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The drive to his house takes me through a tunnel of arcing beeches, skeletal boughs winding up into each other above the car. The road itself falls away in a ribbon of mauve, earlier rain sheening its surface, the sluicing beneath me amplified by the trees. His directions had been comprehensive, overly helpful, and I imagine others receiving an abridged version, my navigational deficiencies still flung at me after all this time. Glancing at the printout of his words on the passenger seat, I note again the underlined advice: If you reach the sculpture that looks like a scrotum, you’ve gone too far. I’m tempted to drive on, to witness such a spectacle, but poor timekeeping was another stick he beat me with, albeit cloaked with banter, and so I take the sharp left as instructed, onto a single-track road. A mile or so later I see the lane as described, a thatched cottage a hundred yards along it, pretty without being quaint. Parking next to the only vehicle, an expensive-looking MPV complete with child seats in the rear, I fold up the directions, putting the sheet in the glove compartment as if it wasn’t needed. I want to check my face and hair, but sense someone at the front door.
We meet mid-path, greet each other, then hug briefly, the gesture, although not entirely awkward, still a harbinger of the nine years that have passed. It wasn’t mentioned on the phone but I assume we’re alone, his wife at work or courteously absent, the children he spoke of at pre-school. Perhaps he assumed correctly that I knew of their existence – a boy and girl, a year apart – but the nonchalance with which he announced them was at best insensitive.
– Come in, Ben says. Just making coffee.
The kitchen smells of freshly-baked bread and jam, a large rustic table still adorned with the delights of a lavish breakfast. A noticeboard is dominated by a child’s painting, a crude watercolour of some non-descript creature, limbs and teeth in abundance.
– This is lovely, I say, looking around.
– It wasn’t when we moved in. Jaz is the creative one. Saw through the rising damp and rubble. She did most of it herself.
Hearing her name abbreviated is somehow another small cut in a year of unrelenting assaults. I’d found some small humour in the unabridged version when a mutual friend uttered it, knowing how Ben would once have found it pretentious. Jasmine. Delicate and fragrant. But who apparently turns her hand to property development in between motherhood and a dynamic career.
– Do you still take sugar?
I nod, assuming this to be sufficient, though apparently it isn’t.
– Two, please.
He pours the beans into an antique grinder and I have to stifle a laugh as he struggles with the mechanism, beans spilling out onto the flagstones, hopping around us in a chaotic beat.
– Jaz’s preserve, I’m afraid. There’s a technique.
– Instant is fine, I say.
The log burner draws my eye, not because it’s the room’s focal point, but lying before its bronzed flicker, asleep on the rug, is a dog, a mature Border collie crossed with something, perhaps a spaniel. The last time I saw Ben, he’d driven up to the cottage I shared with my then husband, his visit to observe the last rites for a dog we’d got together, that I’d taken with me when I left him. For a moment, this revelation hurts more than the evidence of a family – because the breed is similar, because the roles are so manifestly reversed now, I’m unsure.
– Lazy thing, Ben says. Only goes out when it has to. Lets the kids climb all over him, though.
The animal lifts its head, acknowledges my presence, then returns to the business of slumber. I want to stroke it, feel the warmth deep in its coat, but Ben’s casual allusion to the dog suggests it’s more Jasmine’s or the children’s than his, and so I head to the window, gaze out at the garden.
– That’s next year’s project.
– It’s lovely, I say, revolted by my sycophancy, my inability to find another adjective.
– The children want a pond, but there’s not been time. Do you know anything about ponds?
I shake my head, force a smile. The coffee is good, too good for instant, and I sense the best of everything is indulged here, a decadence he’d have ridiculed back then. I’d like a real drink, something he would once have offered a guest, despite it only being midday. Carpe the vinum, as he liked to say.
Ben’s face has weathered, the final vestige of youth flown at forty, although there’s a case for his being more handsome now, threads of grey behind his temples adding a note of distinction. Contentment seems to hold him.
– I was sorry to hear about you and Peter, he says.
It feels too soon in my visit for condolence, though Ben’s words sound genuine. He’d every right to a lingering smugness, my infidelity – the overlap, if you will – never fully articulated, but felt by him, I’m sure. I see now, more than ever, how that day he came to see the dog must have been insufferable, my life with Peter on display in all its attendant happiness, the dying animal an unsubtle emblem of it all.
– I’m fine, I say, the lie tiresome these days and presumably transparent. If Ben is at all smug, he hides it well.
Nobody ever tells you how numbing divorce is, how inert it leaves you, the silence once cherished in parts of the house now condemning as you struggle to conceive how life will be lived. They don’t tell you how much you’ll miss marriage’s easy boredom.
At first, after the verdict was delivered, Peter played well the part of considerate husband.
– It doesn’t matter, he said. We’ve got each other, that’s the important thing.
He told me what I needed to hear, clichés delivered with precise timing, and for weeks I think I believed him. Perhaps he believed them himself, for who can account for the implications of such news immediately? Or maybe he simply denied the results, the reality some temporary affliction visited upon us, a problem science and medicine would soon solve. Either way, the permanence of my condition began to fester in him, decades without a family of his own stretching out, barren and without purpose, without legacy. I think I not only became redundant in his eyes, but a source of misery, our future burdened with the cargo of my infertility. The final time we made love, his movements verged on violence, as if this could compensate for my shortcoming. A battering ram to breach the sterile defences.
The garden isn’t as neglected as Ben makes out and for a moment I imagine what I’d plant, this being my preserve, at least it was before Peter’s solicitor instructed the sale of the cottage. The letter stated I could buy him out, if I was so inclined, to which I replied inclination had little to do with it. But even if an unlikely windfall bequeathed itself, how could I have stayed, cohabiting with ghosts? By comparison my parents’ garden, modest and manicured, requires little more than the neighbour’s weekly attention with the mower in summer. I’ve offered to perform this duty for as long I’m there, but it would risk offense apparently. My mother is kind enough not to mention the future, ask how long I’ll be staying. And she hides well her disappointment at the theft of grandparenthood. Is that a word?
I can hardly remember Ben’s lovemaking style. Certainly never violent. A little too tender, I think. Too considerate.
I’m ambivalent about the prospect of seeing a photograph of Jasmine, curious yet uneasy. Attractive in a classical way, a thoughtless friend described her. Younger as well. A Nobel Prize winner in waiting, no doubt. How will Ben describe me to her later? I’m no threat, of course, but he’ll still have to play it carefully, choose the right words, somewhere between indifference and disdain. Oh, you know, she looked older. Bigger.
Ben shuffles about the room, perhaps wondering how long I’ll stay, my standing unnerving him.
– How’s the business going? I ask. Have you still got the canoes?
– We sold up, got an offer that was hard to turn down. I went back to teaching.
I try to hide my surprise, my disappointment at his returning to a world he despised.
– Don’t you miss the great outdoors? Being your own boss?
– It was hard work, insecure. I’m at a good school now.
Our conversing allows me to scan the room a little and I see a photograph on the bookcase, a family portrait in monochrome, trendily artistic. Even in this glance I get a sense of Jasmine’s beauty, which now fills the lounge like a gas. I wonder who Peter has upgraded to, knowing he couldn’t be single for five minutes, how the prospect terrified him. Perhaps he conducted interviews, a one-question assessment to filter out the unfruitful. He would have us come with a badge, a sign alluding to our status, a use-by date, so there’s no ambiguity. This is what you’ll be letting yourself in for. These are the miles on the clock. Perhaps a contract would work, clear and binding, either party able to withdraw if terms weren’t met. Caveat emptor.
There are days I think I’m the only single person, the wildcard when all the pairs have been gathered up, cat ownership, bingo and a wardrobe of frumpy clothes imminent. Yet the thought of dating appals me, its insufferably polite and contrived dance: What do you do for a living? How about hobbies? Do you want children one day? Yes, I’m thinking of stealing one. How about you?
I put Ben out of his misery and sit on the sofa, whereupon he takes the armchair. The dog stretches, rolls a quarter turn away from the heat, belly up, its downy penis lolling askance.
– Antique? I say, smoothing a hand along the sofa’s lustrous leather.
– Not sure. Jaz would know.
Of course she would.
When I was pregnant, in that other life, it had all felt too easy, as if none of it had been earned. We got a small but charming flat by the river; Ben finished his training, took a job nearby. At weekends I painted and we walked the dog. It wasn’t planned, but I still thought he would welcome the news, greet with wonder this shift to some exciting new realm. Our straight line would become a triangle, something with form and shape. With volume. A third-person narrative, if you like.
I wonder what labels I will now endure, what assumptions people will make of my childless state. I’ll have to pursue some high-flying vocation in order to justify my existence. She didn’t have time for children. Not the type. Will I convene with other such women, converse about how we don’t need to give birth for our lives to have meaning, that some women choose to, others not? How it’s not the be all and end all. Other things will enrich us. What a funny phrase, be all and end all.
I swill the last of my coffee around, try to remember what closure I thought could be found here today.
– Are you seeing anyone new, then? Ben asks.
The enquiry seems sincere, in that it possesses no agenda, though what is it they say, about wanting former lovers to be happy but not that happy?
– No, not really, the ‘not really’ so as not to appear entirely tragic.
– Loving the single life, hey?
Something like that.
I realise there are no books, at least in the rooms I’ve seen, and I wonder if this is another concession to Ben’s new life, Jasmine conducting a cull when they moved in together, perhaps keeping a Tolstoy or two for display. It was the one thing we divided up easily, literature rarely bought or received as a couple. Ben seemed always to accept I was taking the dog, his powers of reason diminished by then.
I want to use the bathroom but I suppose it will be full of further homely trappings: toothbrushes, bath toys, perfumes. Doors to bedrooms might lie ajar, the opportunity for further flagellation irresistible as I’m lured moth-to-flame, bringing a tiny jumper to my nose, inhaling that most unique of scents. Perhaps I would take something, a memento giving some small illusion of recompense. I wonder what sort of father Ben is, if such things can be graded. Is he like TV dads – nurturer, care-giver, sharing evenly hunter-gatherer duties? At bedtime reading does he affect with precision characters’ voices, conceding easily to requests for one more story? Do they go to him to clean and bandage scrapes in the knowledge he’s gentler, more patient?
Ben’s voice brings me back.
– Have you far to go this afternoon?
For a second I forget the fabrication I’d woven, a nearby meeting management insisted I attend, how I recalled Ben lived in the area, that we should catch up if he was free.
– A few miles, back towards the coast.
– You want some lunch? There’s soup left from the weekend.
I said I thought we’d be given something there. Again I wish he’d offer me a drink, pour us both something befitting this unlikely congregation I’ve fashioned from an incautious email.
I wonder if I occupy any of his thoughts these days, whether he remembers heading up to London at dawn that time, weeks before I became pregnant, marching with a thousand others, feeling part of something bigger than ourselves, the sense of comradeship, of trying to change the world, not for us, but for those to come. How we ran from police and hid in that Lebanese taverna, getting drunk, laughing with waiters, leaving once the streets had quietened, walking for hours until dawn bled over the city.
I suspect, though, that he doesn’t indulge nostalgia, his life replete with the forging of new marvels. Damnatio memoriae.
The day of the abortion, Ben took the morning off work. I’d said he didn’t need to, playing down the emotion I felt, agreeing that it was the pragmatic thing to do, a mutual decision, which it had seemed at the time. Only later was I aware of the manipulation, his chipping away, his reasoning – he could reason anything given a half-sympathetic ear: It’s too early in our relationship, the timing isn’t right, better when things are more stable, once we’ve travelled. I hadn’t realised we were unstable. Or is it instable? I never know. I almost changed my mind on that last morning, perhaps some instinctive awakening, a chemical entreaty, unknown to science, deep inside me. I’d even begun talking to it, trying out names to see how they fitted. It was the size of a walnut, I read later. Not yet a person, though, Ben kept saying.
Years later, when Peter and I sat in front of the specialist, I knew what was coming, whose fault it would be. Who was faulty. He squeezed my hand when the verdict was delivered, but I could sense relief in his grip, that despite the condemnation of us as a couple, he had been given a reprieve, his seed beyond reproach.
So what will my gift to the world be now? Even if some latent artistic talent makes itself known, there’s hardly time to carve out an oeuvre. What a wonderful image!
I used to think love was an achievement in itself, its status acquired from the sum of one’s virtues, a badge sewn to your sleeve beneath ‘career’ and above ‘offspring’. Perhaps I’ll discover I can sing and appear on one of those awful talent shows, the token late bloomer. I could get a tattoo or move abroad and follow some fashionable religion. If my brother ever matures enough to breed, I could make aunt-hood my raison d’etre, savour the joyous moments, unencumbered by any lingering duty.
Ben smiles through the silence that’s gathered, perhaps regretting my presence now that curiosity has receded.
– Another coffee?
Perhaps I should tell him my fate. That the choice he was so keen I made back then was a luxury I won’t have again. I wonder what names his are bestowed with, whether he stole from the mock list we made when there was no consequence. Maybe Jasmine was keen to retain a floral theme. It must be difficult, to achieve something distinctive yet not outlandish. Perhaps I even snuck in there as a middle name, a surreptitious concession to first love, one he’d share with his daughter when she was old enough to value such sly disloyalty, to regard it eccentric. Such a fuss made over first love, when it’s last love that matters – assuming the two aren’t the same, which they rarely are.
I’m glad the photograph suggests both are able-bodied, my wish for otherwise made shortly after Peter had left and on hearing about Ben’s incipient fatherhood. Anguish makes such spiteful fools of us.
– I should probably be going, I say. My meeting.
Ben rises a little too quickly. The dog opens its eyes but remains impassive. I realise that I really miss his parents; one can quibble over the division of CDs and friends, but parents are rather assigned, aren’t they?
We walk to my car in the clean early-afternoon light, the sky now blue as blue gets. A gustless breeze stirs the last of the tree’s leaves until they let go. At its base a blackbird prospects in the grass.
A last look at it all. Despite appearances I suppose there are cracks even here.
We hug until I release him.
– Good luck with that pond, I say.