Claudia never thought she would be the type of woman to lie about her age.
But when a new colleague learns of her childless marriage and confronts her with the dreaded follow up question, that’s what she does.
A quiver shakes at the base of her throat, giddy at the prospect of once again being a thirty-year-old in someone’s reality.
The colleague doesn’t seem doubtful of Claudia’s apparent age and that makes her back straighten and her shoulders loosen, a certain confidence overtaking her posture as she sheds the weight of those extra nine years.
“That’s all right then,” the colleague says with a wink and a point towards Claudia’s abdomen. “Plenty of time to get a little one brewing.”

People are always surprised to learn of her lack of being a mother, and even more so her lack of desire for motherhood. She ties herself in knots wondering what this inexorable obsession with women and children is.
It’s probably some biological expectation, she supposes, threaded throughout a human’s DNA, unaffected by evolution.
Why, then, are periods and breastfeeding and childbirth – subjects linked indefinitely to motherhood and, indeed, womanhood – conversational faux pas?

After nine hours of sitting at her desk avoiding her new, apparently unabashed colleague, Claudia returns home.
Roger envelops her in an affectionate embrace and mumbles against her hair, “Shall we get a takeaway tonight?”

It’s his night to cook. That – in some illogical roundabout way – is how Claudia finds herself sitting on the splitting wooden bench of the fish and chip shop. (Roger declared his staying at home to set the table. I’m already in my pyjamas, was his reasoning.)
While the fryer bubbles and the overwhelming stench of vinegar infiltrates every single one of her pores, Claudia fiddles with the ring on her finger; a leftover tactile habit from her smoking years.
On a glance back from the clock on the wall, she catches a girl’s eye.
If she has to estimate, Claudia would say she is in her early twenties. Probably a student. She’s got thick blonde hair that pokes out the bottom of her hat and Claudia spends perhaps too long ogling it – taken with memories of when her own hair was so full of life – because when she returns her eye to the girl, she’s looking right back at her.
Claudia looks away as quickly as she can, feeling that awful tell-tale heat of blush spread over her cheeks. It was only a moment, if that, but the depth of the girl's dark eyes – so apparently young and yet filled with the self-assurance that surely only comes with age – is enough to make Claudia dare a peek back. When she does, the girl is still looking at her. She is – is she? – smirking, as if she knows something Claudia doesn’t.
It takes a few seconds for Claudia to register that it’s her order being called repeatedly at the desk. She jumps up and snatches the greasy bag of dinner from the man’s hand.
Her heart is still skipping as the door rings on her way out.

Two battered cod and one portion of chips later, Roger and Claudia retire to bed.
He is asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow.
She is awake but dreaming of her tiny glimpse of the stranger’s infinite eyes.

It’s the third Saturday of the month which means it’s time for Claudia to dye her hair.
Over the past few years, her grey hairs have gotten more relentless, from being manageable enough to tackle them every three months or so, to having to bleach the bastards every four weeks.
It’s a source of minor annoyance, sure, and it’s a reminder that she’s not the invincible young woman she once thought she was, but altogether, as a concept, she doesn’t mind the whole going grey thing. It’s just that Roger’s hair is still full and naturally dark. She hates him for it.

Claudia often wonders (sometimes during her lunch breaks when there’s nothing else to do, sometimes whilst staring back at her reflection in the mirror as she works the cold liquid Blonde Bombshell into her hair) why women age worse than men.
But it’s not even that though is it? Because women and men age the same.
Except when men age and turn grey, they become silver foxes. When women age and turn grey, they become old hags.

There’s not an exact time she could look back to and pinpoint the shift. It seemed to happen so quickly. One morning she woke up and was suddenly interested in birdwatching and called everyone over ten years younger than her love.

There’s a boy who works three desks down from her who she tries, and fails, to like.
“Hey Claude,” he says in the mornings, pulling his earphones out and changing his trainers to brogues under his desk.
Claudia doesn’t like being called Claude because that’s not her name. She also doesn’t like the greeting, “Hey,” because she thinks it’s too American-casual-cool. But she never tells the boy this because once – at a different job, a long time ago – she politely asked a co-worker to use her full name and they called her a stuck-up bitch behind her back.
The boy is nice, there’s no doubt about that, but he’s a slacker. Claudia would never dream of coming to work to play on her phone all day like he does. And as much as she fights it, she can’t help but think it’s a symptom of his generation.

Since when has coffee been so expensive?
When the cashier at the café tells her the price of a white Americano, Claudia embarrassedly throws her coins into her purse and extracts a note instead.
She collects her disturbingly small amount of change, turns to leave and launches directly into the chest of the girl from the fish and chip shop.
Claudia – thankfully, she thinks – avoids spilling her coffee down the girl but – not so thankfully, she thinks – manages to aim it at herself instead so that her white work shirt is saturated with patches of brown.
“Oh shit,” is all the girl says, taking Claudia by the arm and leading her away from the queue.
The girl throws handfuls of napkins at the mess and with a half-full cup, Claudia struggles to catch them all and press them to her front. Seeing her difficulty, the girl helps. And before either of them realise, they’ve become the focal point of the café; two women pawing at a pair of wet breasts.
The girl notices first and sets about throwing daggers in the voyeurs’ directions. Claudia looks around, naively, at the turning heads.
“Here,” the girl says, taking her arm again and leading her around the corner, away from unwelcome prying eyes.
Soon, the girl has her hoodie off and works at removing her undershirt.
Claudia feels that same blush cover her face again as the girl stands in her bra, unashamed. She’s slim, straight up and down, and Claudia can’t help but admire the way her skin looks so supple and firm, like if she were to reach out and press her hand to the skin of her stomach, it would move back instantly without so much as a wobble.
The girl hands Claudia her undershirt and puts her hoodie back on.
“Consider it a favour,” the girl says, raising her eyebrows as if waiting for something from Claudia. She doesn’t know what it is until the girl prompts, “What’s your name?”
There’s a sort of awkward bumble then – or more accurately, there’s an awkward bumble on Claudia’s part – because shaking hands seems too formal considering they’ve already touched and gawped at one another, so they nod like they’re a couple of countrymen passing in the street. It’s a gesture that, somehow, Nat manages to pull off. Claudia does not.
“I suppose I’ll have to take your number.”
Claudia is embarrassed to feel her eyes brightening.
“You know, since you’ve got my shirt.”
They exchange numbers and Nat leaves with what Claudia is almost certain is a wink.
Claudia changes in the privacy of the bathroom and returns to work, feeling scandalous in someone else’s shirt.

Roger doesn’t notice her new garment despite it being significantly less formal than her uniform.
“What’s for dinner?” He asks instead.

Later, Roger watches as Claudia’s – or rather, Nat’s – shirt falls to the floor. He still doesn’t comment on it.

Claudia’s supervisor hands in his notice in the morning. It triggers a foreign buzz in the recycled air, the sort that only happens in grey, outer-city offices because everyone is otherwise so mind-numbingly bored that even the tiniest opportunity for gossip and drama is seized with both hands.
In an overheard speculation about who might take his place, Claudia’s name is mentioned.
She envisions the nameplate on what would be her own private office door. The reserved parking space she wouldn’t have to leave 10 minutes early to nab. And, of course, the extra digit in her monthly bank statement.
Her daydreams are encouragement enough to put her name forward.

At home, Roger has changed the bedsheets and Claudia is so surprised and excited by the prospect of moving up the career ladder that she thanks him by undressing.
It’s the most in sync they’ve been for a while. Roger says so, proudly, when they’re wrapped up in the duvet afterwards. He probably thinks it’s because Claudia is grateful for his one-off chore-doing. When really, it’s because she’s still thinking about that girl’s goddamned brown eyes and what they would look like staring up from between her legs.
Claudia catches a glimpse of Roger’s smug little face beside her. It unsettles her stomach.

She should’ve known better than to think that the change of bedsheets was the start of a good habit.
Still, she cleans and irons Roger’s clothes, makes his dinner, buys his food, even cuts his toenails.
She doesn’t need a child to be a mother.

Their not having children was not – contrary to what friends and doctors and strangers presumed – a premeditated decision. There was no meticulous tracking of contraceptives or late-night confessionals of feelings of inadequacies or needlessness. It just simply happened. Or didn’t happen, as it were.
Despite their twenty-odd-year-relationship, they’d never discussed the matter of children explicitly, only occasionally stood next to one another as they stared admiringly at muslin swaddled infants in public, or cooed over impossibly small socks in the local department store. When they were younger, and shyer, they could wordlessly navigate one another’s needs, and those needs just never happened to include taking responsibility for a tiny human being.
Claudia had never felt the desperate, undeniable pull of maternity like so many other women had. And Roger. Well. Roger probably wasn’t fit to be a father so it all works out in the end. 

In the laundry basket, twisted with Roger’s work uniform, Claudia finds Nat’s T-shirt. She washes them separately.

Of course it’s the Hey Claude boy.
She’s been working there for near on a decade, for Christ’s sake, it’s more than a kick in the teeth that someone who’s been with the company for just over a year gets the promotion.
When she works up the nerve to question her superior (her existing superior, not Hey Claude) he prattles on about reinventing the company in the eyes of the youth, injecting a bit of life into their brand and, “Come on, Claudia, you can’t expect to have a bunch of dinosaurs like us running the place.”
That’s when she quits.

Maybe there’s no such thing as destiny or fate or even inevitability but Claudia thinks there might be because it’s as she’s on a high from leaving her job, parading confidently through the city centre that her phone buzzes in her pocket with a message from Nat.
I’m afraid I’m going to need my shirt back soon. The withdrawal symptoms are surprisingly debilitating. How’s dinner on Friday?
Because if it were any other time, she probably would’ve just asked for Nat’s address and posted it to her.
I know just the remedy. Friday at 7. Food on the Square. See you then.
With an alarmingly steady hand, she presses send.

Claudia spends the first part of the evening twiddling her wedding ring and obsessively observing the entrance to the restaurant, eyeing every stranger that enters in the hope that she will be met with those eyes that are burned into her memory.
It’s 7.15pm and Nat still hasn’t arrived. Claudia feels a sort of jealousy flood her as she fondly remembers the self-righteous attitude of her twenties that led her to determine that everyone else’s time was less important than hers. Somehow, age has only brought her anxiety for rules and deadlines and societal dictations (is it supposed to happen that way around?).

Nat shows up, eventually, and there’s the crucial handover of the shirt, a couple of bottles of wine and too many brushes of knees under the table before they're walking – or stumbling, really – towards the door of Nat's third floor city centre flat, miles away from the suburban sprawl where Roger is sleeping alone.
Once they're inside, Claudia determines from the gouges in the wall and the torn-up carpet that it's the sort of place where you can hear your neighbours breathe.
She's not surprised to find the collection of guitars in the corner of Nat’s bedroom. She’s always been attracted to the creative types.

It’s been so long since Claudia has seen someone other than Roger naked – she even tries to avoid seeing herself too often – but right now, one hand tracing the unfamiliar crevices of Nat’s body, she wishes she’d been doing it all along. There’s something inexplicably exciting about a first time with someone new and Claudia can hear it in the way Nat’s name sounds like a chorus, pouring out of her mouth between gasps and into the dim bedroom above the off-licence.
In their post-coital conversation, it becomes apparent that the medical metaphor is their established inside joke after Nat jests about the wonders of homopathic treatment. Soon enough the laughter dies down and they both give in to the lethargy.
“Is it short for Natalie?”
Claudia knots her hands in Nat’s hair and it’s silken against the pads of her fingers.
“Have you ever dyed your hair?”
Nat shakes her head and the strands cascade over her shoulder like a waterfall.
Claudia kisses her fervidly and wonders if she was ever that young.

Claudia dreams of Nat then, sometimes in the day but mostly at night. She imagines fingers and thighs and soft breaths and soft breasts and virgin blonde hair.
She often wakes suddenly, disappointed, to the lump of man in her bed.

Jobless for a week, Claudia becomes the perfect little housewife.
Without meetings to attend, fake smiles to give or rush-hour traffic to sit in, Claudia yearns for the tedious tasks that used to keep her busy in the office. During the days, while Roger is at work, she dusts, irons (at which she’s become so efficient it takes up hardly any time in her day at all, and so she advances to ironing any old scrap of fabric she can find; including the dusting cloth), hoovers and mops. And when Roger returns from work, she’s got a healthy, hearty dinner on the table.
It annoys her that Roger thinks these things are for him, when really, they’re her own way to stop her from descending into an unemployment-induced insanity.
Of course, to fill her days she partakes in leisure activities too. She reads books she’s been meaning to get to for months, some even years. She lounges in front of the television before she’s showered and, her most recent hobby – the one that makes hours pass in an instant – she thinks of Nat.

It doesn’t take long for Claudia to find the single solution to her two main problems: 1) Wanting to spend all her time with Nat and 2) Having lots of spare time.

It’s noon on a Wednesday and Claudia is still in bed. Not her bed, though.
Nat is resting on the corner of the mattress, gently fingering the strings of her guitar and although Claudia does not claim to be musically aware, she can tell that Nat has talent.
Nat hums along to the melody, eyes closed and eyebrows furrowed in the concentration of an artist.
Claudia thinks it’s the most beautiful thing she’s seen in a long time.

Roger was charming once.
He had long, tousled hair that curled over his trademark heavy leather jackets and naturally straight white teeth that people paid good money to replicate. He used to take Claudia to art exhibitions and tall buildings with balconies, rest his chin on her shoulder and point at distant landmarks. He used to sketch her bare silhouette as she stepped out of the shower, staying true enough to document the droplets still sliding down her skin.
They married suddenly and naively (She’s pregnant, relatives whispered at the wedding), and soon after their honeymoon, Roger swapped his drawing pencil for cans of beer.
He lost ambition in his work and misplaced the faith that had been such a large part of Claudia’s admiration for him. She soothed him initially, told him he’d just hit a bump in the road, it happens to every artist. But somewhere along the line he grew fiercely dependent and she let him because she still loved him and before either of them knew it, Claudia had morphed into this hybrid being, toeing the line between wife and mother to a single man.
She has spent too long grieving the leather jacketed Roger.

Claudia stands in a decrepit pub basement in front of a makeshift stage. Despite the all-consuming noise of amped up guitars and gravelly mics and pounding drums, Claudia can’t focus on the music. She’s too busy concentrating on bobbing her head just enough to suggest enjoyment without verging on overenthusiasm. She’s thinking about how the music is so loud it’s probably causing irreversible damage to her eardrums. She’s noticing how Nat’s unique stage presence (somehow both nonchalant and passionate) is attracting the affection of many young girls in the audience.
There are two girls about Nat’s age standing to the side of Claudia and occasionally they dance too rigorously and bump into her, making her drink slosh out onto the floor. After the third time, she asks them as politely as possible to be careful but once they’ve turned their backs, they giggle to one another and jab as close to Claudia without quite touching her. She doesn’t fret about what they’re saying or thinking for much longer, though, because she catches Nat’s eye and even against the bright lights of the show, she knows the wink she gives is aimed in her direction.

She’s cleaned every damn inch of the place, hoovered every last particle off the floor, washed every single thing that could plausibly fit inside the washing machine. There is absolutely nothing left to do at the house.
That’s why she doesn’t feel too bad about being tangled in Nat’s limbs again. In fact, she feels good about it.
But there’s this pressure in the pit of her stomach and it’s so tangible that she has to stop and think, Am I due on? After careful consideration she realises she’s felt it before, a long time ago, so it’s a little masked my bittersweet nostalgia but eventually she fears it might be the stirrings of a new love.
The thing is, she misses Nat. She misses her and she’s right here. She’s touching her, even. It’s ridiculous and obscene and she’s had far too much life experience to feel something so incorrupt. Seeking distraction, Claudia removes her hand from its circuit of Nat’s forearm long enough to point to a floral blouse buried beneath a pile of clothes and say, “That’s nice.”
“You can borrow it if you want.”
“Aren’t I too old to wear something like that?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Claudia slinks out of Nat’s arms to retrieve the blouse. She stands before her a moment, basking in the welcoming feeling of being both completely nude and free of inhibitions.
She runs the blouse between her fingers.
“This is more feminine than I’m used to seeing on you.”
“Oh, yeah.”
The material catches on her wedding ring.
“I can’t even imagine you wearing something like this,” she says, not entirely because it’s true but because the blouse really is stuck. She works at it, eyes on Nat all the while, hoping not to bring attention to her hands.
“Oh,” Nat scratches her head and averts her eyes to the blank wall. “Yeah.”
Claudia saves the blouse, gives a quick victory wiggle of her hips and tumbles back into bed. 

She spends the best part of her weekdays with Nat. Roger isn’t suspicious exactly – since most of the time they’re together while Roger is at work – but when Claudia comes home late in the evening, he’s fearful of the change he’s noticed.
“Is there another man?” He asks.
It reminds her that he’s not stupid, just useless.

Claudia arrives unannounced to Nat’s flat with a bottle of wine and a DVD of Dirty Dancing.
“Claudia! Hi,” Nat says breathily as she inches the door open.
Claudia sees the guitar out of its stand and leaning against the sofa.
“Listen, any other time I would leave you to your practice but it is absolutely essential that you don’t go another night without seeing Dirty Dancing.”
“Is that right?”
There’s a heavy pause where Nat just stares at her, as though she’s looking somewhere deeper than her eyes. With a swallowed sigh she says, “Okay.”
Nat watches as Claudia shoulders herself into the room and seamlessly navigates her way around the flat: retrieving two wine glasses, turning the TV on and fiddling with the DVD player. 
“You know, we could’ve just streamed it,” Nat says as Claudia presses the remote control buttons maniacally.
“Why isn’t this playing?”
Nat blows the dust off the end of the SCART lead and connects it to the television.
On the sofa, Claudia cradles Nat’s head in her lap and strokes her hair as the film plays. She manages not to comment on her favourite moments until Jennifer Grey says, “I carried a watermelon,” and she can’t help but look to Nat and mouth the line. But Nat is asleep. And for a split second, Claudia contemplates jolting her knee to wake her up.

They have their first real argument. Nat shouts at Claudia for making her miss a gig opportunity. Claudia shouts at Nat for shouting at her. They make up approximately five minutes after the argument started when Claudia sees something shift in Nat’s eyes and seizes her get out of jail free card.
Claudia had a babysitter when she was a teenager who told her never to use sex as a resolution, only as a celebration of finding a resolution. Right now, though, she can’t remember why.

Claudia goes home (if she can even still call it that) feeling a little ashamed of her reconciliation tactics.
Roger’s still at work – she knows because she purposefully timed her return to coincide with his hours – and a greyish paper on the kitchen countertop catches her attention.
It’s a portrait Roger sketched of her over fifteen years ago. Her smile is broad and true, eyes unwrinkled and glistening, untainted by any manifestations of ageing. On a note beside the drawing it says, Come back to me. R x
Claudia almost yells at the paper, “I want the same thing!”

Nat is smoking out of the window of her flat, chest bared to anyone that might be walking past outside. She’s frowning down at the cigarette, twisting it in her hand as the cinders float across the tiles and into the depth of the night.
Claudia wants to tell her she’ll catch a cold if she doesn’t put a jumper on. She wants to tell her that if the wind changes her face will get stuck in that unfortunate contortion. She wants to tell her that that cancer stick will kill her slowly and painfully. But recently they’ve adopted this habit of sitting in silence. (Claudia hopes that it’s as a result of their being comfortable with one another. Somewhere inside of herself, not too far under the surface, she knows it’s for another reason.)
So, when Nat holds out the cigarette as an offering, Claudia takes it. Nat is too young to have felt the effects of decades-long nicotine addiction and Claudia is too weak to explain. Instead, she breathes in the dull taste of premature death.

They’re walking through a reasonably quiet area of town, so occasionally Claudia makes daring gestures of affection: a pinch of Nat’s waist, a hand on her lower back, a kiss to her cheek.
It’s exhilarating, the possibility of getting caught by a familiar passer-by, especially because she’s wearing Nat’s floral blouse under her blazer. It’s like she’s boasting, throwing it in strangers’ faces, her medal of infidelity presented colourfully on her chest.
“I thought maybe tonight we could go to that new restaurant in Eastover? Nobody knows us there, we could hold hands above the table,” Claudia says, threading her fingers through Nat’s.
Nat’s hand stiffens. “I can’t.”
“Why not?”
“I have band practice.”
“Can’t you take the night off?”
“I’m sure your bandmates will understand,” Claudia says, bringing Nat’s hand to her mouth and pressing a single kiss atop it.
“I don’t think you understand.” Nat stops still in her track and unthreads their fingers.
“What’s wrong?”
Nat makes a noise halfway between a choke and a laugh. She runs a hand through her hair. Fidgets her feet. “It’s too much.”
“What is?”
“Everything. All of this,” she waves her hands around and Claudia stays staring, wide-eyed and observant. “The talking, the swaddling, the looking, the admiration. It’s overwhelming. I just want something… casual.”
“I can do casual.”
“No, Claudia, this is the part where you say, ‘I’m nearly forty, I don’t have time for casual,’ and then I say, ‘How am I going to make it in the music industry if you don’t let me practise my sound?’”
Claudia scoffs and catches herself before she says, What are you, twenty? Because she remembers she is twenty.
“I don’t know what this is,” Nat gestures at the space between them. “A mid-life crisis, an attempt to reconnect with your youth, a sexual repression coming to fruition, I don’t know, but I’m calling it.”
They stand in silence for a while. Perhaps too long. Nat is looking at Claudia readily as though she’s expecting her to break down, or beg or cry or whine. But she just stays still, more unreadable than Nat ever imagined she could be.
“Also, I’m sorry but I need that blouse back. It’s Ella’s.”
Claudia raises an eyebrow.
Nat shrugs. “I told you. Casual.”
Claudia’s face breaks then as she erupts into a laugh. A real, deep, breathless laugh and it keeps coming, up, up, getting louder and croakier and God, she hasn’t laughed like this in years. She’s laughing because she’s pulling at the shoulders of her blazer, tugging the blouse off and thrusting it into Nat’s waiting arms.
And as the back of Nat’s head gets further away, her beautiful blonde hair shifting in the wind, strangers point and gawp at Claudia, who must look odd, standing in the middle of the pavement, alone, shirtless and drowning in giggles.

Once Claudia closes the front door, she collapses back onto it with a sigh.
“Hello,” Roger says, appearing from the front room. His hands encompass the entire breadth of her upper arms. He rubs them up and down, as though she’s some bitch he’s petting for performing a trick.
If he even notices, he doesn’t mention that under Claudia’s blazer she’s only wearing a bra.
“Listen, I want to say sorry for not being on top form. I know it’s not going to make up for my mistakes but I’ve bought us a nice dinner. Not completely homemade, I’ll admit, but it’s high time you put your feet up. Tonight’s my treat.” He presses a tender kiss to the top of her head. “But I can’t remember, is our oven fan or gas?”