If I've learned one thing it's this; things rarely end the way you expect them to.
Winter had dragged on all through Spring that year and the grey days were seeping through my skin. I wasn’t the only one to feel that way. It’s all the mothers at the school gates were talking about - the incessant gloom, the absence of sunshine. The conversation was as dull as the weather.
It meant that we were stuck inside a lot more. The girls had been stoical about the rain at first, making endless batches of gingerbread men and cupcakes. It kept them quiet to
begin with but after a while the novelty of baking wore off and even eating uncooked dough lost its excitement. They were cranky and so was I.
Things had started badly that day. I was marshalling them for school when they started
throwing around piles of folded laundry.
‘Funny’, said Marla.
‘Funny’ repeated Lauren.
‘Not funny’, I shouted which made them laugh even harder.
‘I’ve made a swimming pool’ called Lauren up the stairs, ‘we’re paddling’.
While I’d been putting the clothes away they’d managed to up-end the dog’s water bowl all over the kitchen floor and were busy stomping about in their muddy Wellingtons. The floor was covered in boot prints and we were late again.
It was too wet to go running after I’d dropped them off, Sam was nervous about me slipping again, so instead I cleared up the breakfast things; rinsing the last dregs of mushy cornflakes and apple juice down the drain and wiping sticky streaks off the table, fridge and cupboard doors, noticing as I did that there was a new scratch on one of them. Then I made a mug of Earl Grey and pottered up to the study to check my emails. I scanned through the school newsletter and responded to messages about coffee mornings. The rain continued to fall, splattering against the study window, leaving trails of tears.
Two birds caw cawed at each other somewhere outside while the trees shook their wet
heads at them crossly. And in that sound another one rose in my mind- the two of us
laughing about something; a joke now forgotten, that probably never was that funny, though we’d laughed hysterically anyway. But still, there it was, and there we were, long before I’d met Sam, in another life, in a bed in another town with the sheets twisted around us - my head on his chest, his hand in my hair - laughing at something while the sun shone through the window throwing arcs of light into the room and my clock ticked away the time that didn’t matter.
Souvenir, that’s what the French call a memory - something you go back to. I don’t go back to this, back to him, often but when I do the pull surprises me. And still in the moment, half there, half here, the past and present converged as I conjured him back into my life.
‘Do you still use this email address? You probably don’t, but maybe you do. It’s been forever. How are you?’
I’d talked about him at length to Sam when we first met which might sound strange but
wasn’t really given that we started our ‘accidental courtship’, as Sam called it, on the back of my break up from him.
‘He was the jagged rock I clung to when I was lost at sea’ I whispered one night as I poured Sam another glass of wine. I thought I sounded deep. I thought I sounded like I was over him.
‘And what am I then?’ Sam asked.
‘The warm beach where I washed up’. I curled into him and he kissed me. His mouth was soft. He tasted of Merlot.
‘It’s been a long time. How are you?’ It sounded so breezy but it wasn’t really. The echo of
what I’d done was with me all day, a nagging voice I couldn’t shake. I checked my messages a few times before I had to leave to collect the girls. Nothing. The thing was though, the email hadn’t bounced back.
I imagined him reading it and wondered how he’d react, how he’d respond, even going so far as to formulate his replies in my mind.
A week went by without hearing from him and slowly he dropped out of my thoughts as I got on with the every day. I took the girls to school, bustled around the house then picked them up, joining in as they squabbled their way through ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ in the Volvo on the way home.
‘The Mummies on the bus go up and down, up and down’ - too true I thought.
I cooked their supper and cleaned up, J-clothing the table and dumping sauce stained plates in the sink before hurrying them into their bath where they merrily splashed water and bubbles all over me and the floor.
‘Come along’, I encouraged them feeling buoyed by the fact that the day was nearly over, ‘let’s see if we can have your teeth brushed before Daddy gets home.’
Then when they were finally tucked up and asleep in their beds Sam poured us each a
generous glass of Chardonnay, even though we were supposed to be cutting down, and we slumped on the sofa in front of the television with trays on our laps and the dog curled up between us.
Finally he sent a message back which was so bland and devoid of details, especially
considering the elaborate responses I’d imagined, that I felt cheated, offended even.
‘Good to hear from you. All’s well with me. I hope life’s been treating you well’.
Perhaps if he’d said a bit more or asked a bit more I wouldn’t have felt compelled to push it further. Or maybe I would have, I’m not sure. Hindsight helps you to see things more clearly but it also helps you to brush over memories that don’t fit with how things end up. Whatever the reason, I wrote back clamouring for more.
‘What have you been up to? Would love to catch up’.
I’ve often told Lauren not to play with matches but the truth is I understand the allure of the flame. I think that deep down I knew what I was doing was dangerous, destructive even, but I told myself that it was just harmless curiosity.
‘Yes, it would be nice to catch up at some point’, he wrote back.
My cage was rattled by his replies, which were almost non-replies they were so dismissive. I wasn’t prepared to be brushed away.
‘Maybe we should try and grab a coffee one morning. When are you free?’
‘I’m actually pretty booked up until early June. I know that’s a long way off but it has been 15 years, so I doubt a couple more months will make much difference!’
‘Fair enough! We can meet up then so long as you tell me what you’ve been up in the
Finally, after prodding and probing the lid lifted and we talked. We chatted maybe not quite like old friends, there was too much between us for that, but certainly enough to feel a connection grow again. I was interested in his life and he seemed interested in mine.
‘So you’re a mother now, it’s hard for me to imagine that given we’d just left uni when I last saw you. Do you enjoy it?’
‘It’s funny. On some levels I love it, I mean I know it sounds clichéd but it really is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. But other times I worry I‘m not very good at it - I get so tired and snap at them even though I know I shouldn’t - they just really know how to wind me up. Does that sound awful?’
‘No, it sounds honest.’
‘How about you? Any kids?’
‘Hell no! Still enjoying the bachelor life - I travel a lot, I’ve just bought a new place in town, working hard - you know…’
‘I remember - you never liked to be pinned down…’
‘Well, that depends on who was doing the pinning ;0) ’
It’s only when you’ve finished gorging on chocolate, that you realise you’ve over done it, that you’ve gone too far. I’m not sure when I realised or if I ever really did. I started to re-read old letters that he’d sent me, windows on another time, on another life. It seemed strange to me that I had once found them stifling, they seemed so romantic now.
‘You’re mine forever’, he’d written in one.
‘We belong together’, he wrote in another.
As I drew back the curtains on the past I began to lose myself in it. One evening as I stood at the sink scrubbing at a burnt-on stain while Sam rifled through the freezer for ice cream, an old image floated up through the bubbles. We were in his flat, it can’t have been that long since we’d left university - it was maybe about six months or so before I met Sam. We’d had a dinner party, at least we’d called it that but it wasn’t really anything so grand, just some friends, whom I’ve long since lost touch with, gabbling together over cheap Bulgarian wine, pasta and some creamy meringue thing from Marks and Spencer. I was rinsing the dishes after they’d left, light headed from the wine.
‘Seriously, how can you have no washing up liquid?’ I asked.
‘Seriously’ he’d breathed into my ear, running his hands up my skirt, ‘come to bed’.
The evening’s a little hazy but we never made it as far as the bed, I remember that.
Sam and I started arguing more. At least I argued and he didn’t seem to notice so I suppose I should say that I started arguing more. Silly things started to really matter, possibly more so because they didn’t bother him.
‘We never go out on Saturday night any more’, I moaned one evening as we ate pizza
together out of the box with our feet up on the coffee table.
‘I know’, Sam smiled. ‘Still I don’t miss it, it’s cosy hanging out together at home don’t you think?’ He caught my eye, ‘Poor Tabby’ he chuckled putting down his slice. ‘Hey, you’ve got tomato paste on your cheek. Come here’, he wiped it off with his thumb and kissed my nose.
‘Can’t you take the bloody bin out before it starts spilling crap all over the floor’, I snapped another time.
He just slapped my bottom.
‘Cwap’, Marla repeated, ‘cwap, cwap, cwap!’
I glowered at him as he laughed. ‘That’s your fault I said’.
‘Cwap’ he said lifting Marla upside down.
Then there was his morning cough - ‘herr gruph herr gruph’, every morning, the sound of phlegm dislodging in his throat.
‘Shut up, it’s disgusting’ I yelled throwing a pillow at him.
‘For better or worse, darling’ he winked.
Maybe I was looking for a fight because I remember what a real fight felt like, and what
making up felt like too. Back then, before Sam, he and I had fought. And how! So much so that people used to knock on our doors.
‘Everything alright?’ they’d whisper through the keyhole.
We fought because it made us feel alive - the bitter pain, the fury, the desperate reconciliation.
‘I’m sorry. Don’t leave me’ he’d whispered into my ear, pulling me tightly to
him and kissing me hard. ‘Never leave me’.
‘I won’t. I couldn’t even if I wanted to’, I’d murmured back.
But of course in the end I did, I found I could.
It seemed that our meeting date had been crawling towards me through the mud but then time sped up and it arrived. I felt a prickle of guilt for not telling Sam but smoothed it away like a seasoned adulterer - what’s the point of upsetting him? Had I been honest with myself I would have said, I don’t want him to ask me not to go.
I got dressed carefully that morning. The girls were already at school. I didn’t have to rush. I didn’t have to bat away sticky fingers. The time was mine.
I’d thought about what to wear for so many weeks that getting dressed now, getting ready, seemed unreal. I couldn’t believe it was all really happening, that it would actually happen.
I replaced my glasses with contacts and let down my hair. I picked a top that flattered me and trousers that were stylish rather than simply practical - they were a bit tight across my tummy but I figured I could just suck it in in. Then I stood in front of the mirror checking my profile, practising my smile and imaging him smiling back at me.
As I applied shadows and blush, lipstick and powder I examined my reflection, wondering how I would look to him after all this time. Wearing make up in the middle of the day, was other worldly - naughty even. I was dressing up as someone else, becoming someone else. It made me feel a little uneasy as though I were watching myself wander down a garden path without any idea of when I was coming back.
As I walked to our meeting place, the sky clouded over and it started to drizzle. I rummaged in my bag for my umbrella before my hair started to frizz and cursed myself as I realised I’d left it by the front door. I scurried along under the thickening clouds noticing as I did that things were going wrong for people all around me.
There was the red-faced toddler howling in his pushchair; the businessman arguing with the taxi driver at the kerb; the woman whose grocery bag had split, her shopping becoming a milky mush on the pavement; the buggy bargers and barged alike and above all - me, caught in the rain hurrying to get somewhere that I suddenly realised I really didn’t want to be.
Although I had been the one who had pushed to meet and had spent so long fantasising
about the past, for some reason I suddenly couldn’t face seeing him. I tried to shake myself out of it, ‘in an hour it’ll all be a memory’, I told myself. Still I felt quicksand beneath my feet.
I stood outside the café looking in. The rain had stopped and the sun looked smeary as it
tried to break its way through the clouds. There he was, ‘my jagged rock’, looking decidedly fuller and middle aged, as of course I knew I did. I watched as he coughed into his fist and slurped his tea noticing as he leaned forward that he was balding slightly. I couldn’t marry my remembered image with the one in front of me and as I continued to look I felt something akin to loss - he was gone, the person I had known was no more.
Just then my phoned beeped with a message from Sam:
‘Shall I pick up Chinese tonight - save you cooking?’
I’d confused romance with drama and in so doing had failed to see what I’d had all along.
As I turned away from the café I took one last look at Darren before heading home.