A Civilized Affair

by Mary McCluskey

So civilized, he'd said, how she understands the claims of family, dinner parties, holidays. She's smart as well as beautiful. His wife, well, she'd never understand. Different generation.

Last night he'd insisted on buying champagne for her coming birthday. "Jenny, damn, I wish I could spend it with you."

"No problem. I'll find a party," she'd said, laughing.

His hand had stroked her knee, squeezed. His eyes were warm with admiration and sated lust.

In the cab she pulls at the curls of the barrister's wig she holds. He'd left it at the oyster bar in a Harrods bag. It is the civilized thing to do, to return it.

Jenny pauses when she sees the house: an enormous Georgian with four cars parked outside.

But the wine still zings through her system and though the maid frowns, Jenny can hear laughter. She walks with long strides, her black cape swinging, his wig atop her head, into the dining room. Ten people glow in the chandelier light. He sees her and his patrician face pales.

"Birthday surprise!" she calls. The words slur. "For me."

She lifts the wig, then spins it. It settles on the table like a severed head. There is only squirming silence.

"Don't all sing at once."

A woman, grey hair in a chignon, classic black dress, rises, smiling. "Jenny!" she says. "Come, dear, let me take your pretty cape."

Her elbow is held; she is ushered out. In the hallway they regard each other, wife and mistress.

"How?" Jenny asks. " How did you know my name?"

Copyright © 2000 Mary McCluskey

Mary McCluskey, a British journalist now living in California, is the author of Match (with Bryan Breed: John Clare Books, UK) and  Bel-Air (Pinnacle). Her short fiction has appeared or will appear in Zoetrope All Story Extra,  Exquisite Corpse  and Linnaean Street (Summer 2000).