When she studied the photograph—after the initial shock had subsided—she was surprised to note that the jumper appeared to be not muddy brown, as she had believed for years, but instead, a dark mossy green. The revelation was so startling that for a moment it eclipsed the many more troubling feelings aroused by the picture. 

The jumper had been her husband’s in the first place. She’d coveted it in the early days of their marriage: not the way girls in movies coyly don their boyfriends’ clothes after sex—a trope she, an actual girl in actual movies, found deeply unconvincing, having been directed to do so countless times in her career. She didn’t want the jumper for its outsize symbolising of her desirability or femininity. It was simply a nice jumper: on the finer side of chunky knit, with a slightly rolled, slightly wide neckline—somewhere between turtle and boat. It had been almost snug on her husband, who was slim-built; on her it betrayed no sign that it was menswear other than in the sleeve, where the cuffs overshot her wrists, requiring two turns back, which she found pleasing—both the act of turning and the result. 

She did not like her hands (they had never lost their childhood dimpling) but the effect of the adjusted cuffs, which flatteringly exposed an inch of forearm, coupled with the two plain silver bands she wore—one on each ring finger—somehow made them look a little more like the kind of hands she would have expected to have; the kind of hands befitting a moderately famous, critically-acclaimed, forty-something (her Wikipedia entry was deliberately vague on this point) actress. 

Despite its good quality and fit, however, she almost never left the house wearing the jumper: the question of its colour had only surfaced in the plein air of the tabloid photograph. This had not been a conscious choice, yet she must have felt on some level that the jumper’s provenance revealed something too cosy, too personal for the outside world—like being witnessed by the neighbours clomping out to do the bins while wearing her husband’s shoes.

But now, here it was: front page news. She was not totally unprepared for this moment. A few days earlier her agent had phoned about ‘certain baseless rumours’ circulating ‘in the gutter press’ concerning her and her co-star, whom the agent also represented. The agent was so firm in his dismissal of the rumours that she almost believed he didn’t know they were true. The relationship was not something they ever openly discussed, but the three of them had shared enough dinners, enough late-night drinks in hotel bars, for the agent to have witnessed the deepening and quickening of his clients’ affections. Hadn’t he?

They never kissed in front of him, or anything tacky; but she found that in the agent’s presence her vigilance eased—she could be truly mellow, as opposed to her natural state of merely seeming mellow. The agent legitimised their being together: he provided a professional bolster for any off-set, after-hours socialising, but she also vaguely sensed he lent them, if not a moral, then perhaps, quasi-classical standing—a Friar Lawrence figure rooting for the younger lovers. Conversely, when she and the co-star were alone, she was ambushed by waves of terrible anxiety and guilt, anticipating both possible immediate disasters (the surprise arrival of her husband at the hotel) as well as more abstract catastrophes (the sudden, unexplained disappearance of her children as cosmic penance for her treachery).

So she had been taken aback by the agent’s convincing rebuttals, but, of course, she remembered, after hanging up, the agent, too, had trained at a prestigious drama school, and even worked a little professionally—she’d once found an IMDb page listing credits for such decades-old screen roles as ‘Rent Boy #2’ and ‘Camp Bartender’, bit-parts revealing not only the tenor of those times, but also, possibly a poignant indication as to why his career as a performer had not ultimately taken off. Could it be that he was now drawing on these same acting chops to tacitly let her know he had her back? That despite knowing the truth, he would never tell a soul; that his discretion extended even to their one-to-one dealings? The agent said he had already spoken to her co-star about the rumours, and they’d agreed: No comment, no comment, no comment. ‘But won’t that look like—’ she said, and he replied: ‘Lovely, you can’t light a fire without oxygen.’ Should she warn her husband? ‘No need,’ the agent said. ‘Give it a couple of days—I promise this will all be over.’ 

She sat tight: too frightened to call the co-star in case their phones had been tapped. Under any other circumstances, she would have scoffed at the idea that the tabloids could find her worthy of interest. She had never courted the press, and when required to give interviews, was consistently, doggedly pleasant. Once, a journalist had remarked that she was notoriously inscrutable, and she’d laughed and said, ‘Nothing to see here!’joking that the phrase should be the title of her autobiography, which would naturally be filled with blank pages. 

She preferred to let her work speak for itself: she rarely used social media, and refused to be drawn on the many, mounting controversies that troubled the industry, even when journalists chipped away at her resolve. Didn’t she have an obligation they would ask, to speak up? Was she not in a position of privilege and therefore power? Didn’t she owe it to audiences to take a stance on X, Y or Z? To which she would smile, and say her job was to make the best work she could; to reflect life in as complex and truthful a way as she was able. The rest was interference.

She’d seen various colleagues take up the ‘issues’ mantle with gusto. A few even benefitted professionally, becoming the go-to guys on equal pay, sexual harassment or diversity, suddenly enjoying media profiles and consequently, a rash of auditions no amount of four-star reviews could muster. But she couldn’t help noticing that often the people whose stands made the greatest impact, whose comments were most widely circulated and headlined, were not themselves the subject of the cause in question, which created (to her at least) an uncomfortable paradox. It seemed impossible to raise awareness without also drawing attention to oneself—and eluding scrutiny was the whole reason she got into this game in the first place. 

She didn’t discover acting until her mid-teens. Of course, she’d spent her life acting—engaged in a constant, critical dialogue between thought and action, closely monitoring others’ reactions to establish what was too much (her laugh) or gross (picking at the dry skin on her lips) and making the necessary adjustments. At this kind of acting, she was world-class; but the idea of being good at it as a discipline or hobby, let alone a possible career path—that was extremely far-fetched, something reserved for the wealthy, cool, extroverted girls who would say it so offhandedly, ‘I’m going to be an actress,’ as though already a done deal. 

Still, she and her friends agreed to take theatre studies together, thinking it would be a doss—and it was. Underfunded and overlooked, the drama department lacked sufficient rehearsal space, and they were left to their own devices in the tiny rooms dotted around the school that doubled as detention cells for disruptive students. Often, they were so absorbed in the ruthless dismantling of their peers’ personalities, that they missed the bell for breaktime and then the next one for lessons, emerging, long-forgotten by their teacher, into silent corridors: disoriented and dazed. 

Being so self-conscious, she initially mopped up the minor roles no one else wanted—curtseying servants and ‘Yes-sir’ing envoysuntil the teacher, either going on a hunch or exercising due diligence, re-shuffled the cast of a class performance of A Doll’s House, thrusting her from maid to lead role. As Nora, she found she completely disappeared and it was the most intoxicating, liberating experience of her life.

Conventional wisdom had actors down as hopeless show-offs; in it purely for the adulation and attention. For her, however, the job afforded just the opposite—it meant the painful business of being herself was largely taken out of her hands. During costume fittings she would marvel at the skill and insight of the wardrobe department—how precise the choices were, how eloquently they spoke to a particular character, how every detail had to be just so. It was a relief to slip into these other lives, ones that had, however miserable or extreme, a through line of coherence, even if it was not apparent to the characters themselves. She would put her own clothes back on afterwards, slightly deflated, keenly aware that they had not been chosen with anything like the same kind of care or thought. Hers did not seem to add up to a recognisable ‘person’, rather, a random assortment of items that served only the most basic functions of protecting her modesty and keeping her warm.

She was intermittently plagued by the idea of someone tasked with designing costume for the role of ‘her’. Any suggestion of a personal style dissipated the moment you took into account that virtually everything she ever wore in a public capacity—awards ceremonies, screenings, photoshoots—was loaned or gifted. And where to begin with her day-to-day wardrobe? How on earth could an outsider grasp, for example, that the trousers she favoured were not any old black trousers, but specific old black trousers bought during her first pregnancy; not officially maternity wear, but with a subtly elasticated waist to accommodate early-second trimester thickening—soft brushed cotton trousers, which, three pregnancies and multiple repairs later, remained a stalwart of her post-children ‘look’? How to account for the T-shirt she wore in bed, which said Dreaming of Paris in pink cursive over a wistful rendering of the Parisian skyline, a gift from her sister-in-law one Christmas; an item she would never ‘dream of’ choosing for herself, had even balked at wearing in bed, but which she did now out of defeated habit, ever since the week the washing machine was out of action? Even her husband didn’t understand such things: the thousand banal, pragmatic secrets that made up the stuff of her life. 

When the news about the affair first broke, it was midnight: she was awoken by her phone flashing erratically with notifications, like distant detonations. Her husband was asleep beside her, snoring gently, and she lay, breathing shallowly, planning her next move. In the kitchen she only had to type the first few letters of her name before autocomplete delivered the goods. Smooch, snuggle, cavort, clinch, canoodle, flaunt, tryst, caress. It was a clean sweep, full-house: infidelity bingo, with every search result accompanied by the same photograph of her and the co-star. 

They were standing in a park, close together, and the co-star’s hand was on her back. The smoking gun—the detail that so excited the tabloids, and upon which the whole scandal depended—had to do with the placement of the co-star’s hand. His palm was pressed against the hem of her jumper which had slightly risen up, revealing a narrow band of bare skin; but it was the co-star’s fingers she’d noted, with growing dismay, that were the real problem, in that they were partly obscured by the waistband of her trousers, into which they had casually slipped.

If it weren’t for that detail, there was next-to-nothing to it: colleagues, old friends, sharing a joke, perhaps, a moment of camaraderie, even, yes, flirtation. It might have troubled the gossip sites for half an hour, at most. But this was a breach, shocking in its nonchalance, a careless, stupid mistake that made it impossible to minimise or explain away; made it possible in fact only to extrapolate from; to amplify, blow up, zoom in, as the press had duly done; with red rings, arrows and gleeful outrage. 

She first encountered him at the chemistry read for the series in which they would become co-stars. She had already filmed a pilot for the show, but with a different actor, a relative unknown who had not rated well with test audiences and executives. The removal of that actor had been fraught, and felt to her somewhat violating, like taking a comfort blanket away from a child. It was her first lead role post-children; it would have been his first proper foray into television. The actor’s firing felt like a failure on her part, that she had failed to meet him at the required level, and there was survivor’s guilt too—that despite not achieving a successful rapport, she had escaped the same fate. 

The executives had decided that this time, they needed a name, someone more established and familiar. Their previous choice had been too much of a risk, with a background mainly in theatre and independent film, and they shortlisted three possible candidates to replace him. She was vaguely aware of their work, though most of it tended towards male-dominated genres she was not especially au fait with—war, sci-fi, historical crime—whereas her casting bracket had skewed more contemporary: ‘complicated young woman’ when she first started out (code for ‘woman who knows what she wants’), and since her early thirties, ‘complicated older woman’ (code for ‘woman who doesn’t want what she has’).

When she was brought in for the chemistry reads, the casting director told her, Have fun, don’t be afraid to play around, test them a bit, put them on the spot.’ She had always been sceptical of the notion of these reads, found them mildly insulting, even, the insinuation that the personal mattered more than the professional; that there was some magical ingredient, a wild factor, prized above the intelligence and craft of the individual performance. She read with all three suitors (that was how it felt, feudal, medieval; that they were there to win her hand) and though she did not think any sparks flew, she believed nonetheless that, being such a consummate pro, she could make it work with any of them. But at the end of the day, as he was leaving, the third actor—whose performance she had found a little too earnest, if she was being brutally honest—approached her, hoisting his rucksack on his shoulders, and said: ‘I wanted you to know that whatever happens, I’m glad I had a chance to read with you.’ 

He said it in such a natural, direct way, without a hint of ulterior motive, that she was stunned. It was like being confronted by her children when they barrelled in from wherever they were to wherever she was, to impart urgent information that had suddenly come into their possession: ‘You must twist, never pull when you pick an apple!’ shouting over each other to deliver this kind of quaint, timeless news, as though she was in imminent danger of apple picking, let alone bungling the technique. Their unselfconsciousness—and its inevitable waning—was a source of deep joy and acute pain for her. Occasionally she would see her eldest daughter, giddy and spiralling with some notion or whim, quickly check herself, and she would feel both relief, that she did not have to do it, and quiet devastation that her daughter had known to do it herself. 

Yet here was someone who had seemingly retained the same seriousness, the expectation that he would be understood; the ability to communicate what was on his mind or in his heart. She had never encountered an adult like this, let alone an actor, who did not—would not? or could not?—dissemble. And it was because this way of being was so far removed from hers, that it rang so clear and true; it suddenly seemed so thunderingly obvious that this was how one should be that she felt her entire perception of reality shift. ‘I’m glad too,’ she said. 

The first time anything approaching something happened was a few weeks into the first series shoot. They had been filming at night, with an early start the next morning, so production had put them up in a hotel close to set. In the lobby, after they’d checked in, he said, ‘I’m going to have a drink.’ This, she was learning, was typical of him; neutral, declarative statements of intent that functioned both as invitation (join me?), and an opportunity to part ways (so goodnight). It was as though he could hold all possibilities, would be receptive and agreeable to any response, and she would have found this kind of open-mindedness maddening if he were not then so quick to follow up when she did join him—‘I hoped you would’—as they walked into the bar. 

That the co-star was handsome was not in dispute, but since having children, she had become desensitized to men’s appeal; as if, in the act of giving birth she had been biologically purged of spontaneous desire. She could recognise that someone was good looking (she had not lost her aesthetic sensibility), and could enjoy someone’s company, yet the two things no longer seemed inclined to fuse together to generate any kind of heat within her. 

But in those first weeks, she had spent so much time so close to the co-star, waiting between takes and during complicated lighting set-ups, that she had become intimately acquainted with the cartography of his face. She learned how front-on, his features were open, broad and generous, but from the side he looked altogether more angular, even at times severe; and then there was the emotional terrain, the listening smile he used when taking a note from the director, where everything arched and stretched in attentiveness, versus his instinctive smile, in response to the funny way she delivered a line, when all his features crinkled and crumpled together—and she realised, sitting there with him, as he had ‘hoped she would’ that she was, after all, not entirely numb. 

When they had finished their drinks, he placed both his hands on the table, another classic-him gesture—both shutting down (meeting adjourned) and opening up (what next?). She put a hand on one of his; plonked it really, impulsively, tipsily, then, unsure in what spirit she had even done so, whether goodnight squeeze, or establishing-of-physical-contact, tapped his knuckle with her forefinger, and he looked down at this pantomime and then straight into her eyes, at which point her tapping slowed to a light stroke, and he closed his eyes and breathed out slowly and she thought, Thank God and then, Oh shit. 

They were playing a married couple, and in the course of the shoot had already kissed a hundred times, been in bed together in various stages of undress. What she had felt on those occasions was not lust, but the same satirical wonderment she’d experienced throughout her career: how unsensual, synthetic—almost rubbery—and comical another naked human form could feel so close to her own. It was in their more mundane scenes where she felt, as the weeks wore on, anything distantly akin to arousal; when the meeting, or not-meeting of each other’s eye might shift from obligatory or routine, to something more freighted and intentional.

But after the cataclysmic non-event in the hotel (following which they retired to their separate rooms), she scoured her pages for further physical opportunities, a permissible outlet for what she came to think of, mockingly, as her ‘feelings’. Having feelings—how laughably inadequate was that as a description for the weather systems sweeping through her? ‘I have feelings for you,’ she imagined saying to him, practising the emphasis, feelings, feeeelingsthe heavy lifting the poor word was required to do could move mountains.

The day did come when they were required to kiss again; and of course, it was not just a kiss, but a long, involved sex scene, and she thought about referencing this to him, via a cliché like, ‘it never it rains but it pours!’, or, ‘feast or famine!’—to relieve a bit of pressure by acknowledging, ironically, how ridiculous this situation was. It could have been a romcom set-up, romantic leads fall in love! but in fact the experience felt closer to watching a horror film, specifically, the pervasive adrenalized dread—because this was not a charming, pleasing turn of events; it was a living nightmare to find herself so besotted when she already (so she thought) had that part of her life neatly and tidily squared away. 

Production had hired, per industry best practice, someone to advise on the sexual content in the show. The official job title was ‘intimacy coordinator’, but, perhaps because this seemed too unwieldy, or virtue-signalling, or frankly too unsexy, the employee (an intimidatingly professorial young woman in her mid-twenties), was known as the choreographer. When mapping out and rehearsing this particular sequence with the choreographer, she found she could approach it technically, as a task of coordination, a system of motions and manoeuvres. But when everyone else had retreated to their places, in that hot second of silence before action! was called, something in her tripped and the whole scene devolved into a fumbling, trembly fiasco. She could not kiss him without their teeth clashing; was so wracked with anguish and desire that she couldn’t regulate herself, could neither perform as she was meant to, with self-control, nor succumb as she wanted to, with none. The director, previously a paragon of tact and encouragement, grew so frustrated that he called lunch early, telling them to ‘fucking sort it out, whatever your problem is, I don’t care, just sort it out’. 

They went to her trailer (rebuffing the choreographer’s concerned advances) where she sat in silence, covering her eyes while he stood by the door with his arms hanging redundantly by his sides. Eventually, she said, ‘Can we try running the lines?’ and he said, ‘Good idea,’ and they did, holding each other’s gaze, and then she said, ‘Again, but this time with,’ gesturing to mean, everything and he said, ‘OK’, and they did, not stopping where the scene ended, nor at the boundary where art crossed into life. 

Processing these events, she built her moral defence: how could it have turned out any other way? They had not chosen to fall in love, had not set out to hurt anybody, if anything, the considerable pain—of secrecy and deceit—was, in fact, theirs to bear! However carefully choreographed it was, however delicately discussed in advance, they were still contractually obliged to kiss, to be all over each other, virtually naked in bed, so where precisely, she wanted to know, was the harm located, who could possibly be hurt if these same things were to occur, only without witnesses? If she kissed him on screen, and it meant something to her, was that not—in fact—far worse than if it happened in private? Surely it was better to get the real stuff out behind closed doors, rather than broadcast for all (including their respective partners), to behold? Wasn’t that the kinder, more responsible, respectful way to behave? 

When she was pregnant with her second child, she had not believed she could love another baby as much as she loved her first; it was the thing people said, ‘Oh you just do,’ but honestly, she assumed it was a lie, you had to say it so you didn’t sound cold-hearted, but secretly, you knew and everyone knew, the first baby was the one true love. But then when the new baby was born, it arrived with more love, the right amount, different yet equal, like two bubbles cleaving together, and she started to say it too: ‘Oh, you just do.’ In this way, she had never previously understood infidelity, how you could claim to love someone, yet betray their trust; she did not believe you could truly love someone if you were able to do that. Now she realised how naïve that was; how the two were not mutually exclusive; that the love for her co-star also fed and nurtured her love for her husband; made her realise how much she did not want to live without him, and besides, for as long as he didn’t know (and she was scrupulous in the lengths she went to, in order to protect him) his trust was not really betrayed at all. 

The day the photograph was taken she had agreed to meet the co-star in the park. It was the last day of the summer holidays, the first day of September: his wife was at work, her husband was away on business and they were both looking after their children alone. The co-star said their agent (who was godfather to his younger son) would be coming too, and for this reason she agreed to go. There was something appealing about being with the co-star while their children were present; something honest, almost, healing about it, the idea that it would validate their bond as an entity other than seedy or illicit, more like family friends. 

The TV show was about to go to a fourth season. It had been a ‘phenomenon’, in that the ratings were initially low, but steadily built via word of mouth. By the second series it had started to, in the words of one reviewer, ‘impact the public conversation’, spawning memes on social media contrasting screenshots of the co-stars in the throes of extreme antagonism and intense affection. 

Her promotional press for the show always focussed on her own domestic set-up; she resisted endless demands to be photographed ‘at home’ with her husband and children, but did dutifully answer, in her anodyne way, strings of questions about marriage and the pressures of balancing career and family. Meanwhile, the co-star’s interviews centred on his other projects, with the obligatory dance around his interest (‘Never say never!’) in being cast as the next James Bond. 

In the park, their children eyed and circled each other before setting up some kind of camp or fort underneath a tree. The agent went to the kiosk to buy drinks and snacks for everyone, and they stood together watching their kids, and it felt so normal, so easy to be standing there together in the open, that she turned to him and said, ‘I’m glad we did this’, which was the moment he drew her to him, putting his hand on her back, and said, ‘I’m glad too.’

It was the agent who suggested meeting for lunch, but she was left with the impression that she had forced him into it, unwittingly emitting distress signals that had obliged him to come up with a means of handling her. Things were quiet workwise ever since the story broke. It had played out in a way that should not have been surprising: she cast as the seductress, the co-star, her powerless prey, a narrative subsequently nourished by her trial separation and his marital reconciliation—which tacitly, yet deafeningly, put an end to the question of a fourth season. In their final conversation, the co-star had shown the same guileless candour that blindsided her in the first place—‘This isn’t right any more’—and she found herself similarly undone.

They were meeting at the restaurant where the agent had taken her for lunch when he’d first signed her, so many years before—one of those long-standing institutions that people frequented more out of habit and familiarity than anything special about the place itself. The agent was already there when she arrived; had in fact, already ordered, hoped she didn’t mind—he had another meeting straight after, but if she ordered right away, hopefully their food would come at the same time. She knew then how this was going to go, but she played along, spaghetti alle vongole and a glass of white wine, enquiring after his partner and responding to his euphemistic probes about how her children were coping with ‘the recent changes’. She told him about the studio flat she was subletting from a mutual friend who was currently in Canada filming a prestige TV drama, and how the children called the flat ‘Mummy’s private house,’ and kept asking where all the other rooms were. 

When their plates had been cleared, his coffee arrived almost immediately—he had included even this in his pre-emptive order—so she finally brought up the question of work. There was a project she had been waiting to hear about for weeks, was there any news? He said yes, he had heard, and unfortunately, they were going in a different direction on this one. And, he added, while they were on the subject, that he had been thinking about the future, about consolidating his books and, things being as they were, given the current landscape, and taking into account any possible conflicts of interest, he would completely understand if she wanted to look elsewhere; that perhaps it was time to admit he had reached the limit of what he was able to do for her; that he would of course be devastated but would not for a second think ill of her if she decided it was time to part ways. 

She listened, staring at the tablecloth, dabbing up salt with her forefinger, then brushing it off with her thumb, nodding, making the right noises in the right places, even managing to smile when he tossed in a couple of jokes. As he finished his coffee, she excused herself to the toilet, where she sat in the cubicle with her eyes shut, forgetting to breathe until her head started spinning. Eventually she rallied, adjusting her hair and clothes in the mirror before stepping out again, only to find the agent gone, and their table re-set with fresh linens and silverware, ready for the next service.

Perhaps owing to the glass of wine, or the toll of the lunch, she didn’t realise until it pulled up that the taxi had been heading for the family home. Her children were still at school, her husband at work, and crossing the threshold she was flooded, foolishly, with the old bliss of entering a rarely-empty house. A few of her jackets and coats hung from the pegs, and several pairs of her shoes remained among the boots and trainers on the rack. 

In the children’s rooms she straightened the duvets, erasing the morning’s disarray. In the room she had shared with her husband, she sat on the bed for some time, gripped by the sort of heaviness that often overwhelmed her after showering, when she would sit and sit and sit in her towel, staring at the wall—only returning to herself with reluctance and great effort, usually in response to a child’s insistent call. 

But no one was calling now as she went to the wardrobe, and looked at her things: trousers and dresses and shirts and cardigans, all intimately familiar and utterly remote. She took the jumper from its hanger, the jumper from the photo that had once been her husband’s, and brought it to the window, where she watched as it turned from brown to green in the daylight: a kind of developing phenomenon, like the onset of dawn, imperceptible yet inevitable. She pulled it on over her clothes, freeing her hair from the collar with a brisk, graceful movement; and going downstairs, she rolled up her sleeves, then walked out of the house, pulling the front door smartly behind her. 

Lisa Owens

Lisa Owens is a novelist and screenwriter. Her debut novel, Not Working, was published by Picador in 2016 and adapted for BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. Her story ‘The Youths’ was published in our Summer 2021 Issue. She lives in London.

About Chemistry Read: When I acted at school and university, I was always fascinated with the precise moment of stepping onstage; the internal processes that make it possible both for the actor to be someone else, and for the audience to believe them. In writing this story I wanted to explore how a professional requirement to grapple with truth and feeling might impact someone’s personal life; but I was also thinking about how aspects of any life (relationships, the ways we present to the world) could be considered a performance. And, for the record—since writers are often at pains to distance themselves from their characters, and having admitted (rashly?) to a thespian history above—I should make it clear that, at the time of writing, no green/brown jumpers in my possession have ever been the subject of a tabloid exposé.