The Third Party by William Trevor
In law, the third party is a person involved in a situation in addition to the two main people involved. A third party quite often appears in cases of divorce, for example.
However, all threesomes are different. And in some of them it is not always clear which of the three people actually is the third party…
The two men met by arrangement in the bar of Buswell’s Hotel, at half past eleven. ‘I think we’ll recognize each other all right,’ the older man had said. ‘I expect she’s told you what I look like.’
He was tall, his face pinkish-brown from the sun, his fair hair turning grey. The man he met was thinner, wearing glasses and a black winter coat – a smaller man, whose name was Lairdman.
‘Well, we’re neither of us late,’ Boland said a little nervously. ‘Fergus Boland. How are you?’ They shook hands. Boland took out his wallet. ‘I’ll have a whiskey myself. What’ll I get you?’
‘Oh, just a lemonade for me, Fergus, this time of day.’ Boland ordered the drinks and they stood by the bar. Boland held out a packet of cigarettes. ‘Do you smoke?’
Lairdman shook his head. He placed an elbow tidily on the bar. ‘Sorry about this,’ he said.
They were alone except for the barman, who put their two glasses in front of them. Boland paid him. ‘I mean I’m really sorry,’ Lairdman went on, ‘doing this to anyone.’
‘Good luck,’ Boland said, raising his glass. He had softened the colour of the whiskey by adding twice as much water. ‘You never drink this early in the day, I suppose?’ he said, carefully polite. ‘Well, that’s very sensible, I always think.’
‘I thought it might not be an occasion for drinking.’
‘I couldn’t talk to you without a drink inside me, Lairdman.’
‘I’m sorry about that.’
‘You’ve stolen my wife from me. It’s not an everyday event.’
‘It’d be better if you didn’t keep saying that.’
Lairdman made no protest at Boland’s sharpness. ‘The whole thing’s awkward, I must confess. I didn’t sleep at all last night.’
‘You’re from Dublin, she tells me,’ Boland said, still politely. ‘You’re in the wood business. There’s money in that, no doubt.’ Lairdman was offended. She’d described her husband as clumsy, but had added he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Already, five minutes into the difficult meeting, Lairdman wasn’t so sure.
‘I don’t like Dublin,’ Boland continued. ‘To be honest, I never have. I’m a small-town man, but of course you’ll know that.’ He imagined his wife telling her lover about the narrowness of his experience. She liked to tell people things; she talked a lot.
‘I want to thank you,’ Lairdman said, ‘for taking all this so well. Annabella has told me.’
‘I don’t see that I have any choice.’
Lairdman’s lips were very thin, his mouth a line that smiled without any obvious effort. I wonder why he doesn’t have a funny little moustache, like so many Dubliners, thought Boland.
‘I thought you might hit me when we met,’ Lairdman said. ‘But Annabella said you weren’t like that at all.’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘That’s what I mean by taking it well.’
‘All I want to know is what your plans are.’
‘I’m just asking if you’re thinking of marrying her, and what your arrangements are. I mean, have you a place that’s suitable for her? I’ll have another whiskey,’ he said to the barman.
‘We were hoping that – if you agree – she would move into my place more or less at once. It’s suitable all right – a seven- room flat in Wellington Road. But in time we’ll get a house.’
‘Thanks,’ Boland said to the barman, paying him.
‘It was my turn to pay,’ Lairdman protested, just a little late. She wouldn’t care for meanness, Boland thought, when it began to have an effect on her, which it would, in time.
‘But marriage?’ Boland said. ‘It isn’t easy, you know, to marry another man’s wife in Ireland.’
‘Annabella and I would naturally like to be married one day.’
‘That’s what I wanted to ask you about. How are you thinking of getting a divorce? She doesn’t really know much about it – we talked about it for a long time.’
‘Thank you for that. And for suggesting we should meet.’
‘You two have given me good reasons for a divorce, Lairdman, but it’s no damn use to me. A divorce will take years.’
‘It wouldn’t take so long if you had an address in England. Then we could get a divorce over there.’
‘But I haven’t an address in England.’
‘It’s only a thought, Fergus.’
‘So she wasn’t exaggerating when she said you wanted to marry her?’
‘I don’t think I’ve ever known Annabella exaggerate,’ Lairdman replied stiffly.
Then you don’t know the most important thing about her, Boland thought – that is, she can’t help telling lies, which you and I might politely describe as exaggerating.
‘I’m surprised you never got married,’ he said. He really was surprised, because in his experience self-confident little men like Lairdman very often had a good-looking woman in their life.
‘I’ve known your wife a long time,’ Lairdman said softly, trying not to let his smile show. ‘As soon as I first saw Annabella, I knew she was the only woman I’d ever want to marry.’
Boland stared into his whiskey. He had to be careful about what he said. If he became angry for a moment, he was quite likely to ruin everything. The last thing he wanted was for the man to change his mind. He lit a cigarette, again offering the packet to Lairdman, who again shook his head. In a friendly, conversational way Boland said, ‘Lairdman’s an interesting name.’
‘It’s not Irish – French maybe, or part of it anyway.’
When she had said her lover’s name was Lairdman, Boland had remembered it from his schooldays, and in Buswell’s bar, he had immediately recognized the face. At school, Lairdman had been famous for an unexpected reason: his head had been held down a toilet while his hair was scrubbed with a toilet brush. The boys who had done this were older and bigger than him. Called Roche and Dead Smith, they took pleasure in punishing small boys whose faces and habits they found annoying.
‘I think we were at school together,’ Boland said.
Lairdman almost gave a jump, and this time it was Boland who tried not to smile. Clearly, this had come as a shock to Lairdman.
‘I don’t remember a Boland,’ Lairdman said.
‘I’d have been a little older than you. I hated the damn place.’
‘Oh, I quite liked it,’ Lairdman said.
‘You day boys went home in the evenings and at weekends, we boarders had to stay there all the time.’
‘I suppose that made a difference.’
‘Of course it did.’
For the first, time Boland felt annoyed. Not only was her lover mean, he was stupid as well. If he had any common sense at all, he’d realize he’d be mad to buy a house for Annabella, because no one could ever be sure she would do what she had promised.
‘I’ve always thought, actually, it gave an excellent education,’ Lairdman was saying.
The awful little Frenchman who couldn’t make himself understood. The history teacher who gave the class a history book to read while he wrote letters. The mathematics man who couldn’t solve the problems he presented. The head teacher who enjoyed causing as much physical pain as possible.
‘Oh, a great place,’ Boland agreed. ‘A fine school.’
‘I’m sorry I don’t remember you.’
‘I wouldn’t expect you to.’
‘We’ll probably send our children there. If we have boys.’
‘You wouldn’t mind? Oh dear, no, why should you? I’m sorry, that was a silly thing to say.’
‘I’m having another whiskey,’ Boland said. ‘How about you?’
‘No, I’m OK, thanks.’
This time Lairdman didn’t mention, even too late, that he should pay. Boland lit another cigarette. So she hadn’t told Lairdman? She had let the poor man imagine that in no time at all the seven-room flat wouldn’t be big enough for all the children they were going to have. Boland could almost hear her telling Lairdman that her husband was to blame for their childless marriage. In fact, she’d discovered before they got married that she couldn’t have children; in a quarrel long after the wedding she confessed that she’d known and hadn’t told him.
‘Naturally,’ Lairdman continued, ‘we’d like to have a family.’
‘You would, of course.’
‘I’m sorry that side of things didn’t go right for you.’
‘I was sorry myself.’
‘The thing is, Fergus, is it OK about the divorce?’
‘Are you saying I should agree to be the guilty party?’
‘It is what men in your situation usually do, actually. But if you don’t like the idea of it-‘
‘Don’t worry, I’ll agree to be the guilty party.’
‘You’re being great, Fergus.’
His wife used to say, ‘I think I’ll go up and stay with Phyllis,’ saying it more often as time went by. Phyllis was a woman she knew in Dublin. But of course, Phyllis had just been a name she’d used, a friend who would tell lies for her if necessary. ‘Phone me,’ he used to say, and obediently his wife phoned him, telling how Dublin looked and how Phyllis was. No doubt, she’d been sitting on the edge of a bed in the seven-room flat in Wellington Road.
‘It’s really good of you to come all this way,’ Lairdman said, sounding eager to end the meeting. ‘I’ll ring Annabella this afternoon and tell her all about it. You won’t mind that, Fergus?’
‘Not at all.’
Boland had often interrupted such a telephone conversation. He would come home and find her sitting on the stairs, talking on the phone. As soon as he came through the door, she’d wave a greeting and start to whisper secretively into the phone.
The trouble with Annabella was that sooner or later everything in the world bored her. ‘Now I want to hear every single thing that’s happened since the moment you left home this morning,’ she would soon say to Lairdman. And the poor man would begin a long story about catching the bus and arriving at work and having a cake with his coffee. Later, in a quarrel, she would throw it all back at him. ‘Who could possibly want to know about your damn cake?’ she’d scream wildly at him, her fingers spread out in the air so that her blood-red nail varnish would dry evenly.
‘I’ll be able to say,’ Lairdman was saying, almost proudly, ‘that neither of us got angry. She’ll be pleased about that.’
Boland couldn’t imagine his wife being pleased, since she hardly ever was. He wondered what it was that she liked about Lairdman. When he’d asked her, she’d said her lover was amusing, that he had what she called a fantastic sense of fun.
‘I wonder what became of Roche and Dead Smith,’ he said.
He didn’t know why he said it, why he couldn’t accept that the business between them was over. He should have shaken hands with Lairdman and left it at that, perhaps saying there were no hard feelings. He would never have to see the man again; once in a while, he would simply feel sorry for him.
‘I don’t remember either of them,’ said Lairdman, shaking his head. ‘I’ll say goodbye, Fergus. I’m grateful, I really am.’
‘They were the boys who had the bright idea of washing your hair in a toilet bowl.’
Boland had said to himself over and over again that Lairdman was welcome to her. He looked ahead to an easy life, living alone. The house she had filled with her moods and her lies for the last twelve years would be as silent as a peaceful sleep. He would clear out the memories of her, because naturally she wouldn’t do that herself – the old fashion magazines, the empty medicine bottles, the clothes she had no further use for, the curtains torn to pieces by her cats. He would cook his own meals, and Mrs Couglan would still come to clean every morning. Mrs Couglan wouldn’t exactly be sorry to see her go, either.
‘I don’t know why you keep going on about your schooldays,’ Lairdman said.
‘Let me get you a real drink before you go. Two big ones,’ Boland called to the barman.
‘No, really,’ Lairdman protested. ‘Really now.’ He had put on his coat and a pair of black leather gloves.
‘Oh, go on, man. We’re both in need of it.’
Finger by finger Lairdman took one of the gloves off again, and unwillingly picked up the new glass. They drank.
‘I only mentioned the school,’ Boland said, ‘because that was the other thing that you and I shared.’
‘As I said, I think we’d maybe send the children there.’
‘You don’t remember it?’ Boland asked.
‘The toilet thing.’
‘Look here, Boland-‘
‘I’ve offended you. I didn’t mean that at all.’
‘Of course you haven’t offended me. It’s just that I see no reason to keep going on about things like that.’
‘We’ll talk of something else.’
‘Actually, I’m getting late.’ The second glove was pulled on again, the coat buttons were checked to see that all was well for the street. The glove was removed again when Lairdman remembered there’d have to be a handshake.
‘Thanks for everything,’ he said.
For the second time, Boland surprised himself by being unable to let the matter rest. ‘You mention your children,’ he heard himself saying. ‘Would these be your and Annabella’s children?’ Lairdman’s mouth dropped open and he stared at Boland. ‘What other children are there?’ he asked, shaking his head in a puzzled way.
‘She can’t have children, Lairdman.’
‘Oh now, look here-‘
‘That’s a medical fact. The unfortunate woman is incapable of being a mother.’
‘I think you’re drunk. One whiskey after another you’ve had. Annabella’s told me a thing or two about you, you know.’
‘She hasn’t told you about the cats she’s going to bring with her. She hasn’t told you she can’t have children. She hasn’t told you she gets so bored that her face turns white with anger. It’s best not to be near her then, Lairdman. Take my advice on that.’
‘She’s told me you can’t stay sober.’
‘Except for occasions like this, I hardly ever drink. I drink a lot less than Annabella does, I can promise you.’
‘You’ve been unable to give Annabella children. She’s sorry for you, she doesn’t blame you.’
‘Annabella was never sorry for anyone in her life.’
‘Now look here, Boland-‘
‘Look nowhere, man. I’ve had twelve years of the woman. I’m ready to let you take my place. But there’s no need for this talk of divorce, I’m just telling you that. She’ll come and live with you in your seven-room flat; she’ll live in any house you like to buy, but if you wait forever, you won’t find children coming along. All you’ll have is two cats that want to bite the legs off you.’
‘You’re being most unpleasant, Boland.’
‘I’m telling you the truth.’
‘You seem to have forgotten that Annabella and myself have talked about all this. She knew there’d be bitterness. Well, I understand that. I’ve said I’m sorry.’
‘You’re a mean little wooden man, Lairdman. Your head belongs in a toilet bowl. Were you all wet when they let go of you? I’d love to have seen it, Lairdman.’
‘Will you keep your damn voice down? And stop trying to quarrel with me! I won’t stand here and listen to this.’
‘I think Dead Smith went on to become a-‘
‘I don’t care what he became.’
Suddenly Lairdman was gone. Boland didn’t even turn his head. After a moment he lit a fresh cigarette. For half an hour, he remained alone, where his wife’s lover had left him, thinking about his schooldays and Lairdman.
He had lunch in the dining room of the hotel, ordering soup and fish. He imagined himself, one day in the future, entering the silence of his house. He’d actually been born in it. Opposite O’Connor’s garage, it was the last one in the town, yellow-painted and ordinary, but a house he loved.
‘Did you say the fish, sir?’ the waitress enquired.
‘Yes, I did.’
He’d got married in Dublin, as Annabella’s family lived there. His friends and neighbours had been delighted when he brought her to live among them. They stopped him in the street and told him how lucky he was. But those same people would be delighted when she left. The terrible bitterness that filled her, because of not being able to have children, eventually turned her beauty into a kind of madness. That’s what had happened, nothing else.
Slowly he ate his fish. Nobody would mention it much; they’d know what had happened and they’d say to one another that one day, probably, he’d marry again. He wondered if he would.
He ordered a slice of apple cake with cream, and later coffee came. He was glad it was all over. Now he had accepted the truth; it had been necessary to hear it from someone other than his wife. When first she’d told him, he’d wondered if it was all just another of her lies.
He paid his bill and went out to the car park. It was because there hadn’t been enough for her to do, he thought, as he drove out of Dublin through the heavy city traffic. A childless woman in a small town had all the time in the world. She had changed the furniture around, and had chosen the wallpaper that her cats had later damaged. But she hadn’t joined any clubs or made any friends. He’d driven her to Dublin as often as he could, before she’d started going there alone to visit Phyllis. For years, he’d known she wasn’t happy, but until she told him, he’d never suspected she had become involved with a man.
Lairdman would have telephoned her by now, perhaps to say, ‘Why don’t you drive up this afternoon?’ Maybe all day she had been packing, knowing the meeting at Buswell’s was nothing to worry about. The little white Volkswagen he’d bought her might be on the road to Dublin already. He was on the open road now, looking out for the Volkswagen coming towards him. If she passed him, would she greet him with a touch on the horn? Or would he greet her? He didn’t know if he would. Better to wait.
But over the next fifty miles or so, there was no sign of his wife’s car. And of course, he told himself, there was no reason why there should be. It was only his own idea that she might depart that afternoon, and surely, she’d need more than a day to pack all her things. The more he thought about it, the less likely it was that she would be capable of completing the move alone.
He turned the radio on, and heard a song called ‘Dancing in the dark’. It reminded him of the world he supposed his wife and Lairdman belonged to, the excitement of secret love, dancing close together in the darkness. ‘Poor Annabella,’ he said aloud, while the music still played. Poor girl, to have married a small town businessman like himself. It was lucky, really, that she had met self-confident little Lairdman. He imagined them in each other’s arms, and then their shared smile before they held each other close again. As the dull third party, he had no further part to play.
But as Boland reached the first few houses on this side of his hometown, he knew none of that was right. The little white car had not carried her to Lairdman today. It would not do so tomorrow or the next day. It would not do so next month, or after Christmas, or in February, or in spring. It would never do so. It hadn’t mattered reminding Lairdman of what he had suffered as a schoolboy; it hadn’t mattered telling him she was in the habit of lying, or even calling him mean. That kind of unpleasant talk was more or less expected in the situation they found themselves in, and might simply be the result of a few whiskeys. But something had driven Boland to go further. Little men like Lairdman always wanted children. ‘That’s a total lie,’ she’d have said already on the telephone, and Lairdman would have pretended to believe her. But pretending wasn’t going to be enough for either of them.
Boland turned the radio off. He stopped the car outside Donovan’s pub and sat there for a moment, before going in. At the bar, he greeted men he knew, and stood drinking with them, listening to talk of horses and politicians. They left after a few more drinks, but Boland stayed there for a long time, wondering why he hadn’t been able to let Lairdman take her from him.