By Sunday afternoon I’ve given up all hope of my ‘liberating me me me weekend’ and am just clock-watching until Adam comes home. I had a drink with Sophie after work on Friday and made her laugh some more over bossgate as she calls it, although I could see she was relieved that nothing more had happened. Don’t shit on your own doorstep , is what she’d said. I almost pointed out that she was always sleeping with Jay’s friends or clients, but decided against it. Anyway, she couldn’t stay out for long, and after two glasses of wine I was happy to say goodbye. Her amusement at my situation was becoming tiring.
The thing with couples is that even if they’re not as smug as singles think they are, they do fall into that groove in life where they only really do things with other couples. No one wants a spare wheel hanging around and upsetting the even numbers. I remember it. Ian and I used to be like that. And as you get older everyone is married anyway, and those who aren’t are frantically dating in order to fit back into the mould. Sometimes it seems like everyone but me is paired up.
On Saturday I did the housework, playing the radio loud and trying to make it feel like fun rather than drudgery, and then watched TV, ordered in a pizza, and drank wine and smoked too much, and then hated myself for my excesses. What had sounded so decadent when I had planned it felt pathetic living it out.
My resolve not to think about David had failed too. What had they done this weekend? Played tennis? Sat in their no doubt perfect garden sipping cocktails and laughing together? Had he thought about me at all? Was there any reason to? Maybe he was having problems in his marriage. The thoughts had been going around and around while I half-watched TV and drank too much wine. I needed to forget about him, but it was easier said than done. I sleepwalked on both nights, finding myself standing in the kitchen with the cold tap running in the sink, scarily close to the balcony door, at four a.m. on Sunday morning. I end up laying in until ten, eating the last dregs of left-over pizza for breakfast, and then forcing myself to Morrisons for the weekly shop before sitting and waiting for Adam to come home and fill the flat with life.
Adam finally gets back at just gone seven. I have to stop myself from running to the door, and when he races in past me like a whirlwind, my heart leaps at the noise and the energy. He exhausts me at times, but he’s my perfect boy.
‘No playing,’ I say, as he wraps around my legs. ‘Go and run your bath, it’s nearly bedtime.’ He rolls his eyes and groans, but trudges off towards the bathroom.
‘Thanks, Dad,’ Adam shouts, his backpack barely across his shoulder as he holds a plastic dinosaur up high, ‘see you next week!’
‘Next week?’ I’m confused, and Ian looks down, giving me a brief glimpse of his growing bald spot. He waits until our son is out of earshot.
‘Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that. You see, Lisa’s got the offer of a house in the south of France for a month. It seems stupid not to take it.’
‘What about work?’ I feel like I’ve been slapped in the face.
‘I can work from there for a couple of weeks and then take the rest as holiday.’ His face prickles with colour like it did when he told me he was leaving. ‘Lisa’s pregnant,’ he blurts out. ‘She – we – think this would be a good way for her to bond properly with Adam before the baby comes. She can’t really get to know him properly seeing him only every other weekend. For his sake too. She doesn’t want him to feel left out. Neither do I.’
I’ve heard nothing but white noise since the word pregnant . Lisa is relatively new, a vague name in my head rather than a whole person who is destined to be part of my life for ever. She’s only been around for nine months or so. I’d presumed, if Ian’s track record since our divorce is anything to go by, that her time was nearly up. I have a partial recollection of him telling me that this one was different, but I didn’t take him seriously. I was wrong. It is.
They’re going to be a proper family.
The thought is a knife in my suddenly bitter and black heart. They’ll live in a proper house. Lisa will reap the rewards of Ian’s steady climb up the corporate ladder. My little flat feels suffocating. I’m being unfair, I know. Ian pays my mortgage and has never argued over money once. Still, the hurt is overwhelming my rational brain, and the thought of them taking Adam from me for the summer to add to their little picture of perfect bliss makes me see red, as if my heart has burst and all the blood has flooded to my eyes.
‘No,’ I say, spitting the word out. ‘He’s not going.’ I don’t congratulate him. I don’t care about their new baby. I only care about my already growing one.
‘Oh come on, Lou, this isn’t like you.’ He leans on the doorframe and all I see for a moment is his pot belly. How can he have found someone new, someone properly new, and I haven’t? Why am I the one left alone, passing my days in some dull Groundhog Day remake? ‘He’ll have a great time,’ Ian continues. ‘You know it. And you’ll get some time to yourself.’
I think about the past forty-eight hours. Time to myself is not what I need right now.
‘No. And you should have spoken to me first.’ I’m almost stamping my foot, and I sound like a child but I can’t help it.
‘I know, I’m sorry, but it just sort of came out. At least think about it?’ He looks pained. ‘It’s the school holidays. I know they’re tricky for you. You won’t have to worry about childcare while you’re working, and it will give you a break. You can go out whenever you want. Meet some new people.’
He means a man. Oh good. Exactly what my weekend needed. Pity from my cheating ex-husband. It’s the final straw. I don’t even say no again, but close the door on him hard, making him jump back before it hits him.
He rings the doorbell twice after that, but I ignore him. I feel sick. I feel angry. I feel lost. And worse than all of that is the feeling that I have no right to any of it. Lisa is probably perfectly nice. Ian doesn’t deserve to be unhappy. I hadn’t even thought I was unhappy before the stupid drunken kiss. I rest my head against the door, resisting the urge to bang my head hard against the wood to knock some sense into it.
I turn. Adam peers through from the sitting room, awkward.
‘Can I go to France then?’
‘I told you to run your bath,’ I snap, all my anger resurfacing. Ian had no right to mention the holiday to Adam before talking to me. Why do I always have to be the bad parent?
‘Bath. And no, you can’t go to France, and that’s final.’
He glares at me then, a little ball of fury, my words bursting the bubble of his excitement. ‘Why?’
‘Because I said so.’
‘That’s not a reason. I want to go!’
‘It’s reason enough. And no arguments.’
‘That’s a stupid reason! You’re stupid!’
‘Don’t talk to me like that, Adam. Now run your bath or no story for you tonight.’ I don’t like him when he’s like this. I don’t like me when I’m like this.
‘I don’t want a story! I want to go to France! Daddy wants me to go! You’re mean! I hate you!’
He’s carrying a plastic dinosaur and he throws it at me before storming off to the bathroom. I hear the door slam. It’s not only me who can do that with effect. I pick it up and see the Natural History Museum sticker on the foot.
That only makes me feel worse. I’ve been promising him we’ll go for ages and not got around to it. When you’re the full-time parent there’s a lot of things you don’t get around to.
His bath is short and no fun for either of us. He ignores any attempt I make to explain why I don’t think the holiday is a good idea, just glowering at me from under his damp hair. It’s as if even at six he can see through my bullshit. It’s not that he’s never been away for a month. It’s not that I think maybe a week would be better in case he got homesick. It’s not that maybe Daddy and Lisa need their space now that a baby is coming – it’s simply that I don’t want to lose the only thing I have left. Him . Ian doesn’t get to take Adam too.
‘You hate Daddy and Lisa,’ he growls as I wrap his perfect little body in a large towel. ‘You hate them and you want me to hate them.’ He stomps off to his bedroom, leaving me kneeling on the bathroom floor, clothes damp and staring after him, shocked. Is that what he really thinks? I wish he had proper tantrums more often. I wish he’d cry and scream and rage rather than sulk and then spit out these barbed truths. From the mouths of babes …
‘Do you want Harry Potter ?’ I ask once he’s got his pyjamas on and the towel is hanging in the bathroom to dry.
‘Are you sure?’
He doesn’t look at me, but clutches Paddington tightly. Too tightly. All that contained rage and hurt. His face is still thunderous. He might as well stick his bottom lip out and be done with it.
‘I want to go to France with Daddy. I want to eat snails. And swim in the sea. I don’t want to stay here and go to holiday school while you’re at work all the time.’
‘I’m not at work all the time.’ His anger stings me and so do his words, because there is some truth in them. I can’t take the time off to spend with him like some other mums can.
‘Lots of the time you are.’ He huffs slightly and turns onto his side, facing away from me. Paddington, still clutched tightly, peers over his small shoulder at me, almost apologetically. ‘You don’t want me to go because you’re mean.’
I stare at him for a moment, my heart suddenly heavy. It’s true. It’s all true. Adam would have a great time in France. And it would only be four weeks, and in a lot of ways it would make my life easier. But the thought remains like a knife in my guts. Easier yes, but also emptier .
Despite the frigid coldness of his back being to me, I lean over and kiss his head, ignoring his clenched tension as I do so. I suck in the wonderful clean smell that is distinctly his own. I will always be his mother, I remind myself. Lisa can never replace me.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I say, very quietly from the doorway, before I turn the light out. Letting him go would be the right thing. I know it would, but I still want to cry as I pour a glass of wine and slump onto the sofa. A whole month. So much can change in that time. Adam will be taller for sure. There’ll be less of this wonderful time when he still wants to cuddle and hold hands and be happy to be my baby. In the blink of an eye he’ll be a teenager, tonight’s behaviour a precursor of that. Then he’ll be grown and gone and having his own life, and I’ll probably still be in this shitty flat scratching out a living in a city I can’t afford, with barely a handful of part-time friends. I know I’m exaggerating everything in my self-pity, and that really I’m still trying to process the word pregnant and the effect that’s going to have on my life. I didn’t think that Ian would have more children. He was never that interested the first time around.
I was his practice wife , I realise. Adam and I were his practice family. When the story of his life is spun, we will simply be the early threads. We will not be the colour.
It’s a strange and sad thought, and I don’t like strange and sad thoughts so I drink more wine, and then make plans to fill those weeks with fun. I could take myself away for a weekend. I could start jogging. Lose this extra half a stone that has settled on my tummy and thighs. Wear high heels. Become someone new. It’s a lot to fit into a month, but I’m willing to try. Or at least I’m willing to try while I have half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in me. Before I can change my mind I text Ian and tell him the holiday is okay. Adam can go. I regret it almost instantly, but I don’t really have any choice. Adam will resent me if I say no, and I can’t stop him being part of that family too. Trying to keep him all to myself will only drive him away. I feel stronger while tipsy. It all seems a good idea right now.
Later, I wake up in the dark beside Adam’s bed. My breath comes in rabid pants as the world settles around me. He is fast asleep, one arm still wrapped around his battered, worn Paddington Bear. I watch him for a moment, letting his calm become mine. How do I seem to him on those occasions when he does wake up? Some crazy stranger who looks like his mum? For a boy who’s never had bad dreams it must be unsettling no matter how much he says it’s not.
Maybe I should have some proper therapy for my night terrors. One day, maybe. Shall I lie on the couch, doctor? Care to come and join me? Oh no, of course, you’re married. Maybe we should talk about your problems.
I can’t even make myself smile. Adam’s going away for a month. Lisa is pregnant. I’m getting left behind by the world. I crawl between my slightly sweat-damp sheets and tell myself to buck up. There are way worse positions to be in. At least the thing that happened with David proves that there are still men I can find attractive. And, more importantly, men who still find me attractive. Silver linings and all that.
Despite my middle of the night pep talk, and the joy and love in Adam’s face when I tell him his France trip is on, I’m still miserable as I watch him run through the melee at the school gates without even a glance back. Normally, this makes me happy. I like that he’s a confident child. But today that immediate forgetting of me seems symbolic, representing my entire future. Everyone running forward, and me on the other side of the gates, waving at people who are no longer looking back, left behind alone. I think about that for a second and it’s so pretentious I have to laugh at myself. Adam’s gone to school the same as he does every other day. So what that Ian’s happy? Ian being happy doesn’t mean that I have to be unhappy. Still, the pregnant word sits like a lead weight in my heart I can’t shift, and my eyes itch with tiredness. I hadn’t got back to sleep.
Surrounded by shrieks and laughter of children and the chatter of North London mums, I wish that, even with the ‘David situation’, I was going to work today. I run through the list of mundane things I need to get done before the end of school and I’m not surprised to find that the idea of scrubbing the bath doesn’t really cheer my mood. Maybe I should buy Adam some new swimming trunks and summer clothes to take with him. I’m sure Ian has it covered, but I want some input into this family holiday I’m not part of.
I think about buying Lisa a gift of some baby clothes, but that really is too much too soon. Their new baby is nothing to do with me. Why would she want anything from the ex-wife anyway? The first child’s mother? The imperfect relationship. What has Ian told her about me? How much has he made my fault?
Once Adam has disappeared inside, I keep my head down as I storm away, not wanting to get drawn into any summer holiday conversation with the other mothers, and I’m desperate for a cigarette and want to be around the corner before I light up. My clothes probably smell of smoke anyway, but I can live without the school-gate judgement.
I feel the collision before I know I’ve had it. A sudden jolt to my head, the thump of a body against mine, a shocked yelp, and then I’m stumbling backwards. I stay on my feet although the other woman doesn’t. I see her shoes first, her feet tangled on the ground. Delicate cream kitten heels. No scuffs. I go into autopilot, and grab at her, trying to help her to her feet.
‘I’m so sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going,’ I say.
‘No, it’s my fault,’ she murmurs, a voice like spun brown sugar in the air. ‘I wasn’t looking.’
‘Well, we’re both idiots then,’ I say, and smile. It’s only when she’s standing, willowy slim and tall, do I realise, in horror, who she is. It’s her .
‘It’s you,’ I say. The words are out before I can stop them. My morning has gone dramatically from bad to worse, and my face burns. She looks at me, confused.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met?’
I take advantage of a small herd of prams coming past from the school to cover my embarrassment, and by the time they’ve passed, I manage what I hope is a genuine smile. ‘No, no we haven’t. But I work for your husband. Part-time, anyway. I’ve seen your picture on his desk.’
‘You work with David?’
I nod. I like the way she says with and not for.
‘I just left him there. Fancied a morning walk,’ she says. ‘Small world, I guess.’
She smiles then, and she really is oh-so-beautiful. The glimpse of her I’d had before didn’t do her justice – although I had been fleeing in panic to the toilet at the time – and I’d hoped that she just photographed well. But no. I feel like a solid clumsy lump of lard next to her, and I tuck one curl behind my ear as if that’s going to suddenly make me presentable.
I’m wearing an old pair of jeans and a hoodie with a tea stain on the sleeve, and I haven’t even waved a mascara brush at my face before leaving the flat. She looks effortlessly chic with her loose bun and thin green sweater above a pair of pale green linen trousers. A vision in pastel that should look twee, but doesn’t. She belongs in the South of France somewhere on a yacht. She’s younger than I am, maybe not even quite thirty yet, but she looks like a grown-up. I look like a slob. She and David must make such a beautiful couple together.
‘I’m Adele,’ she says. Even her name is exotic.
‘Louise. Excuse the state of me. Mornings are always a rush, and when I’m not working I tend to prefer the extra half an hour in bed.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ she says. ‘You look fine.’ She hesitates for a second, and I’m about to pre-empt what I think is her looking for a way to say goodbye and get on with her day, when she adds, ‘Look, I don’t suppose you fancy going for a coffee? I’m sure I saw a cafe on that corner.’
This is not a good idea. I know that. But she’s looking at me so hopefully, and my curiosity is overwhelming. This is the-man-from-the-bar’s wife. David is married to this beautiful creature and yet he still kissed me. My sensible brain tells me to make my excuses and leave, but of course that’s not what I do.
‘A coffee would be great. But not that place. It’ll be filled with the school mums within ten minutes, and I can live without that. Unless you’re keen on a babies’ crying chorus and lactated milk with your coffee.’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ she laughs. ‘You lead, I’ll follow.’
We end up in the Costa Coffee courtyard with cappuccinos and slices of carrot cake that Adele insisted on buying. The morning chill is fading now that it’s nearly ten, and the sun is warm: I squint a bit as it shines low and bright over her shoulder. I light a cigarette and offer her one, but she doesn’t smoke. Of course she doesn’t. Why would she? She doesn’t seem to mind that I do, and we make polite conversation as I ask her how she’s settling in. She says that their new house is beautiful, but she’s thinking of redecorating some of the rooms to brighten them up and was going to go and pick out some paint samples this morning. She tells me their cat died, which wasn’t a great start, but now that David’s at work they’re settling into a routine. She says she’s still finding her way around. Getting used to a new area. Everything she says is charming, with a hint of disarming shyness. She’s lovely. I so wanted her to be horrible or bitchy, but she isn’t. I feel utterly dreadful about David, and I should want to be a hundred miles away from her, but she’s fascinating. The kind of person you can’t stop looking at. A bit like David.
‘Do you have friends in London?’ I ask. I think it’s a safe bet. Nearly everyone has some old friends lurking in the capital – leftovers from school or college who added you on Facebook. Even if it’s not your home town, it’s somewhere people always end up.
‘No.’ She shakes her head and shrugs slightly, nibbling momentarily on her bottom lip as she glances away. ‘I’ve never really had a lot of friends. I had a best friend once …’ Her voice trails away, and for a moment I don’t even think she remembers I’m here, and then her eyes are back on mine and she carries on, leaving that story untold. ‘But you know. Life.’ She shrugs. I think of my own scraps of friendships, and understand what she means. Circles grow small as we grow older.
‘I’ve met the partners’ wives and they seem very nice,’ she continues, ‘but they’re mainly quite a lot older than me. I’ve had lots of offers to help them with charity work.’
‘I’m all for charity,’ I say, ‘but that’s hardly like a good night out down the pub.’ I talk as if my life is filled with good nights out rather than quiet nights in alone, and I try not to think about my last good night out. You’ve kissed her husband, I remind myself. You cannot be her friend.
‘ Thank God I’ve met you,’ she says, and smiles, before biting into her cake. She eats it with relish and I feel less bad about tucking into mine.
‘Do you think you’ll get a job?’ I ask. It’s partly selfish. If she wants to work with her husband then I’m screwed.
She shakes her head. ‘You know, other than a few weeks’ work in a florist years ago which went terribly, I’ve never had a job. Which probably sounds a bit stupid to you, and it is odd and a bit embarrassing, but, well …’ She hesitates for a moment. ‘Well, I had some problems when I was younger, things happened I had to get over, and that took a while, and now I wouldn’t know where to start with anything close to a career. David’s always looked after me. We have money, and even if I got a job I’d feel like I was stealing it from someone who needs it and could probably do it better than me. I thought maybe we’d have children, but that hasn’t happened. Not yet, anyway.’
Hearing his name from her lips is odd. It shouldn’t be, but it is. I hope she isn’t about to tell me how hard they’re trying for a family, because that might send me over the edge this morning, but she changes the subject, instead asking me about my life, and about Adam. Relieved to be talking about something non-David related, non-pregnancy related, I’m soon giving her my potted and not so potted history in the way that I do – all the openness, all too quickly – and making the worst parts sound funny and the best parts even funnier, and Adele laughs while I smoke more, and gesticulate as I race through my marriage and my divorce and my sleepwalking and night terrors and the fun of being a single mother, all told through the medium of comedy anecdotes.
At eleven thirty, nearly two hours somehow having raced by, we’re interrupted by the sound of an old Nokia ringtone, and Adele hastily pulls the phone from her bag.
‘Hi,’ she says, mouthing Sorry at me. ‘Yes, I’m fine. I’m out looking for some paint samples. I thought I’d grab a quick coffee. Yes, I’ll pick some up too. Yes, I’ll be home by then.’
It’s David, it must be. Who else could she be speaking to? She keeps the conversation short, her head tilted down as she talks quietly into the phone as if she were on a train and everyone could hear her. Only after it’s over do I realise she hasn’t mentioned me, which seems a little odd.
‘That’s not a phone,’ I say, looking at the small black brick. ‘That’s a museum relic. How old is it?’
Adele flushes then, no blotches for her, just a rich rose-red bloom on her olive skin. ‘It does what it needs to do. Hey, we should swap numbers. It would be nice to do something like this again.’
She’s being polite, of course, so I recite my number, and she carefully taps it in. We’ll never do this again. We’re too different. After the phone call she’s quieter, and we start to gather our things together to leave. I can’t stop looking at her. She’s like some fragile, ethereal creature. Her movements are delicate and precise. Even after falling over in the street she looks impeccable.
‘Well, it was lovely to meet you,’ I say. ‘I’ll try not to knock you down next time. Good luck with the decorating.’ Our moment of closeness has passed and now we’re semi-awkward semi-strangers.
‘It really was lovely,’ she says, one hand suddenly touching mine. ‘Really.’ A sharp breath of hesitation. ‘And this is going to sound silly …’ She looks nervous, a fluttering injured bird. ‘But I’d rather you didn’t mention to David that we did this. The coffee. In fact, it’s probably easier if you don’t mention meeting me at all. He can be a bit funny about mixing work life and home life. He …’ She hunts for the word, ‘ compartmentalises . I wouldn’t want him to – well, it would just be easier if it wasn’t mentioned.’
‘Of course,’ I say, although I am surprised. She’s right, it does sound silly – not silly, in fact, but peculiar. David’s so relaxed and charming. Why would he care? And if he does, then what kind of marriage is that? I’d have thought he’d be happy she’d made a friend. In a strange way, though, I’m relieved. It’s probably better for me too, if he doesn’t know. He might think I’m some kind of crazy stalker if I breeze into work tomorrow and say I had coffee with his wife. It’s what I’d think.
She smiles, and I can see the relief flood through her as her shoulders relax and drop an inch, languid once more.
Once she’s gone and I’m heading back to the flat to face scrubbing the bathroom, I think it’s a good thing that I met her. I like her. I’m pretty sure I do anyway. She’s sweet without being sickly. She seems natural. Not at all as haughty as I expected from her photos. Maybe now that I know her I won’t find her husband so hot. Maybe I’ll be able to stop thinking about that kiss. I feel guilty all over again. She’s a nice woman. But I couldn’t exactly tell her, could I? Their marriage isn’t my business. I’ll probably never hear from her again anyway.