Linda is collecting rent. For now she quite enjoys it. The novelty. The power. The look in people’s eyes. Suspicion. Sycophancy. She could get used to this. Then again, the novelty might wear off. She might find someone else to do it.
Pat McGinty hands her cash. A solid wad of ten pound notes. A box of groceries for good measure.
She says ‘I’m not keen on pink wafers. Or Werther’s Originals. Or sherry. I’d prefer a bottle of gin.’
Pat McGinty gives a deferential smile. ‘Perhaps you could write a list for next time?’
She’s just about to leave when he says ‘Before you go…’
‘Yes?’ she says. She hasn’t got long. He’s not the only tenant who’s expecting her today.
‘I’m sure I’m being stupid but….’
‘What?’ she asks impatiently.
‘I can’t find a phone number for the Society.’
‘The Welfare Society for the Widows of Sailors Lost At Sea.’
Linda shrugs as if to say she can’t see what he thinks it’s got to do with her.
‘I’ve scoured the internet.’ He says. ‘I don’t think it exists.’
Linda rolls her eyes.
‘Typical Irene! To lead us up the garden path. I bet she’s laughing at us now.’
Lester suggests lunch. Just the two of us.
It’s never a good sign.
He says ‘I hate to have to say this, but this really isn’t working. I think you need to take some proper time off work.’
I take a bite of bread so he can see that I can’t answer.
Lester carries on. ‘It’s not that I’m not grateful for everything you’ve done. We wouldn’t be the company we are without your input. But if I’m absolutely honest…’
He pauses to spread butter on his bread.
‘…. I’m not sure you’re cut out for it.’
I say ‘Cut out for what? For work?’
‘Cut out for development. You need to be thick-skinned; hard-headed; focussed. With both feet firmly on the ground.’
I suppose I should be grateful that I’m renting out the house. That someone else is paying the mortgage. I wonder if Linda Kirkby would be willing to waive the month’s deposit.
I pretend to study the menu while I work out what to say.
He says ‘You need to be able to prioritise. To make the right decisions. You’re too easily distracted. Your mind’s not on the job.’
Lester picks up the wine list. It’s that kind of lunch.
‘When you say you think I need to take some proper time off work…’ I say, my eyes fixed firmly on the menu.
‘….How long did you have in mind?’
For the first time he looks awkward. He can see he’s played it badly. He should have resisted the temptation to try to sugar the pill.
‘Well,’ he says. ‘it’s hard to say. Maybe we should have another conversation when the boys are settled at secondary school.’
I say ‘The boys are five and six.’
So there it is. The end of my career. My existence as a working mother. A failed experiment. I’m trying to work out what I’m feeling. Rejected. Dejected. Dismayed. Relieved.
Lester orders wine. House Red. Easy, cheap and plentiful. Both of us are silent as we wait for it to come. You could test me on the fixed price lunch. I’ve read the whole thing several times. I bet Linda Bloody Kirkby got to order a la carte.
Lester drinks the best part of a glass and clears his throat.
‘It’ll give you time to work out what it is you really want to do.’
I say ‘I thought I’d already decided. That’s why I took the job.’
I pour another glass of wine. This could be my last lunch on expenses. It could be my last meal out.
Lester has had enough. It’s never been his forte. Skirting round a subject. Softly bloody Softly.
He says ‘You should try writing fiction. All I hear you talk about is murderers and ghosts.’
I collect the boys from school. Loiter in the playground. Like the other mothers. The ones who don’t have jobs.
Sonny says ‘How come you’re here? Why aren’t you at work?’
Kit says ‘Are you pretending to be unemployed?’
Sonny says ‘Billy Kirkby says he’s going to live in our house.’
‘We’re doing a swap.’ I say, with all the brightness I can muster.
‘Do we get Billy’s kickabout pitch?’
‘We’re not moving into Billy’s house. We’re moving into Billy’s Grandma’s flat.’
The boys look at me blankly.
‘Billy’s Great Grandmother.’ I correct myself. As though that makes a difference.
‘How big is the garden?’
‘It doesn’t have a garden. It’s up some stairs above a shop.’
They look distinctly unimpressed.
Sonny says ‘What kind of shop?’
I say ‘A haberdashers.’
It sounds more exciting than a sewing shop.
Sonny says ‘What’s that?’
There’s no getting round it.
‘It’s a shop that sells things for sewing.’
The boys both look appalled.
‘And tapestry and knitting.’ I add. As though that’s any help.
‘It’s just around the corner.’ I say. As though it’s no big deal.
Kit cuts to the chase. ‘We’re swapping a house with a garden where we’ve both lived all our lives for some old lady’s flat.’
He looks to his older brother for support. I know what Sonny’s going to say.
‘Why would anybody do that?’
He is asking that a lot.
Because your father has other priorities. Because Billy’s mother stole my job.
I beam my biggest, brightest Mary Poppins smile.
‘We are pre-tend-ing to be poor.’
I have a text from Daniel.
It says ‘I realise this may be difficult for you, but I really think the boys should start to spend some time with me. Elise is keen to get to know them too.’
So that’s her name. Elise.
I’m at Daniel’s house in twenty minutes. At Daniel and Elise’s.
Daniel looks surprised. He has obligations, plans. He didn’t mean right now.
I give a final cheery wave before I walk away.
Free. Free as a bird.
Daniel has the children. Linda has the job.
I sniff the air. Contemplate the prospect of time with fuzzy boundaries. Time to do whatever I please. Time to visit friends I haven’t spoken to. To read, to rest, to fall apart. Time to clean the house, to plan the move. Time to face my fears. I have no responsibilities, no need to play a part. No one to be strong for; nothing to distract me; nothing to keep me sane.
I call in at the shop. Stock up with red wine. Pat McGinty looks at me strangely. Then again, he always does. I text Daniel to say I’m ill. The boys will have to stay at his house. I won’t be picking up the phone. If the children want to call me he’s to say I’ve lost my voice.
I pause before I open my front door. The task ahead is daunting. I have to clean the house from top to bottom; sort out the detritus from a lifetime; from a partnership; from an attempt to build a family. Lay to rest the fantasy that a woman like me can have it all. A career, a house, a family. A butter dish with a lid.
I’m scared to go inside. I’m not sure what will happen once I close the door behind me. Once there’s nobody to watch. I have the night ahead of me. And perhaps tomorrow too. Time to succumb to rage and hurt and fear. It isn’t long to fall apart. But I intend to do my best.