Skin as dry as drawer-yellowed tissue paper hangs loosely on fragile bones, as she drinks fragrant tea from similarly fragile bone china. The voice which says "Margaret" is no longer the resonant, vital one that used to strike terror into Maggie's adolescent heart when it promised retribution for her small sins, but one which quavers and breaks.
Maggie takes the seat she is offered, but shifts uncomfortably in it as she faces this parody of her grandmother, wishing that Grandma Evelyn hadn't asked her to come again, when they visited last week.
It's not that she particularly loves the older woman. While their other grandmother wrapped Maggie and her brothers in warmth and hand-knitted jerseys, Grandma Evelyn "did her duty by them", striding with them across hills, educating them in botany and ornithology, shepherding them around museums and bluntly correcting their apparently manifold faults. The children spent one week each holiday with her, equally dutifully, breathing sighs of relief when they could escape to the chaos of home or the cosy chintziness of Grandma Sylvia's. Evelyn was never affectionate in any way, neither offering hugs, nor accepting them gracefully if they were given to her.
But she had a strength about her, an indomitable quality that the last five years - years Evelyn has spent living in Australia living with her son and his family -- has stolen. Maggie sips her tea, looking into the cup to avoid looking at Evelyn, but a disapproving click of tongue against teeth forces her to look up again.
"I'm a wreck, I know." The ice-chip blue eyes that pin Maggie's gaze are unchanged, and, as ever, they seem to see deep inside her mind to that guilty corner she wants to keep dark and hidden. "It comes to us all, if we live long enough. You too, in your time."
She's no softer, either, it seems.
"You asked me to come again last week," Maggie says. "Without the family. Well, here I am."
"I can see that. I'm old, not blind or stupid."
"So, why did you want me to come, Grandma? It wasn't to trade pleasantries, I'm sure. Is there something I can do for you? Something you need?"
"The other way about, I think, girl. I've got some advice for you if you care to take it."
"Go to him. Your lover. Grab the opportunity while it's there."
Frozen in place by those blue ice-chips, Maggie tries to think of a response, something suitable, something vehement to disabuse Evelyn of any misapprehensions, she opens her mouth.
"Oh, don't try to deny it." Evelyn cuts her off before she's fully inhaled the breath to speak with. "You've got the look. There's a fire burning behind your eyes that hasn't been there for years. Not since you first married Hugh. You've lost that comfortable content that you'd grown into."
Again, Maggie tries to speak, again she's cut off, this time by the raising of an almost skeletal hand. First appearances are deceptive, Maggie thinks. Evelyn's body may be weaker, but her mind and spirit are as arrogant and dominating as ever.
"You may not have slept with the other man yet." The older woman's voice is calm and quiet, as she ploughs on. "Makes no difference, he's as much your lover as if you had, and you know it. Even if you're resisting doing it, you're thinking of it, or trying not to. Visualising it whenever you can't push it out of your thoughts. Wanting it - and you know he wants it too. Do it, that's my advice, if you haven't already. Find out if it's as good as you imagine."
He's a colleague. A history professor. Witty, intelligent, Maggie's age almost to the day.
They hit it off immediately they met, gravitated together at work social events, flirted lightly. She had taken his compliments as amusing flattery while acquaintance became friendship.
He treated her not like a middle-aged matron, but an attractive woman, and she began to act like one, unknowingly. Her increased confidence allowed her to give freer reign to her own wit, to compliment him on the things about him that she liked. She really wasn't aware of how she was captivating him, until, one day they were sitting over coffee.
"I'm about to say something very foolish," he said.
'What?" She was only half-concentrating, as she repressed an urge to brush the hair that fell over his eyes back from his face.
"I've fallen in love with you, Maggie. Quite ridiculously, totally in love."
She'd looked at him for a long moment, taking in the widow's peak, the lines crinkled around his eyes, the slight paunch. He was staring at back at her, his brown eyes intense, and there was no doubt he was genuine.
"Oh? Is that all?" He was trying to keep his tone light, but she could hear the tension in it.
"Right now, yes. I need to think before I can respond to a bombshell like that."
"I'm not expecting anything from you, you know. I do understand you're happily married, and everything. I just felt that you ought to know."
"Yes. Yes, you're right, I ought to know." His gaze was flustering her. He looked at her like her reaction was the key to his future, and suddenly his lips which had a strong bow, seemed absurdly kissable.
Those lips curved into a little smile now, but his face was sad.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I shouldn't have said anything. Forget it."
"Oh, I don't think I can do that. I really don't." She stood, and reached out to touch his hand, gently. "I'm not sorry, Richard. Thank you for telling me."
She left then, and went home. Hugh asked her if she had enjoyed her evening, as he took her in his arms, and she had just nodded, and rested her head on his shoulder, the reliable shoulder she had leant against so happily for the last seventeen years.
She found herself thinking of Richard while she lay in bed later, her back snuggled against Hugh, his arm across her ribs and lightly cupping a breast. She tried to push the thoughts away, to drift into sleep on the backwash of her husband's practiced, comfortable lovemaking. "I'm happily married," she thought, "very happily. I love Hugh."
Her brain poked and prodded at that thought, trying to find doubt in it. There was none. She loved Hugh as much now as when she married him. More. She still desired him, still delighted in his body.
So, why was she thinking of Richard, as Hugh murmured in his sleep? Why wouldn't the image of Richard's lips leave her mind? Why did she feel this affection for Richard that she shouldn't call love, but couldn't call anything else?
She avoided Richard for two weeks. They weren't in the same department, so it wasn't hard to arrange that their paths didn't cross. She sent him a mail to say she needed to get her own thoughts straight and would be in touch as soon as she had. He replied that he understood.
By the end of the fortnight, she was desperate to see him, to hear his voice, to laugh with him again. She mailed again, asked him to join her for coffee.
"I don't know how this happened," she said, as they waited for their drinks to arrive.
"Yes. But I love Hugh too. I'll never leave him; you know that, no matter what. Even if I didn't love him, there are the girls."
"I know." He made it sound like he really did know. "Maggie, I'll understand if you want to just keep this as a loving friendship, but I want you. It has to be your choice, and I'll try not to pressure or nag you, but I'm not going to hide..."
She put a finger to his lips.
"Hush. If I'd wanted to be 'just friends', I'd have said that. We have to be careful; I won't hurt Hugh. But if we're careful, it should be fine."
"If you have slept with him already," Evelyn finishes, "you've got your answer, and the sex is everything you could have wanted. In that case, leave Hugh, and go to this other man."
"I'll never leave Hugh." Maggie spoke tonelessly, facing off the ice-chips with her own green stare, flat as glass. "Even if you were right about my having a lover..."
"Even if you were right, leaving Hugh isn't an option. I love Hugh, and he loves me, very much. He needs me, and so do the girls. I couldn't possibly leave him, even if I wanted to, which I don't."
"Yes, you do. You might not admit it to yourself, but you do. Margaret, I'm not trying to interfere, but..."
"Then don't interfere! You can't possibly understand what's happening here."
You can't possibly understand how it makes me feel when I lie beside Richard, and his hand strokes over me, and he says "My God, Maggie, you are so beautiful."
You can't understand that Hugh has never said that, not once, that he doesn't make me feel that despite the fact that my boobs are too small, there are stretch-marks on my stomach, and grey hairs in my head, I am the most desirable creature ever to walk the earth, that he never has, while Richard never makes me feel anything else.
You can't understand that Richard caresses me reverently, and explores every part of me, looking to give pleasure, and does so, so that I'm dizzy in my lust for him, where Hugh follows tried and tested practices, moves that touch all the right spots, turning me on, without driving me wild.
And you can't understand that despite all this, when Hugh says "I love you, I could never manage without you.' I know that he's telling the truth, and I could no more break the promises I made at our wedding than I could fly.
"Hugh needs me. He doesn't deserve to be hurt. He's a wonderful man."
"Of course he is. He's a fine, loyal, loving man. That's why you have to leave him. You'll hurt him if you go, but you'll destroy him if you stay."
"I would never..."
"Margaret, I know you'd never mean to. It will happen, nonetheless. You will lose your lover, sooner or later, because you aren't the kind of woman to get involved with a man shallow or weak enough to settle for only part of your life. Then you'll stay with Hugh, resenting him for the loss of the colour your life has now, comparing him constantly, and negatively with the other man, the one you could have been with if you'd been courageous enough, blaming your cowardice on him, because you'll make it his fault for needing you, not yours for putting his needs above your own."
Evelyn continues, inexorably. "Yes. Some women can take affairs lightly enough to go on after them, unaffected, but not you - if you could, you'd have done something like this long before now. The resentment will make you cold, and critical, you'll be irritated by things Hugh does, things you used to treat indulgently. You'll see only his faults, and compare them to your lover's virtues. You'll keep making love to him out of duty, and to try to bring back the feelings you had before, but it'll be without any real desire - there will be pleasure in it, but no joy. And he'll know, he'll feel the distance, but he won't understand why it has happened, and he'll blame himself too, and it will tear him apart."
"You can't possibly know that. How could you know that?"
"Because you are very like me, and ..."
There is no thought of tact in Maggie as she stares into the ice-chips and interrupts, enunciating carefully and slowly, pausing between each word, "I. Am. Nothing. Like. You"
"Not as I am now, no," Evelyn says, sadly. "As I was, once. Before I did what you are planning to do. I know these things, Margaret, because I've lived them."
Maggie stands, shaking, looking down with loathing at the shrunken form.
"I am not like you. I could never be like you. You are a cold, bitter old woman, trying to reverse your mistakes two generations too late. Just because you messed up your life doesn't mean I can't deal with mine."
Incredibly, the ice in the eyes melts enough to allow two tears to well up in the corners, and to trickle down the tissue-paper cheeks.
"I'm sorry, Grandma," Maggie's voice is tight, "I didn't mean to hurt you, but I can't listen to this. I'm going to go now. I'll be back sometime. Take care"
She bends and brushes tense lips across Evelyn's dry cheek.
"I'm not crying because you hurt me," the old woman thinks, as she watches the stiff departing back. "I'm crying because I'm right."
The Story continues in Ripples on the surface of years