Daniel is standing in the doorway. A visitor in his former home. His discomfiture is tangible. He is with us and not with us. It’s not his house, it’s ours. He’s not sure where to stand, what to say. How to make himself at home. He hovers in the living room; blocking out the light. He is Gulliver in Lilliput. A Big and Not-So-Friendly-Giant.
We are going out for dinner. It’s an extravagance we can ill afford. We can’t afford the whole shebang. We can’t afford the cafés, the funfair, the chips on the beach. The impetuous decisions that put my job at risk. We are living beyond our means. We can’t afford his bachelor bolthole; the flat that’s so high that your head’s in the sky. We can’t afford to split up; run two households; go our separate ways. We can’t afford the amusement arcade at forty pounds a throw.
But it’s clear he can’t stay here. He finds it claustrophobic, overpowering. Too small; too cramped; too twee. He’s struggling to step away from the door and into the house. We don’t look each other in the eye. We are wary; locked in combat. It’s difficult to believe that we ever shared a bed.
The boys are thrilled to see their father. They stand up straight, shoulders back. They show off the row of plastic pirates displayed proudly on the table. Explain that they are prizes. Each one won fair and square. He says ‘Yes, but how much did you spend?’ He has completely missed the point.
He says ‘I’m not sure the arcade is the nicest place for children.’ The boys are baffled, disappointed. Who else would it be for?
We have made an effort. The boys are wearing proper shirts with buttons. We are all approximately clean. It’s odd to be out for dinner with a man; as a family of four. The boys hold their heads up high. They both want to sit by Daddy. We are directed to the window seat, given the wine list without asking. We are a better class of customer. The type to order wine by the bottle. Clock up a three figure bill.
The sommelier is going into detail. Courteous. Taking his time. Ours will be a considered choice of wine.
Kit says ‘I know what my Mum’s favourite wine is.’
The room is quiet.
Kit says ‘It’s House Rosé.’
The boys order grown-up food. King-sized Man Food. Not fish and chips or pasta but the kind of food their Dad eats. Ribs; Steak; Burger-in-a-Bun.
My phone keeps vibrating in my pocket. Sod’s law. Days go by without an adult conversation. Now I’m playing Happy Families the whole world wants to talk.
I sneak a stealthy peek. Five missed calls from Bruno. I don’t want to speak to him. Then again, I do want Daniel to see I’m in demand.
I say ‘I’m sorry, it’ll only take a minute but I have to take this call.’
Bruno says ‘So who wrote the letter?’
I say ‘I’m fine thank you. And how are you?’
He says ‘Come on, just tell me.’
‘I’ll tell you who wrote the letter if you tell me why you’ve been avoiding me.’
‘You’re not going to like the answer.’
The line’s gone quiet. I recognise this silence. Insistent, more intense than any conversation. Awkwardness between two people who used to rub along quite happily. The white bright silent noise of so many things unsaid.
He says ‘I’d rather have this conversation face to face. Do you mind if I come over?’
I say ‘I’m out for dinner with Daniel.’
He says ‘I thought Daniel had moved out.’
Dammit. Why would he think that?
I say ‘He just needs some space to deal with his depression.’
‘Of course he does.’
I turn my mobile off.
I go back inside the restaurant and sit down next to Daniel. We look like a family, but we know we’re just pretending. We are respectful of each other; overtly friendly. Laugh a little too loudly at each other’s feeble jokes. I get up to leave the table and have to squeeze behind his chair. We both flinch when we accidentally collide.
Five missed calls from Bruno.
A text saying ‘Call when you get home.’
I text ‘I’m home.’
‘Can I come over?’
‘Give me half an hour to get the boys to bed.’
Half an hour. Just like that. As though I’m bloody Super Mum. As though the whole thing runs like clockwork. Like a well-oiled machine. As though there’s any sort of hierarchy in this household. As though I press the button on bedtime and trigger a routine.
I say ‘Fellas, you need to go to bed. I’ve got Bruno coming round.’
Sonny says ‘It’s OK, we don’t mind.’
There’s a half-remembered conversation swirling in my head. Something Daniel’s therapist said. Or rather something Daniel said that Daniel’s therapist said. About the erosion of clear boundaries. About my failure to implement routines. To ring-fence adult time. To establish clear blue water between the children’ world and mine.
Kit says ‘Why didn’t Daddy come back home with us?’
‘Daddy needs time by himself.’
I am clinging to the hope that this is transitory. He hasn’t gone for ever. He is taking some time out. To reconsider; rest; recuperate. This is the story we have told our children, told ourselves. The story that I choose to hear.
Other people make their partners happy; are courted, married, cherished, claimed. Other people give their children a secure and happy home. Bed time; tea time; Daddy-comes-home time. A butter dish with a lid.
I don’t want a fractured family. I want my happy ending. I want a story that makes sense.
I say ‘I need to talk to him in private. Can you at least go and play upstairs?’
Bruno says ‘Shouldn’t you two be in bed?’
I say ‘I’ve told them they’re allowed to stay up late.’
Sonny says ‘It’s only ten o’clock.’
Rumbled. The boys go to bed when I do. Eat when I do, sleep when I do. Easier all round. Avoids the bedtime standoff. Avoids the effort of having to work out how I function as an adult.
Imagine how much wine I’d get through if I had my evenings to myself.
It works for us. But I can see it’s not ideal. I bet Billy Bloody Kirkby’s been in bed for hours.
I say ‘Fellas, I need to speak to Bruno. Go upstairs.’
Kit says ‘We’re watching telly.’
Bruno says ‘OK, boys. Your mother needs a break and you have to go to bed.’
They look at him, uncomprehending, and then they look at me. How dare this outsider start undermining my authority, telling them what to do? Instinctively I want to back their corner. It takes a conscious effort not to say ‘Don’t listen to him.’
Bruno says ‘Thanks for the support.’
I say ‘If you go up now Bruno will tell you a story.’
He says ‘Did you have a particular book in mind?’
‘Make something up. Give them a story that makes sense.’
Bruno gets three guesses.
‘Come on then, who wrote the lilac letter?’
I pause for dramatic effect. Pour a glass of wine. Screw the cap back on. Savouring the moment. It’s been a while since I’ve had anybody hanging on my words.
Bruno does a double take.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Absolutely. Linda recognised the hand-writing. And the paper. And the pen.’
Bruno says ‘It just seems a bit unlikely.’
‘Because she’s in her nineties?’
Bruno frowns with concentration, trying to make the news add up.
‘She just seems… so well put together.’
‘They’re the worst. The ones that set too much store by appearances. Vindictive. Spiteful. Can’t cope with the onset of old age.’
‘Maybe.’ Says Bruno thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps she knows that Linda’s buried her husband with the pets. Maybe Irene did it herself. That would explain why she’s so keen to keep us away from Macey’s Patch.’
I say ‘You know this just makes sense inside your head.’
‘It’s quite funny really. Mad old bat.’
I say ‘So are you going to tell me why you’ve been blocking my calls?’
Bruno takes a long deep breath.
‘I’ve been avoiding you partly because I feel bad that you’ve been suspended. And I realise you would never have bought Linda Kirkby’s furniture if I hadn’t pushed you into it, and I’m very grateful indeed that you didn’t mention that to Lester.’
I need a couple of minutes to digest what he’s just said.
It doesn’t make sense. I throw it back at him from my perspective.
‘One, I wasn’t aware I’d been suspended. As I understand it I’m spending quality time with my children while they’re on holiday from school. Two, forgive me if I’m missing something here but surely the fact that you feel grateful to me for not dobbing you in would be a reason to be friendly and supportive instead of blocking all my calls.’
‘I know.’ Says Bruno. ‘I guess I don’t feel particularly comfortable with gratitude and guilt.’
‘You could just say thanks and sorry.’
He doesn’t say a word.
I say ‘Was there something else?’
He looks uncomfortable. Another deep breath. Here we go.
‘I saw him. I saw Daniel.’
‘How was he?’ Steady voice. Insouciant.
‘He didn’t look like somebody who’s battling depression.’
‘It’s not something people advertise.’
Even as I speak I know what’s coming.
‘He was with someone. A woman.’
Of course he was.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I just did.’
‘Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?’
‘I just wasn’t sure you could handle it on top of everything else.’
‘On top of what?’
‘On top of being suspended.’
‘I haven’t been suspended.’
‘Jesus Dee, don’t make this harder than it needs to be.’
It’s pretty hard for me. Suspended and abandoned. Rejected and replaced.
I say ‘Did he look happy?’
‘Do you really want an honest answer?’
I say. ‘What did she look like?’
‘What do you want me to say? She looks a bit like you, but ten years younger.’
‘OK. A bit like you, but nowhere near as gorgeous.’
Thank you Bruno. That’s more like it. Let’s just leave it there.
He says. ‘Look, you look fabulous. But you look fabulous for forty.’
I feel my shoulders slump.
‘It’s a compliment. Forty is my target demographic.’
‘Oh God, are you still doing that?’
‘It’s not my first choice. I did ask Lester if I could work full time while you’re…’
I help him out. ‘temporarily taking time out to spend more time with my children. So what did Lester say?’
‘He said “Yes of course. And please accept a substantial bonus for all the additional unpaid hours you’ve put in over the years.”’
Bruno says ‘Yeah, right.’
Oh. He was being sarcastic. Of course he was. I’ve lost the art of adult banter.
I say ‘So how is Lester?’
‘Oh you know. He sends his love.’
‘Lester sends his love?’
‘Of course he bloody doesn’t. Dee, are you OK?’
‘Do you think you could let me know in advance next time you say anything ironic?’
‘Do you think maybe you’re spending too much time around your kids?’