Behind her eyes, p.7
Behind Her Eyes, p.7Sarah Pinborough
As the door closes behind them, I see Mrs Hawkins’ shoulders sag as her facade of false strength falls away, and I feel sorry for her. Whatever Anthony has or hasn’t done it’s taken its toll on his parents, and not so long ago he was just a little boy like Adam. In his mother’s eyes, he probably still is. I make them both a cup of tea – in clients’ china, not staff mugs – and tell them that Dr Martin is very well respected. I don’t go as far as to say he’ll help their son – we can’t give promises – but I wanted to say something, and I can see the gratitude in the other woman’s eyes, as if she were hugging my words to her chest for reassurance.
The uncertainty of the world makes me think of Adam, and in a moment of maternal paranoia, suddenly worried that perhaps there’s been a problem at school or at after-school club and the clinic lines have been busy, I rummage in my bag and check my mobile, but there are no missed calls – all is, of course, routinely well – but I do have a text. It’s from Adele. Oh shit. Why didn’t I tell him?
If you’re not working tomorrow, do you want to do something? Thought we could go to the gym? They have a sauna and pool so might be relaxing. I can get you a day pass. Be nice to have the company! A x
I stare at it. Shit. What the fuck do I do now? I didn’t expect her to ever get in touch. My fingers hover over the keys. Maybe I should ignore it. I probably should ignore it. But that would be rude, and then I’d feel awkward around both of them. Shit, shit, shit. I almost text Sophie to ask her advice, and then don’t. I know what she’ll say, and if I tell her about being friends with Adele I can’t untell her, and she’s going to want to know what happens next. I don’t want my life to be entertainment for hers.
I re-read the text. I should answer it. I should say yes. I mean, the David thing was only one drunken fumble, over and done with. A stupid mistake on both parts. Maybe Adele could be a new friend. I feel like she needs me. She’s definitely lonely. That was coming off her in waves yesterday. And she’s not the only one, even though I hate to admit it. I’m lonely too – and terrified that this is it for the foreseeable future of my life. The weeks all melting into one.
Adele and I are both lonely, and however glamorous and charismatic she is, God knows what their marriage is like if he goes out, gets drunk, and snogs other women. He said it wasn’t what he normally does, but they all say that, don’t they? And what else could he say? We’ve got to work together, which is something neither of us was expecting at the time. And yeah, he was lovely the other day, but he’s been horrible today. Maybe he was being nice to get me to stay quiet about everything with Dr Sykes? Thinking about it, I should be on Adele’s side in this. I know how it feels to live with a cheating man. I know how that revelation broke me, and I hate that now I’ve been the potential cause of a pain like that.
I may not know her well, but Adele is sweet. I like her. And it’s nice to have someone texting me to do something rather than the other way around. I should meet her. It’s polite. And if we get on, then I’ll tell David afterwards. I’ll say I was going to tell him we’d met, but he was so snappy that I didn’t. It’s a good solution. I feel better already.
I only have one reservation. Why couldn’t she have suggested lunch and a glass of wine somewhere? The thought of the gym makes me want to hide. I haven’t done any exercise in ages other than run around after Adam, and he’s six now so there’s not even so much of that any more. Adele is so obviously in shape, I can only shame myself next to her. I’m not even sure I’ve got any good gym clothes. None that fit anyway.
I’m about to make up some flimsy excuse and chicken out, but then I pause. I remember my tipsy self-pitying resolve at the weekend to lose the pounds while Adam is away. To get myself a life. I’m texting before I have time to stop myself.
Sure, but I’m very unfit so don’t laugh at me!
I feel quite pleased with myself. Sod David. I’m not doing anything wrong. The answer comes back straight away.
Great! Give me your address and I’ll pick you up. Around midday?
The idea of gorgeous Adele in my flat makes my stomach clench almost more than the thought of the gym.
I can meet you there? I respond.
Don’t be silly! I’ll have the car.
With no way out, I wearily type in my address, and make a mental note to tidy up and hoover tonight. It’s stupid of course. I’m a single mother living in London – Adele must know I don’t live in a mansion – but I know I’ll feel embarrassed. Probably not as embarrassed as I will at the gym, but hey, it’ll all be a test of whether this new friendship has legs, and it will also serve as a final nail in the coffin of this not-thing that is me and David. It’s one day. It’ll be fine, I tell myself. What can really go wrong?
The Hawkins meeting overruns by half an hour, but when Anthony finally comes out of the office, he is calmer. He’s still twitchy, but there’s a definite relaxing about him. As David talks to his family and sees them out, Anthony keeps glancing up at him. Awkward admiration shines from his face even though he’s trying to hide it in front of his parents. I wonder what David said to him to make him open up so quickly. But then I remind myself, bristling a bit, of how I felt in that bar. He makes you feel special. I’ve been there. I get it. Me and Anthony are both suckers for it, by the looks of things.
I pretend to be typing a letter when he comes to the desk, and although he seems calmer too, as if a day of dealing with other people’s problems has smoothed out his own, I keep my expression cool. I don’t know why I’ve let him rile me. And I wish he didn’t still make me feel nervous and tingly. I’m so clumsy when he’s close to me.
‘I’ve booked Anthony Hawkins in for another session on Friday,’ he says. ‘The same time, three forty-five. It’s on the system.’
I nod. ‘Shall I charge for the extra half an hour he’s had today?’
‘No, that’s my fault. I didn’t want to stop him once he started talking.’
What would Dr Sykes make of that? David might want to do some charity work, but this is far from a charity business. I let it go. It’s a nice thing he’s done, and that confuses me slightly. He’s a man of contradictions.
He starts to go back to his office, and then turns and strides back, quickly.
‘Look, Louise, I’m really sorry about being so rude this morning,’ he says. ‘I was in a shitty mood and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.’
He looks so earnest. I try to stay aloof.
‘No, you shouldn’t have,’ I say. ‘But I’m just your secretary so it really doesn’t matter.’
The words come out colder than I intended, and he recoils slightly. I drop my gaze to my work as my heart thrums against my chest. Uncomfortable sweat prickles in my palms.
‘Well, I wanted to apologise.’ The softness has gone from his voice, and then he’s heading away from me. I almost call him back, immediately regretting my surliness, and thinking how stupid it is when we should be friends, and then I remember I’m meeting Adele tomorrow, and I’m trapped in that secret that I haven’t told him yet. Should I tell him now? I stare at his closed door. No, I think. I’ll stick to my plan. If it looks like Adele’s friendship is going to be a regular thing, then I’ll tell him.
I need a coffee. I need something stronger, but a coffee will have to do for now. How has my life got so complicated?
‘Oh God, this feels good. I could stay in here for ever.’ Beside me, Louise rests her head back against the wood and lets out a contented sigh. We’re sitting on the top step of the steam room, engulfed in scented mist, our skin slick with drops of water and sweat.
‘I can never manage more than ten minutes or so,’ I say. ‘You must like the heat.’ It is lovely though, all the tension melting away as my body has no choice but to relax. It’s been a great couple of hours. Louise was sweetly awkward when I got to her flat, and I could tell she didn’t really want me to come in – she had her bag ready by the door – but I insisted on a guided tour.
‘This is the closest I’m getting to a holiday this year,’ she murmurs with a half-laugh.
I’ve closed my eyes too, mentally checking my catalogue of the rooms of her home. The sitting room; one TV, a cream sofa with a beige throw covering the old cushions, a small cigarette burn on the left arm. Blue carpet. Hard-wearing. Child-proof. The main bedroom. Small, but enough space for a double bed. Feature wallpaper behind the bed. White built-in wardrobe. White chest of drawers with a cluttered surface of make-up. A tangle of cheap jewellery overflowing from a small bag – the kind that probably came free with a face cream or in a gift set. A dressing gown hooked on the back of the door – once a fluffy white, now rough and tired from too many washes and with coffee or tea stains on the sleeves.
I’ve learned to be good at taking in the details. The details are important when you need to see a place. It’s a compact flat. Adam’s room – I didn’t study that one so hard – is much smaller and more colourfully crowded, but it’s certainly homely. Lived in.
‘Also,’ Louise continues, and I pay attention, now I’m sure I have everything securely logged in my head, ‘this sitting still business is always preferable to the gym. I’m going to ache tomorrow.’
‘You’ll feel better for it though,’ I add.
‘I do already I think,’ she says. ‘Thanks for helping me. And not laughing.’ I feel a surge of affection for her. She did quite well, all things considered. She tried, at any rate. I hadn’t run as fast or as long as usual, but I didn’t want to put her off. Today was about getting Louise into the idea of the gym rather than my own workout, and after spending nearly all day lying on my bed yesterday my joints were stiff and it was good to be moving, even if it wasn’t that strenuous. We’d done some light cardio and then I’d shown her around the various weight machines, and she valiantly tried them all as I designed a few circuits for her that would keep her muscles curious.
‘You know, I’d like a regular gym buddy,’ I say, as if it’s the first time the thought has occurred to me. ‘Why don’t you come with me on the days you’re not working?’ I pause, and drop my head and my voice. ‘And on a weekend if I come on my own. You know, without David.’
She glances at me then, a mixture of concern and curiosity, but she doesn’t ask why the secrecy. I know she won’t. We’re not close enough for that.
‘That would be nice,’ she says after a moment. ‘It’s going to be a long month. Adam’s going to France with his father. I know it will be great for him and everything, and it probably sounds stupid because he exhausts me most of the time and I should want to kill for the chance of a month to myself, but I’m feeling a bit lost already.’ It comes out in a rush. ‘It’s the end of term at lunchtime tomorrow and then his father is picking him up at five thirty. It’s all been organised so fast, I haven’t really got my head around it.’ She sits up suddenly then, eyes wide with a realisation. ‘Oh crap. I meant to ask for a day’s holiday and I totally forgot. I’ll have to call them and beg.’
‘Relax,’ I say. Of course she forgot. She’s had other things on her mind. ‘Call in sick. Why lose a day’s pay?’
Her face clouds over. ‘I’m not sure.’ She glances at me. ‘Your husband was in a foul mood yesterday, I don’t want to add to it.’
I look down at my knees. ‘He can be that way,’ I say, almost awkwardly, before lifting my head and giving her a soft smile. ‘But you calling in sick isn’t going to change that. And it’s one day. It means a lot to you but it won’t mean anything to them.’
‘True,’ she says. ‘Maybe I will.’
We sit quietly for a moment, and then she asks, ‘How long have you been married?’
It’s an innocuous question. In an ordinary friendship she’d have asked it before now, but of course what Louise and I have isn’t ordinary.
‘Ten years,’ I say. ‘Since I was eighteen. I loved him from the moment I set eyes on him. He was the one. I knew it.’
‘That’s very young,’ she says.
‘Maybe. I guess. You know he saved my life?’
‘He did what?’ Despite the drowsy heat, she’s fully attentive now. ‘Are you talking literally or metaphorically?’
‘Literally. It was the night my parents died.’
‘Oh God, I’m so sorry.’ She looks very young, her wet blonde curls pushed away from her face and dripping onto her shoulders, and I think when she’s lost half a stone or so, her bone structure is going to be to die for.
‘It’s fine; it was a long time ago.’
‘I don’t actually remember anything about that night at all. I was seventeen, nearly eighteen. I was asleep at my parents’ house on their estate in Perthshire.’
‘Your parents had an estate? Like a proper country estate?’
‘Yep. Fairdale House it was called.’ I can feel myself becoming even more fascinating to Louise: a beautiful, damaged princess. ‘I did say I didn’t really need to get a job. Anyway,’ I shrug as if embarrassed, ‘my bedroom wasn’t too close to theirs. We liked our own space. At least, they did. They loved me, but they weren’t exactly loving, if that makes any sense. And once I was old enough, the space between us was good. It meant I could play music as loudly as I wanted and I could sneak David into the house at night without them knowing, so it worked.’
‘And?’ She’s listening, rapt, but I know she wants to get to the meat of the story – David. I’m happy with that. I don’t have any details of the fire anyway. It’s all second-hand.
‘The long and short of it is that my parents had had some people over, and the investigators think they were both quite drunk after their guests left. At some point in the night, a fire started and really took hold. By the time David broke in at about 2 a.m., got to my bedroom and dragged me out, it had spread throughout one half of the building. The half we mainly lived in. I was unconscious. My lungs were smoke damaged and David had third degree burns on his arm and shoulder. He had to have skin grafts. I think that was partly why he went into psychiatry rather than surgery. His nerves are damaged. Despite the burns, he still tried to go back for my parents, but it was impossible. If it weren’t for him, I’d be dead too.’
‘Wow,’ she says. ‘That’s amazing. I mean terrible, obviously, but also kind of amazing.’ She pauses. ‘What was he doing there in the middle of the night?’
‘He couldn’t sleep and wanted to see me. He was going back to uni a few days later. Just lucky, I guess. Anyway, I try not to think of all that too often.’
She’s lost in the story still, and I think it must sting a bit. Make her feel second best. Perhaps she’s used to feeling second best. Even if she doesn’t know it, she has a natural shine, and people always like to dampen that. I fully intend to polish it back up.
‘I’m going to go and cool off in the pool for a minute,’ I say. All this talk of fire has made the steam unbearable. ‘How about we grab a salad from the restaurant afterwards? They’re lovely. Healthy and tasty.’
‘Sure,’ she says. ‘At this rate you’ll have me back in my size ten jeans before I know it.’
‘And why not?’
‘Yeah, why not?’
She gives me an enthusiastic grin as I head out into the blissfully cool air, and I feel happy. I like her. I really do.
I kick hard and fast in the water that’s deliciously cold on my skin, and as my stroke slices through in long, lean lengths, I get some of the workout I’ve missed. I need the rush that comes with it. I love the rush.
We’re headed to the cafe, fresh-faced and hair dried, when I glance up at the clock on the wall. It’s two o’clock.
‘Is that the time? Hang on,’ I say, in a sudden panic, and squat to rummage through my bag.
‘You okay?’ Louise asks. ‘Did you leave something in the changing room?’
‘No, it’s not that,’ I frown, distracted
‘Well, I don’t—’ she starts, clearly not keen on being in my house – David’s house – but I cut her off.
‘I’ll drop you home after.’ I smile again, trying to be dazzling and brilliant and beautiful. ‘It’ll be fun.’
‘Okay,’ she says, after a moment, even though she’s still perplexed. ‘Let’s do that then. But I can’t stay long.’
I do like her. Strong, warm, funny.
And also easily led.
I try to make conversation in the car, telling her I can only stay an hour or so because Adam gets dropped home from after-school games at five and so I need to be back by 4.30, latest, but she’s not listening. She mutters the right sounds, but she keeps looking at the clock on the dashboard while driving too fast for the tight London roads. Why is she in such a hurry? What important call is she going to miss? Her brow is tight furrows of worry. Only when we’re through the front door does she relax. Which is ironic, because the act of stepping over the threshold makes me feel slightly sick. I shouldn’t be here. Not at all.
‘Ten minutes to spare,’ she says, smiling. ‘Come through.’
It’s a beautiful home. Absolutely gorgeous. Wooden floors – thick, rich oak slabs, not cheap laminate – stretch the length of the hallway, and the stairs rise elegantly to one side. It’s a house you can breathe in. The air is cool, the brick walls old and solid. This house has stood for over a century and will easily stand for a century more.
I peer into one room and see it’s a study. A desk by the window. A filing cabinet. A wing-backed chair. Books lining the shelves, all thick hardbacks, no holiday reads there. Then there’s a beautiful sitting room, stylish but not cluttered. Light and airy. And everything is pristine. My heart is thumping so hard it makes my head throb. I feel like an interloper. What would David think if he knew I’d been here? It’s one thing having coffee with his wife, but another to be in his house. Maybe he’d think both were equally crazy. Adele would too if she knew about what happened with David. She’d hate herself for inviting me into her home. She’d hate me. The worst part is that here, where I feel most out of place, I have a pang for the man-in-the-bar. I don’t want him to hate me. I’m going to have to tell him. I’m going to have to come clean.
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes