Behind her eyes, p.4
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       Behind Her Eyes, p.4

           Sarah Pinborough
 

  I’d stuck to the rule of one or two glasses, but David hadn’t, although he had stayed just to the right side of acceptably merry, until we got home, where he’d poured himself a very large brandy and drunk it quickly, probably hoping I wouldn’t notice. I did, but of course I didn’t say anything even though I’d have been well within my rights to do so.

  He was supposed to cut down on that as part of our ‘fresh start’. Even he knows that you can’t be a psychiatrist who specialises in addictions and obsessions if you have a drink problem yourself. But then, I guess only one of us was really trying with our fresh start.

  David is always in control in our marriage. He looks after me. Some, if they saw closely enough, would say he smothers me, and they’d be right, but there are times when I think I may be cleverer than he is. He’s hard against my back, and I move carefully, pressing against him, teasing myself, almost sliding him between my buttocks, squeezing him there and nudging him towards the illicit place where I like him best. Maybe sleeping he’ll be more conducive. It’s not to be, however, and he rolls away, onto his back, taking half the covers with him. He murmurs, soft and sweet, the fading echoes of his dream as he returns to the waking world, and I resist the urge to straddle him and kiss him and let all my passion out, and demand that he love me again.

  Instead, I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep until he gets up and pads out to the corridor and to the bathroom. After a moment the boiler cranks into life as the shower starts running. This hurts a bit. I can’t help it, however much I have a new resolve to be strong. We have an en-suite with a power shower in our bedroom, but he’s chosen to be further away from me, and I have a good idea why. What he’s doing in there. I teased him awake, and now, rather than having sex with me, he’s ‘taking care of himself’. It’s a stupid phrase, but I’ve never liked the word masturbation. So clinical. Wanking is better, but language of that ilk doesn’t suit me apparently, so I trained myself out of crudeness long ago and now it just sounds odd in my head.

  By the time he comes downstairs I have a pot of coffee made, and there are croissants warming. We smother each other in our own ways, and I know he’ll need something to soak up the dregs of the hangover he has. I turn away and fuss around the sink so he can get some ibuprofen from the cupboard without any silent judgement.

  ‘I’ve set the outside table,’ I say, all breezy and light, transferring the pastries to a plate. ‘It seems silly to waste such a beautiful morning.’ The back door is open and the air is warm even though it’s only just past nine thirty.

  He looks warily out through the window, and I can see he’s trying to spot where in the flower beds I buried the cat after he left me to deal with it and went out to get drunk and whatever else. He’s still thinking about it. I’m trying to put it in the past. He clings to things he can’t change, but what’s done is done whether we like it or not.

  ‘Okay,’ he says, and gives me a half-smile. ‘The fresh air will wake me up.’ He’s meeting me in the middle, perhaps as a reward for how well I did last night.

  We don’t say very much, but I enjoy our, for once amiable, quiet. I let my silk dressing gown slip so that the sun beats on a bare leg as I sip my coffee and eat my croissants, and then tilt my face back. At points I can feel him looking at me, and I know that he’s still drawn by my beauty. We are almost content in this instant. It won’t last – it can’t last – but for now I savour it. Perhaps all the more because of what might be to come.

  When we’re done I go and shower, taking my time and luxuriating in the hot water. The day is an empty landscape, but it has its own unspoken routine. David will work for a few hours and then maybe we’ll both go to the gym – an activity that we can pretend is something we do together, but of course is done alone – before home, dinner, and TV, and probably an early night.

  When I come downstairs he’s already in his study, and he calls me in. It’s a surprise. Normally, he wants to be left alone while he’s working, and I don’t mind that. He has patients’ information in there, and although he might drink too much, he is in all other regards consummately professional.

  ‘I’ve got some things for you,’ he says.

  ‘Oh.’ This is a divergence from our expected routine and I’m surprised. My heart sinks and hardens a little when the first thing he hands over is a packet of pills.

  ‘For your anxiety,’ he says. ‘I think these might be better than the others. One, three times a day. No side effects to worry about.’

  I take them. The name on the front means nothing to me, simply another word I can’t pronounce. ‘Of course,’ I say, dismayed. More pills. Always with the pills.

  ‘But I also got you these.’ He sounds hopeful, and I look up.

  A credit card and a mobile phone.

  ‘The card is linked to mine, but I thought it was time you had one again. The same with the phone.’

  It’s an old handset, no Internet I imagine and only basic functions, but my heart leaps. No more relying on David giving me a housekeeping allowance. No more sitting in the house for each scheduled phone call. My grin is one hundred per cent real.

  ‘Are you sure?’ I say, not ready to believe my luck. I can almost forget the first blow of the medication.

  ‘I’m sure.’ He smiles, for now glad to have made me happy. ‘A fresh start, remember?’

  ‘Fresh start,’ I repeat, and then before I know it, I’ve run to the other side of the desk and wrapped my arms, my hands still full, around his neck. Maybe he does mean it. Maybe he will try harder from now on.

  ‘Thank you, David,’ I whisper. I suck in the scent of him as he hugs me back. His warmth. The feel of his arms. The broadness of his slim chest beneath his soft thin sweater. My heart could explode at his closeness.

  When we break apart, I see the scribbled-on map he’s been looking at and the sheet of notes beside it. ‘What’s that?’ I ask, feigning interest. Continuing to be the good wife in this wonderful moment.

  ‘Oh, I’m thinking of doing some outreach work. Voluntary stuff. With a charity or something. I’m not sure yet. Part of why I thought you might need the phone.’ His eyes dart sideways at me, but I smile.

  ‘That’s a lovely idea,’ I say. ‘It really is.’

  ‘It means I might be out more. At the weekends and evenings. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.’

  He’s talking in short phrases, and I know from this that he’s uncomfortable. You learn little tells in a long marriage.

  ‘It’s fine,’ I say. ‘I think it’s a very kind thing.’

  ‘You mean that?’

  Now it’s his turn to be surprised. I’ve always liked him working as much as possible in the private sector. There’s a soothing sophistication about it, away from the grime and grit of hard living. I’ve pushed him for a Harley Street practice, where he belongs. Where there will be more time for us. He is brilliant. Everyone says so. He always has been, and he should be at the very top. But this suits me. It will suit both of us.

  ‘I was thinking of doing some redecorating anyway. It will be easier without you under my feet.’ I smile, making sure he knows I’m teasing. I don’t suggest that I get a job. Where would I start anyway? I haven’t had one in years and I certainly wouldn’t get a reference from there.

  ‘You’re a good man, David,’ I say, even though it’s hard and feels like a lie. ‘You really are.’

  The atmosphere stills then, a momentary heaviness in the room, and we both feel the past cement itself between us once more.

  ‘I’ll go and take one of these then,’ I say. ‘Leave you to it.’ I keep my smile up as I leave, pretending not to notice the sudden awkwardness, but even with the pills I have no intention of taking in one hand, I have a renewed spring in my step. A phone and a credit card. Today is like Christmas.

  9

  LOUISE

  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 S
ophie 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.

  ‘Bye son.’

  ‘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.

  ‘Mummy?’

  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?

  ‘But …’

  ‘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.

  ‘No.’

  ‘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.

 
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