I didn’t love her then. She was just another girl. It was just another pub. Friday night, a few beers, a laugh, and maybe, if I got lucky, a fit bird.
She was fit alright! Her eyes a blue that beckoned you to drown in them. Her smile, a slow sensuous curve that promised complete annihilation if you did. Her body….that body….. One night turned into two…then a month…and before long we were, to all intents and purposes, a couple.
I was young, ambitious and successful. I drove a Ferrari. Lived in Chelsea. I had money and I was not afraid to flash it. Life had always smiled benignly on me.
She was young and ambitious too. I was her ticket out of slavery at Gatwick Airport. Ticket Desk work. Odd hours. Abuse from passengers. Could one blame her?
Two months in, and our baby growing in her belly, I’d bought the biggest diamond I could afford and gotten down on one knee. Did I love her then? I cannot honestly say that I did. Yet, it seemed the right thing to do. And the right time to do it.
The rays are filtering in through the shutters of this apartment in Marbella. They illuminate the paint peeling in the corners of the room. The colours are somewhat faded, adding to the general air of neglect and abandonment. I look at my face in the chipped mirror. The broken capillaries on my nose stand out in stark contrast to the pallor of my skin. I run my hands over my unshaven chin, wondering whether to bother or not. Then, with a shrug, I walk away.
The wedding was a grand affair. Business was booming and I could afford to be lavish. Her friends oohed and aahed over the arrangements. Her mother all but swooned. My mother stood by with suppressed fury. It was all very satisfying.
She looked lovely. Virginal white did become her. She looked pure…somehow….other worldly. Could I have loved her just a little bit then? Possibly. Very possibly.
In their room, the twins are beginning to stir. They sleep together, as closely knit at night, as they are in the day. One, so very blonde and sunny natured like his mother. The other, dark and tempestuous like me. I see their little faces in repose, their cheeks still plump in toddlerhood, their eyelashes, so thick, so lush as they flutter with unspoken dreams. I turn away, the lump in my throat so big that it threatens to engulf me.
Coffee. I need coffee. I shuffle towards the kitchen. There is no milk. Of course! I give myself a mental head slap. I drink the coffee black. It burns a hole in my stomach.
I was there for their birth. I held her hand as she writhed and screamed. I mopped her brow as she bit down on her lip. Never was her beauty more savage than then.Never was her rage at me more potent. Yet at the end of that long painful tunnel were these two exquisite, perfect creatures.Their tiny fingers curling around mine. Their personalities already beginning to shine through. One bawling for her feed. The other, patiently waiting his turn.
Mesmerised I had held them in my arms. So tiny and helpless that I’d vowed to protect them with every breath in my body. I’d vowed to be the father that my old man had never been.
The birth and subsequent child rearing had exhausted her. She was constantly tired. Tired and depressed. Her mother had stayed with us. Helped with the babies. Helped with the chores. When she’d had enough, I’d taken over. I’d cut back on work, and spent more time with her and the twins. I’d even shooed away my mother. I wanted to be there. It was our little family after all. Her, me, Joe and Amy. It had a special ring to it.
Life had been good then.(Or was hindsight lending it a golden glow?) Business was on a roll. Recession hadn’t hit yet. I was a devoted father. She was a ….well, when she’d finally risen out of her apathy, an adequate mother. I had been happy. The twins had thrived. All that while she had fretted about her body. About losing her looks, No amount of reassurance would work. Her preoccupation with something so transient, so unimportant, had confused me. Was having two healthy beautiful babies not enough?
Not for her. And so it had begun. Endless calorie counting. Membership at the new gym. Prohibitively expensive shoes and gear designed to make her fit in. Little by little, she had shrunk back to her pre pregnancy figure, diminishing, but not just in size for me. I tried to love her then. Tried to love the mother of my children.
It’s been a half hour since she left to buy milk and other sundry groceries. I do a little mental maths, as has become habit in the last year or so.Fifteen minutes to the store. A half hour there. Another fifteen back. She will be back around 9:40.
Amy stands in the doorway,sucking her thumb,staring at me. Joe stumbles in, never far behind. I scoop them up. I sing to them as I make sure they go on the potty and brush their teeth. Breakfast is a biscuit each, till mum gets home. They draw silly sketches on the sheets of paper I give them. Fat crayons scribbling furiously away, their curls glinting in the sunshine, heads bowed in deep concentration.
I open the shutters and step out onto the balcony. It is a beautiful day, and the shabbiness of the apartment doesn’t spoil it in the least. In the horizon, I can see the sea front, throbbing and pulsating with a life of its own. I will some of that cool breeze our way. It is warm. Set to get hotter.
Can one ever pinpoint the exact moment that the rot sets in? Was it my failing business? Or my one too many beers? Was it the one and only time that I hit her? Who knows. Life became a strange stage set with us cast as actors who no longer knew their lines. Indignity piled upon yet more indignity. Debt mounted and confidence plummeted. Our rows grew louder,more strident. Friends, such as they were, melted away.Her family recoiled from the hopelessness of our situation. Mother smiled triumphantly and took a holiday abroad. I lashed out at everyone. Her mostly. At her extravagant ways. At her frivolous habits. At her.
She was angry at first. Then she withdrew. Grew distant. The more she stepped away, the more I wanted her back. I loved her now with a desperate desperate hunger.I clung to her with a juvenile delusion: My wife – for better or for worse. It’s only been worse with you, she’d sneered. And I could not dispute it. It was a demonic dance of desperation…with each of us alternately attacking or retreating. Still, we carried on pretending. Pretence, the only glue holding us together.
How soon that was to end.
The clock watching started quite accidentally. A mate noticed how long she’d been gone to the gym. We’d gotten through the whole pack and the game was nearly over. I couldn’t face the pity in his eyes, and laughed it off. But the first stirrings of suspicion had coiled themselves around my mind.
Joe stubs his toe against a chair. His eyes, so like his mother’s, fill with tears and he comes running to me. I cuddle and soothe him, Amy cries in sympathy and tries to stroke his hair.
We huddle together, like battered souls. Something inside me breaks, and I start to weep as well. These great heaving sobs of their father momentarily stun the twins into silence.
Then, in fright, they join in once more. Our curious chorus reaching a cacophonous crescendo.
The signs were all there. The post coital glow. The phone never out of her sight. The hastily erased texts.The long lunches. The moody silences. I just watched and hoped that she would get over this foolishness. That she would look at the innocent faces of her children and break it off. But there is none more selfish than a woman in lust. I never confronted her.
There was no need to.She grew complacent, and I grew weary.Gradually, it dawned on her that I knew. Her contempt for me only increased.
This was our last ditch effort to make it work. This parody of a family vacation. This disengagement from our normal environs. This setting aside of our mutual disgust. Our willing hostages were our children. Pawns in a losing game.
We had been at it for a week. Trying to make this shambolic arrangement work. We’d tried to talk….sporadically emptying our thoughts but never quite baring our souls. We’d eaten meals by the sea front ,to all appearances a happy united family. We’d nursed glasses of wine by candlelight on the balcony, trying to recreate the infancy of our romance . We’d even made frantic, furious love, trying to rekindle the embers of a long forgotten intimacy. But, each could feel the other slipping away.
Why she even tried was beyond me. Hadn’t she mentioned divorce already? Divorce, with all its attendants, parading through our brief history together. Shredding all happy memories till they were nothing but scraps in the wastelands of our minds. Ripping apart the one good thing that came out it….our children….ripping them from my custody and placing them with a mother who cared….but only just. And never enough.
Why did she try? Perhaps she understood some of this. Perhaps she dreaded some of it too. Perhaps there was an iota of compassion in her. Perhaps.
Yet, last night, even that facade had come crumbling down. Her hurried whispered conversation on the balcony. Her closing with, ” I love you too ” had hammered in the final nail in the coffin of this union.
She’d met my eyes as she came in, and I had known. Could she have sensed the desolation in me?
Had there ever been love? This morning as I viewed her through the red haze of my hatred, I didn’t think so.
Another ten minutes or so, and she’ll be here. I tidy the little apartment as best as I can. Rinse my coffee cup and put it by the sink. The twins have calmed down and sit together, playing a little game surrounded by their toys. Heads close….all hurt forgotten. Joe helps his sister dress the doll and they place her in her little carry cot alternately cooing and giggling. The doll’s vacant eyes stares at their cherubic faces, so full of life as she is bereft of it.
“Dada!!” Amy commands me to my knees to help prop her other toys in a circle. In some phantasmic toy kingdom, the doll reigns with utter supremacy. In a parallel world, Amy rules her men with equal authority.
I am dry eyed as I tear myself away from their play . The sun is rising in the sky, and the yearned for breeze is yet to reach us. I look over the parapet of the balcony. It is a long way down. Some distance away, I see a tiny figure dressed in blue, carrying home a bag loaded with groceries.
I pick up the twins. They come gladly, nestling in the familiar comfort of my arms.
I didn’t love her then. I don’t love her now. But I love them so much that I feel my heart will explode.
It is a long way down.
This story (written some years ago) was inspired by news items on the spate of suicides by fathers who were losing custody battles. It made me wonder how desperate one had to be to take one’s children’s lives.
I read it now, and find it quite an awkward and unwieldy piece, but hopefully, the emotion and the desperation comes through.