Always and Forever - Sneak Peek
Our marriage had screeched to a halt a long time ago but it was John who finally called time. I’d stopped bothering with him, focussing entirely on our three year old, Harry, but still sometimes – ever so rarely, but sometimes – I’d get a glimpse of the old John. He might say something funny and I’d feel my mouth want to twitch into a smile, or I might spot him through the window as he cycled into the drive, trousers tucked into his socks, wearing the slight frown he had when he was thinking. We used to be happy but not anymore. ‘I’m going to move in with my Dad for a while. Get some space.’ John’s mouth was dry and I could see him trying to swallow. ‘Just for a bit.’
This particular bombshell was dropped on a Friday evening, the time of year when spring has not yet sprung and the cold and dark has become an unrelenting slog. Irish winters tend to take their toll, in all sorts of ways.
Anyway, I’d just put Harry to bed, clutching his grey rabbit, when I heard the rattle of John’s key at the door. We’d been together for fifteen years by then, both of us older and more careworn than when we had met as students. He was now standing there, just inside the door, looking frozen through, his clothes all bunched underneath his luminous cycling jacket.
‘What do you mean you’re moving in with your Dad?’ My voice was this new one I had developed, which sounded strange and unreal to me. Before everything that happened I always sounded so confident, but these days I wasn’t myself at all. Or rather this was the new me and I just had to get used to feeling like this, permanently petrified that life would deal a new blow.
John had tears in his eyes and I thought, why is he crying? John never cried, never in all the years since I met him and now tears were rolling down his face. He stepped forward and tried to take my hand with his damp, cold one but I flung it away. Please, I thought, not now. Staring at him, I searched his face for clues, trying to work out what he was trying to say. Was he leaving for ever? Was this the end of me and John?
‘It’s just…’ he said. He pushed his hands through his hair. ‘I can’t…’ He still held his helmet. Put it down, I thought. Put it down and stay. But he didn’t. ‘I have to,’ he continued. ‘For my own sanity. I’ve tried. I’ve tried everything. I know it makes me sound like a coward and perhaps I am, but I wish you would understand.’ As he spoke his jacket rustled along, accompanying his words. ‘I’m just not coping well,’ rustle-rustle. ‘I’ve got to get my head together, some space… oh, I don’t know… I just can’t breathe sometimes.’ Rustle-rustle. ‘I’m in a shop, or on the train to work and I feel that if I don’t get some fresh air I’m going to stop breathing in front of everyone and… and…’ Rustle-rustle. ‘I need a rest.’
‘Me too. I’d like a rest!’ I found myself shouting. I quietened down, thinking of Harry upstairs and thanking God that my mother, Marietta, was at the golf club’s Friday night drinks.
‘That’s not what I meant. I just need to get away. Sort my head out, that’s all. I think…’ There were more tears in his eyes now. ‘I think I’m going to go mad if I don’t.
We were both exhausted. The past few years had taken their toll. Who knew life and happiness could plummet so rapidly? Now, the thought of putting on a suit and heels and spending my days trying to please clients makes my blood run cold. Before Harry and everything else, my career in PR had been my life and if someone had asked me then if I ever saw myself as a stay-at-home mother, I would have laughed in their faces before taking a sip of my double-shot cappuccino. I was happy to allow John to go out to work, as long as I got to stay at home, where I felt safe and where I could keep Harry safe. Marietta had only just convinced me to let Harry sleep in his own room, something I resisted, until I tried it and he loved it. We all slept better now but I still carried the baby monitor around the house and checked on him several times in the evening.
‘It’s like there’s this cliff,’ he went on, determined to speak, to try to make himself understood, ‘and I’m walking along the edge and earth keeps falling away and it’s dark and my foot is going to slip any moment. It’s terrifying.’
I knew how he felt, all too clearly. But being terrified was just something I had learned to live with. While I retreated into motherhood and dealing with my own grief, John went another way. Far away from me. But he could have come home with a tattoo of Ozzy Osbourne, or announced he was transitioning and I wouldn’t have noticed. Or cared. I was just surviving. And Harry. Harry had to come first. John and I had separated a long time ago, only now he was moving out.
I looked away but really all I wanted to do was to put my arms around him, to hear him whisper into my ear how much he loved me, like he used to do. To remember that feeling of invincibility between us. But we weren’t invincible. We were broken; only he had realised it before me.
At the front door, he hesitated. ‘So, I’m going.’ I refused to meet his eye. ‘Goodbye Jo.’ He swung his bag across his shoulders and I watched him wobble off on his bike and out of our marriage.
• Running out of milk, so no tea
• Watching Mastermind on your own
• The pointlessness of cooking when a) Harry doesn’t eat much and b) biscuits are plentiful and easy to open
• The ensuing weight-gain
After a sleepless night, I broke the news to my mother, Marietta. She was always most receptive after her daily power-walk as she, like us all, responds well to sea-spray and ozone. Aged 62, fit as the proverbial fiddle (because of the golf and the arm-pumping walks and all that) Marietta’s brain was still as sharp as the tacks she used to sell when she ran Hardman’s Hardware. Despite this, recently her behaviour was becoming slightly odd. She was often somewhat distracted, lost in thought, and she kept disappearing and never really answering where she had been. She’d also run off to take calls and return looking flushed and preoccupied.
‘Mam,’ I said, ‘John has… John’s gone…’
‘John’s gone?’ She was stirring porridge for herself and Harry’s second breakfast (his first had been Nutella on toast with me at 6.30am). ‘He’s gone? John?’ She balanced the wooden spoon across the pot.
I nodded. ‘Gone.’
‘Yes! For God’s sake, Mam! He left last night, said he had to get his head together.’
‘Where’s he gone?’
‘His Dad’s. Jack’s.’
Her lips tightened. ‘I thought this would happen.’
‘You thought this would happen?’ I rasped. ‘What do you mean, you thought this would happen. And if you were so sure, Mystic Meg, why didn’t you tell me and save me from the shock?’
‘Well,’ she said, filling the kettle and clicking it on. ‘He’s depressed, isn’t he?’
‘You think he’s depressed?’
She shrugged. ‘I guessed he wasn’t coping. He’s a bottler.’
‘Bolter more like.’
‘He bottles things up. Not one to talk about his feelings. Not one to want to worry you.’
‘Bit late for that. But depressed? Really?’
I was getting the distinct impression she was on his side and not mine and I was outraged. ‘How are you so sure? How do you know he hasn’t met someone?’
‘I’m not; I don’t,’ she said. ‘But he’s a good person is John… he’s obviously very unhappy.’
‘Unhappy?’ I was suddenly painfully aware that I hadn’t given John’s mental well-being one thought over the last few years. He had become unimportant. I had needed him to be alright, to be the one thing I didn’t have to worry about. But maybe he had met someone nicer than me (not difficult to do under the circumstances). Someone who doesn’t have bags under her eyes or think that cereal for dinner is perfectly acceptable. Someone fun. I was ballooning in front of his very eyes, too… it all made sense.
‘So, what am I going to do?’ I said, eating Harry’s cold, leftover toast, daubing extra Nutella on the slices. (Butter and Nutella. Was that wrong?). I felt as though my insides were being clenched and twisted by some invisible force. I couldn’t breathe. ‘What am I going to do?’
‘Harry!’ she called. ‘Porridge!’ And then, turning back to me: ‘You’re going to carry on,’ she said. ‘That’s what you are going to do. One foot in front of the other.’ Her phone beeped. She grabbed it and checked the text and then popped it back onto the work surface. She then slid it into the pocket of her trousers.
‘But how can I do that?’ There was no answer. Marietta was back to stirring the porridge, mind utterly absent.
Harry came over and crawled onto my lap, tucking his head against my neck. I rubbed my face in his thick, brown hair. He smelled of shampoo and Playdoh. In one hand he had a plastic lion and I could feel the Lego in the pockets of his corduroys. ‘Hello Harry, my sweet. Are you ready for your porridge?’
‘Yes, Granny made it.’
‘I only like hers. Yours is lumpy.’
‘That may well be but I make the best toast, isn’t that right?’
‘And the best pasta and the best fish fingers.’
‘And you are the best eater.’ I kissed his cheek. ‘Isn’t he Mam? Harry, the best eater?’ She didn’t answer. ‘Mam?’ What was this? Always so switched on and focussed, she was now scatty and preoccupied. Mam?’ I said again.
‘What?’ At least her hearing was working.
‘What’s your mother’s maiden name?’
‘What are you on about?’
‘What colour are my eyes?’ I said, closing them.
‘Haven’t the foggiest,’ she said. ‘Have you taken leave of your senses?’
‘What’s my name?’ I said.
‘Sweet Mary and Joseph!’
‘It’s Jo!’ I said. ‘My name’s Jo! Not Mary or Joseph.’
‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ She began serving Harry’s porridge and I saw her take the salt from the counter and sprinkle it on.
‘No it isn’t,’ she said. She tasted it. ‘Yes it is,’ she smiled at Harry. ‘Silly Granny.’ She took out a new bowl and served him again, this time using sugar.
‘By the way, Mam. Where were you last night?’ I gave Harry a spoon and he started feeding himself. He was due to start attending a crèche five mornings a week. He was growing up but he was still my little boy. If only, there was some way of trimming his roots and making him into a bonsai boy but every time I dressed him, I could see the ascent of his pyjamas as they became smaller and smaller, nanometre by nanometre. ‘I was awake gone 3am and you weren’t home,’ I said. ‘I didn’t know that Friday nights at the golf club were so hedonistic.
‘Didn’t you?’ she said vaguely.
‘You were out all night!’
‘Not really! Honestly Joanna, you’d think you were my own father. I was in the golf club and we all got talking and there was some dancing. We’re not old fogies you know. There is life in the old dogs yet. Nothing for you to worry about.’
And then she laughed a strange tinkly little laugh that didn’t sound like her at all. This was all I needed, my mother going strange just when the rest of my life was heading south.
Once Harry had finished his porridge and I was clearing up, I delved in the fridge for the secret stash of chocolate I kept for emergencies. If this wasn’t a situation – husband gone, a long and lonely life of single parenthood stretching ahead - which called for the magical properties of Lindt then I didn’t know what was.
Publishing 1st May 2017