Plaiting Fog

Plaiting Fog

We’re in Starbucks trying to heal our week with skinny Lattes and putting off going back to one-bed flats and microwaved meals in the suburbs. It’s Friday after work. Ros is talking. She’s a copy writer; she knows how to use words.
“…I knew him less than a year and took my child, two suitcases, and closed the door on my marriage. Can you believe that?”
I nod and drops of rain caught in my hair, splatter, and stain the table’s polished surface.
It only took Max three weeks…Twenty-one days to wipe out our marriage and throw his lot in with his secretary of three months.
I may not be the right person for Ros to confide in.
“Nearly thirty years I’ve known him,” she says, “but I haven’t seen him for twenty five.”
“Did you leave for him?” I say.
I’m not sure I want to hear her answer. Since Max walked out on me a year ago I find it difficult empathising with marriage wreckers.
“No; because of, but not for. I didn’t know when I left if he would come for me, but he did.”
“So no regrets; about leaving I mean?”
“None. And now I know I’ll see him again, I feel like a hibernating animal waking up.”
Did Max ever feel like that about me? Does he feel like that about the new Ms ‘500-words-a-minute’?
“So, why didn’t you marry him?”
“Lots of things… There wasn’t just me, remember, but a toddler as well. Jamie used to call us his ‘Blue Peter’ family; one that someone had made earlier…, but there were other things as well.”
I’m surprised she’s telling me all this. We don’t normally ‘share’; it’s usually just office gossip. A quick coffee once a week.

The untouched Lattes cool in front of us. She stares through the rain trickling down the café window; the blurred headlights of cars passing outside highlight her cheek bones and darken her eyes. Behind her face, just for a second, I glimpse the young woman he must have known.

I think she’s going to stop talking and I don’t want her to.
“Well, did he meet someone who didn’t have kids?” I prompt.
“No. It was me who finished it. Things happened that changed me…” her voice trails off.
I’ve never seen her look like this. Her face seems tight; folded in around itself as if it’s hiding. It’s disconcerting. Since Max left me, I rely on Ros to cheer me up.
“Changed you?”
“My ex turned up out of the blue, took my daughter out for the day and didn’t come back.”
“You mean…?”
“I mean he snatched her. Said I wasn’t a fit mother. Said I only cared for Jamie, put him before my daughter. Ironic really, it was the first time we’d seen him for years. I never realised how bitter he was about me leaving him.
“He said Jamie’s type would never take on another man’s child. And if I didn’t believe him, give Jamie an ultimatum…”
Who would know to look at her that she had a story like this to tell? She was older than me, but you had to look closely to tell. Well turned out. Under her Chloe trench, she was wearing a silk man-cut shirt and her skirt was fabulous; tight, but conservative-until you saw the thigh-high slit; office, but sexy.
“And your little girl? Did you get her back?”
“Yes, a few days later, but something had shifted inside me. I was terrified my ex would do it again, so I wrote to Jamie and finished with him.”
I think of me and Max. And of pride, loss, need, love, fear…
“Why didn’t you tell Jamie? Give him the ultimatum?” I ask.
“If he wanted us, he’d look for us, but I’d moved house, you see. A fresh start,” she says. “Really, I didn’t give him a chance.”
I know exactly what she means.
“And you haven’t seen him since?”
“Not for want of trying,” she answers.
She’s like a swan; it’s all going on beneath the surface.
“Did you marry again?”
“Years later…It didn’t last.”

She stares beyond me. I can see the little pain lines etching her face. I look away and busy myself stirring my cold Latte, as though I’m about to drink it.

I didn’t know that she’d been married twice? She likes a challenge!
Ros starts talking again, almost as if she doesn’t want to.
“I made sure that no one would ever again be able to accuse me of putting anybody before my child. I got remarried for security, though I was fond of my husband. I thought that would be enough, but…
“So I concentrated on my career. Maybe too much; I burnt out, got sick. Years of living a lie, I suppose. I had a breakdown. Quite severe. Hospitalised. Stupid really…”
I don’t know what to say. It’s quiet in here today. The kids behind the counter are ignoring us, which means they’re probably hanging onto our every word. I wait for Ros to speak.
“I felt an overwhelming sense of loss… failure…” she continues. “Anyway, I packed the two suitcases and left…Again,” she says and grimaces. “I decided I wasn’t cut out for relationships.”
“And did you stay single?” I ask.
“Didn’t seem much point in setting myself up to fail again,” she says. “I stayed single”

I think about this as I go to the counter for two more coffees – there is no way either of us is going home just yet. I pick up two Danish for good measure.

“So, how did you find him?” I ask as I sit down.
“Friends Reunited. Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
I wonder whether to tell Ros about Max, but…I decide to let her tell her story.
“Are you trying to tell me that you still love Jamie?”
“I never stopped.”

She picks icing covered currants from her pastry and lines them up along the edge of her plate.

“What makes you think he feels the same about you, Ros?”
She doesn’t answer. She merely wipes her fingers.

“Did he look for you?” I eventually ask her.
“He looked; even after he married.”
Whoa! All my ‘wronged-party’ views are returning. Married? You don’t mess with married men.
“Then how can you…?”
The loudness of my voice makes Ros jump.
My friend the stranger.
“And you still want him? Even though..?” I can’t help asking.
I wonder just how much pain she’s willing to cause.
“Even though,” she answers.
Women don’t hurt each other. Men do that for us.

She rubs pieces of the sticky serviette between her fingers until little balls form. I watch her flicking them on to the floor.

“I don’t know how not to want him,” she continues. “I’ve loved him over half my life. I don’t care if he’s married, I deserve him …” Her voice trails away.
“And her… What about his wife?” I ask. “How long has she loved him? What does she deserve?”
“Don’t,” she says staring me straight in the eye, “don’t judge me.”
I look away.

“You told me once, years ago, that you met Max at work.”
It’s my turn to be quiet.
“And when you thought Max was being unfaithful you threw him out. You maybe fought with him, but did you fight for him? Or did you treat it as though it was inevitable, a pattern repeating itself?”
She looks directly at me.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that you were that secretary, the first time around, you know…”
And it’s true. I perch very precariously on the moral high ground.
“Do you know what it’s like to wake alone on your 50th birthday and the only card you get wishes you a happy birthday and invites you for a mammogram?” she finishes.
Something else I didn’t know about her.
I wonder if my eyes fill up for her or me. I wish I could promise her a happy-ever-after with this man she’s loved for so long.
“Don’t do what I did. Don’t run away,” she says. “Life’s for now, not forever.”
You know when you’ve heard the same phrase or saying, or a variation of it, so many times that you stop listening to it? Well, Ros’ words hit me like an assassin’s bullet.
She’s right when she says ‘suspect’ about Max’s affair; I was judge and jury to an offence that may never have taken place. I have ruined the best thing that ever happened to me; and for what? What was I doing? I used to worry that he would leave me, go back to his wife…, but then I told him to go?

We sit watching the pastries hardening on a plate in front of us.

“So, will you meet him?” I ask.
“Truthfully? I think yes…And then I get scared…”
“You mean you won’t?” I interrupt
“But then I think about the next twenty five years without him…” she continues. “When I first came in to meet you, I would have crawled over broken glass to be with him, but now…You think I’m wrong to see him again, don’t you?”
What can I say? That I understand? That sorting my own life out, let alone anyone else’s, is like plaiting fog? That I’m in the same boat; so scared of being hurt, that I’m hurting myself? That she’s made me realise I’ve been busy pulling drawbridges up behind myself just like she has…
What if she and Jamie get together and then he leaves her and goes back to his wife?
I suppose, it’s a risk she’ll have to take. Like me.
Ros is right; life is for now, not forever.
I reach out and take her hand in mine.
“Don’t let anything I’ve said put you off, Ros. Don’t let his anything stand in the way. Let’s face it; if he was happy he wouldn’t be looking, would he?”
I can hardly believe the words that are pushing and shoving to get out of my mouth. Soon I’ll have to admit I didn’t make Max happy. Speak of my raw ache to have children, my resentment of his.
Max was only putting his kids first, giving them breathing space to get used to us. It wasn’t because he didn’t want me to have his children; I only had to wait a while.
I look up and see Ros intently watching me, but she doesn’t ask what I’m thinking about.
And I could have waited; I had a few years left on my biological clock. Instead, I sulked him through the door and he had a sleepover with his secretary.
He may have bedded her, he may have spent all night talking to her; I don’t know. I never let him explain. When he came home the next day I was out and his things were in the hall. I’m nothing if not efficient, he used to say, his dream secretary. I’d left a note giving my solicitors name… I’ve not seen him since.

She stands and takes a ten pound note out of her purse and puts it on the table.
“Same time next week?” she says. The door closes behind her

The staff are keen to finish their day. A girl with full lips, the colour of Ashes of Roses, is checking her eye makeup in the mirror behind the counter.
“Have I got panda eyes?” she asks a boy who’s wiping a cloth over the coffee machine’s steel casing with one hand, as he punches a text message into his phone with the other.
“Shall we do the floor now, or leave it until tomorrow morning?” she says
“Tomorrow. I’ve got places to go…”
“…people to see!” she finishes for him and laughs.
Weekend fever. I take pity on them and leave.

It’s still raining. I like the way the lights shining from the shop windows are diffused by the drizzle.
On the corner of the street I see Ros getting into a taxi. Her patent stilettos gleam; if she was closer, I know that I’d see little balls of rolled up serviette sticking to them. As the car pulls away I see the hem of her trench-coat trapped in the door.
I try to remember when she is supposed to meet Jamie and wonder whether she will. I hope she does. I realise I am happy for her.
I decide to walk home.
Supper. Chicken or fish? How long it is since I’ve tasted any difference between the frozen meals I buy. I should be better organised and batch-bake or something.
I try to compose a mental shopping list that will result in my freezer bursting with healthy, wholesome food. It defeats me. I’m only avoiding thinking about the things we talked about tonight. And the things we didn’t.
Puddles reflect the street’s flashing neon signs; cerise, lime green, Daytona yellow and electric blue, orange from the street lamps.
Rain, in perfect rhythm with the tap, tap, tap of my heels on the pavement, drips from my hair down the back of my neck. I know that tomorrow, when I look in the mirror, I will regret walking, but for now I enjoy it.
The closer I get to home the quieter it becomes.
I can see the flats from here. None of the windows glow warmly. Wheelie-bins still stand where they were left for emptying three days ago. A car’s lights pin point the diamond brightness of the eyes of a bedraggled cat sheltering under our overgrown privet hedge.
Someone has left the front door open. It will mean silver slug trails on the mat tomorrow morning.
Why don’t people ever treat flats like proper homes? It’s all right for those who are just pausing before they take up their real lives; become couples, with children maybe, and pets, in houses like Max and I once lived in. Some of us are not just passing through.
I close my door behind me, pleased to be home. I kick off my heels and throw my coat over a chair.
I like the effect; it’s always too tidy in here.
A flashing red light on the phone teases. Voicemail. I resist listening and go into the bathroom. I uncap some Arpege and watch as it trickles under steaming taps.

A glass of wine, I think.

I lie back in the fragrant water and start to soak the week from my head. The condensation on my glass reminds me of the café windows. And the tears that we both pretended hadn’t trickled from our eyes.

The little red light tempts. I still resist.

If it’s Max he’ll ring back.

Or maybe he’ll…

I quickly tuck my cotton pyjamas back into the drawer and take the peach silk nightdress and wrap from the armoire. They smell of happiness when I press them to my face. Traces of a velvet summer evening, Sancerre and anniversary food.
©theeditoffice 2013

%d bloggers like this: