Tell Me Something About Your Wife

12 Tales for Christmas - Day 12: A new short story by Karen Perry, whose fourth novel is Can You Keep a Secret?

‘Tell me something about your wife,’ she said.

Theo turned his head on the pillow to look at her, the sheet drawn up over her breasts as she watched him.

‘Something you’ve never told anyone,’ she added.

Sunlight was making its way through a gap in the curtains. The sheets, a floral flannel, were coming off the bed, and the floor of the room was covered with books. It was a mess - the room, the situation.


‘She hums constantly,’ he said, after thinking about it for a moment. ‘In the car when she’s driving, while she’s making the dinner. Even on a Sunday when she’s reading the papers. All the time, there’s this humming.’

It wasn’t much of an admission, but it was all he could summon.

‘Does it annoy you?’ Cassie asked, in a way that suggested to him she hoped it did.

‘No. Not really.’

It was just something his wife did, regardless of her mood. Something he accepted about her in the same way he accepted her need for silence in the mornings before she drank her first cup of tea; the same way she always made a neat pile of her clothes on the chair in the bathroom where she undressed at night. Occasionally it bothered him, but he didn’t admit this to Cassie. It would feel disloyal somehow, on top of the infidelity, and he thought about his wife - Jo - at this very moment sitting at her desk in her glass office downtown, looking over some legal document, no doubt humming quietly to herself, the neatly cut hair that she kept tucked behind her ears slipping forwards to brush the sides of her face.

Although she said nothing, he could tell Cassie was dissatisfied with his admission. She propped herself up and reached across him for the cigarettes on the bureau. They always smoked together afterwards, occasionally joking about the cliché: meeting once a month to fuck in her spare-room while her husband was away, sharing a cigarette afterwards. Neither of them passed remark on it today.

‘How long do you suppose we’ll keep doing this?’ Theo said absently. He wasn’t expecting an answer, but when it came so flippantly, he felt the nausea of regret at what they were doing.

‘Until I become bored,’ she said. ‘And you have outlived your usefulness to me.’ It was supposed to sound blithe and humorous, but neither of them smiled.

They hardly knew each other really, even though it was over a year since they’d first met. In a bar of a Belfast hotel, one wall of which was made almost entirely of sheet glass and looked out onto a grey damp street. They had been attending a conference on global warming and Cassie had remarked on the irony of the rain. He liked the expression, he told her, and she asked him back to her room. It was as simple as that, her silk blouse and stockings, the pattering of rain on the windowpane, a view of the city. And now they met on the first Friday of each month, in her Georgian house in Rathgar, for the very simple reason that her home was free of her husband, and, as she put it, any stray children she might have begat with him. It was something else they had in common - their childlessness. Jo had been firm on the matter before Theo had married her - she didn’t want them, and he wasn’t pushed one way or the other. He didn’t ask Cassie about her circumstances - whether it was choice or the cruel hand of fate. Neither of them talked about their spouses on those Fridays. Not until now.

In the corner of the room, her iMac hummed beneath a blouse she had thrown there. All sorts of clothing were evident about the room. In fact, everything around them looked to be shrugged off, discarded.

‘It looks like you’ve moved in,’ he remarked.

‘It was supposed to be an office, a guest-room. It’s none of those things. It’s …’ She gave up trying to describe the room they inhabited. He sat up and reached for his shirt.

‘Spare-room makes it sound so sad,’ she added.

He left her smoking in bed and closed the front door behind him. He never returned to the office on their Friday afternoons. Instead, he walked along the canal, and sat and watched the swans, the smell of Cassie’s sweat evaporating from his fingertips. He drank a glass of wine at the Lebanese restaurant on the corner, and thought about the madness of what they were doing. It seemed to him the appropriate description - madness - the perfect noun. It’s not that there was no affection there, but it was perfunctory. It was, as Cassie said, in one of her less poetic moments, as if they were getting something out of their systems. He knew what it was that he was trying to exorcise in those frantic sessions. He could only guess at what she was trying to purge herself of. But to be able to exist in that madness, the madness of infidelity, was, however contradictory, a balm to him. Afterwards, he strolled through the supermarket, where he chose the chicken fillets, and a large misshaped lemon to cook with. When his wife got home from work, she told him she wasn’t hungry.

‘Jo,’ he said and she turned, but he did not finish what he was going to say. Her expression suggested to him that there would be no point.

The weeks passed, and the first Friday of the month arrived. Theo travelled to the house in Rathgar, where the door was left unlocked for him. He found Cassie in her dressing-gown, a glass of orange juice in one hand. She placed the glass on the counter, and led him upstairs to the spare-room.

Afterwards, she said it again.

‘Shock me,’ she said, daring him. ‘I want to be shocked.’

He wondered how much time she had spent thinking about his wife in the intervening weeks. Somehow he had anticipated Cassie would return to this, unsatisfied by the information he had offered up, needing another morsel to feed her imagination. Perhaps it was because he was thinking of what she had said to him the last time - about outliving his use - or maybe it was simply the burden of dragging the knowledge around for so long, that he told her.

‘She writes love letters to a murderer.’

It gave him a little thrill, the way she grew still and quiet, listening intently as he told her of the man in a German prison, conducting this correspondence with his wife. Years, it had gone on - since before Theo and Jo had met. It was a few months into their marriage before he discovered that she still wrote to him - Lukas - although she had told him about the murder well before that.

‘It was when she was a student,’ he told Cassie.

An innocent abroad, Jo had once told him, in the German university town of Tubingen, studying something as innocuous as International Relations. She had shared a flat with two other girls. One of them - Annika - was murdered. Later, they had arrested Annika’s boyfriend and charged him with her killing. It was this boyfriend of the dead girl with whom his wife continued to correspond over twenty years later.

‘Don’t you mind?’ Cassie asked him and he shrugged.

It was hard to put a word on how he felt about it.

‘What do they write to each other about? Does she tell you?’

‘She says it’s just regular stuff - what she does with her time, how he spends his hours. They don’t talk about what happened.’

‘Do you believe that?’

‘It’s what she says.’

‘But what did happen?’

And so he described to her the evening that Jo had been in her room in that apartment block near the university where most of the foreign students lived. She was at her desk, studying, when she heard the door to the apartment slamming and then voices in Annika’s room. She guessed it was Lukas in there as he had often spent the night over the months he and Annika had been seeing each other. After a while, the usual noises began drifting through into her room - the moans, the cries, the thump of the bedframe against the wall. She had turned up her stereo to drown it out until sometime after dark when the front door slammed again and the room next door grew quiet and Jo went to bed.

‘The other flatmate found the body the next morning,’ Theo said. ‘Strangled, apparently.’

‘So she was there - your wife was there - while the murder took place?’

‘I guess so.’

Outside on the street, a dog was barking. He could tell from the quality of light cutting through the gap in the curtains that it was late in the afternoon.

‘I should go,’ he said, but she was looking at him in a new way - a way he had not seen in her before.

‘No,’ she said and reached for him.

Their next Friday together, she met him at the door, already plucking at the buttons on his shirt, saying: ‘Once a month is beginning to feel like too long a wait.’

After they had had the sex which they both craved, she asked:

‘How often do they write to each other?’

‘Once a month,’ he replied, stretching back across the pillow, one hand behind his head.

‘Is that why you’re doing this?’ she asked.

‘Doing what?’

‘Here, with me. Once a month. Is it quid pro quo?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said, and she kissed his shoulder, then leaned her chin against it while stroking the hairs on his chest.

‘What about the trial?’ she asked. ‘Did she have to testify?’

He told her of how the case had made the headlines. The lives of those young girls picked apart. And she had been very different then - Jo. Bookish, quiet. The one who went to her room and shut the door when there was a party in their block. Not like Annika. Not like Lorrie, the other flatmate. They had spent their year exploring and experimenting - Jo’s term for promiscuity, he knew. To find herself embroiled in a case like that - sex, murder - it had left its scars.

‘In the end, it came down to her testimony,’ he said. ‘Whether the jury believed her or not.’

The other girl, Lorrie, had stayed out all night, so there was only Jo, lying awake in her bed, listening to the sexual exertions in the room next door. At around midnight, she had heard the front door slam as Lukas left. Shortly after that, she heard sounds coming from the bathroom she shared with the other two girls - a toilet flushing. Water running. The gurgling of pipes as the cistern refilled.

Much was made of this testimony at the trial - the defence pouncing on it as evidence that Annika was still alive when Lukas left her at midnight. The prosecution cross-examined Jo relentlessly - could it have been the bathroom upstairs? Might she have made a mistake as to the timing of what she heard? Could she have heard the toilet first and the door slamming afterwards? Might it have been Lukas in the bathroom, rather than Annika? Evidence was given relating to the plumbing in the building, the acoustics. Experts were called to refute her testimony, rubbish it, tear it to shreds.

‘But they convicted him, right?’ Cassie said. ‘So there must have been proof.’

‘His fingerprints were on the girl’s neck.’

‘But her evidence…’

‘They didn’t believe her.’

And that was the worst part. Yes, it was dreadful what had happened to Annika, but if she was honest, Jo had told him, she hadn’t liked Annika all that much. She had found her brash, self-centred, careless. A slob, she said. Annika had teased her about her shyness, her homesickness. But the humiliation of having her testimony discounted, that burned hard within her for a long time after the trial had ended.

Jo had told Theo all of this when they first got together and he had accepted her for what she said, and what she was, which was a beautiful, but damaged young woman, one who had returned to Ireland to fade into the background, to become invisible again. He had known nothing of the details of the prosecution until she told him, a fact which surprised Jo. She accused him of dissembling; he was not. He had had only a vague notion of the case. He did, however, as soon as she revealed the defining episode of her life - again, her words - look up all manner of literature on the subject, in secret and against her wishes. It would have been disingenuous of him to deny that the whiff of scandal about her was not exciting, and attractive, in some self-destructive way, but she accepted his love for what it was.

‘They made her out to be naïve, stupid,’ he told Cassie. ‘A silly little girl confused by what had happened, overwhelmed. It was hard for her.’

‘Was it? Or did she enjoy the attention?’

He let the question hang, and when he did not answer, she let it go. He left as he always left, but without the same thrill in his body, without the same reckless joy. Somehow, without realising it, their Friday’s had turned into this - sex that had grown apathetic, the real passion reserved for the conversation that followed.

At times, he felt guilty about it. Guiltier about the things that he said more than the act which preceded it. But he had become reckless of late. A mid-life crisis of sorts, a devil-may care attitude - so that when Cassie ever wondered what it would be like to live with a woman who had been through all that, he gave it to her piece-meal - the hysteria, the crying, the shaking, the re-living and remembrance of those years of suspicion and accusation, the righteous anger of not being believed. Not that he had been there at the time. Theo had met Jo after, and that had made all the difference. As for Cassie, she ate it up, the detail, the second-hand admission of despair, and embraced him greedily with the callow ‘poor you’ pity of her desire. And he took it, again and again, until he was drunk on it, high and feckless in the face of their deceit.

‘Do you think she lied about it?’ Cassie asked.

They were lying, side by side, staring up at the ceiling. The sex, this time, had been brief, almost impatient, and he wondered was he imagining it, that Cassie had been eager to get it over with just so they could resume this line of conversation.

‘I think she told them what she believed to be true.’

’Is that the same thing?’

These conversations went around and around, back and forth, like the sound of the tennis balls across the park, being batted to and fro. And like the tennis, it was a game to Cassie, but not to Theo, although he indulged her, because he was getting something out of it. He had to be - in a world without confessional boxes, without a priest to go to - who else was he going to tell? Not the law. Not the judiciary, or the Guards. He thought, however unconsciously, that his own deception might not mirror nor match, but mask Jo’s, at least to him. And isn’t that what mattered, for them to be able to live their lives, for his wife to acknowledge what she had done, using whatever suggestion and props she could, and for him to accept it, by any act of quiet betrayal. With Cassie, or whoever. Wasn’t that now the contract of their marriage?

He left the flat, pulling the door behind him and checking that it was closed before walking around the corner and down by the canal with the swans gliding by in their insouciant calm. He did not go back to the office. He never did on the first Friday of the month, but walked resolutely away.

She had whispered it to him once, and once only. Seven years ago now. A storm had hit the city, pulled down power-lines. It was late at night. Neither of them had been able to sleep. There was something about the darkness and the quiet it ushered in that opened them up to a new way of talking to each other - serious, confessional. ‘I want you to know,’ she said. ‘I want you to understand. It was only one time that it happened.’

She brought him back to her Tubingen days, to the weeks before the murder when her life was muddled with ambition mingled with loneliness, and insecurity. A time when she felt her own inadequacies, her own weaknesses. The college authorities had made a colossal error of judgement, assigning her a room alongside Lorrie and Annika. They were worlds apart from her in their outlook and behaviour. The parties they had were a torture to her. The friends that hung around the flat snickering at her clothes, her hair, the whiteness of her skin. The boys who teased her or ignored her. She spent most of that year locked inside her room - a prisoner. Skipping meals if it meant avoiding the others, she wasted away to almost nothing.

She had never told another soul what she was about to tell him, even when she was under oath, and she knew that was wrong. Part of him wanted her to stop, to say no, there are some things which you need to keep to yourself, but another darker part of him, held himself still, and urged her silently on with her confession.

And she did. She told of a night when the party moved outside to the stairwell, giving Jo an opportunity to escape from her room and find something to eat. He startled her - Lukas - slumped at the table in the little kitchen, picking the label off his bottle of beer. The set of his face was angry, troubled. She had frozen at the sight of him, started to retreat, but he held her there, asked her to sit with him. He needed to talk, he said. They had had a fight - him and Annika. ‘She likes to play games,’ he said bitterly. He offered her a beer - the first gesture of friendship she had received in that flat - and they talked and drank until, eventually, she took him to her room.

Theo wondered how much of it was a desire to hurt the other girl? Is that why they went to bed together - to punish Annika? Annika who liked to play games.

‘I know a game,’ she had told the boy, ‘a game she’d like to play.’ The darkness made her bold, and the beer, his skin on hers. For that brief hour, she imagined herself someone else, someone playful and assured, a risk-taker. She imagined she was Annika. All those years later, she told him this - Theo - how she had guided his hands to her neck, she could still feel it - the pressure of his thumbs against her larynx - and how in the moment of sexual release, he had tightened his grip, until the pleasure became indistinguishable from the pain. One time, that was all. Just a game. He left her room and it was as if it never happened. As if he had never looked upon her. As if the first time their eyes met was across the distance of a courtroom.

Jo cried after she told him, and begged Theo never to tell anyone. Stunned by her admission, he told her he would not, how could he, now that she had shared with him the most awful thing that had ever happened to her, the most awful thing that she had ever done, making her, in a way, an accomplice to a death. And for seven years, the knowledge ate away at Theo, until he became reticent, unkind, and his wife went about her work and her life, humming to drown out the noise of her thoughts, and his.

He loved his wife, but he felt trapped by his love for her, and by her secret. That is why his dalliance with Cassie was justified. That is why, he told himself, it was necessary. When he went home to cook that evening, his wife accepted the meal he had prepared. The patter between them was polite. Beneath it, the subtext of betrayal. As the months passed, they settled into a more intimate routine, while at the same time Cassie asked him less about the murder trial his wife had been a part of - that circus, she called it - and he looked forward to the first Friday of each month with less trepidation, and the need to seek her out was diminished so much so that he was already predicting the end of the affair, wondering not when, but by whom it would be terminated.

He imagined, as he put the dressing on the table for the salad, how it might happen - in say two or three months time. Neither one of them needed to admit to it. He would simply not arrive when he was expected to. He would not call on her again, and after that, she would no longer leave the door unlocked. She would quite simply get on with her life, and some day, his wife, Jo, might ask him about the late afternoons, and missed calls, the smell of another woman about his collar, and on his skin, but not for some time yet. And when the day came, he would shrug. There would be no more to say or do. She would understand that it was a necessary episode in the seven years he carried about with him the secret she had revealed. And when the sun shone, and he felt the heat on his face, and it was followed by a sudden down-pour of rain, he would think of the expression his one-time lover had used about its irony, and after it would follow the name of the German girl, and he would shiver, and run for cover.
Karen Perry is the pen name of Paul Perry and Karen Gillece. Join them and Liz Nugent in conversation as part of the Dead in Dún Laoghaire crime writing festival on Saturday, July 29th, at 4pm in the Pavilion Theatre.
Karen Perry's fourth novel Can You Keep a Secret? is published by Penguin on August 26th.