss, Nicola Hedley, whose kitchen it seemed to be, materialised and introduced Alec as her brother.
‘Hello Alec,’ Bel said, though his face was somehow turned away, ‘Can you please go and help Miles? He’s a climber too. He’s on the mountain and he should have been back by now.’