Fiona’s question lingered in the air, along with the sharp scent of herbs and garlic, pitching Mike from one version of the evening into another.
D’you ever think about having children? she had asked, unleashing it as the follow-up to musing on the approach of middle-age and options closing down. He should have seen it coming.
He watched as her long fingers traced the slender stem of the wine-glass, her eyes cast downwards into its straw-coloured depths. In the glow of candle-light, she looked younger than her age, the halo of flickering illumination smoothing over her furrowed forehead and allowing the grey hairs to blend in with the natural blonde.
He needed to break the silence – now! – or the pause would give him away, revealing that whatever he said was not as casual as he needed it to appear. ‘Well obviously,’ he said. ‘I’ve thought about it over the years.’
He slugged back from the flute, feeling the collapse of bubbles on his tongue, then topped up their two glasses, doing so clumsily so the wine frothed up, spewing over.
He forced himself on, ‘I guess my marriage to Jodie had already failed before we got to that point.’ The lie tripped off his tongue so easily, it might almost have been pre-prepared. ‘And then, well as you know, other relationships have never really lasted, so it’s not been an issue and I guess I’ve come to accept it just isn’t going to happen. And that’s OK.’ He added the last firmly, hoping to close this down, knowing he was unlikely to succeed.
He didn’t often think of Jodie. Ten years had passed since they parted and his marriage to her seemed to belong to a pre-lived life. His memories were too divergent to reconcile. The elf-like girl with bubbling laughter he’d fallen for; the woman who aged several decades overnight and could not abide the sight of him: they seemed to bear no relation to one another.
Fiona’s look was uncharacteristically wistful as her green eyes met his and he longed for a return to the evening he’d anticipated, hours spent in the appreciation of hearty food and sun-kissed wine; of relaxed conversation about mutual interests, with solicitous waiters attending their needs. A relaxed birthday celebration. Fiona’s thirty-eighth.
He himself welcomed the evidence of years notching up; passing through the mid-point of life expectancy brought with it pure relief, the sense of progressing firmly onwards into the second-half with certain possibilities being eliminated. He had failed – stupidly – to spot the potential hazard a late thirties birthday for a woman might bring.
To his side, doors from the kitchen swung open and a waiter scurried forward bearing steaming diversion. But the food was destined for another table. ‘You?’ he asked, because not doing so would just draw attention to his reluctance to pursue this.
‘I always did always want children,’ Fiona said, her tone decisive. ‘Not in a girly, simpering over babies way, but I always assumed I’d have a child at some point. Though I wanted to find love everlasting first.’ Her mouth formed a comic moue, mocking her youthful illusions. Over the nine months or so they’d been seeing one another, she’d already told him her regrets, how her younger self had been so focussed on work that she had failed to pay sufficient attention to the things that now seemed to matter more. How she had always presumed that love would just turn up and did not require dedicated effort, unlike the fifty-plus chargeable hours a week needed to foster a high-flying career. All of this delivered past-tense, leaving the impression she’d outgrown remorse, reaching accommodation with life, the way people do. ‘So like you, I was beginning to give up on the idea.’
The doors burst open again, bringing forth another waiter, this time headed for them, delivering Mike a small reprieve as he said no to Parmesan cheese and yes to pepper. He smiled widely and said, ‘smells good.’
Fiona smiled back, the lines fanning out from the corners of her eyes and lips betraying her age, no matter how carefully she applied lotions and make up. ‘It does.’
They raised glasses and clinked and he reiterated the happy birthday he’d already offered, while she grimaced, as if in denial of the occasion.
She did no more than taste her food before one hand reached for her glass again while the other started twiddling with her sharply styled hair, curling a single lock of it round and round. ‘Is it something you’d still consider?’ she asked.
The last nine months had passed agreeably enough; still he was surprised by the strength with which dismay clenched at the idea it might not simply continue on its present course. After years of being on his own – he was a master of the casual affair – he had not expected his circumstance to change. It had crept up on him, how very pleasant companionship could be, having a woman to share things with: meals out, trips to the theatre, weekend breaks and holidays, his bed. All of it lulling him into breaking his own rules and allowing the frequency with which they saw each other to build. He liked her, her wry opinions, her no-bullshit way of speaking, her warm teasing, her insights into herself and others. The thought of being cast back onto his own lonely strategies was dismal.
‘It would be such a disruption,’ he said, hearing how cold that was, unable to reconjure, really, how it had been, what it had felt like to truly love – unconditionally – a small and fragile being, to willingly devote oneself to protection and care.
He twirled his spaghetti with fake enthusiasm.
Fiona laughed uneasily and her fork played with the still bubbling dish au gratinée. ‘I know, I know. Maybe it’s crazy. Balancing childcare with practising law, well it wouldn’t be straightforward.’ She was blushing, or perhaps it was just the heat from the food, the heightened colour suiting her. This was running on far beyond their usual chat about films and office politics, the references to prior selves which only ever skimmed the surface of the past and did not penetrate the algae-choked depths. She was laying herself on the line and he was doing little to help.
She raised her fork, but it seemed to contain barely a glaze. ‘But people do manage these things,’ she said. ‘If they want to.’
The set of her mouth had hardened. It was easy to forget how forceful she must have had to be to make it to Partner in her firm, the only woman at that level. He thought this was how she might be with a client or colleague, her gentle steering a cover for her iron resolve.
He tried and failed to find a follow on. A slow panic was fizzing up inside like the crisp Dom Ruinart he’d chosen to mark the celebration. It was years since he’d told anyone what had happened. He’d resigned from his job, which had been a relief all round. He had consciously broken contact with acquaintances and friends. Meet-ups with his parents were infrequent, and all three of them very carefully avoided references to the past. With women, he had always managed to dodge and evade, establishing upfront that he had no kids, leaving them to assume that not having meant never having had. Deliberately, he had constructed a world in which no one knew this thing about him, how terrifyingly careless he could be. That didn’t block his own knowledge, but mostly it could be kept folded away and unexamined.
Around them was the light chat and easy laughter of Friday evening. Music played, hits from across the decades, declarations of undying love interspersed with the melancholy strains of heartbreak.
‘It’s what you want?’ he said.
‘I guess.’ She smiled in that lopsided, comical way she had, as if admitting to some guilty indulgence. ‘It’s impossible to fully imagine what it would be like of course, but I doubt it helps to over-analyse. One of those things where you have to take the plunge and hope for the best.’ He remembered his heady thrill and utter terror when Jodie first told him she was pregnant; they’d wanted a family, just not so soon. ‘Never fancied being a single Mum though.’ She looked at him appraisingly and he thought back to her reference to love everlasting.
Neither of them had used the L-word yet. Jodie was the last woman he had said I love you to, meaning something by it at the time. In middle-age, surely relationships were more about clear-eyed practicalities than swooning passion, compatibility winning out over dewy-eyed wonderment; with greater maturity came a lowering of unrealistic expectations.
A waiter dropped by their table to check that everything was OK; his eyebrows drew together with concern at the sight of their barely touched food which was starting to congeal. Yes, delicious. Both of them were falsely fulsome in their reassurances.
‘Oh God,’ she said, her eyes following the waiter’s retreating back, palms rising in a gesture of dismissal. ‘I’m sorry to land this on you. I mean we haven’t even really talked about us. What we want, where this is going. And here I am rushing ahead and talking about babies.’ Yet for all her apparent apology, he suspected the discussion was carefully planned. She was a lawyer after all.
‘I enjoy your company,’ he said, the words sounding so thin and mean. ‘Well obviously. And I do care. I suppose I just haven’t been thinking too far ahead.’ Living in the present, wasn’t that for the best, disowning the past and not counting on the future. ‘I hadn’t been thinking about kids. I think I’d been assuming…’ that both of us are past it. He shrugged in lieu of spelling it out.
‘I’ve been enjoying spending time with you too. It’s just…’
There he was, thinking enjoyment was enough, and all along her mind had been moving along different tracks, weighing up his potential. He cut a reasonable figure physically, so he thought, and in his youth had accumulated respectable academic credentials. Presumably to outward appearances his genetic material fitted Fiona’s bill. As a claims broker in a mid-range company, he didn’t earn anything like what she did, but whilst he might not hit the mark in terms of being the sole provider, he could certainly make a meaningful contribution to shared finances. His history of failed relationships might give her pause for doubt, but then that sort of baggage came with the territory of dating in middle life, and to all appearances was no different to hers. His fundamental failing would not be obvious.
‘It’s just,’ she continued, ‘I’m at that age when I’m approaching now or never and I don’t want that last chance to slip by without serious reflection.’ After months of pleasantries it was time for the placing down of cards and serious negotiation. ‘But anyway… Guess we should eat.’
The two of them ate quietly, the food cold and gluey, and then she broke the silence to ask would he fancy going to the latest must-see 3-D film tomorrow, allowing the two of them to slip back into their usual way of being with one another, taking a recess from the conversation, leaving it unconcluded.
They went back to her place. Sex seemed a fitting finale to her birthday, and though he was weary, he stirred himself to make the effort. The point at which he reached for condoms felt tactless, loaded, though he could hardly not have done. She didn’t take the foil slip from him the way she always had before, leaving him fumbling with himself, and missing the erotic pressure of her fingers.
Afterwards they turned away from one another, into their own space. Usually he enjoyed the warmth of a body beside him, the feral companionability. Now it felt oppressive, this nocturnal silence which seemed to demand honesty.
I did have a child once. The words felt strange, unreal, even in his own head. He very badly did not want to expose his story to her sharp-edged lawyer’s analysis, to hear the judgement she would reach, no matter which way it fell. Guilty or not. Fiona could not possibly emerge from the telling and still thinking him a good bet to father her child. And if they were destined to split up anyway, well why not simply break things off in one fell swoop. The same outcome, a less painful process. He could act the part of one of her previous partners who’d run a mile at the mention of commitment…
…or perhaps he was making too big a deal of things…
…perhaps the issue of kids wasn’t make or break…
…perhaps he owed her the truth.
Thoughts swirled in unresolving eddies. He sat up and slid from bed, then from the room. Downstairs he could breathe more easily and he stole a glass of milk from her fridge then sat in the dark in her living room, sinking back into her designer sofa, her stylish décor subsumed into shadow.
It was such a long time since he had described events, even to himself. He remembered repeating the story over and over to the police, to the inquest, to family and friends, thinking that if he told it often enough, it would make sense, he would pinpoint the crucial point of disjunction, and that would enable him – somehow – to re-enter the fracture of thought, the failure of love, to undo the sequence of events. It was such a small thing; surely there had to be some means of clawing his way back, reclaiming his life.
Such an ordinary morning…
It had been his turn to drop Abigail off at the nursery. He was in a rush, as always, his mind blurred from the lack of proper, uninterrupted sleep. He grabbed the pink quilted bag with baby paraphernalia, his briefcase and finally Abigail. She was a sweet, dropping weight in his arms, smelling of milk and rusk and Johnson’s shampoo.
‘Drive carefully,’ Jodie called after him and he felt a pulse of irritation, as if without her warning he would be reckless.
The baby seat was already securely strapped in the back of the car and he manoeuvred Abi’s resisting limbs through the various hoops and clipped then double-checked the fastenings. Keeping her safe.
Already the day was warm and he turned the aircon on along with the radio. Abi’s babbling faded, the rhythm of the car sending her to sleep, and his mind tuned into the day ahead and all the things he needed to accomplish, feeling the switch from one persona to another, from hands-on Dad to trusted employee. And although the former role was more compelling – obviously – after a full weekend of foul nappies, messy feeds and teething-misery, the prospect of the calm and control of work was heartening. He was returning to the domain of intelligent adulthood, a world away from the practicalities of cleaning up shit and regurgitated milk. He had a particularly busy day ahead.
He sipped from the glass, breaking the train of thought, dallying in the state of innocence, himself just an ordinary family man heading for work. Always he encountered this same blank space, failing to rediscover with any precision his state of mind. What exactly had he been thinking?
Fiona’s milk was skimmed, when he preferred full-fat, but as lifestyle differences went that was pretty trivial. It was cold, setting off the sensitivity in his teeth and he thought how he should bring a tube of his own brand of toothpaste and leave it here.
Before remembering this might be the last time he stayed over.
The day had passed in the breeze of climate control and work frenzy, and he didn’t so much as step outside. A colleague – Martin – had offered to do the lunch run, one of those inconsequential features of an office day that only later gained significance.
He ate gungy sandwiches at his desk, smudging mayonnaise over the keyboard. Through the window, the afternoon sun shone strongly and he half-closed the blinds against its glare, leaving a fragmented pattern, dark and shade, across his desk.
Five-thirty pm and he was winding down towards the day’s end, his pile of insurance claim forms almost done, risks calculated, numerous phonecalls made, trickier cases passed on for further assessment. He yawned, feeling the accumulation of tiredness after months of disrupted nights.
His phone rang, piercing the office hum, snapping him alert, and for a second he was tempted just to leave it.
He heard something, thought he heard, the creak of a door, a floorboard. He tightened against the possibility Fiona might come down and join him, demanding to know was anything wrong. But then he heard nothing more. He finished his milk, and geared himself up to resume his story, releasing it reluctantly from pause.
‘Mike!’ Jodie’s voice was frantic with that single word. He could hear the background chatter of voices and baby cries. ‘Where is she? Where’s Abigail?’
Abigail? He smiled quizzically; Jodie knew where Abigail was. She was…
He dropped the phone. He bolted across the open-plan office, bumping against chairs and desks, out onto the landing. The light showed the lift was on the ground floor. Quicker, probably, to wait, but he needed to keep on the move, to be running down the spiralling stairs, taking them three at a time and never mind that it was knackering his knees and he couldn’t breathe.
He scanned his brain for images, the ordinary everyday images of driving to work via the nursery, but his memories were fractured, pieces missing.
He thought of all the times Jodie became convinced she had failed to lock the door, or had left the oven on and how on every single occasion they’d gone back to check, she’d been mistaken. It was the way the human mind worked, switching itself off during routine tasks to the extent you could not remember doing them.
Pushing through the heavy swing-doors, he blinked in the harsh light. The tarmac was faintly sticky beneath his feet. He thought of those warnings he heard on the local radio about looking after your dogs. He’d never had a dog, had never wanted one, not really, though it had occurred to him that a family pet might be a nice thing for a child.
He ground to an amnesiac stop, a sea of metallic colour shimmering before him, trying to recall where he’d parked. Always a bit of a lottery in the morning. Tucked away in the far left corner. A space that offered shade only early morning. He was walking briskly now, his breath too ragged, his muscles too drugged by pain to allow him to continue running, and, after all, a few seconds would make no difference.
He spotted his Volvo, its pleasing racing green.
His legs refused to move other than in slow motion, like in a nightmare something held him and the more he strained forward, the greater the force pulling him back.
Nearer now, he could see the top of the baby seat, the beginnings of a rainbow.
Closer still and he could see Abi’s dandelion fluff of golden hair.
Her head was slumped a little. Sleeping, she was just sleeping. She’d have been crying earlier; nine hours was a long time to go without food or being changed. But she’d hardly have starved.
His fingers fumbled to find his keys. He pressed the button and lights flashed at him in greeting.
Please God, please.
He’d never believed in God, but now wasn’t the time to be pedantic. All sorts of deal fluttered through his mind, the ways in which he would be truly good and pious for the whole rest of his life.
He opened the car door. The heat blasted at him, like from an oven. He reached for Abi…
His fingers were gripping the glass as he found himself locked within that moment, the moment when he knew but was not yet certain, the splinter of time in which he felt his whole world breaking up, the instant that seemed to last forever, which his mind kept looping through, winding back and replaying forward, with no means to force a stop, to break out.
He felt another presence in the room and Fiona slipped in beside him on the sofa and took his hand.
They sat in the night-time quiet, listening to the creaks of the house and the distant rumble of traffic and he wondered what he could possibly offer her, this man with his careless approach to love.
‘There’s something isn’t there?’ she said. ‘Something you haven’t told me.’
Waking, it took a moment to reconnect with who he was and where. Always he woke to this throb of hope, his past erased, the day lying fresh before him.
The give of the mattress was softer than his own, the scent of the room more floral and there was the instinctive pleasure at the heat of a woman’s body beside him. She was still asleep and he stole from bed silently, heading downstairs to make morning coffee.
He had not looked at her last night as a voice that seemed disconnected from himself rasped out his story as straightforwardly as possible. Laying out the facts. She had listened and squeezed his hand and said, ‘Thanks for telling me,’ her tone not giving anything away. Then she’d said they could probably both do with some sleep.
He heated milk in the microwave, the way she liked, and wondered if it was possible that last night could be treated almost as a dream, witching-hour knowledge that need not be subjected to sharp-lit scrutiny, leaving them with an unspoken understanding. No to children, but perhaps they could move forward, contemplate a deeper entanglement of their lives.
He climbed the stairs and nudged open the bedroom door with his shoulder. She was curled away from him. He walked round to her side of the bed and placed the mug carefully down. Broken light through the curtains illuminated her pale face. Her eyes were open, gazing ahead, before her head twisted a little, her lips set and her pupils – wide and black – seeming to see into him.
Nothing was yet determined. Surely.
Except already he could see how it would go.
Sarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Highlights include: appearing in the 2008 Bridport anthology; having several stories published in the acclaimed Unthology series (Unthank Books); recently winning the inaugural Winston Fletcher Prize with her story ‘Acclimatising.’ She’s also had work published by Bloomsbury, Fiction Desk, Earlyworks Press and Rubery Press, and performed at live events in London, Hong Kong and New York.
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