School’s closed. Again. I guess I missed the letter. I really must remember to check the boys’ school bags.
Bruno says ‘Is it bring your kids to work day? It comes round quickly doesn’t it?’
I mouth ‘Fuck off’ above the children’s heads.
The boys are looking round disapprovingly. Again. Clocking the sofa and the armchairs and the cushions and the rugs.
Sonny says ‘It looks more like a home than our house does.’
Kit bounces on the sofa. ‘It’s a lot more comfortable than ours.’
Sonny says ‘Where did you get the furniture?’
I say ‘It used to be in Billy’s house.’
They look at me accusingly. Picking on Billy again. As if building houses on his football field isn’t bad enough.
I toy with the idea of explaining that I’m helping Billy’s mother out. But I’m not sure they’re ready for the finer detail of mortgage arrears and repossession.
Sonny says ‘So what’s Billy going to sit on?’
‘I’m sure they’ve got other chairs.’
‘You could at least give them the futon. You don’t need it any more.’
Kit says ‘I think Billy would rather have the bean-bag.’
Sonny says ‘Let’s give them both.’
It looks completely different, the living room. What with the futon and the bean-bag. And without the three-piece suite. Like Habitat in its glory days. Stripped pine floor-boards. Scandinavian chic.
She rather likes it. She feels as though she should be padding barefoot, or maybe wearing clogs. Lighting the occasional candle. Wearing her hair long and loose and tousled. She feels like a character in an advert, in a book. She never felt this way when she was half of Alan and Linda. More like two thirds; three quarters maybe. He always was a little out of focus.
Billy is sitting on the bean-bag with his two new friends. It’s a shame about their mother. Poor kids. Still, you don’t get to choose your parents. And Billy seems happy enough. Ecstatic, if she’s honest. Playing with his scalextrics. It must be more than a year since he’s had it all laid out. Daft really. Having it packed away in the attic. There’s plenty of room down here. Besides, it’s Billy’s house too.
Bruno says ‘She’s still wearing a wedding ring.’
I say ‘She’s still married.’
‘It’s a sign of a guilty conscience. If he’d left her she’d have stopped wearing it long since.’
I roll my eyes.
‘Ask her about the ring when you pick up the boys.’
I say ‘I’m not a private detective. I’ve been fired.’
‘Don’t you think it’s odd that she’s still wearing a ring?’
She says ‘So when did you stop wearing yours?’
I say: ‘I’ve never had a ring.’
She says ‘You said your husband had walked out on you.’
‘He had.’ I say. ‘He has.’
‘So you were married but you never wore a ring?’
Triumphant. She has trapped me in a lie.
It’s true. He’s not my husband. Though that fact seems academic. He refers – referred – to me as his wife. Habitually, casually, with an ease that suggested its veracity was neither here nor there. We have children hence we’re married. The narrative is more important than the truth.
My marital status is a technicality, a detail.
She doesn’t see it that way. All she sees is a lie. A blatant, outright lie.
I say ‘We had – we have – two children.’
‘Were you even engaged?’
‘We didn’t need to get engaged. We were as good as married anyway.’
‘You lied to me.’
Fuck you, Linda Kirkby you sanctimonious cow. At least I know where my husband is. Sort of. Maybe. More or less.
She says ‘So did you love him?’
I say ‘He’s the father of my children.’
She says ‘Yes, but were you in love with him?’
I say ‘I thought we were a team.’
Lester is standing in the doorway. I hate it when he does that. As though he’s too important to join us; too busy to sit down.
‘Councillor Blake’s been on the phone. He’s demanding an official apology for our heavy-handed tactics.’
I’ve no idea where this is going.
‘People are complaining that we’ve hounded Mrs Kirkby from her house. Sent the bailiffs, taken her furniture away. What the hell is going on?’
I say ‘We haven’t hounded anybody. I bought her three piece suite to give her enough money to get the bailiff off her back.’
‘You did what?’
‘I bought Linda Kirkby’s furniture.’
I tell him everything. About the call from Linda Kirkby. About the anti-maccassars and the foot stool and the avocado three-piece suite.
He says ‘Please tell me this isn’t happening.’
He is breathing slowly in and out. With exaggerated effort. Fists firmly clenched. Straining to control his rage.
‘Are you out of your tiny mind? That’s the one thing we need to get this fucking project off the ground. For the Kirkbys to default on the mortgage. The house gets repossessed; it goes to public auction; we get it for a song. We have the access sorted. No ransom strip, no CPO. For once, we were actually going to get lucky. And you….YOU….’
He is choking on his words.
‘You pay the fucking mortgage arrears.’
‘Her husband’s left her. They were going to lose the house.’
‘There are hundreds of homeless people in this borough. There’s a chronic housing shortage. Have you seen the waiting list for the affordable housing on our project? Do you want to go and tell them they could have had a house a whole lot sooner if you hadn’t fucked about playing Mother Fucking Teresa to Mrs. Fucking Kirkby.’
‘I had to make a snap decision. She had the bailiff at the door.’
‘You’re a developer, not a social worker. You’re meant to have some sort of understanding of the bigger fucking picture. They’re all struggling to pay their fucking mortgages. I’d take a bet that half the people on this street are in arrears. What are you going to do when word gets out? Buy up all their shitty second-hand furniture and let them name their price?’
‘It’s not shitty second-hand furniture. It’s good quality.’ I say, suddenly defensive about Linda Kirkby’s three-piece suite.
We survey the anti-macassars and the cushions and the shiny green velour.
It seems to have some sort of sedative effect. He collapses onto a kitchen chair; elbows on the table; head cradled in his hands.
It’s a long time until anybody speaks.
His tone is entirely different. Anger has subsided into quiet desperation.
‘Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?’
‘I do now.’ I say, defeated. ‘I made a bad decision.’
‘A horrendously expensive and possibly catastrophic decision. You’ve made us look ridiculous. And more to the point, you’ve sabotaged the project.’
‘I think sabotage is a bit extreme.’
‘We can’t afford to fuck this up. We don’t have any other money coming in.’
Lester looks exhausted.
‘Go home. Get some breathing space. Give yourself a break. Take a holiday with the kids. We’ll talk about it properly when the boys are back at school.’