Behind Her Eyes, p.5Sarah Pinborough
‘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
‘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.
I had forgotten what happiness feels like. For so long everything has been about David’s happiness – how to stop his dark moods, how to stop him drinking, how to make him love me – that somewhere in all that my own happiness dulled. Even having David has not been making me happy. And that is something I never thought was possible.
But now there are fireworks inside me. Bursts of colourful joy. Now I have Louise. A new secret. She’s funny and sharp. A breath of fresh air after the arid winds of endless doctors’ wives limited company. She’s prettier than she thinks, and for the sake of half a stone she’d have a wonderful figure. Not lean and boyish like me, but curvy and feminine. She’s tough too, laughing at events in her life that other people would want sympathy or pity for. She really is quite wonderful.
I only half look at the daubs of paint bar-coding the bedroom wall – various shades of green with suitably expensive names. Pale Eau de Nil, Vert de Terre, Tunsgate Green, Olive Smoke. None whose colour you could ever guess from the name alone. I like them all. Together in a line they could be leaves from trees in a wood. I can’t choose a winner though, my brain is too busy buzzing with all the things that Louise and I can do together to focus on decor.
Louise only works three days a week. That leaves plenty of time for girl things. The gym perhaps. Definitely. I can help her lose that little bit of extra flesh and tone up. Maybe get her to give up smoking. That would be good, and I can’t afford my hair and clothes to smell of cigarette smoke. That would betray us. David would know I had a new friend, and he wouldn’t like that.
We can drink wine in the garden together, or perhaps outside one of the little bistros on the Broadway, and talk and laugh like we did today. I want to know everything about her. I’m already fascinated by her. I’m lost in the imagined fun we’re going to have together.
I leave my tiny tins of paint and go and make a pot of peppermint tea. I push one of David’s pills down the kitchen sink plughole and run the tap to make sure it washes entirely away.
I take my tea out into the garden and the sunshine. It’s not long past lunchtime. I have some time before David’s next call and I want to enjoy having nothing to do but savour this wonderful feeling, and think and plan. I know Louise won’t tell David about our meeting. She isn’t like that. And she knows it wouldn’t do either of us any good.
It was so easy to meet her, thanks to the map David brought home from work, clearly marked up with her help and local knowledge. I navigated while we drove around the area on Sunday afternoon, visiting each of the locations marked down, seeing how the boutique shops petered out into pound shops and boarded-up fronts within the turn of a few streets. The underpasses that no one in their right mind but junkies would walk through. The cluster of tatty estate blocks only a mile or two away from our wonderful house. I also saw the primary school with the brightly coloured flowers painted on the walls. I read David’s scrawled note alongside the location.
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes