Behind Her Eyes, p.2Sarah Pinborough
‘I have a higher sex drive than he does,’ she says, eventually. ‘And sex isn’t what marriage is about anyway. It’s about being with your best friend. Jay’s my best friend. But we’ve been together fifteen years. Lust can’t maintain itself. I mean, we still do it, sometimes, but it’s not like it was. And having a child changes things. You spend so many years seeing each other as parents rather than lovers, it’s hard to get that passion back.’
I think of my own short-lived marriage. The lust didn’t die with us. But that didn’t stop him leaving after four years to be with someone else when our son was barely two years old. Maybe she has a point. I don’t think I ever saw my ex, Ian, as my best friend.
‘It just seems a bit sad to me.’ And it does.
‘That’s because you believe in true love and happy ever after in a fairy tale way. That’s not how life is.’
‘Do you think he’s ever cheated on you?’ I ask.
‘He’s definitely had his flirtations,’ she says. ‘There was a singer he worked with a long time ago. I think maybe they had a thing for a while. But whatever it was, it didn’t affect us. Not really.’
She makes it sound so reasonable. All I can think of is the pain of betrayal I felt when Ian left. How what he did affected how I saw myself. How worthless I felt in those early days. How ugly. The short-lived romance he left me for didn’t last either, but that didn’t make me feel better.
‘I don’t think I’ll ever understand it,’ I say.
‘Everyone has secrets, Lou,’ she says. ‘Everyone should be allowed their secrets. You can never know everything about a person. You’d go mad trying to.’
I wonder, after she’s left and I’m cleaning up the debris of our evening, if maybe Jay was the one who cheated first. Maybe that’s Sophie’s secret at the heart of her hotel-room trysts. Maybe it’s all done to make herself feel better or to quietly get even. Who knows? I’m probably over-thinking it. Over-thinking is my speciality. Each to their own, I remind myself. She seems happy and that’s good enough for me.
It’s only a little past ten thirty, but I’m exhausted, and I peer in at Adam for a minute, a soothing comfort to be found in watching his peaceful sleep, curled up tiny on his side under his Star Wars duvet, Paddington tucked under one arm, and then close the door and leave him to it.
It’s dark when I wake up in the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror, and before I’ve really registered where I am, I feel the sharp throb in my shin where I’ve walked into the small laundry basket in the corner. My heart races, and sweat clings to my hairline. As reality settles around me, the night terror shatters, leaving only fragments in my head. I know what it was though. Always the same dream.
A vast building, like an old hospital or orphanage. Abandoned. Adam is trapped somewhere inside it, and I know, I just know, that if I can’t get to him, then he’s going to die. He’s calling out for me, afraid. Something bad is coming for him. I’m running through corridors trying to reach him, and from the walls and ceilings the shadows stretch, as if they’re part of some terrible evil alive in the building, and wrap themselves around me, trapping me. All I can hear is Adam crying as I try to escape the dark, sticky strands determined to keep me from him, to choke me and drag me into the endless darkness. It’s a horrible dream. It clings to me like the shadows do in the nightmare itself. The details may change slightly from night to night, but the narrative is always the same. However many times I have it, I’ll never get used to it.
The night terrors didn’t start when Adam was born – I’ve always had them, but before him I would be fighting for my own survival. Looking back, that was better, even if I didn’t know it at the time. They’re the bane of my life. They kill my chances of a decent night’s sleep when being a single mum tires me out enough.
This time I’ve walked more than I’ve done in a while. Normally I wake up, confused, standing either by my own bed or Adam’s, often in the middle of a nonsensical, terrified sentence. It happens so often it doesn’t even bother him if he wakes up any more. But then he’s got his father’s practicality. Thankfully, he’s my sense of humour.
I put the light on, look into the mirror, and groan. Dark circles drag the skin under my eyes down, and I know foundation isn’t going to cover them. Not in full daylight. Oh good. I remind myself that it doesn’t matter what the-man-from-the-bar aka oh-crap-he’s-my-new-married-boss thinks of me. Hopefully, he’ll be feeling embarrassed enough to ignore me all day. My stomach still clenches though, and my head thumps from too much wine and too many cigarettes. Woman up, I tell myself. It’ll all be forgotten in a day or so. Just go in and do your job.
It’s only four in the morning, and I drink some water, then turn the light out and creep back to my own bed hoping at least to doze until the alarm goes off at six. I refuse to think about the way his mouth felt on mine and how good it was, if only briefly, to have that surge of desire. To feel that connection with someone. I stare at the wall and contemplate counting sheep, and then I realise that under my nerves I’m also excited to see him again. I grit my teeth and curse myself as an idiot. I am not that woman.
I wave him off with a smile as he leaves for his first proper day at the clinic, and the elderly lady next door looks on approvingly as she takes her small, equally frail dog out for his walk. We always appear such a perfect couple, David and I. I like that.
Still, I let out a sigh of relief when I close the door and have the house to myself, even though that exhalation feels like a small betrayal. I love having David here with me, but we’re not yet back on whatever even ground we’ve created for ourselves, and the atmosphere is full of everything unsaid. Thankfully, the new house is big enough that he can hide in his study and we can pretend everything is fine as we cautiously move around each other.
I do, however, feel slightly better than I did when he came home drunk. We didn’t discuss it the next morning, of course; discussion is not something we do these days. Instead, I left him to his papers and went to sign us both up at the local health club, which is suitably expensive, and then walked around our new chic area, absorbing it all. I like to lock locations in place. To be able to see them. It makes me feel more comfortable. It helps me relax.
I walked for nearly two hours, mentally logging shops and bars and restaurants until I had them safely stored in my head, their images summonable at will, and then I bought some bread from the local artisan bakery, and some olives, sliced ham, hummus, and sun-dried tomatoes from the deli – all of which were decadently expensive and drained my housekeeping cash – and made us an indoor picnic for lunch, even though it was warm enough to sit outside. I don’t think he wants to go into the garden yet.
Yesterday we went to the clinic, and I charmed the senior partner Dr Sykes, and the various other doctors and nurses we met. People respond to beauty. It sounds vain, but it’s true. David once told me that jurors were far more likely to believe good-looking people in the dock than average or ugly ones. It’s only the luck of skin and bones, but I’ve learned that it does have a magic. You don’t even have to say very much, but simply listen and smile, and people bend over backwards for you. I have enjoyed being beautiful. To say anything else would be a lie. I work hard to keep myself beautiful for David. Everything I do is for him.
David’s new office is the second largest in the building from what I could see, the sort I would expect him to have if he’d ever take up a position in Harley Street. The carpet is cream and plush, the large desk is suitably ostentatious, and outside is a very luxurious reception area. The blonde and attractive – if you like that sort of thing – woman behind that desk scurried away before we could be introduced, which annoyed me – but Dr Sykes barely seemed to notice as he talked at me and blushed when I laughed at his terrible half-jokes. I think I did very well given how much my heart was aching. David must have been pleased too, because he softened a little after that.
We are having dinner at Dr Sykes’ h
I look up at the clock whose tick cuts through the vast silence in the house. It’s still only eight a.m. He’s probably just getting to the office now. He won’t make his first call home until eleven thirty. I have time. I go up to our bedroom and lie on top of the covers. I’m not going to sleep. But I do close my eyes. I think about the clinic. David’s office. That plush cream carpet. The polished mahogany of his desk. The tiny scratch on the corner. The two slim couches. Firm seats. The details. I take a deep breath.
‘You look lovely today,’ Sue says, almost surprised, as I take off my coat and hang it in the staffroom. Adam said the same thing – in the same tone – his small face mildly confused by my silk blouse, new to me from the charity shop, and straightened hair as I shoved toast into his hand before we left for school this morning. Oh God, I’ve made an obvious effort, and I know it. But it’s not for him. If anything it’s against him. War paint. Something to hide behind. Also, I couldn’t get back to sleep and I needed something to do.
Normally, on mornings like this, I’d take Adam to breakfast club and then be first at the clinic and have everyone’s coffee on before they got in. But today, was, of course, one of those days when Adam woke up grumpy and whining about everything, and then couldn’t find his left shoe, and then even though I’d been ready for ages, it was still an irritated rush to get to the school gates on time.
My palms are sweating and I feel a bit sick as I smile. I also smoked three cigarettes on the walk from the school to the clinic. Normally I try not to have any until coffee break time. Well, I say normally. In my head I don’t have any until coffee, in reality I’ve usually smoked one on my way in.
‘Thanks. Adam’s at his dad’s this weekend so I might go for a drink after work.’ I might need a drink after work. I make a note to text Sophie and see if she wants to meet. Of course she will. She’ll be itching to see how this comedy of errors turns out. I try and make it sound casual, but my voice sounds funny to me. I need to pull myself together. I’m being ridiculous. It’s going to be way worse for him than it is for me. I’m not the married one. The pep talk sentences may be true, but they don’t change the fact that I don’t do these things. This is not normal for me like maybe it is for Sophie, and I feel totally sick. I’m a mess of jittering emotions that can’t settle on one thing. This situation may not be my fault, but I feel cheap and stupid and guilty and angry. The first moment of potential romance I’ve had in what feels like for ever and it was fool’s gold. And yet, despite all that, and the memory of his beautiful wife, I also have a nugget of excitement at the prospect of seeing him again. I’m like a ditzy, dithering teenager.
‘They’re all in a meeting until 10.30, or so Elaine upstairs tells me,’ she says. ‘We can relax.’ She opens her bag. ‘And I didn’t forget it was my turn.’ She pulls out two greasy paper bags. ‘Friday bacon butties.’
I’m so relieved that I’ve got a couple of hours’ reprieve, that I take it happily, even though it’s an indication of how mind-numbing my life routine is that this Friday breakfast is a highlight of my week. But still, it is bacon. Some parts of a routine are less demoralising than others. I take a large bite, enjoying the buttery warm bread and salty meat. I’m a nervous eater. Actually, I’m an eater whatever my mood. Nervous eating, comfort eating, happy eating. It’s all the same. Other people get divorced and lose a stone. It worked the other way for me.
We don’t officially start work for another twenty minutes, so we sit at the small table with mugs of tea, and Sue tells me about her husband’s arthritis and the gay couple next door to their house who seem to be constantly having sex, and I smile and let it wash over me and try not to jump every time I see someone’s shadow fall across the doorway from the corridor.
I don’t see the ketchup drop until it’s too late and there’s a bright red dollop on my cream blouse right on my chest. Sue is there immediately, fussing and dabbing at it with tissues and then a damp cloth, but all she achieves is to make a great chunk of the material see-through and there’s still a pale outline of washed-out red. My face is over-heating, and the silk clings to my back. This is the precursor for the rest of the day. I can feel it.
I laugh away her well-meaning attempts to clean me up and go to the toilet and try and get as much of my shirt under the hand dryer as possible. It doesn’t dry it totally, but at least the lace trim of my bra – slightly grey from the wash – is no longer visible. Small mercies.
I have to laugh at myself. Who am I kidding? I can’t do this. I’m more at home discussing the latest storyline of Rescue Bots or Horrid Henry with Adam than trying to look like a modern, sophisticated woman. My feet are already aching in my two-inch heels. I always thought it was something you grew into, that ability to walk perfectly in high heels and always dress well. As it turns out – for me anyway – there was a small phase of that in the nightclubbing years of my twenties, and now it’s mainly jeans and jumpers and Converse with a ponytail, accessorised with life-envy of those who can still be bothered to make the effort. Life-envy of those with a reason to make the effort.
I bet she wears high heels, I think as I adjust my clothes. More fool me for not sticking with trousers and flats.
The phones are quiet this morning, and I distract myself from the clock ticking steadily around to ten thirty by highlighting the case files on the system for Monday’s appointments, and making a list of those coming up in the rest of the week. For some – the more complex cases – he already has copies of their notes, but I want to be seen as efficient, so I make sure the full list is found. Then I print out the various emails that I think might be valuable or important or forgotten by the management, and then also print out and laminate a list of contact numbers for the hospital and police and various other organisations that he might need. It’s actually quite calming. The-man-from-the-bar is fading in my head and being replaced with my-boss, even if his face is mashing up rather alarmingly with old Dr Cadigan, who he’s replaced.
At ten, I go and put the print-outs on his desk and turn the coffee machine on in the corner so there will be a fresh pot waiting. I check that the cleaners have put fresh milk in the small fridge hidden in a cabinet like a hotel mini-bar, and that there’s sugar in the bowl. After that, I can’t help but look at the silver-framed photos on his desk. There are three. Two of his wife standing alone, and an old one of them together. This one draws me in and I pick up it. He looks so different. So young. He can only be maybe early twenties at most. They’re sitting on a large kitchen table and have their arms wrapped around each other and are laughing at something. They look so happy, both so young and carefree. His eyes are locked on her as if she’s the most important thing on the whole planet. Her hair is long, but not pulled back in a bun as it is in the other pictures, and even in jeans and a T-shirt she’s effortlessly beautiful. My stomach knots. I bet she never drops ketchup on her top.
I’m so startled when I hear the slight Scottish brogue that I almost drop the photo, and I struggle to straighten it on the desk, nearly unbalancing the neat pile of papers and sending them tumbling to the floor. He’s standing in the doorway, and I immediately want to throw up my bacon roll. Oh God, I’d forgotten how good-looking he is. Almost-blond hair with a shine I’d kill for on my own. Long enough at the front to be able to run your fingers through it, but still smart. Blue eyes that go right through you. Skin you just want to touch. I swallow hard. He’s one of those men. A breathtaking man. My face is burning.
‘You’re supposed to be in a meeting until ten thirty,’ I say, wishing a hole would open in the carpet and suck me down to shame hell. I’m in his office looking at pictures of his wife like some kind of stalker. Oh God.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘it was really nothing and we were drunk and got carried away and it was only a kiss, and, trust me, I have no intention of telling anyone about it, and I think if we both do our best to forget it ever happened then there’s no reason we can’t just get along and no one will ever know …’ The words are coming out in a gibbering rush and I can’t stop them. I can feel sweat trapped under my foundation as I fluster and overheat.
‘But’ – he’s looking somewhere between confused and alarmed as he quickly closes the door behind him and I can’t blame him – ‘what are you doing here?’
‘Oh.’ In all my rambling, I’ve forgotten to say the obvious. ‘I’m your secretary and receptionist. Three days a week, anyway. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. I was putting some things on your desk and I saw …’ I nod to the pictures. ‘I, well …’ The sentence drains away. I can hardly say I was having a really close look at you and your beautiful wife like a crazy lady would.
‘You’re my secretary?’ He looks as if he’s been punched hard in the guts. ‘You are?’ Maybe not his guts. Maybe somewhere lower. I actually feel a bit sorry for him.
‘I know.’ I shrug, and pull some no doubt godawful comedy face. ‘What are the odds?’
‘There was another woman here when I came in last month to talk to Dr Cadigan. Not you.’
‘Older, slightly uptight-looking? That would be Maria. She does the other two days. She’s semi-retired now, but she’s been here for ever, and Dr Sykes loves her.’
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes