When he was young and
single George Carter sometimes fantasized about a pretty girl sitting next to
him on a park bench or in a coffee-house; of course that never happened. Even
if it had, he was so shy when he was young he probably wouldnt have
spoken to her. Now, when he was on the pool deck of the cruise ship taking him
and his wife Lorraine to Alaska to celebrate his recent retirement his fantasy
actually happened. Okay, she wasnt exactly a girl, more like a woman in
her forties or early fifties but she was darned attractive, black hair, dark
eyes, nice features, sitting on the beach chair next to his, opening a book.
The book cover had a picture of the writer Somerset Maugham.
This was the third day
of a ten-day cruise, a day, as the cruise line put it at sea.." The
weather was fine, sunny, warm but not hot and windless. Carter also had a book.
Hed come up that afternoon to the pool deck and selected a chair as far
away from the pool, where kids and adults who thought they were still kids were
splashing and yelling. as he could.Carter, even now was still shy, but he
thought to himself, What the hell.Excuse me, he said, leaning over
slightly. Are you reading a book by Maugham?
Its a book
about Maugham, a biography. Its called The Secret Lives of Somerset
Maugham.. The most important secret life is that he was a
Not really a
No, but in his
day it was a crime in England so he couldnt come right out and admit it.
Are you a fan of his?
Believe it or
not, way back when I wrote my masters thesis on Maugham. When I was at
Columbia in New York.
Really. Are you a
professor there now?
No, I said that was a long time ago. No, I wound up being a civil servant
in California, in Sacramento. My names George Carter, by the
Strangely, I am a professor and in California.I teach English at Berkeley, one
reason Im reading this book.
Ill have to
get it. Whos the author?
She told him. You
must have liked Maughams work.
I did, although
back then I didnt know about the homosexuality. He was successful and
rich but he was destined to have an unhappy life, with his terrible childhood,
his sex orientation, his stutter, his stature. He would have appreciated the
irony. Anyway, are you on this cruise by yourself?
Yes. What about
My wife is down
there playing Bingo. She likes games.
book youre reading?
Just a thriller
but I like the author. His name is Michael Robotham. His main character is a
psychiatrist who gets involved in one crime after another. And most of the book
is set in London, one of my favorite cities.
Have you been
Yes, and my wife
and I are planning another trip there for next year. I should say my wife is;
she likes to plan ahead of time. Have you been?
one of my favorite cities, too. Ive read so many English novels I feel
that I know it.
novels, and English mysteries, too. Have you read any ruth Rendell or P.D.
afraid Im not much for mysteries, although Ive heard of
They continued talking
like this, about books and London and other European cities until Carter
realized hed lost track of time. He looked at his watch. Damn,
Im supposed to meet Ellen for dinner. I better get going. Its been
nice talking to you.
nice talking to you, also.
I hope we meet
again. Do you come up here every afternoon?
Ill see you tomorrow?
It was strange, thought Carter. He felt like a high school kid asking the most
popular girl in class for a date.
That night Carter and
his wife Lorraine followed what had become their cruise routine: dinner, then
the show in the theater, then a drink in the lounge while listening to the
piano player, after which it was eleven and time for bed. Lorraine had wanted
to know why he was late meeting her for dinner. He said hed become
engrossed in his book.
The next afternoon Ruth
Pearson was in the same beach chair on the pool deck. So shed meant it
about being there. He took the chair next to her and they continued their
conversation about books and literature and also about more personal things. He
learned that shed been divorced. Her husband, or ex-husband, was another
professor whod become infatuated with one of his students, a girl twenty
years younger. This had put her off marriage. He told her that after his
retirement hed somehow started doing free-lance stories for a weekly
newspaper in downtown Sacramento and then for the Sacramento Bee and that he
was going to take a creative writing course at their community college in the
fall. She told him she was going to write an article on Jane Austen and other
female writers of her period.
They met again the next
afternoon and the afternoon after that and then it became a daily thing. They
ordered cold drinks from one of the waitresses on the pool deck and after that
the waitress came over every day. The nightly dinner, the show and the piano
lounge were all fine, but Carter found that he looked forward to their
afternoon meetings as the best part of the day. Then came the last day of the
cruise; theyd disembark the next morning. They were deep in conversation
when Lorraine suddenly appeared. Carter started and almost spilled his drink.
So this is where youve been in the afternoons, said
Carter pulled himself
together; he told himself that all theyd done was talk; he had nothing to
feel guilty about. He introduced the two women. Lorraine pulled over a chair
and sat down. She and Ruth talked about the differences between living in
Berkeley and living in Sacramento. Lorraine quickly found out that Ruth was
divorced and had no children. She mentioned how many years she and Carter had
been married and had two sons. After about twenty minutes of this Lorraine
stood up and said shed been looking for Carter because she wanted to
start packing. She didnt want to wait until the last night. She was going
back to their cabin now. Carter said hed be along in a few
After Lorraine was
gone, Carter stood up and said, Well, I better be getting back to the
Ruth. I think Ill start packing, too.
Well, it was nice
meeting you, and talking with you.
It was nice
talking with you. Good luck on your writing.
Good luck with
your article on Jane Austen and the others.
They stood awkwardly
for a time, then Carter asked if he could have her address. She gave him a
card. He gave her a card hed been given at the weekly
newspaper. See, he said. It says Writer on it so
I suppose Im officially a writer. Well, I better be
Back in their cabin,
Lorraine had their suitcases on the bed and had them half-packed.
Shes very attractive, she said.
Yes, Ruth, the
one youve been seeing every afternoon.
Carter said. He began taking his shirts and slacks out of the
When they returned to
Sacramento Carter resumed his writing for the two newspapers and then started
his writing course and tried some short stories and sometimes he thought he was
almost as busy as when he had a full-time job. Occasionally he
thought of Ruth Pearsons card in his wallet and considered that Berkeley
wasnt that far from Sacramento. But he never heard from her. Before he
knew it the year was over. Lorraine began her planning for their trip to
Europe. One of his stories was published in a little magazine. They were busy
with other activities in their retirement community. It was just as well,
thought Carter. He might have done something really foolish about Ruth Pearson.
Better that she remained a shipboard acquaintance.