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You said you were having a sleepover, you say. Your daughter nods.
You take a step back outside the front door, and then another into the road. There are eggs yolked across the front of the house. On the windows, the door, weeping down the whitewash. You’d been sitting in the carpark by the icecream kiosk for over an hour before driving back and now you’re regretting not giving yourself more time. You had anticipated carnage of a sort coming home but not this.
Nikki balks as you walk through the door, keys spiked between each of your fingers, anxiety spitting like alka-seltzer. Your daughter’s face is pale, eyes red at the rims, bruises on her bare thighs. She smells like male sweat and Malibu. You tell her to put some jeans on but Nikki is trying to use her scrawny form as a shield against the mess, the appalling scale of mess that she hasn’t been able to clean up even though it’s mid-morning now. Cigarette butts in the cut-glass glasses and crisps crisped into the carpet. There is a sickly stain on the skirting board and a slick of bright blue creeping across the arm of the sofa. Nikki says nothing as you survey one small unhappiness after the next. Door handles missing, chips on door frames and picture frames bullied sideways, watermarks on every surface. All your favourite things broken and ready for the bin. Even burglars do better jobs.
You wonder if anything has been nicked. Your husband would tell you not to suspect such bad things of teenagers, that people are good, but look how we are capable. You set your overnight bag down beside the bottom step, its zips all zipped and luggage label falsely declaring a flight you haven’t been on. Nikki is too afraid of being told off to ask you how your work trip was. You’re grateful to not have to lie.
There’s no point in you taking your shoes off as you go upstairs to inspect the state of the bedrooms. Your husband always says why have carpets, it reminds him of people your parents’ age, and you concede that you’ll have to get rid of them once and for all now. Bottle caps in all the corners. Unclaimed coats in the spare room and there in your room, your bedroom, on your bed: a knotted plastic bag of used condoms as if the stork had brought it. You wish your husband were home to help shout at Nikki, tell her what a disgrace she is to your family, but then the thought of him coming home reminds you of what you will have to tell him. What a disgrace to your family: something he would never say, no matter how angry he might get.
You sit on the section of the bed that looks the least used. A broken slat crunches under your weight. You’ve never been one for diets but it strikes you how much your body has changed. Now you look like one of the older aunts who’d been sidelined at your wedding. And the bed that has held your marriage close in the night for seventeen years looks just like any piece of furniture, tired, dated.
When you and your husband first met in those first few weeks, you didn’t understand how anyone could hold down a job or remember where they’d put their travelcard or be bothered to cook dinner because you were so in love with him. You didn’t have anything untrue to say to him because your mind was dishevelled like the sheets you slept in. How your romance has paled into duck egg-coloured curtains and soft furnishings through years of recycling trips, fuse changes, cancer scares.
Nikki comes in as you tug off the damp duvet covers and throw them in a pile with the sogging pillowcases, the eiderdown, the undersheet. You resent housework on a good day but the rough activity hides the shake in your hands.
It got out of hand, your daughter says. There were only meant to be five girls and somehow five girls turned into fifteen and then twenty boys, she couldn’t possibly say who they were. Names weren’t the point. The neighbours came, the police came, more kids from school turned up although she did her best to barricade the door. They had to call an ambulance at half five because Amy had to have her stomach pumped. Someone vomited in the dishwasher but Nikki didn’t know how to turn it on to get rid of it. She doesn’t know where the cat is. The list goes on. She’s really, really sorry.
You should’ve seen the look on her face, you imagine yourself saying to your husband. I wouldn’t know how to smirk at the same time as feel really, really sorry but our daughter has mastered the art of it.
Are you going to call Dad, Nikki asks, her legs still bare as she lets you pick up the laundry. Nikki follows you downstairs to the utility room, watches you put the wash on. You had hoped to have a shower by now but Nikki follows your every step just as she had done as a toddler, waiting for you to make another discovery. Can adults have no privacy from their children, you say with contempt. Next week you will tell her that she will have to start doing her own washing, that you’re sick of her tell-tale knickers. You wonder whether you will still be living in this family next week, what family there will be left. You realise that you’re about to cry then, so you go out to the garden. You stand on the grass. It smells like piss and vodka.
You’re not sure you would ever have got away with it in a neighbourly place like this, even without the guilt. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone must have been laughing at you in the hotel, mimicking the noises you’d made behind the locked door. At breakfast, you saw how old you looked in the smirks of the summer season staff. You told Ian not to order bacon, that it would take longer under the grill and you should have croissants instead, but it wouldn’t have made a difference as you’d already heard one of the cleaning girls say to another, isn’t that Mrs Davis? Who’s she with?
Ian didn’t seem fussed by the evident judgement but then men weren’t. You packed your laptop bag and the other props necessitated by a business trip away into the boot of the car while he settled up with the receptionist. He brought you a Murray Mint from the glass bowl on the front desk but you didn’t kiss again afterwards. You sat in the car for a long while after you’d dropped him at the end of his road. He had a wife. Ian had long talked about love before the sex but there was no mention of it since the hotel. You were always going to tell your husband, you thought as you watched the traffic pool around you, the lie to yourself as clear as the Chablis you’d been drinking in the bar with Ian the night before. People leave each other for other people all the time, Ian had said. It sounded more like an excuse than a reason now.
When you agreed marry your husband all those years ago, you’d said, please never leave me for someone else. Please don’t go to bed with another woman. Please don’t hold someone else’s hand. Please don’t tell the people you work with when we’ve had a fight. Please don’t tell anyone you find me boring. Please don’t leave me stuck with the kids because you’re bored of having a family. Please don’t make me be the bad cop parent who’s the only one who ever tells them off. Please never leave me.
You were so scared to tell your husband every single thing that you were scared in case he found you weak and neurotic and it wore away at the edges of his affection. But you had said please and he said thank you and now you can’t imagine his face when you tell him that you were just curious and tired and you didn’t mean anything by it but yes you did fuck Ian from the private equity team and you still haven’t decided whether to say sorry yet.
You never thought you would be the kind of person to cheat. Now you know that there’s no such thing. Cheaters are abstract concepts, like heroes or like children, at least until you have them.
Nikki asks if you would like a glass of water. No thanks, love, you say. She stands watching you until the front door opens with its heavy whine. You and your husband had used to joke that there was a sad animal trapped in the doorframe, desperate to get out. It surprises you that you used to laugh at this.
Your husband comes through the patio doors, puts a hand on your shoulder. His hand feels heavier than normal, the pressure reminding you of your collarbone beneath. It’s a part of the anatomy no-one notices until it’s kissed or broken. He stands there, you sitting now on one of the white plastic chairs, and he’s smiling.
You’ve got to see the funny side, he says as Nikki absents herself. She’s a teenager. We’ve all lied to our parents, that’s what they’re there for. The house will be alright, we’ll be alright.
Nikki comes back with the glass of water you’d refused and you tell her to fuck off, fuck off, can’t you see I’m trying to talk to your father? You haven’t sworn at Nikki in her whole life and she retreats as if you have killed every pet she has ever owned. Your eyes are stinging at the shame of it. Hey, your husband says, it’s okay. We’ll get the hoover out and a few black bags and it’ll be like it never happened. Except you know full well it won’t be so you decide to tell him then.
It’s easy to cheat on someone really. Texting doesn’t feel like cheating, kissing doesn’t feel like cheating, which means that sex doesn’t really feel like cheating unless you start to have feelings, but then if you feel like you’re in love that excuses everything. It’s difficult to feel guilty when you are unbearably in love. It’s when the doubt creeps in that the remorse crashes across like a wave when you’re not looking.
You say you’re worried that you’re not actually in love with Ian, it’s just that you were bored and looking for something. You wanted to be someone who wasn’t a mother for once. You hadn’t planned to say that but the words uncover themselves like an unlucky scratch card. What if I’ve made a terrible mistake and it will all happen all over again, you plead, but by then I won’t have you?
There is a long while when your husband don’t say anything. A crushed beer can flips on its side in the breeze, fitting and foaming. A slug is ramming itself into the sticky tin’s mouth. It’ll cut itself clearly but neither of you move to help it. You reach for your husband’s hand but it’s already gone, his fists hard in his pockets like boxing gloves as he paces the flowerbed for a fight.
You can ask me anything, you say. I’ll answer anything honestly.
Oh because it’s not like you wouldn’t lie, he says. Tell me, is lying picked up through nature or nurture? She’s your daughter through and through. The pair of you. Women.
You don’t know how to answer so you drink the drink that you told your daughter you didn’t want. I didn’t think this would be me, you say. You sip some more of the cool water, tasting only the morning’s fried breakfast. Flabby bacon and unbranded beans. You wouldn’t have touched it were it not for the hangover from all the wine you’d needed to take your clothes off. You wonder if everything will taste that way for a while. You tell your husband that you don’t know what to do next. What does he want?
He doesn’t laugh exactly. You wait for him to call you a witch, a bitch, a whore. He doesn’t call you anything because he is a kind man and this is why you married him. This is probably why you are bored with him, because he let you be. Kindness is a virtue but as such it is always a fault.
Nikki is watching the pair of you from the kitchen window, trying to decide from your silence whether she’ll still get Sunday’s pocket money or not. You can tell from your husband’s pause that you will be offering her extra pocket money to buy whatever she wants when she grudgingly comes to stay for alternate weekends. Your husband won’t look at you and you know then he isn’t really your husband anymore.
You wonder if you would rather be him, walking back through the French doors, across the lounge, out through the hallway, out the front door and down the path. Rather than you, sitting at the patio table surrounded by beer bottles and bin bags and sick. Perhaps the grass is always greener.
Looking out after him, your line of sight is one that you have never noticed before. You can see straight from the garden through your house and into the road, the daylight spilling on to the tarmac outside. You can see next door’s begonias, the single yellow line. Someone somewhere is mowing their lawn. You could even see the sea from here were it not for the sea wall.