In the safety of the bathroom, Jane opened the envelope and peered inside. There appeared to be a printed leaflet. Frowning, she slid it from the envelope.
“Alcoholics Anonymous” was the title. It was a small printed tract, giving venues and times of their meetings. Someone had printed her name across the top.
“I don’t understand,” she said, confusion replacing her fear. She stood, her heart rate returning to normal, unlocked the door, and went back to the kitchen. She showed the pamphlet to Peter.
“I don’t know why I’ve been sent this,” she said. “It’s got my name on it, so it can’t be a mistake.”
“Probably someone wants you to go and help,” suggested Peter, turning to make the tea.
The door opened and Christopher appeared. He took a hesitant step towards his mother and paused. She rose hurriedly to meet him.
“I feel…” he began. Then was promptly sick all over the floor.
Jane shut her eyes for two seconds, then with a deep breath she moved to carry him upstairs.
They carried their coffee outside to some shiny metal chairs and placed it gingerly on a small round table that wobbled. Had they been more practical, thought Jane, they would have fiddled with folded paper and matchboxes until they had a suitable wedge to solve the problem. Instead, they sat carefully, and held their coffees with both hands. The cups were large, more like bowls and were heavy to lift. There was something incongruous about sitting in the middle of a High Street, as though pretending they were in the South of France, with neither the scenery nor the relaxed pace. However, the day was sunny and warm, and it was not an unpleasant place to be.
Jane was almost bursting with her news and she launched into it.
“I met Matthew,” she told Suzie.
“Matthew?” frowned Suzie, “The labourer?”
This irritated Jane. He was not a ‘labourer’, he was a perfectly intelligent human and he was her friend. She found the description demeaning.
“The guy who built our extension, yes. I met him by chance but he suggested that we meet up sometime.”
“We being just you, or you and Peter?” asked Suzie.
“Me,” said Jane, “I hardly think Peter would approve. He has his own friends, anyway—all the people at work. His work-colleagues, a whole myriad of people who I have never met and never hear about—his own friends in his own world. Matthew is my friend. I assume I am allowed friends too. If Peter can have his own friends, many of whom will be female, friends who he jokes with, has coffee with, spends time with—a part of life that is separate, almost secret, from us and our marriage—then so can I.”
Suzie balanced her coffee back on the saucer and looked hard at her friend. She was not quite sure what she was being told.
“And where is this going to lead?” said Suzie, “What are you planning will happen?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Jane. She leant forwards and confided in a low voice, “And I don’t care. It’s exciting. It makes me happy just thinking about it.”
She sat back, satisfied. She had been longing to tell Suzie, and so had arranged to meet her for coffee. She was certain her friend, ever fun-loving, would be captivated by the story, and had looked forward to confiding, laughing, making plans together. She was also hoping for a reliable alibi should the need arise.
The two women had been friends for years, meeting at antenatal classes when expecting their sons. It had been an easy friendship, rooted in those early weeks of motherhood when even combing their hair had been a task to remember. They had worried together before labour, wept together through sheer exhaustion after sleepless nights, and shared potty training traumas. The bond was deep. Jane felt that anyone willing to befriend you during those emotionally turbulent months when you resembled a slug and smelt of cheese, was a friend indeed.
“I think,“ she whispered, “that I am possibly going to have an affair.” She waited, smiling.
“Think?” queried Suzie, with narrowed eyes.
“Well,” admitted Jane, “nothing has happened yet.” She replaced her cup on the swaying table and resumed her story.
“You must remember Matthew,” she urged, wondering why her friend wasn’t eating up this delicious piece of news. Suzie nodded, and Jane continued in a rush. “Well, I’ve been thinking about him loads, couldn’t stop. And I really missed him when he left, felt sort of lonely. We’d become friends you see. He’s not just a labourer, he’s intelligent and funny, and we shared—I don’t know—a connection, I guess. We talked a lot—all the time really,” Jane swallowed. “Then I saw him again, at the Summer Fete.” Jane leant forward, lowering her voice, staring into the depths of her cup.
“I think maybe he came specially, looking for me. And we chatted a bit and then he suggested that we meet somewhere. And I think it means that he’s interested in me. That perhaps we could continue the relationship…”
Jane trailed off uncertainly and glanced up.
Suzie’s face was hard. She was silent for a long time, just looking at Jane.
“You’ll be a complete fool if you do!” Suzie said at last. Her voice was quiet, but the intensity shook Jane.
She was shocked. She had been sure that Suzie would share her secret with delight. Suzie was always playful, loved to be outrageous and laughed easily—it was not like her to be strict or moralising. Jane had thought her friend would want to be involved in this game, would share the fun of it, would be on Jane’s side.
Suzie sipped her coffee.
“It’s up to you, I guess,” Suzie said at last. “We are, after all, the generation of choice. We all got an education, we can decide if we want to work, if and when we want children. We all think we’ve got a God-given right to happiness and fulfilment, don’t we?” Suzie sat straighter, as if warming to her theme, deciding to be honest with her friend.
“Well, I for one don’t think we do, not really, not if it means hurting other people. That’s what animals do, not people, not grown-ups.” She took a sip of coffee, allowing herself time to think, to plan her attack.
“Did you love Peter, really love him, when you got married?”
Jane nodded. This was going horribly wrong; she had not intended to be lectured.
“And does he hit you?” asked Suzie, “Abuse the kids? Keep you locked up? Mentally torture you?”
“Well, no,” admitted Jane, “but there is Izzy…”
“Oh bollocks!” declared Suzie. “You don’t know for sure that anything’s going on. That’s just something silly we liked to laugh about—that was a game. This isn’t, not if what you say is true, not if you intend to do something stupid. And until this stud appeared, you were content enough anyway, even if you were unsure about Izzy. If you loved him once, you can again. If you fell out of love, you can fall back in again. Feelings are just fickle, they’re no judge of what’s really going on and they’re not worth trusting. Marriage is lonely sometimes, and boring and tedious. That’s why we make promises at the beginning.
“Are you really willing to just chuck a perfectly okay marriage out the window? For what? A few laughs and better sex once in a while? It’s not just about you anymore.”
Suzie paused, not sure if Jane was listening or just planning a defence. This was important, she wanted to get it right.
“Maybe Peter won’t find out,” Jane said, “I’m hardly going to announce it!”
“Jane, they always find out,” sighed Suzie. “Listen, think hard Jane. Think about the consequences and don’t be stupid, please. You are better than that.
“And say that you did manage to keep it quiet, is that what you really want? Skulking about, never being honest? Always wondering if you’ve been seen, desperately trying to remember lies? And you would end up lying to everyone, not just Peter. You’d have to lie to the kids, your mum, friends.
“And what if it continued, what if you fell in love? Are you going to rip apart your family? You can never be rid of Peter you know; you will share those children for the rest of your life. So you can look forward to arguments over birthdays, Christmases, weddings. The children will be caught in the middle, not wanting to take sides, all confused and insecure and wondering if it’s their fault. Is that what you want?”
“No,” whispered Jane, “but I’ve been so unhappy lately. I feel like I’m invisible.” She swallowed, feeling close to tears. This was horrible. She had thought it would be fun, they’d laugh and plot together. Instead she was being painted as some loose woman, someone nasty. And she wasn’t nasty, she was a good person. But she was so lonely, and she needed something, someone, more. Suzie didn’t understand, she wasn’t listening to what Jane was saying. She hadn’t looked for this, but it had happened, and it made her happy. She had a right to feel happy, she was sure she did. She fiddled with her cup, unable to meet her friend’s eyes.
“Oh Jane! We all feel like that sometimes. But don’t throw away what you’ve got. You and Peter have shared so much, survived the whole baby thing, built your lives together.
“Maybe Peter isn’t happy either,” Suzie suggested, “perhaps you need to talk, sort out what you both want. Have you tried telling him how you feel?”
“Yes,” mumbled Jane, staring at the table, “but he doesn’t hear what I’m saying. He has his own life, his world of work peopled by intelligent interesting attractive people. He dips in and out of our shared life, leaving me there on my own. I am invisible,” she said again.
Suzie could see that Jane was near to tears. She reached over and squeezed her hand.
“Poor old you, you are having a rough time. Marriage isn’t like they tell you when you’re young, is it? It’s about lonely evenings and dirty socks mainly! But it’s also about sharing, and having someone you can rely on. It’s about trust…
“Think carefully Jane,” she said. “Marriage is horrid sometimes, that’s why people talk about working at it. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth it though.
“Anyway,” Suzie added, “aren’t you religious? Can’t you pray about it or something?”
“Sure,” said Jane, feeling irritated now. She wished she’d never said anything, not tried to involve her friend. Perhaps she wasn’t such a good friend after all. Maybe things were only fun if Suzie thought of them. Jane hadn’t noticed that before.
“Okay, enough,” conceded Suzie. “Bit of a lecture that, wasn’t it? I’ll stop. I’m only saying it because I care.”
They talked for a while about safer topics, the fair, holidays, and a new television drama. However, the atmosphere was false and their conversation tense, so they did not order fresh coffee, and soon Jane glanced at her phone and announced it was time that she left.
“That went well,” thought Suzie with an ironic smile as she watched her friend leave. Then her eyes stung with unexpected tears and she began to frantically sort the coffee cups, determined to control her emotions. Jane was her friend; she didn’t want to hurt her. But she couldn’t joke about this, couldn’t just sit back and be party to something destructive.
Suzie knew well the stigma attached to a child of an unfaithful mother. It was not a topic she ever discussed, burying it safely in the past. Her own parents had divorced when she was ten and she and her brother had followed their mother to live with ‘Uncle Steven’. She remembered long nights of silent tears in a bed that smelt foreign, longing to return home. At school she had appeared sullen and uncooperative as she struggled to understand why her parents had split so abruptly, a nagging fear deep within that if she had been better, brighter, less trouble, then maybe both parents would have loved her enough to stay together. No one ever criticised her mother to her face, but she heard the whispered discussions at family gatherings, saw the snide expressions on the faces of her father’s relatives.
Once, just once, did she encounter her father’s rage. As a teenager she had overstayed her curfew and crept home late when she had been staying with her father. As she tiptoed to her room the hallway had been suddenly, cruelly illuminated and her father had faced her, grey eyes flashing in anger.
“Sorry I’m late,” she began, “Gary’s car broke down and…”
She got no further. His hand slapped the side of her face and she fell hard against the wall.
“You’re just like your mother!” he spat and marched to his room.
She had stood, frozen like stone for a long time. The grandfather clock ticked loudly in reprimand, marking each cold minute that passed. Then, like a robot, she went to bed. She washed her face. She cleaned her teeth. She brushed her hair. She changed into a pink nylon nightdress. She lay on her bed, in her father’s house. She never forgot those words.
All through an awkward breakfast, their stilted conversation pretending all was normal, she remembered. As she sat through lessons—history, biology, art—those words seared into her brain. She felt as if she were branded, like cattle headed for market.
“Just like your mother.” “Just like your mother.”
Down long years, those words remained. As an adult she could finally understand her mother’s desperate loneliness, the pain of living with a husband who didn’t restrain his moods, who flared with anger when he was disobeyed. She could also empathise with her father’s feeling of hurt betrayal, the unexpected loss of the woman who he loved. Yet she could never shake off the fear that some gene of unfaithfulness had been passed on to her, was part of her. It made her cling to the man who adored her trustingly, determined to never be: “Just like your mother.”
Now, as Suzie watched Jane leave, she almost wished she too knew how to pray.
“Don’t do it,” her mind pleaded, “Just don’t bloody do it.” She sniffed and stood, extracting a shopping list from her bag. Then she headed towards the supermarket.
Jane walked quickly to her car. She felt like a small child who had been reprimanded. She fumbled crossly for her keys.
“She’s just jealous,” she muttered, throwing her bag onto the back seat. “I didn’t ask for her opinion anyway. She doesn’t understand me, or how my life is. It was a mistake telling her, and I won’t make the same mistake again. This is my life, my business, and I can make my own decisions.”
She drove home, glaring at the other cars; ignoring the lump that seemed to be permanently lodged in the lower part of her chest.
To be continued on Thursday.
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