Not to Scale
He has come to collect his things. This moment should have gravitas. But it doesn’t feel quite right. Nothing is to scale. He is too big for this house. Perhaps he always has been. Or perhaps the house has been too small.
It has all the constituent parts of gracious living. The street looks like a Mary Poppins stage-set. Picture-perfect candy-coloured pattern-book facades. The house stands four proud storeys tall. It even has a piano nobile. We are in it now. This room, our room – my room – is somehow both tiny and theatrical. Two French windows side by side. Balconies too small for seats, but just the size for waving to the neighbours or bursting into song.
Regency proportions. But scaled down for the seaside. There is no excess space, no storage. We are swamped by our possessions. Our bed – my bed – is three-quarter size at best. Barely visible beneath the vast black suitcase and its open lid. Just as well he’s packing his possessions. We need some space to breathe.
Systematically, determinedly, he pulls shirts from their hangers and throws them in the case. Six shades of sherbet. The colours match the street. Space is so constrained he doesn’t need to move his feet. He has found a rhythm: turning; tugging; bending; folding. Sobbing too. Silently but freely. He fills the room with purpose and with grief.
Evidently he has somewhere to go. Somewhere that might be a better fit.
The boys are skimming pebbles; paddling in the sea. They don’t go far. They’ve both become less confident; more clingy. At least when we’re together. As though they’re fearful that one of us will slip away if they let us out of sight. Even so they’re out of earshot. What with the screeching of the seagulls; the rumbling of the waves. It’s what we’ve been avoiding. An opportunity to talk.
Except we don’t know how. We don’t know what to call each other. What to say. What voice to use. How to jettison a decade of endearments. Darling, Sweetheart, Hun. A language for a different mood, a different time. For someone else. It’s hard to revert to the formality of Christian names. It’s easier when the children are around. We can be Mum and Dad. That relationship at least is constant, uncontested.
We watch the miniature steam train that runs up and down the beach. I am willing him to tell me that the boys look well and happy; to acknowledge that I’m holding it together. Doing a good job.
I say ‘I forgot how much the children love the sea front.’
He says ‘It’s not a place for kids.’
I have a text from Bruno. It says ‘You could be with me instead. You wouldn’t have to pay.’
I want to say something chatty, witty. Easy breezy. The way we used to talk. When we were flirting, courting, laughing, talking. To show I couldn’t care less what he thinks. I want to ask him what he has against the sea front. What right he has to spoil our fun. There’s something sticking in my throat. The banter doesn’t come. Different words are fighting to come out. ‘What’s she got that I don’t have? What if I make an effort, change my hair-do, wear some make-up, lose two stone?’
I send a reply to Bruno. ‘That might just be the most romantic text I’ve ever had.’ The sad thing is, it’s true.
We wander back along the seafront. Along the promenade that’s not a place for kids. It’s different this time round. Now I’m seeing it through his eyes. We watch the peddaloes; the giant plastic swans that glide across the lake. Except they scarcely glide at all. They bump along reluctantly then run into the reed beds and come grinding to a halt. Men in waders yank them out. Seedy-looking men who scowl and smoke and spit. Snarling at the punters with an air of deep disdain. We hurry past the arcade; past the dubious older men who watch the children chance their luck. I know they’ve always been there. But now they’re all I see.
The old lady with the pram pushes past us on the pier. I think of everything she stands for. All the horrors of lost hope; thwarted dreams; an addled brain.
We have one last ride on the Ghost Train. Kit says ‘It smells a bit of wee.’
He has ruined my Neverland fantasy: a future by the seaside; an ever-lasting Merry-Go-Round of sun-kissed holiday fun. Brought me back down to reality. Back to the bills and the damp and the deadlines; the white goods that won’t behave. The imminent confrontation; the inevitable lies. Difficult decisions; the dismantling of the household; the division of the spoils. The life that no longer exists.
I am sick to the pit of my stomach. Weak with foreboding and fear. Nauseous from the sickly stench of candyfloss and chip fat; the slight whiff of urine; fumes from cheap cigarettes. I am Billy Kirkby in the Catacombs. I’m not scared. I’m ill.
His case is in the hall. It can’t stay there. It’s too big. There is no room to manoeuvre. Even his luggage is not to scale.
We pull together. We pull ourselves together. Our last act as a couple; as a united front.
‘Daddy’s going to spend some time away. To see if he can stop being sad. To try and sort things out.’
It’s a game attempt at honesty. As close to truth as we have dared to tell each other; tell ourselves.
The boys look solemn. All of us are play-acting. None of it seems real.
Sonny is sidling up the stairs. His mind is on the TV in the living room. On Star Wars and The Simpsons. Or maybe, like his father, he just wants to get away.