Only Human

by Diane Chandler

Chapter 1

 

 

 

What were the odds that I would spot them that day from the top of the 94 bus? Sitting up front like a child to bagsy the best view, enjoying the warmth of the year’s first sunshine on my face. Ironic that I was en route to buy him a birthday gift too, one of his favourite polo shirts. My husband, down on the pavement, in the secret shadow of a pub doorway, tenderly kissing another woman. The way it had wrenched them when they’d pulled apart, the way it had punched me in the gut. And it was I who had felt criminal, loping off the bus, stomach on slow spin, and into a furtive black cab home.

That evening, Ollie had been hosting a wine tasting at the shop, Sophie was sleeping over with a friend, and so I sat in the darkening kitchen tormenting myself – that look between them. Play, misery, rewind, play. When he was finally home, my face must have glowed white in the gloom. At first, he’d thought I was ill and sat down concerned by my side, a caring hand at my shoulder, while my belly roiled on; all out of vomit, it offered only limp spasms.

‘What’s her name?’ I said, quite calmly.

‘Who?’

‘You shit.’

Ollie flinched, his own face drained of colour, but still he said nothing, still he must have hoped.

‘I saw you,’ I said. ‘On the way to Westfield.’

He grasped my hand. ‘She’s just a friend.’

A dizziness took hold then. At some point, I was going to have to stand and stomp off, but my body was denying me that triumph.

‘Kiss all your friends like that, do you?’

He was nicked. A plaintive sigh and he released my shoulder, slumped into his chair.

‘How long’s it been going on?’

He hung his head, it was a good minute before he spoke.

‘Christmas.’

‘Since Christmas?’

My mind hurtled back through the months; snatches of days, events in our diaries, Ollie’s business trips. Nearly five months and I’d not had an inkling – how had he pulled that off?

I really did try to leave the room. Had I been in a film, I would have risen with dignity and glided, turning at the door with a damning, ‘Finish it now or you’ll lose me.’ Truth is that I didn’t dare challenge him like that. Truth is that a tear bobbled onto the rim of my eye and, against my vehement command, slid down my cheek. I watched it plop onto my shirt. It was he who had stood and left the room.

A wave had smashed me off my feet. I found myself tumbling, rolling and spiralling. Where was the surface? Where were the depths? What would I do if he left me?

It never occurred to me to leave him.

 

Nearly two weeks on and I was still reeling. Any hopes he may have harboured at finding himself still in our bed were skewed; it was crucial that Sophie remained oblivious, and so there we slept, back-to-back, stony-to-sheepish. Some mornings he’d attempt a sickening hand to my shoulder as we passed in the kitchen, a lopsided smile, grotesque in its meekness. While I sustained the ice treatment.

Why had he done it? We were still having sex, weren’t we? – true it was same old, same old – but what ancient marriage had not slid into the comfort of a fleeting missionary every now and then? What was he not getting from the marriage? From me? My own shortcomings unfurled before my eyes like a magician’s handkerchief, endless and garish, but I remained frozen by shock, by fear. Unable to confront him again.

‘I hate seeing you like this,’ said Scarlett as I sank into her sofa, cowed like a rescue dog. ‘You’ve got to have it out with him. Don’t let the bastard off scot-free without telling you everything.’

Sound advice. Scar was one of my dearest friends, and the only person I’d confided in, but whenever I sought to muster that anger I found only vulnerability, my once exuberant confidence shattered. She too must have been stunned by the depth and speed of my unravelling, a ship’s cable whipping from its spool. The fury did bubble, finding release at odd times – and on unlikely victims – but I had not yet gathered the courage to unleash it upon him. In case he did indeed tell me everything?

Instead, I’d been scrabbling to fortify myself, to restore the old Anna, so that I might cope with whatever the consequences of that everything would be. And the way forward, as I saw it then, was to flee backwards to a time when Ollie and I had been equals, to unearth my corporate self. I might now be a product of the school gate, but I used to be somebody.

So, after a spontaneous email to a former colleague, I was sitting once again in a slick meeting room at my old firm, a city investment bank. But what was I thinking? Sixteen years since I’d left, much longer since I’d last been interviewed, and the nerves were tap-dancing inside my chest, breaths coming in staccato bursts. Was I really up to this? At least, outwardly, the Max Mara suit was bestowing some of the old swagger. Black wool with a soft chalk stripe, and classic I thought, plus the fact that it fitted me again after the recent weight loss – every cloud and that.

Nice,’ Sophie had said that morning. ‘Don’t let the fashion police see you, Mum.’

‘I need to impress on them that I was once a professional woman. Can’t wear anything too funky.’

That sing-song voice I now assume to appease my tricky teenage daughter.

Funky?’

That eye roll she’d recently perfected.

I cast her from my mind, thoughts of Ollie too, and fixed a smile for the man across the desk, middle-aged, white, alpha – all that privilege in one human being – and then for his sidekick, a young Asian woman. My email had fallen upon good times. They now had this diversity scheme, a drive to recruit women returners, to harness the experience and perspective that evaporates once we leave to have our kids. Not an opening at my previous level, of course, but still.

‘Research suggests that women are better at spotting opportunities, at inspiring others, even that they are more strategic than men.’

From his smug tenor, I knew that he believed otherwise, and already I disliked the man; flashes from my past, of a thousand other chauvinists.

‘Oh, I’m very strategic,’ I said, with a firm nod.

Even if, at home, I was being buffeted like a dingy in a perfect storm.

His eyes narrowed, did he sense that?

‘So, can you flesh out the qualities you would bring to this position?’

Qualities? The word flitted, my mind unable to pin it down. I rummaged for those lines I’d rehearsed in the mirror, lamenting how the face above the suit was now more crêpe de chine than porcelain, shaking my hair forwards to hide what it could.

Qualities, qualities… How do you vocalise the expanse of life you’ve encased yourself, infused yourself with, during all those years at home as a wife and mother? And make it count? Not those weekend mornings I’d dragged Sophie out of bed to engage in every activity under the sun. Not those playground drop-offs spiked with testosterone-pumped women. Nor those evenings of playing wifey at wine events, or poring over recipes with ingredients I’d never heard of.

No, I knew he was after the soft skills I’d apparently acquired in that role of homemaker which would see me well back in the corporate world. And, thankfully, they came to me just in time – the critical thinking, the time management, the resilience. I held forth at length, added a joke too, well that was my intention, one that might capture a skill he would appreciate.

‘And I chaired the PTA at my daughter’s primary school,’ I said. ‘Put me in a room full of tiger mums and I’ll emerge alive and kicking!’

A slow nod, just the one, but no smile – I guess the tiger mum bit was lost on him. (Of course, I was one of those pushy mothers myself, most of us seemed to be these days, even if as a tribe we’d be shocked to be considered such.)

As the man made a few notes, my clammy palms found the rough wool of my skirt with a surreptitious clench; so nervous, but did I really want to subject myself to this life again?

‘How would you feel about getting up to speed on the new technologies, which will have transformed themselves twice over since your day?’

Helpless. But that was ageism – even if I must have been one of the oldest potential returners.

As if in tacit agreement, the sidekick uncrossed and re-crossed her legs; a silent signal, and he did clock it.

‘I mean, change has been especially rapid in our business,’ he added, shifting in his seat, a hint of weakness which bolstered me – and also brought a sudden memory.

As a young graduate I’d once been advised to imagine all interviewers sitting naked in the bath, a rubber duck floating between their legs. So that’s what I did. Stripped him off, paunch and all, steering that duck clear from his stub of a modesty, and my shoulders sank a little.

‘Well,’ I said, with a deep breath and a more relaxed smile, ‘I understand that these days emotional intelligence is just as valuable as technical ability.’

And I happily added two more qualities to my list: empathy and intuition. Not that I’d intuited my husband’s affair, had I?

A flicker of smile. Steepled fingertips. And then he floored me.

‘An impressive track record while you were with us.’

‘Thank you.’

I felt myself flush, surprised tears springing in gratitude.

Because, yes, I’d been bloody good at my job, had been valued, on other people’s radar. And yet here I was, Anna Bond, in my mid-forties, in the prime of life, and floundering. The female term for a cuckold, I’d read, is a cuckqueen, and that felt perfectly apt.

 

On the Tube home, I stared through the pages of the Evening Standard. They’d said they’d be in touch but, whatever their decision, I’d known. Even as I’d sat gazing at the abstract swirls of colour on the walls in reception, as I’d been led through the open plan, with its splash of screens and the stench of callow greed. Let’s face it, I’d known even as I’d dressed that morning. I had moved on. The corporate world which had once given me meaning would no longer rouse me, and if offered the job I wouldn’t take it; there would have to be some other route back to me. The interview, however, had fortified me – I was still in there somewhere. Perhaps the way forward was philanthropic, some form of charity work, even if the thought of sorting fusty second hand clothes or stuffing envelopes left me cold.

I nearly missed my stop. Dashed to the closing doors and out onto the ground I loved. Chiswick, my one constant. Down on the pavements of Turnham Green Terrace, the heatwave which was to smile upon the nation that summer was already warming itself up, and the yeasty scent of Fuller’s Brewery steeped the air, a deep breath of it heightening my sense of home.

Hanging back, I glanced in at Ollie’s shop on the other side of the road, its frontage painted in Plummet Grey, the lettering a deep charcoal, Oliver Bond Esq. Purveyor of Fine Wines. He stood planted at the oak desk, frowning down at his phone, one hairy arm outstretched, hand resting on the layers of tissue paper. Pillar of the community, so he always joked. Still a thick crown of hair, still sandy too, and cut to perfection by the guy opposite – all the local businesses enjoyed the fruits of barter and Burgundy was a heady commodity.

A woman entered and Ollie looked up with that winning smile. Expecting the sight of his face to bring misery, I found instead that it stirred a surge of defiance. An impressive track record, the man had said. Who was this bastard to have an affair on me? He fetched down a bottle from the wooden shelves, holding it with reverence, stroking it. Not unlike he once used to hold and stroke me. Did I still love him? I had no idea. We just were. Anna and Ollie a solid couple, married now for nearly twenty years. A slide into marital oblivion so steady that the moment when I’d no longer caught my breath, when my insides had no longer flipped was indiscernible.

‘Leave him,’ Scar had said. Simple words for such a terrifying act of dismantlement.

I crossed over to the deli in search of something quick for dinner.

 

At my front door I assumed that cape of super-motherhood which smothered all fragility of my own. I’d been slipping it on since Sophie was born, and it now draped itself automatically in her presence.

In our hallway I found a bike propped against the wall, heard her chatting to someone in the kitchen and smiled with relief, it was easier these days when we were not alone, just the two of us. Cocking my head to gauge which of her friends she’d brought back from school, I was pulled up short. A male voice, rich and deep, suffused with a particular joyous-come-cheeky resonance, which I recognised from my own youth. They were flirting. I wandered through to them.

The boy was sitting at the island opposite my daughter, and he didn’t look up immediately. Between them sat our pet tortoise, Horace, whom the boy was feeding, leaf by leaf. Cocky then. Finally, he glanced at me, his eyes a startling pewter grey, luminous with his laughter, with enthrallment.

‘Hi,’ I said, bearing down on Sophie with a quizzical smile, unable to hide my initial shock.

‘Hi Mum. This is Jack.’

Her tone towards me was warmer than usual, right from the start I was aware of that. Her smile shone half euphorically, half sheepishly, and our eyes remained locked while the impulses leapt between our synapses – why didn’t you tell me? Why should I? And then I looked away, softly rueful of her inevitable slide towards independence. She’d been pulling away for some time now and this was a further step. For a moment I felt completely alone, abandoned by husband and daughter, the two truths of my life.

The boy stood up from the bar stool, causing it to rock on its legs, and I pretended not to notice the face Sophie pulled at him, mocking his stumble, but was heartened to see that she held such power.

‘Hello.’ I strolled over and held out my hand.

‘Nice to meet you, Mrs Bond.’ A chunk of dirty-blond hair flopped onto his forehead as if by remote control. ‘You have a lovely house.’

‘Thank you, Jack. Cup of tea?’

‘Awesome, thank you.’

I turned to fill the kettle. Her first boyfriend. But this was not a boy, he must have been six-foot tall, his chest was as broad as Ollie’s, his wrists were muscled for Christ’s sake! As I unloaded my bag of food into the fridge, I could feel the energy dancing between them and finally I swung around, arms folded.

‘What are you up to, then?’

‘Revising together. History. We’re in the same set.’

‘The rise of Hitler.’ It was Jack who spoke, his smile disarming. ‘And the causes thereof.’

Thereof. Clearly from an educated family.

‘Sounds like a plan. Biscuit?’

I took the tin over, it felt good to have a prop.

‘Awesome, thank you.’ He dug out two chocolate digestives and slipped one whole into his mouth.

Again, I contemplated Horace, now abandoned on the island to feed himself, and I shared a further lingering look with Sophie. My hygiene rules were strict, no tortoise on eating surfaces, but we both knew I wouldn’t nag. I wandered back to pour the teas.

‘How was the interview, Mum?’

I turned with a bright smile but her own eyes were on Jack, her radiant face carefully framed by a mass of blonde, and my heart leapt out in protection – take it slowly Sophie.

‘Great,’ I said, watching the boy as I placed his mug of tea down. His smile oozed filmic confidence. ‘If wanky bankers float your boat.’

‘Mum!’

I was pleased to see him blush; not so cocky then. ‘Hope your father doesn’t work in the City?’

‘No, er, he’s a garden designer.’

‘Creative, I like that. Anyway, been a long day, I’m off for a bath. Nice to meet you, Jack.’

I slunk from the kitchen, mug in hand and stopped on the first stair to catch Sophie’s words.

‘Parents, hey?’

I waited, leaned into the banister.

‘She’s mad,’ said Jack.

 

I’d intended to soak off the interview but instead I was fending off thoughts like missiles. Ollie. Why had he had the affair? I was going to challenge him while that post-interview defiance was still fresh; the Max Mara suit alone had restored a bundle of confidence. But I had been counting on a return to my old firm as the way forward, it would have allowed me to walk away from my marriage – if that was the path I chose – or to cope if he were to leave me. I saw again that woman in the doorway, the look between them. What was I going to do now? Where next would I search for that elusive someone I used to be?

And now there was Jack. This stranger lounging in my kitchen, a boy-man whose presence hung in the air. The space he took up was disturbing, a mass of limbs and flesh, a trace of earthy aftershave too, whereas most teenage boys smelt of baked beans.

The bath water had cooled so I topped it up with hot and plunged beneath the foam of raspberry bubbles (I still bought Sophie’s childhood favourite) wallowing until my breath burst. Sweeping back up, I scooped a palmful of froth, squeezed until the bubbles had vanished and reached for another. What had just happened in my kitchen? Well it seemed that, totally out of the blue, a rite of passage was underway for my daughter, an emotion in her eyes I’d not yet seen. Had I warned her enough about sex? About the privilege of her own body? What if Jack were to coerce her into it? You can’t tell a teenager not to do it, I myself was younger than she is now, but somehow, at fifteen, I seemed older than my daughter, more street-wise.

A gale of laughter from below and I sank again beneath the water, losing myself in its cocoon. Mad, he’d called me. And I knew that mad was teenage slang for cool – it didn’t mean loopy or unhinged.

By the end of that summer, however, I would be unable to fathom quite what I had become.

 

***

'A beautiful family drama that kept me fascinated throughout the entire journey. The characters were engaging and believable.

Can’t recommend it enough!' Netgalley reviewer

 

'Wow, so much going on, so many shocks! I really could not put it down.'  Susie Kelly 

 

Publication: September 8 2020

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