Behind Her Eyes, p.9Sarah Pinborough
‘It was a headache. I’m feeling better now.’
‘Can I come in?’
My heart races and I’m blushing. I look like shit. Not that it should matter. It doesn’t matter. I also feel like I’ve been caught out with my lie to work, and under all of that is the stupid secret I’ve got myself trapped in. Hey, I’m friends with your wife!
‘Sure.’ I step aside, and only then do I realise that he’s not exactly sober himself. He’s not steaming drunk, but there’s a vagueness in his eyes, and he’s not as sure on his feet as he should be. He loiters in the kitchen and I send him through to the sitting room while I get another glass and a fresh bottle from the fridge and then join him. The notebook Adele gave me yesterday is on the side table by the sofa, and as I sit down I quickly slip it onto the floor where he can’t see it. I feel a bit sick. What the hell is he doing here anyway? Am I getting fired? What mood is he in?
He’s sitting on the edge of the sofa, out of place in the mess of my life, and I remember the space and neatness of his home, and shrivel a bit. There’s dust on the TV where I haven’t wiped it down in for ever, and the constant whirlwind of Adam is still evident in the abandoned toys and tangled games console in one corner. I hand him the glass and fresh bottle while filling up my glass with the dregs of the one I’ve already nearly finished. I’m going to have a hangover at work tomorrow, but I suspect I’m not going to be the only one. And it will be Friday and at least I don’t have to worry about getting Adam up for school. That makes me feel empty, and I drink some more.
‘How did you know where I lived?’ It feels weird sitting next to him like this. My whole body feels electrified, betraying me even as I try to stay cool.
‘I was worried it was my fault that you didn’t come in.’ He doesn’t look at me. ‘You know, because I was so shitty to you. They said you never take sick days.’
That part’s true. It’s a good job, and close to home. I’d rather drag myself in with flu than risk losing it, and it’s a wonderful break from school mums and children. Adult company three days a week. I feel guilty for pulling a sickie. I should have been honest, but Adele made it seem so reasonable, and to be fair it’s not like everyone else in the country doesn’t do it sometimes.
‘I got your address and phone number from your file, but I thought if I called you’d hang up.’ He looks at me sideways; defensive, sad and drunk. Gorgeous. The kind of man you want to heal. The kind of man you want to heal you. Who is he anyway? Why does he even care about my day off? And why would I hang up on my boss? I think of the pill cupboard and the phone calls and Adele’s sweet smile. Is he trying to control me too? Or is that just my mind seeing suspicious behaviour in all men because I’m angry with Ian for being happy with someone else? Ugh, I hate my over-thinking.
‘You should probably go home,’ I say.
He frowns and looks around, as if he’s suddenly noticed something missing. ‘Is your son in bed?’
‘No. He’s away with his father for a month. They left today.’ I take another long swallow of wine even though my head is already swimming slightly, in spite of the surge of adrenaline at David’s arrival.
‘Ah,’ he says. He might be a bit drunk but he’s not stupid, and I can see the penny of my sick day dropping. Still, not much he can really do about it now, unless he wants to tell Dr Sykes that he was in my flat and drinking, and that would definitely sound odd.
‘It must be nice to have a family.’
‘I had a family,’ I say, and I sound more bitter than I intend. Lisa’s pregnant. ‘Now I’m a single mum in London, where it’s always so easy to make new friends in your thirties. Or not.’ I hold my glass up. ‘Living the rock and roll lifestyle. Anyway,’ I add, ‘you could have children. You’re both young enough.’ I say this almost aggressively – a firm reminder that he’s married. A reminder to me as much as to him. To my body that can’t settle while so close to him.
He drains his wine quickly and pours himself some more, and even in my own far from sober state I think he’s a little too expert about it. Is this part of their problems? His drinking? How often does he get like this?
‘I wonder if it was fate,’ he says. ‘Us meeting in that bar.’
I almost laugh out loud, but instead it’s a weary giggle. ‘I think it was simply bad luck.’
He looks at me then, properly looks at me, right in the eyes, and he doesn’t seem to notice that my hair is a mess and I’ve got no make-up on and I basically look like shit.
‘Is that how you see it?’
My stomach fizzes slightly. I can’t help it. He does something to me. It’s like my brain gets put in a box and my body takes control. ‘Well, all things considered, it didn’t turn out great for me. I finally meet a man I actually like and he’s married.’ It’s flirtatious. A half-drunk half-opening of the door. I could have said it was a mistake and it would never happen again. I should have. But I didn’t.
‘I hadn’t felt that relaxed with someone in a long time,’ he says. ‘We really laughed, didn’t we? People should be able to make each other laugh. That should always last whatever else happens.’
It makes me think about what Sophie said about being best friends with your husband, and I feel sad and lost. What does he want from me?
‘This flat is so cosy. It feels lived in.’ He catches sight of my embarrassment. ‘You know what I mean. A family lives here.’
‘I think the word you’re looking for is messy.’
‘I keep thinking about you.’
He says it with such regret, but my heart still leaps. He thinks about me. I immediately wonder how often and when and what it is he thinks, and all the time my conscience is whispering You know his wife, you like his wife, and He has strange mood swings and his marriage is weird. But still my stomach tightens and I feel a rush of warmth and longing.
‘I’m nothing to write home about,’ I say, as every nerve tingles and I feel awkward beside him. ‘Your wife is very beautiful.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Yes she is.’ He drinks more wine and so do I. Where is this leading? Is this leading where I think it’s leading? I should make him leave, I know I should, but instead I sit there and swallow hard, my whole body a fluttering of nerves. ‘But you are …’ he looks at me then and I want to melt. ‘But you are lovely.’
‘How long have you been together?’ I need to calm this down. I need to calm me down. I should tell him that I know her. I should, but I don’t. That would be the end of it, whatever it is, and I just can’t do that yet. It’s not as if anything’s happening.
‘A long time,’ he says and stares at his feet. ‘Forever really.’
I think about how she told their story. How he saved her from the fire. Why aren’t I seeing that love for her here? But then, why would he show that to me? ‘Is she a doctor too?’ I ask. Lies and truths and tests.
‘No. No, she’s not. I’m not sure what she is. But she doesn’t work.’ He still doesn’t look at me, but swirls his wine around in his glass before taking another long drink. ‘And she hasn’t made me laugh in a long time.’ He looks at me then, and his face is so close to mine I think my heart is going to burst out of my chest.
‘Then why stay?’ The words are such a betrayal of Adele, but I want to push him. To see if he’ll snap or be filled with remorse and leave or something. Whatever resolve I had is crumbling. If he stays here much longer I’m going to make a fool of myself again. ‘If you’re unhappy then maybe you should separate,’ I say. ‘It’s not so hard once you do it.’
He barks out a short laugh as if that’s the craziest thing he’s heard all day, in a day filled with listening to crazy thoughts, and then he’s silent for a while, staring into his glass. Who is this man he hides beneath the charm and wit? Why this drunk moroseness?
‘I don’t want to talk about my marriage,’ he says, eventually. ‘I don’t want to think about my marriage.’ He touches my hair then, a loose strand wrapping itself around his finger, and I feel as if someone
‘I need to …’ I nod, embarrassed, towards the corridor, and then get up and go to the bathroom.
I use the toilet and splash water on my face. I can’t do this. I can’t. Even as I’m thinking that, I quickly wash myself and thank God that I shaved my legs and waxed my bikini line before the gym trip with Adele. I’m drunk. I’m not thinking straight. I will hate myself in the morning. I’m thinking all these things, but there’s a rush of white noise and drunken lust drowning them out. Adam’s gone for a month. Lisa’s pregnant. Why can’t I have this one thing? My face is flushed in the mirror.
Just tonight, I tell myself. It will never happen again. He might even have gone home already. Realised the error of coming here and gone back to his perfect house and perfect wife. That would be good, I think, even as my body calls that thought out as a lie. I can’t do this. I shouldn’t do this.
When I open the door he’s standing outside waiting for me, and before I can say anything, he’s pulling me close and his mouth is on mine and electricity rushes from my toes to my scalp. I think I mutter that we should stop, but at the same time I’m tugging at his clothes and we’re stumbling, drunk, towards the bedroom. I need to do this once. And then it’ll be out of my system. It has to be.
Afterwards, when we’ve got our breath back and we don’t know quite how to be with each other, he goes for a quick shower while I pull on my tatty dressing gown and go and clear up the wine glasses and bottles in the sitting room. I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know how I should feel. My head hurts, and the sex and wine have combined to make me drunker than I should be. He’s washing me off.
I try not to think of Adele waiting for him at home with something home-cooked in the oven. My skin still tingles with the feel of him even though my heart feels hollow. It’s been so long it’s as if my body’s just woken up. It wasn’t great sex – we were both too drunk for that – but it was close and warm, and he watched me while we fucked, really looked at me, and he was the man-from-the-bar, not my-boss-Adele’s-husband, and I didn’t let my eyes or hands linger on the scars he got saving his wife from a fire.
When he comes into the kitchen, he’s dressed and he can’t quite meet my eyes. I feel cheap. I deserve to. He’s showered without getting his hair wet, the condom flushed down my toilet, all evidence of infidelity washed away.
‘I should go,’ he says. I nod and try to smile, but it’s more of a grimace.
‘I’ll see you at work tomorrow.’ I expect him to open the door and rush out, and for a moment it looks like he will, and then he turns back and kisses me.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I know this is shit.’
I think of Adele’s sweet smile and I want to tell him I’m as guilty as he is of betraying her, but I can’t.
‘Forget about it. It’s done. We can’t undo it.’
‘I don’t want to undo it. But things are …’ He hesitates. ‘Difficult. I can’t explain.’
It’s not that difficult, I want to say. People cheat all the time. The reasons are always selfish and base, it’s the excuses we make that are complicated. I stay quiet though. My head is throbbing and my feelings are all over the place.
‘You need to go,’ I say, giving him a shove towards the door. I don’t want him to say anything else that’s going to make me feel worse than I already do. ‘And don’t worry, I won’t bring this to work.’
He looks relieved. ‘Good. Sometimes she … I don’t know how …’ He’s not making any sense, but I let him carry on. ‘I don’t like to … things should stay out of the office.’
He compartmentalises. That’s what Adele had said. If only she knew how much.
‘Go,’ I repeat, and this time he does.
Well, I think as the door closes leaving me suddenly alone and terribly lonely, that’s that then. A new low reached. Even Sophie wouldn’t have done this. After all my concerns for how he treats Adele I’ve still had sex with him the first chance I’ve had.
I pour a glass of water and get some ibuprofen and shuffle back to my bed. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about them. I don’t want to think about me. I just want to sleep it away.
I wake up in the kitchen with the tap running and my arms waving around my face, beating my dreams away. I’m gasping, my head full of heat. It’s light already, and I blink and pant rapidly, for a moment thinking the stream of early sunlight is flames around me, and then I slowly settle back into the world, but the dream is still clear. The same one as ever. Adam lost. The darkness coming alive to trap me. This time was slightly different though. Every time I got close to Adam’s voice and opened a door in the abandoned building, I found Adele or David in a burning room, both shouting something at me that I couldn’t hear.
It’s 6a.m. and I feel like shit and my stomach is churning with hangover and guilt and the embers of the dream, and I’m exhausted. It’s too late to go back to sleep, and for a brief second I think about calling in sick for a second day, but I’m not going to be that person. Sue will already have noticed that I’m not getting in as early every day as I used to, and another sick day will make her worry. Also, I want to get things back to normal. To pretend last night never happened. I am such a shitty person, but even as I think that, I’m tingling a little with the memory of the sex. I didn’t come – I never do first time – but he woke my body up, and it’s going to take a while before it settles back into my sexless life.
I make coffee and go into the sitting room and see the notebook lying on the floor. It makes me feel guilty all over again. Adele’s been trying to help me, and I’ve slept with her husband. How have I let this happen?
I need to put what happened with David in a box in my head, separate from Adele, because otherwise I might do something stupid like tell her just to make myself feel better. And I won’t feel better, but she’ll feel worse. I think about Sophie and her affairs, and how no one ever tells the wife and how everyone’s life is probably a mess of secrets and lies when you boil them right down. We can never see who someone really is underneath the skin. In some kind of solidarity with Adele I pinch myself.
‘I am awake,’ I say and feel stupid hearing my words aloud in an empty flat. This whole thing is stupid, but I persevere. I look at my hands and count my fingers. I can’t be arsed to get up and look at the clock in the kitchen. I figure I can do that bit at work. This is no real penance though. Not for what I’ve done. Being a good student hardly makes up for this betrayal. God, my head hurts. David and Adele – I don’t really know what they each are to me. A lover now? A new friend? Neither? I am fascinated by them – individually and as a pair, but maybe that’s all it is really. Other than a mess waiting to happen. I can’t keep both of them. I can’t. I need to choose.
My phone, still in the bedroom, starts ringing, and my heart races.
‘Bonjour Maman,’ Adam says and then giggles. ‘Hello Mummy! I’m in France and I haven’t eaten snails yet but Daddy said I should call you before you go to work …’
In that moment, listening to his excited, breathless morning babble that makes my tired eyes well up a bit, I could kiss Ian. He knows, deep down, how much this has cost me, to let my baby go away with them, especially now, especially now the pregnancy is amongst us. He knows how important it is for me to hear from him without having to be the one to call. He knows I don’t want to feel needy, even though Adam is my baby and always will be. He knows I’m proud and capable of biting off my nose to spite my face when I’m hurt. He knows me. I might hate how he treated me, and I might hate that he’s happy, but he knows me. After last night with David, it’s a strange comfort.
I laugh along with my little boy for a couple of minutes and then
If and when this terrible mess I’m making explodes, at least I will still have Adam, and Ian in our own way. We’re tied together by our child.
By the time we hang up, I’m feeling better, and the shower clears away the worst of my hangover. I look down at my hands under the water spray and count my fingers. I pinch myself and say that I’m awake. I try not to think about the sex I had with David even as I wash it away. I’ll wear trousers and minimal make-up today. Whatever happened last night can’t be repeated. It really can’t. I need to do the right thing. And that isn’t choosing David.
I bought it on the credit card mixed in among the supermarket shopping. I normally keep all my shopping receipts just in case he asks for them, but he hasn’t done that in a couple of years, and even if he starts again now, I’ll pretend I lost that one. I won’t be able to buy everything I’m going to need that way, but for now, the credit card has its uses. I can’t cut back on any more housekeeping petty cash money because I’ve used enough of that to buy Louise a month pass at the gym and will have to adjust my spending accordingly – to use David’s favourite phrase.
Still, all it means is I have to make a few sacrifices on my food tastes. A supermarket corn-fed chicken for Sunday instead of one from the organic butcher. David wouldn’t notice the difference anyway, even though he’s still a farm boy at heart, under all the layers he hides behind. He can tell a fresh farm egg from a free-range supermarket one, but that’s about it. I’m the one who enjoys decadence in food, and he allows me that.
I look at the e-cigarette, and the spare battery and extra cartridges. She’s probably in no emotional state to try going cold turkey right now, but she’ll try this. I know she will. She’s a people pleaser. I feel another surge of bitterness. A fat little people pleaser. I fight the urge to throw the expensive device against the wall.
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes