“What’s a seven-letter word for ‘ennui’?” Raewyn adjusts her glasses.
Andrew lowers the Sunday Times. “Tedious?”
“No …” Raewyn frowns at the crossword. Her wedding band glints in the firelight.
“Yes. That’s it. Thank you.”
She writes the word in her neat script, a curt smile on her face. The same smile she wore when she said ‘I do’. The same smile she wore when Andrew first showed her their house. The same smile she wears when they lie in bed. He, nibbling kisses like a bug on a leaf, she, accepting them like a cordial handshake.
She concentrates on the next clue. Lines gather around her eyes, aging her beyond her 46 years. Then she glances at the clock: 9.55 pm.
“Oh, time for bed.”
“So it is.”
And off they go. His ‘n hers pyjamas neatly folded. Her Occupational Therapy trousers over the chair, ready for the week.
They tuck themselves into their respective sides, tunneling out some warmth.
And off goes the light.
The door bangs at 2 am: Michael. Their only child. Proof they’d indeed consummated the marriage.
Andrew rolls over, then falls back asleep. He dreams of Hadley. Not the school receptionist with whom he’d shared a joke about staplers, nor the dental hygienist who’d explored more of his mouth than his wife, but The First Love. The one who’d stolen his heart, taken his breath, captured his soul, and nicked every other body part clichés had to offer. She’d crept under his skin and there she remained.
He always dreams of Hadley. But Andrew loves his wife.
The following morning, over breakfast and the BBC radio news, Raewyn reminds Andrew the Mazda is due for a service.
“I know. I’ll take it to Brian’s after school.”
“Busy day?” Raewyn sips her tea.
They share a smile. It’s a joke. Something small they pass between them each weekday morning. Andrew is a school librarian-cum-guidance counsellor for misdirected teens who drag their bags lower than their shoulders. Twelve weeks’ holiday a year. No class prep. Simply a life of shelving Harper Lee and King Lear.
“Remember the Macaskills are coming for dinner tonight.” Raewyn zips her jacket.
They’ll chat about mortgage and equity. The women will huddle off to discuss gnocchi, words flapping from their mouths like seagulls. The men will drink pinot gris and study its legs. Raewyn will serve vegetable chips that resemble potpourri.
All adult friendships are just working out whose turn it is to cancel plans.
“Don’t forget to pick up the cordon bleu on the way home,” Raewyn says.
“Have a good day.”
A peck on the cheek.
Raewyn will call between patients to remind him about the car, the cordon bleu, and the Macaskills. Andrew doesn’t mind. After all, he loves his wife.
“What’s a nine-letter word for ‘mundane’?”
“Ah yes, thank you.”
Another Sunday night. Another crossword. Another 10 pm bedtime.
They lie each side of their king-sized bed, a quarter of a mile between them, and drift into their dreams—hers about the primroses, his about Hadley.
Andrew had first met Hadley as an undergraduate. Living some thespian Oxbridge life, she and her followers crafted a world of Pimm’s on the river, punting, croquet, and talk of Keats as though they’d just met for lunch.
From one corner of The King’s Arms, Andrew observed her. Tall, sloe-eyed, she played her voice like a violin, adding drama and vibrato. Her laugh demanded others join in.
She threw her arms around two boys and sang Hey Jude, five tones off, somewhere out in another key. The song ended. She held the final note unbending, as though it were trapped in rigor mortis. The crowd cheered and she bowed.
Andrew wished he could try on another’s personality, pry himself from his conservative mould and live through someone else. Perhaps the flamboyant chap in the velvet tuxedo? Or the bloke with a teeth-to-tattoo ratio in favour of the latter?
Andrew drank another beer, swallowed his nausea, and approached Hadley. He offered to buy her a drink.
“No,” she said.
She raised a half-full martini.
“Stirred not shaken. Shaking a martini bruises its spirit. That Bond chap had it all wrong.”
After hours of gin and tonics and low-ceilinged banter, Andrew learned her name:
“Hadley. After Hadley Richardson. Hemingway’s first wife during 1920s Paris. The loveliest and most gracious of women considering she had to put up with that narcissistic bastard.”
All Andrew saw was the shape of her perfect mouth as she spoke.
They lived three years of Oxford in the 70s, Andrew and Hadley and her group of misfits: Larson, Slim Jim, Punctual Dave, Skinny Rachel, and Heathrow (named for her place of conception). They lived a time that crackled with hormones and big ideas. A world of synaesthetic paintings and dinner parties with stiff collars and cheap wine. The air was thick with dreams.
They knew it wouldn’t last. So they lived it twice as hard.
“Did you clean the cat litter tray?” Raewyn sorts the recycling.
“Yes.” Andrew checks the clock: 9.15 pm.
“I got a call from Elaine today.” Raewyn rinses a bottle.
“She and John are looking forward to the weekend. It’s been too long since we caught up.”
Michael slouches into the room. Raewyn tugs the headphone from his ear.
“There’s leftover stew in the fridge.”
“KFC isn’t food.”
Michael shrugs and drops into a chair.
“Will you be here for the barbecue on Saturday?”
“Prob-ly not.” Michael jabs his phone.
“Karen’s coming. You remember her. Goes to Headington.”
Michael snorts. “I don’t need your help getting a date.”
Raewyn checks the clock. “Time for bed.”
They leave Michael to it.
Tucked into bed, Raewyn reaches out and pats Andrew’s shoulder. “Goodnight.”
And off goes the light.
“I’m an artist!” Hadley had said, throwing her arms back.
She and Andrew sat in The Eagle and Child, two nights after they’d first met. Around them surged a mass of students. Conversations ranged from debates over Cromwell, to who’d score Kat the Twat that night.
Andrew clutched a beer. Hadley sipped a piña colada. The noise forced them to sit close. She smelled of summer.
“I’m in my second year at Ruskin but considering Royal College of Art when I finish,” Hadley said.
Andrew raised an eyebrow.
“In London? Good luck.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it.”
Two boys beside Hadley began acting up. They wore smooth jawlines and pressed polo shirts; heirs to a life of Eton and owning half of Yorkshire. One bumped Hadley, spilling her drink.
“Excuse you!” she said.
They eyed her outfit, her fluorescent hair, the ushanka she wore in winter.
“What the hell are you supposed to be?”
Hadley tilted her head in consideration.
“I suppose … someone who isn’t a snotty, prepubescent who’s going to regret that fourth round in an hour when he’s greeting the reverse of his burger all over his pretty chinos.”
“Fuck off, lesbian!”
“Ooh, scathing!” Hadley clapped her hands in delight. “You’ve a mind as sharp as that haircut Mummy chose. Now run along little Freddie Harrington-Smythe the Third. You’re missing a lacrosse game. Or would you rather I let Big Darren over there know you’re only thirteen?”
Big Darren manned the door. He folded his sequoia arms and nodded at Hadley. The boys skulked off.
Satisfied, Hadley turned back and laughed at Andrew’s expression. The sound prickled in his ear.
“They’re not the first and they won’t be the last. That’s what comes with being subversive,” she said.
“It’s better to look interesting than a carbon copy of everyone else.”
“Indeed. Now you, you’re more of a Clark-Gable-dressed-as-James-Dean kind of guy.”
This was a lie but Andrew accepted it anyway.
“Okay,” Hadley sat up. “I’ve finished my piña colada. Let’s go embrace the rain.”
“Don’t you mean, ‘get caught in it’?”
“Sure, if I viewed life as one long string of inconveniences.” She smiled. “Come on, I’m in the mood to ‘shoot some pool’, or however the youngsters say it.”
She was up and off, waltzing through life as though in a work by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Andrew helplessly followed.
“What’s a ten-letter word for ‘organised’?” asks Andrew.
Michael shrugs. Slumped into the couch, hair over his eyes, he stares at the TV.
Andrew sighs. The pencil hovers over the newspaper.
“I’m glad your mum gets back tomorrow.”
“Why?” Michael changes the channel.
“Because I miss her, of course.”
“Huh.” Michael raises his eyebrows.
Raewyn was away at a conference. Something about hand therapy. She left three days’ worth of meals in the fridge and a list of instructions taped to the counter. Bye, Dear. A peck on the check and no backward glance.
Andrew taps the pen against his lip. He’s doing the crossword in Raewyn’s absence, but Michael is not a willing participant. Andrew stares at the boxes, the unanswered questions.
He does miss Raewyn. After all, Andrew loves his wife.
“I’m thinking the Cinque Terre,” Hadley said.
“That or Spello. I’m in love with its flowery lanes.”
“When? For how long?”
“Probably a year before the RCA. Life is more than study after all. Plus it’ll inspire me.”
“But you can’t leave,” Andrew hated the whine in his voice.
They sat on Hadley’s bed, an abandoned game of gin before them.
“Just imagine!” she ignored him. “Living bunched up with everyone else. Making pasta from scratch. Walking everywhere ‘cos there’s no other way to get around.”
“You can do that here.”
She rolled her eyes. “I mean immersing yourself in a new culture, in a different part of the world. Breakfast outside overlooking the Mediterranean. Cappuccinos the way they’re meant to be made.”
“But what about us?”
Hadley frowned as though staring at a tax form. “I don’t understand.”
“I mean …” Andrew spread his hands.
What was there to understand? Fear coiled around his mind. They’d been chatting about the meaning of life, and had veered off down a much scarier path.
“I can’t stay here, Darling.”
Hadley called everyone Darling.
“What’d you think would happen when I went to London?”
Andrew stared at the cards.
Hadley sighed. “This world is stifling me.”
So that was it. The one who had everything, wanted more. She wanted to grab fat fistfuls of life.
Andrew thought back over the past three years. Had they even been together? He suppressed a retch. What was it about love? Why were people obsessed with it? All it did was break your heart then call in its buddy: anguish.
Andrew looked into her eyes. She smiled benignly. His gaze dropped to the lips that were once his territory. A longing pulled within, a desire that’d settle as an ache in his bones for decades to come.
“What’s a thirteen-letter word for ‘compromise’?”
The crosswords aren’t hard. Raewyn knows that. Andrew knows that. But it’s Raewyn’s way of involving him: an aid to discussion.
Their marriage lives the smallest life possible. Over the years Andrew has watched it fold in on itself until it’s become nothing more than their four walls and routines and amicability.
Andrew longs for an argument where plates are thrown across the kitchen. Instead, passion is left to the movie they watch each Saturday night, a bowl of low-salt popcorn between them.
He dreads when they’ll retire. The vast swathes of silence. With so much life at their disposal, what will they talk about?
“We need to repaint the front room.” Raewyn says. “I think a nice magenta.”
“It is magenta.”
Andrew initially wanted to paint it white, but white was ‘too bold’.
“No, this is ‘delicate cream’. It’s a completely different shade.”
Raewyn frowns. She adjusts her glasses. Her hands are on her hips, sleeves rolled back to reveal her gold watch: a twentieth anniversary present.
They’ve reached that beigey edgeless stage of marriage: too young for midlife crises, too old to call themselves young. Instead, rooms are repainted and furniture rearranged. Raewyn lines their drawers with scented paper. Each morning, Andrew sniffs his colour-coded socks and shakes his head.
“Yes, it definitely needs a new look.” Raewyn scans the room.
“How about white?”
“Ha! Andrew, you do make me laugh.” She checks her watch. “I must get dinner on.”
Dinner will be served at 6.30 pm.
“So you’ll pick up some magenta on the way home tomorrow,” Raewyn says as she leaves the room.
A statement, not a request.
Andrew still loves his wife.
“What’s a eleven-letter word for ‘lovesick’?”
As much as he hated it, Andrew diminished in Hadley’s absence. He last saw her in the quad at graduation: her flaming hair, her solar smile, her bubbly syllables of laughter …. Then she was gone. And the world tore Andrew’s skin away.
His love life dissolved into 20-minute relationships. Cell by cell, he withdrew his heart from society. Hadley, the alpha and omega of his desire, was a hard person to quit.
Despite graduating from Oxford with a first in History, Andrew settled for high-school librarian.
Within two years, he met and married Raewyn, a decision founded upon pragmatism. Smart, pleasant, fiscally prudent, she checked all the right boxes, and became the metronomic tick in his life.
Even now, two decades and a magenta room later, he doesn’t regret proposing.
After all, Andrew loves his wife.
Andrew first told Raewyn about Hadley, two days into their marriage, while sitting in a cafe on honeymoon. Raewyn took it well: stirring her tea, stiff upper lip, the best of British.
Andrew asked Raewyn about her past, but she wasn’t one to rake up old relationships.
“I don’t like to air my laundry in public.”
“But I’m not the public. I’m your husband.”
“Yes you are.” She gave him a sharp look.
They’ve never discussed it since.
“What’s an eight-letter word for ‘obsession’?”
Sitting at the kitchen bench one day, Andrew spreads The Times before his wife.
“Look at this,” he says.
Raewyn leans over.
“‘Italian Socialite Caught in Scandal with Berlusconi.’” She shrugs. “And?”
“Hadley! My Hadley.” Andrew stabs the page. “I’m sure of it. Same nose, same smile.”
Raewyn stiffens. “So what if it is?”
“Well, it’s just … small world is all.” Andrew trails off.
Raewyn’s mouth forms a scar. “Well, I’m off to work.” She grabs her bag, then pauses at the door. “Goodbye.”
“Bye.” Andrew stares at the picture.
Some time later, he rises to leave. He folds the newspaper. His wedding band glares at him. He blinks and pockets his phone. Andrew loves his wife.
A week after the Hadley-newspaper incident, Andrew stands in the shower and pries the wedding band off his finger, glimpsing the thrill of adultery. He stares at the indent marriage leaves, then jams the ring back on.
“What’s a five-letter word for ‘proficient’?”
Andrew loves that each morning, Raewyn serves him muesli that could line a hamster cage.
Their son snorts and pours himself a bowl of nothing, as eating a hearty breakfast is ‘uncool’. “That stuff tastes like ass,” he says.
“At least I won’t die of bowel cancer.” Andrew grins at him.
“Yipee for you,” Michael replies, shouldering his bag and slouching out.
“Do you have your lunch?” Raewyn asks.
“Nope!” Michael yells, slamming the door.
“I don’t know what’s happened to that boy,” Raewyn tuts.
“He’s fine. He’s just going through that turdish, adolescent stage where he hates everyone over 25. You’ve raised him well. He’ll come out the other end a functional human. Wait and see.”
Raewyn sighs and finishes her tea.
And that’s the truth. Raewyn has raised him well. For all her nagging and prodding and poking, she’s raised their son in a more than acceptable manner. Andrew has no doubts he’ll be fine.
What more could one want in life?
“What’s a six-letter word for ‘attentive’?”
Andrew gets sick: flu from one of the pupils. A perk of working in education. His temperature soars to dizzying heights. He adopts the soggy look of the ill, as though he’s been scooped from the bottom of a pond.
In her efficient way, Raewyn whips the flu out of him, and Andrew is back to work within several days.
“Quick recovery,” a colleague says. “You must’ve had a very competent nurse.”
Andrew pauses to think. “Yes, I did.”
“What’s a ten-letter word for ‘long-suffering’?”
A fortnight after the flu, Andrew receives a letter from a Derek and Katherine Jamieson: Hadley’s parents. His heart stalls.
He reads the letter. Then reads it again.
When he looks up, the day has set and he sits in the blue night, the downlights on his shaking hands. He crumples the note. His past has not forgotten him.
He closes his eyes and plays the ‘what if?’ game. Had he gotten it all wrong? Should he have chased Hadley? Andrew swallows.
The problem with life is you can only live it blindly in one direction.
Andrew goes to bed in the spare room. He tosses and kicks, trying to chase down some sleep.
The following night, he and Raewyn tidy the kitchen together. Andrew has been remote all day. Over breakfast, Raewyn asked him about the late night and the spare room, but Andrew lied, stating he had persistent cramps and didn’t want to keep her awake.
Michael is out as usual. Andrew glances at the clock: 9.30 pm. He has to tell Raewyn before bedtime. He can’t endure another night with the truth tucked behind him.
Andrew never addresses his wife by name.
“I’ve something to tell you.”
“Go on.” Raewyn bustles around the kitchen.
Andrew licks his lips. His tongue is a dry leaf.
“I … have a son.”
“Of course you do.” Raewyn cleans the coffee machine.
“No, not Michael. Another son. With Hadley.”
Raewyn stops, dishcloth in hand.
“And you’re telling me this now?” Her mouth is straight as a zip.
“I didn’t know about him until I got this.” Andrew hands her the uncrumpled letter.
She studies it. The clock nudges time on: tick, tick, tick.
“His name is Andrew?” Raewyn peers over her bifocals.
Raewyn finishes reading. She folds the letter, pressing the creases with her nails, staring at her ring.
“It was all before I met you,” Andrew blusters. “I haven’t seen Hadley since graduation. She must’ve been pregnant but didn’t tell me.”
Tick, tick, tick.
“I’ve never been unfaithful.” Andrew’s tone borders on impatience, but it’s blended with fear and residual shock.
Raewyn places the letter on the table. She taps a nail.
“And now she’s dead?”
“That’s what it says.”
“Some boating accident in the Mediterranean?”
“And your son is in France. A freelance photographer.”
“Do you think he knows about you?”
“I don’t know. I know as much as you.”
Tick, tick, tick. Raewyn taps her nail.
“Well …” she says, “I’m off to bed. Goodnight.”
Andrew raises his eyebrows. “Uh, goodnight.”
So he sleeps in the spare room, the letter balled in his fist.
Andrew loves his wife. But, for the first time, doubts the stability of their relationship.
The silence continues for two days, during which Andrew grows old and withered. He stands over the grave of their sickening marriage, and sleeps each night in the spare room.
One night, he finds her at the table, glass of merlot in hand. The downlights soften her baggy eyes.
“Why aren’t you in bed?” he asks.
Raewyn sips her wine. She studies the colour. Finally, she speaks: “So what do you want to do?”
“About your son.”
Andrew pauses. “I don’t know. What do you think?”
She sighs, straddling the gap between emotion and reason.
“I think we contact him. We introduce ourselves. Ask him if he wants to get to know us.”
“Yes.” She stares at him. “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
Andrew exhales a shaky breath. He holds out a fluttering hand. Raewyn hesitates, then stands and tucks hers in his. Together they head upstairs.
Andrew loves his wife. And for the first time realises how damned lucky he is.
Merran Jones has been writing for a couple of years. Her work has appeared in, After the Pause, A Quiet Courage, and Literary Orphans among dozens of others. She’s also won several small competitions, was commended for the KSP Speculative Fiction Award 2014, and won the 2015 Write Well Award. She lives in Adelaide, Australia, and is a physiotherapist and mum in her spare time.
If you enjoyed Andrew Loves His Wife, leave a comment and let Merran know.
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