Lottie announced that she was getting married. This was at the breakfast table at her parents' house one weekend. The kitchen in that house was upstairs, its windows overlooking the garden below. It was a tall, thin, old house, comfortably untidy, worn to fit the shape of the family. The summer morning was rainy, so all the lights were on, the atmosphere close and dreamy, perfumed with toast and coffee.
– Whatever for? Lottie's mother, Hattie, said, and carried on reading her book. She was an English teacher, but she read crime novels at weekends: this one was about a detective in Venice.
Lottie was nineteen, but she looked more like thirteen or fourteen. She was just over five feet tall, with a tight little figure and a barrel chest; she insisted on wearing the same glasses with thick black frames that she had chosen years earlier, and her hair, the colour of washed-out straw, was pulled into pigtails. Everyone happened to be at home that weekend, even Lottie's older brother, Rufus, and her sister, Em, who had both moved away.
– Have you got a boyfriend at last? Em asked.
Lottie was always pale, with milky, translucent skin behind a ghostly arc of freckles across her snub nose, but she seemed to be even whiter than usual that morning, blue veins standing out at her temples; she clenched her hands on either side of the place mat in front of her. They were improbable hands for a violinist: pink and plump, with short blunt fingers and bitten cuticles.
– You're not taking me seriously! she cried.
A squall of rain urged against the steamed-up window panes, the kettle boiled, toast sprang from the toaster for no one in particular. Vaguely, they all looked at her, thinking their own thoughts. Lottie emanated intensity; her personality was like a demon trapped inside a space too small. Even as a baby she had been preternaturally perceptive and judgmental. Her talent for the violin, when it was discovered, had seemed an explanation for her surplus strength, or a solution to it; she had begun on an instrument so tiny that it looked like a Christmas tree decoration. Now she was living with her parents while she studied for her music degree at the university.
– Why ever would you want to get married? Hattie said reasonably. – Dad and I have never felt the need.
– I'm not like you, Lottie said.
This was one of her battle cries.
– Of course, you're not like anybody, sweetheart. You're just yourself.
– For a start, I happen to have religious beliefs. I believe that marriage is a holy sacrament.
– No, you don't, Rufus said. – You've never said anything about them before.
– So when, exactly, are you getting married? Em asked sceptically. – And who to?
– How could I possibly know yet when? That's exactly what I want to talk to you about. I want to sort out a date. I want you all to be there. I want it to be a proper wedding. With a dress and everything. And bridesmaids, probably.
– So you have got a boyfriend! Em said.
Em was gracefully loose jointed, with her mother's hooded, poetic eyes; she worked in the toxicology department of the city hospital.
– My husband, he's going to be. Hattie put down her book and her coffee mug in concern.
– Poppet, you're so young. There's no hurry about the marrying part. Of course, you can have a proper wedding one day if that's what you want, but there's no need to rush into anything. Sullen white dents appeared in Lottie's cheeks where her jaw was set. – You forget that I have a whole life of my own now, as an adult, outside of this house, about which you know nothing, absolutely nothing. You don't warn Emily not to rush into anything.
– To be fair, Em said, – I'm not the one who just said I was getting married.
– Have we met him? Hattie asked. – Is he on your course?
– Is it the one with the stammer in your string quartet? asked Noah, Lottie's younger brother, who was still at school. – Tristan?
– How could you think I'd want to marry Tristan?
– Personally, I'd warn against anyone in a string quartet, Rufus said.
– Shut up, Rufus. It isn't anything to do with Tristan.
– So what's his name, then? Noah persisted. Duncan, the children's father, arrived from his morning ritual with the Guardian in the bathroom upstairs. He was shorter than Hattie, stocky, densely and neatly made, with a wrinkled, ugly, interesting head; she was vague and languid, elegant, beginning to be faded. He taught special needs kids at a local comprehensive, though not the same one where Hattie taught. – What is whose name?
Alarm took flight in Hattie. – Lottie, darling, you're not pregnant, are you?
– I just don't believe this family, Lottie wailed. – There's something horrible about the way your minds work.
– Because if you're pregnant we can deal with that. It doesn't mean that you have to get married.
– Is she pregnant? Duncan asked.
– Of course I'm not.
– She says she's going to get married.
– Whatever for?
– Also that she has religious beliefs, all of a sudden. This seemed to bother Rufus more than the marrying. He was an ironic pragmatist; he worked as a research analyst for the Cabinet Office.
– The reason, Lottie said, – is that I've met someone quite different from anyone I've ever known before, different from any of you. He's a great man. He's touched my life, and transformed it. I'm lucky he even noticed I exist.
She had a gift of vehemence, the occasional lightning flash of vision so strong that it revealed to others, for a moment, the world as it was from her perspective.
– And who is he? Em asked her, almost shyly.
– I'm not going to tell you now, Lottie said. – Not after this. Not yet.
– When you say "great man," her father considered, – I get the feeling that you're not talking about one of your fellow students.
Hattie saw what he meant, after gaping at him for half a second. – One of your teachers! Is it?
Lottie, blinking behind her glasses, turned her round white face toward her mother, precarious, defiant.
– Does this teacher know that you feel this way about him?
–You seriously think I'm making it all up? I told you. He loves me. He's going to marry me.
Duncan wondered if it wasn't Edgar Lennox. – He's some kind of High Anglican, isn't he? I believe he writes religious music.
– And so? Lottie challenged. – If it was him?
– Oh, no! Hattie stood up out of her chair, uncharacteristically guttural, almost growling. – That's out of the question. Edgar Lennox. That's just not thinkable, in any way, shape, or form.
– I hate it when you use that phrase, Lottie shouted, standing up, too. – Way, shape, or form. It's so idiotic. It's exactly the sort of thing you would say. It just goes to show your mediocrity.
– Let's try to talk about this calmly, Duncan said. Edgar Lennox was old enough to be Lottie's grandfather. Forty years older than she was, Hattie shrieked; later, it turned out to be more like forty-five. His already being married, to his second wife, was only a minor difficulty compared with this. Duncan and Hattie had met him twice: once when they went to the university Open Day with Lottie, and once before that, at a private view of paintings by one of Hattie's friends. He had seemed at the time Hattie's ideal of an elderly creative artist: tall, very thin, with a shock of upstanding white hair, a face whose hollows seemed to have been carved out by suffering, tanned skin as soft as leather, a charcoal grey linen shirt.
– When you say he's touched your life, could we be quite specific about this? Duncan said. – Has he actually, in the ordinary, nontranscendent sense of the word, touched you? Em protested in disgust. – Dad, you can't ask her that! Em had been crying; her eyelids were swollen and puffy, and her face was blotched. Hattie and Lottie's eyes were hot and dry.
Hattie turned on him. – How can you put it like that? How could you make it into one of your clever remarks?
– If you're asking, Lottie said, – whether we've consummated our relationship, then, yes, of course we have. What do you think we are? We're lovers.
– Naturally, I'm making a formal complaint to the university, Hattie said. – He'll lose his job. There's no question about that.
– That'll be sensible, won't it? Em said. – Then if they are married he won't be able to support her.
– You're sure she isn't making all this up? Rufus suggested.
– Think what you like, Lottie said. – You'll soon know. She sat with her mouth primly shut, shining with a tragic light. Beyond the kitchen windows, veils of rain drove sideways into the sodden skirts of the horse chestnut tree, darkening the pink flowers. Hattie said that the whole thing reminded her of when she was at art college, and a friend of hers had heard suddenly that her sister was on the point of entering a convent, a closed order that allowed no contact with family or friends.
– We all piled onto a train and went up to Leeds together on the spur of the moment, six or seven of us who were close then, and met this sister in a tea shop, and tried to convince her of everything in the world that was worth staying for.
– Don't be ridiculous, Mum. I'm not going into a convent.
– Did it work? Noah asked. – Did you convince her? Hattie frowned and pressed her knuckles to her forehead.
– I can't remember whether she went into the convent or not in the end. Perhaps she did. I can only remember the tea shop, and after that a pub, and trying to think of all the things we couldn't bear to leave behind, and getting gradually drunker and drunker.
– This isn't the same thing, Duncan said firmly. – And we aren't at anything like that stage yet, anyway.
Lottie stared at them in genuine bewilderment. – I don't understand you all, she said. – How can you not want for me what I want?
Noah saw his parents leave the house late in the evening. His bedroom was in the attic; he was sitting on the sill of his little casement window, his feet in the lead lined gutter that ran like a trough the length of the Georgian terrace, looking down over the stone parapet into the street, four stories below. Though it was strictly forbidden, he had liked to sit this way ever since he was given this bedroom when he was eight; he used to fit into the small space perfectly, but now he had to squeeze, and his knees were jackknifed up in front of his face. Rain was sluicing down the slate roof into the gutter. In the light of the streetlamps, the road shone black; parked cars were plastered with wet leaves from the beeches and horse chestnuts in the muddy triangle of public garden opposite. His mother's high heels scraped fiercely in the empty street as she crossed to the car; she must have dressed up in her teaching clothes for the occasion. She was hanging on tightly to the strap of the bag slung over her shoulder. She and Duncan dithered around the car under the half globes of their umbrellas, probably quarrelling about who should drive; they seemed as small as dolls from where Noah watched. He supposed they were going to try to find Edgar Lennox at his house; they had been calling him on the phone all day, without getting through. It was strange to think of the two households, more or less unknown to each other before tonight, connected by this drama, awake in the city when everyone else was getting ready for sleep.
Hours later - he wasn't sure how many hours, as he'd fallen asleep at his desk while revising for the geography G.C.S.E. exam he had on Monday morning - Noah woke to the sound of his mother's voice in the house again. She sounded like she did when she'd had too much wine at parties: rash and loud, extravagantly righteous. He went out to listen, leaning over the bannister and sliding noiselessly down, a few steps at a time. The steep and narrow staircase, the core of the skinny house, drew sound upward. Above his head, an ancient skylight as wide as the stairwell rattled under the rain, leaking into a strategically placed bucket. His parents and Rufus and Em were crowded at the foot of the stairs, in the hallway's jumble of boots and bikes and baskets, junk mail, umbrellas dripping on the grey and white tiles. His mother still had her fawn mac on.
– I thought he'd be ashamed, she was saying – if I told him that Lottie was marrying him because she thinks he's a great man. But it was obvious that he thinks he is one, too.
Excerpted from Married Love and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley. Copyright © 2012 by Tessa Hadley. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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