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“I have a device to make all well.“
Gemma is Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Wycombe High, end of year play.
Even with donkey ears and a rubber nose, she’s a stunner. My baby. Now a young woman. The sparkle in her eyes, the pink bulge of her cheeks, it’s all still there. Unchanged from the giggling toddler I chased around the bedroom when I played Nappy Monster.
My husband Alex and my son Jake laugh and wriggle in their seats. Jake turns and spots my red watery eyes. He nudges me.
“Soppy old thing,” he says.
Quick stop at Asda on the way home. Alex and Gemma dart off on a mission to stock up on salad, apples, and generally all the sensible stuff. Jake and I pick up a family size bag of prawn cocktail Wotsits, then amble over to the big misty freezers at the back. Jake sticks his face in one of them, picks out a three-kilo cookie-and-caramel ice cream tub and turns to me nodding for approval, his glasses steamed up. He sticks the tub in the trolly and spins the trolly in circles, narrowly avoiding a collision with the shelf stacker’s stepladder. The shelf stacker says, “Oi.”
Something catches my eye in the frozen fish section.
“Cod Provençal, ready-to-serve.” Just like at the restaurant. “Well I never,” I say, gesturing to Jake I need the trolly back.
“Ugh, we’re not having that for tea, are we? Looks like something the cat threw up.”
He has his father’s cheeky, gap-toothed grin, below my boringly ordinary brown eyes.
I squint at the frosty writing on the side of the packet.
“Tastes like the South of France.” And people get paid tons to come up with stuff like that.
“I’ll cook it one night when it’s just me and Dad,” I say to Jake, putting the box in the trolley.
We four make a run to the car as it starts to bucket with rain.
My fingers brush the damp ferns. I’m floating. Clouds bubble over the treetops like bath foam. I tuck my hair behind my ears, the side of my neck is sticky and wet from the drizzle.
Polly sniffs a trail and leaps over the dead bark of a tree, her paws drum over moss and leaves.
This is where I come to think; but it hasn’t worked this time. Maybe it’s made it worse: when I wipe my eye and cheek, the tips of my fingers find salty drops. I lick them, maybe to jump-start my brain into happiness, or just to catch the whirlwind of pictures it has projected and pack them back inside.
I brought Alex here when we first dated.
I had my grandparent’s dog with me, Pongo. I held out a stick so he’d leap up and lock his jaw, clinging on. He dangled with a grin and waited for my next move. I wished my arm was as strong as my grandfather’s, who’d taught me the game when I was a child. He’d twirl around in a 360 pirouette, Pongo clinging on for dear life. Then he’d let go of the stick, Pongo would bounce down, still spinning, and dart off down the winding slopes, brandishing the stick in a flurry of leaves. I laughed to tears every time and my grandfather would do his booming chuckle.
Alex laughed too, years later when I took him here and showed him; although I had to let go of the stick after only about an eighth of a twirl to avoid my arm snapping off. When Alex stopped laughing, he turned and kissed me. It wasn’t our first kiss, but it was our best ever. He tasted of Polo mints and the wind circled around us like a whispered hug.
We unpack the shopping and eat green-and-yellow-pepper pizza on the sofa, the four of us slouched in front of Only Fools and Horses. It’s the episode when Trigger gets a prize for saving council money by looking after his broom. We all giggle in anticipation – we know the episode off by heart. We know that Trigger’s well-maintained broom has had seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles.
It’s been a good day.
But after dinner Alex and I row into the night and slam doors. God knows what about. Something to do with booking the holidays? Toothpaste marks on the mirror? His mother visiting again? My mother not visiting? It’s never about anything at all, really, let’s face it. And it’s about everything, the whole world, our every body cell, all that we have ever stood for, every little slip of the tongue that has inflicted pain, wittingly or unwittingly in one big, titanic clash.
Oh, I have no idea. Fuck that.
I give up.
I trudge downstairs for a glass of water. We forgot to put the Cod Provençal in the freezer when we got home from the supermarket and some of the ice has turned to water and seeped through the corners of the box. I slip the bag out of the soggy cardboard and stick it in the freezer behind the frozen peas and spinach.
I sleep on the sofa.
Clouds and specks of gold pierce the roof of treetop leaves. My hand rests on the bark of an oak as I breathe with my eyes shut. My grandfather used to say fairies lived under the roots of this tree. I once sulked and complained that we never actually saw the fairies during our walks in the woods. He said just because we don’t see magic things it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. What a boring answer, I remember thinking.
Now I think of my grandfather winking at me as he sat up, so small and frail, in his hospital bed last year. I look up at the clouds. I can’t see him. But I can picture him, perfectly, as he winks again.
I pick up some acorn cups from the ground and circle my thumb over them in the palm of my hand.
I toss them into the air; the pitter patter echoes as they scatter like ripples in the rubbery silence.
It was even more silent at home this morning.
Jake in Corfu, celebrating his A-levels with his friends. I cross my fingers and pray he steers clear of any trouble. Gemma at her cousin’s in Edinburgh for a fortnight. I walked downstairs before leaving for work and could hear the stairs creak, the grandfather clock ticking and even the cars’ whoosh from the distant dual carriageway.
At the office, jokes about kids flying nests, about Alex and I having it off like rabbits, with the house all to ourselves. I went along with them, while pictures of last night’s umpteenth, subjectless argument uncoiled. I laughed too.
Sometimes laughing feels like crying.
I scroll through the chat window from this morning. I press the Play triangle to re-inflict Alex’s accusatory voice upon my churning stomach. I recoil at the venom in my own tone in a string of subsequent replies.
“And the way you always, always –”
“This really is the last bloody straw.”
“Stop putting fucking words in my mouth.”
“I just can’t believe how you –”
I slip the phone back into my pocket and kick a welly through earth and leaves. Polly has brought me back her stick. I throw it as hard as I can. It thuds and rolls, and a bird startles me by flapping out of a nearby bush.
South of France, 19 years ago
Cicadas compete with the groggy chatter of the evening crowd.
The green of his eyes glimmers like his tan. Holiday bracelets jangle as he waves to the waiter for another rosé.
“This tastes like Heaven,” he says, nodding at our dishes. He breaks the cod with the side of his fork. He scoops it up with bits of chopped tomatoes and oregano and does a little slurp.
A dazzling tiny sparkle on my ring finger under the neon lights. A tiny open jewel box by my dish.
“So, I’ll take that as a yes?” says Alex, nodding. A lopsided smile curls up on his cheek.
By way of expressing my agreement, I slip my foot out of my Cote d’Azur flip-flop and graze his skinny shin upwards with my toes. His eyes widen and he coughs, taken off-guard. He chews on, recomposes himself, makes a yummy sound and grins, nodding. That cheeky smile again, it pulls me in.
“Sure you don’t want to try the wine?” he says.
“You know I can’t,” I say, tutting and rolling my eyes. He slaps his forehead and apologises. I still find his forgetfulness endearing. I don’t yet know about other kinds of forgetfulness, and how they can get to me. Misremembering our fourth anniversary; leaving our passports nicely tucked in his bedside table, and we’re bombing down the M4 halfway to the airport; dismissing from mind that I have a body, as he snores facing the wall the moment he hits the bed, as usual – the same body he once defined as “more irresistible than a pint of Speckled Hen in the Gobi desert on a sizzling hot day.”
I move my foot further up his leg, into his crotch. He jolts and spits some wine on the tablecloth.
We order crème brulée and wave our fingers in the air to trace the shape of our ideal house. Mine is a thatched cottage with a lilypond surrounded by Peter Rabbit statues, and a huge Slush Puppie machine towering in the kitchen. Alex’s is a four-chimneyed, glass-walled mansion with a Union Jack flagpole, and bongos in every room.
According to my Cosmo, Jake is already the size of a shrimp; I don’t panic. I have known Alex for seven months and three days, which feels like forever when I plunge into his green, permanently baffled eyes.
The windscreen reflects a tunnel of silver birches as the car wheels snap twigs and roll over mushy leaves. Flashes of bluebells on the side of the road whisper cheerio from the woods before the countryside opens up and I emerge to reality. Polly yaps at the cows in a field. She won’t shut up, I can’t make out Alex’s words in an unread audio message.
“I’ve decided I need a change. I’m going to move –” Bloody dog barking.
He’s going to what? Move out? Is that what he just said? I drop my phone during a turn, and bend down to scoop it up. If the kids could see me. All my nagging about phoning-and-driving.
I retrieve the phone and swipe the screen to unblock it. Horn blasts, voice yells unpretty words.
I sit bolt upright and swerve, a red van disappears in my wing-mirror. Grass bank, screeching of brakes, a soft thud.
I sit there shaking, the engine humming. Polly yaps.
Breathe, Kate. That’s it. Breathe.
Tears roll from my eyes, but it’s my whole body that’s shedding them. I turn to stroke Polly, unhook her leash, and let her hop in front to sit next to me with her ever-smiley expression. I bury my face in her soft fur, she licks my ear.
When I reverse, the front bumper produces an eerie, plasticky crack. I hop out to inspect the damage: a flappy sheet of metal has fallen off, but it appears to serve no urgent purpose in the grand scheme of things. I dispose of it in a wheelie bin on a large, lonely mansion’s front drive. I peer at the windows and wonder if the people behind them are happy.
I park in a lay-by, retrieve the phone and listen to Alex’s message.
I brace myself before pressing Play. My brain presents me with a brief montage of past pictures that it evidently considers outstanding. A kiss along the quay in Dorset. Alex drenched in rain as he swears at the tent flaps for refusing to close. Our damp bodies entwined in a twist of sleeping bags shortly after. Jake high up on Alex’s shoulders in the sunshine. Gemma holding our hands on her first day of school.
I press the screen and turn up the volume.
“I’ve decided I need a change. I’m going to move this beer belly of mine and dig out Jake’s racing bike from the back of the garage.”
Well, that pisses me off. How he can unapologetically swoosh from the brink of our reciprocal self-destruction to acting like everything was just fine, talking of chirpy banalities without batting an eyelid. I long for the joint in between. The kissing before the making up. The bit where you’re reminded of what it’s all about. The bit where you get to glimpse at the whole of the puzzle.
Life’s more of a gigantic join-the-dots than a puzzle, I suppose.
I emerge from the steam of the shower and walk downstairs barefoot in my bathrobe. I leaf through a magazine on the sofa while my toenail varnish dries. The doorbell rings like mad.
Who on earth?
Polly stirs in her basket.
“Coming!” I say, fumbling with my bathrobe belt. I try to remove the toe separators but fail, so I trudge on my heels over to the front door. Polly thinks I’m playing a game and bites the toe separators until she snaps one in half and runs off with it.
The outline of a cycling helmet looms through the door glass. Doorbell again.
I yank the door open with gritted teeth.
“Got keys, haven’t you?”
Alex’s face crumples.
“God, you okay?” I say.
He groans and clutches his lower abdomen.
“Been better,” he says.
Blood trickles down his legs into his shoes.
I gasp, reach out to touch his arm and help him in.
“What on earth happened?” I say.
“No, I’m okay, honest,” he mumbles. He collapses on the hall carpet and takes off his helmet. Polly trots over and licks his cheek.
“Should I call an ambulance?”
He waves my words away and smiles faintly with his eyes closed.
“Fuck it, Alex, are you having me on or what?”
“It’s that bloody bike. I clocked up twenty-two bombing down Winter Hill and pulled too hard on the front brake. Stupid thing somersaulted forward, and I landed with my nuts on the top metal tube. Thank God I’ve already had kids.”
I forget not to giggle, and I’m off, in hysterics, smudging my mascara.
“What the hell are those things on your toes?” he says, his eyes level with my feet.
“They’re Gemma’s. I’ve always wanted to try them.”
Now he’s laughing too.
“You plonker. Nearly gave me a heart attack. God, I thought you’d been stabbed,” I say.
I sit down next to Alex and our shoulders shake so much it’s like laughter is breaking us out of a dusty, hard shell.
“What.” I catch my breath.
“Any chance of some ice for…” He points down at his groin.
I open the freezer in the kitchen. No ice. I rummage down the back and pull out a bag of a white something.
“Cod Provençal,” I say, and hand him the frozen fish bag.
He sticks it in between his legs and lies on his side. The bag bulges out of the back of his shorts.
“Cor, brings me back. Isn’t Cod Provençal the name of that scrumptious dish we had at Saint Raphael?” he says.
“Yeah. Way less romantic served on your bum, though.”
Alex sits up with a wimper, then kisses me on the lips.
I say nothing.
He passes me back the Cod Provençal and hobbles upstairs, one step at a time.
“Drama queen,” I shout.
Alex sings along to Don’t Go Breaking My Heart in the shower while I chop an onion by the kitchen sink. The cod is in the microwave on defrost, though Alex’s private parts have already done half the job. Polly sniffs the air as the scent of tomatoes and herbs from the pan wafts through the house.
My eyes are red from the onion.