5 Mar 2015

The Muddy Metronome

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When Nutmeg was tiny, Uncle said we should put a ticking clock in his bed, wrapped in an old towel so he didn’t miss his mama so much. The problem with living with Uncle was that we were poor and there were no spare ticking clocks or even broken clocks: just the kitchen clock and my digital alarm that got me up for school.
What we did have, as Uncle was a jazz composer, was a morgue of metronomes. He’d start a metronome swinging from the moment he got up in the morning (so he could ‘tum-ti-tum-bow-bow-chicka-boom’ in time as he boiled up coffee on the stove) until the witching hours, when he and his sax would retire to bed. And so I retrieved an old metronome from the pile under the stairs. It had a bent pin but reliable swing.
            “Here’s a heartbeat for you, Nutmeg,” I said, tickling his chin. He’d been whimpering a little and I was keen to show him he was safe. I placed it on the kitchen table.
            That was the start of Nutmeg’s odd relationship with metronomes. I’d find him transfixed sometimes when I came home from school, tilting his head this way and that, and Uncle in his own world too, tap-tap-tapping on saxophone keys.
            “He’s like a nodding dog,” said my first girlfriend, when she came over some five years later. Left, and right, and left, and right, as Uncle played his jazz. When my next girlfriend came to meet Uncle and Nutmeg, she saw the commercialism in our furry friend’s trick and uploaded a video to YouTube: the faster the beat, the quicker his tilts. Someone remixed it to dance music, which Uncle thought was horrific.
            One day, as is the way with pets, Nutmeg died, and we buried him with a metronome in the garden. My son patted the Earth down with a plastic spade, and I slept with a bag of flour on my feet at the end of my bed, because I missed my dog so.

  
Thank you, Alley Cat, for the title. 

6 Feb 2015

The Girl Who Should Lie

I was texted a title for some micro-fiction a couple of days ago, but as I worked through my lunch break yesterday, I didn't get a chance to play. This morning my internet wasn't working. I'd probably have watched Pretty Little Liars whilst eating my breakfast if it had been, but the box, should I have opted to reset it, is four floors down. Might as well write, I thought. In my defence, I did spend the whole day at work editing other people's writing yesterday. Sometimes words get a little bobbly and you just want to brush them off you with a clothes brush.

I had a breakfast of rye bread, two boiled eggs and a blood orange, and this is the burst of words that sprang forth.

x - x - x - x - x - x - x


The Girl Who Should Lie.

Daria was taught to lie by her brother, Pimm.
                “Lies are right,” said Pimm. “Lies are good for you.” His mouth was crammed with Wheetos, and flecks of chocolate shot across the table on to Daria’s rusks.
                “Mummy will be really pleased with you if you lie, Daria. Okay? You got that?”
                Daria hadn’t been quite sure what a lie was, and so Pimm said he would illustrate it for her. He came at her with his big boy hands outstretched and gave her a Chinese burn so hot it made her cry out. He then yanked a fist full of hair and ate the rest of her rusks.
                “Is everything okay in here?” asked Mummy.
                Pimm was stroking Daria’s head as she quietly snivelled.  
                “She just wants more breakfast,” said Pimm.
                “Do you, darling?” said Mummy. “We don’t want you getting fat like Mummy.”
                “You’re not fat, Mummy,” said Pimm, giving Daria a wink. “You’re thin.”
                “Don’t lie, Pimm,” said Mummy, laughing and giving him a big kiss on the cheek.  She didn’t kiss Daria. So, Pimm was right, then. Lies were good. Lies were rewarded.

“Of course I didn’t break your favourite cup,” said Daria, to Grandma.
                “I did not cheat!” said Daria, to the University.
                “I was often held up as an example,” said Daria, to her first employers.
                “I think Gemma is claiming too much on expenses,” said Daria, to the law firm.
                “The man is guilty beyond any shadow of a doubt, ladies and gentleman,” said Daria to the jury.
                “I would never do that to you,” said Daria to Mike.
               
And then, Daria met Sam – a man she thought was as beautiful and profound as an Oak tree.
                “I love you,” said Daria, wondering why she cried so much these days.
                “I love you too,” said Sam, thinking about filing his tax return.
               
Let’s hope neither of them were lying.



x - x - x - x - x - x - x

Anyone remember this song by Chicks? It's in my head now.





4 Feb 2015

The Travelling Woman's Success

He warned her from the beginning. “Don’t put your trust in me,” he said, as he stitched the lace ruff to the corset of her dress. “Just because I am a dressmaker, doesn’t mean I belong in the home.” His cheek was close to her bosom and the sharp needle glinted in the candlelight.

“But, Sandy,” she said. “Only a trustworthy man would say that.” So, she kept coming back to him with requests of new costumes for her stage act: The Travelling Woman, and after she’d been fitted they would retire to his flat above the costume shop and live as man and wife for two or three days and nights, until a performance called her back or the shop needed to be aired to stop the fabric from getting musty.

One day, she got a proposal from a rich gentleman who had taken a fancy to her from the Royal Box. “Your costumes are so glorious,” he said. “You look like a performing orchid. You could be the centrepiece of my estate. How are you with running family affairs?”
Now, The Travelling Woman had received many proposals from men over the years, but this gentleman was taller than the others and she loved a tall man, and what’s more he wore plush green velvet; every man is attractive in shades of dark green.

“Thank you, Lord Spick, for your generous suggestion, but I love another. The man who made the costumes you admire so much, in fact.” She hardly knew what she was saying, but it was out of her mouth before she could stop it with her gloved hand – gloved by Sandy, in soft white leather with twenty pearls for buttons.
“He is very nimble with a needle,” said the Lord. He bowed low and took leave.

When The Travelling Woman returned to Sandy’s shop, with an anticipatory blush in her cheeks, she was horrified to find it boarded up. She hammered at the boards, and when nobody came, she ripped them away with unaccountable strength, borne from the love she had tended like a plant over the last year.

Inside, she found Sandy slumped over a table, with both of his hands as fat as clubs.
“They broke my hands,” he said, his mouth a parallelogram of pain. “I need to go to the hospital but I think they might amputate.”

Over the next few months, The Travelling Woman nursed Sandy back to health, and though his fingers could no longer sew, he was able to draw, and what he drew were the plans for a machine that could sew forth automatically, making line upon line of neat and tight stitch, and what’s more, it would be strong enough to penetrate leather and canvas.

The Travelling Woman took the plans to engineers and presented to them with her most professional face, and one man bought the designs for a large sum of money.

With the money, Sandy and The Travelling Woman ordered twenty of the finished machines and built a dressmaking factory, giving work to young women. The Travelling Woman became the Head of Personnel, and everyone loved to work for her. Sometimes the girls would sing as they worked.
Many years later, when the couple were reading by the fire, she asked him why he warned her away all those years ago. “You said not to put my trust in you.”

“I’m an ex-convict,” he said, simply. “When I was younger, I stole a hen and it all blew up into a much bigger matter than it should have done. I’m probably still a wanted man in Somerset.”
“Well, you’re a wanted man, here,” said The Travelling Woman, feeling lucky. She had lived enough to know that things could have ended very differently indeed. 

24 Nov 2014

Flash Fiction lunch break again.


Again, I was given the title. Last week, actually, and it hung around my neck like an albatross so today it gets cooked up.  Could have gone a zillion ways, but it's free-style.

The Albatross

We were born with the curse of the albatross, says my uncle, who too sleeps on the wing. We soar through life half awake, half asleep, here and not here.
            “Would you like to go to the play about the man looking for answers,” asks my girlfriend as I gaze out of the kitchen window. Everyone on this floor of the tower block is high, but I am higher, among the clouds. 
            “You know. Jamie told us about it. The one where the protagonist has to decide on the price to pay for everything he uses in 24 hours, and then there’s that accident…”
            I have a film between me and my girl. It’s like a gauze or membrane, and it means I never really see her, never really feel her and never care much if we’re together or apart. She doesn’t know this, of course, because I enjoy her company and I would rather she not dump me. Then I would need to find a new flat, new friends, get a damage deposit together… Oh, I can’t be bothered to think about it.
            “We’re not great thinkers,” says my uncle. “We’re not great doers either.”
            “Rob,” says my girlfriend. “Are you with me?”
            Well, I suppose I am, physically. It’s raining again, and the droplets dart diagonally. Down there I can see the garages, the car park, the shops, the faint glow of the Overground station.
            “You’re meant to be stirring the beans,” she says, nipping under my arm to take the wooden spatula. She flicks her long nails against my earlobe to get my attention but the pain is dull. I focus anyway, to avoid a fight. She’s pretty, if you care for pretty girls, and I’m surprised to see she has green eyes. I’m living with a girl with green eyes. Who knew.
            There’s a thump, then, against the window, and we both look around. This is the second time a bird has crashed into that pane since we moved in, four months ago or whenever.
            “I looked it up,” says Carla. Her name is Carla, my girlfriend. “They’re busy looking for moving objects down below so they make mistakes in flight.”

            “They’re busy looking for moving objects down below so they make mistakes,” said Carla, earlier. We’ve eaten dinner and it comes back to me, and I feel like there’s some kind of importance to that line but I’m not sure what it is. We were talking about something before. I don’t know what.

13 Nov 2014

Flash fiction lunch break


I always think it's easier to write a bit of Flash Fiction when someone gives you a title. I managed to coerce my boyfriend to text me one as a lunchtime tonic. Always the cheery one, him :)

Grey Clouds Coming.

Tabitha, who was pink through-and-through, took her pink Barbie toothbrush from the cup and brushed her sparkling pegs, mounted in pink, shiny gums. She spat out the toothpaste, made pink from the blood of a lost milk tooth, and went to Mummy for some pink lipstick. So long as she’d eaten her bran and apple, brushed her teeth and hair, and pulled the pink duvet up to her bed’s chin, she was allowed to wear a little bit of ‘Wink for Pink’ lipstick, but only on a Saturday.

Daddy was khaki through-and-through. He’d explained to Tabitha that the mossy patches on his uniform were called camouflage, but sometimes Tabitha remembered this wrongly as cauliflower. Daddy wasn’t around very often to correct her.

Mummy had been different lately. Mummy was blue. She stared out of the window with tears streaming down her cheeks. She cried more than Bethany, the class cry-baby, or Finn, who was two. 
She wasn’t one to judge, but Tabitha found it a bit silly. Tabitha was in Year 3 now and the last time she cried was when Daddy went back. Daddy was always either coming back or going back. That’s what Tabitha thought, as she rummaged through Mummy’s make-up bag. 
She felt much more put together when she had a pink smile.


9 Sep 2014

Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit) Review

Well, why not. We all have reviews going round our heads, huh? I did the obligatory going to the pub after watching this to talk it through, and my fellow cinema-goer said he thought it would take no more than half a pint.

"I should have hated it, but I didn't," he said. "But I didn't really care about it, either." 

Now I'm going to write exactly that, in a lot more words (though you can stop reading now if you prefer the abridged version).

We watched it because: We care about ordinary people struggling in an economic down-turn, but mainly because of Time Out's review: 'Most importantly, the film involves us: it draws us into the debate, makes us complicit, demands that we have an opinion, and then upends that same opinion a few minutes later. It's engaging and rousing.'

Two Days, One Night: Not an ordinary film



Sandra is signed off work with depression, but before she is able to return and remind the solar panel company of her value, colleagues vote to lose her in favour of keeping their bonus. She has a weekend to convince them to vote again, and this time, for her to keep her job.

I came to this film without the background a Dardenne Bros aficionado might benefit from, though I did see and love The Kid with a Bike. I know that their forte is thoughtful but bleak social realism, depicting the marginalised through a philosophical lens that makes meaningful fables of fringe life in industrial Belgian communities. It’s not the social realism I object to, but in the case of Two Days, One Night, a wilful lack of realism in other areas.

With every word that might be considered extra cut from exchanges leaving just the barest of expression between one actor and another, it’s like the directors loomed over the cast saying: don’t smile, don’t laugh, even less expression, pull it back. Forget comedy and tragedy being bedfellows. 

Each character is a wisp of a full person, and whilst I love being flattered with the task of filling in the gaps, I didn’t feel there were enough pegs around the board. The characters can be distilled to four statements repeated on a loop:
Sandra: Someone said Jean-Marc influenced the others. Dumont said there could be another vote on Monday
Manu: You can do it, Sandra.
Employees (1): I feel sorry, but I didn’t ask for this. We need my bonus for my… (house/ baby/ electricity…) What do the others say?
Employees (2): I feel sorry, but I didn’t ask for this. I’m not voting against you, I’m voting for my bonus. I earned that money!

Of course you don’t always need a lot of words to make an impact, but I struggled to understand the value of such sparse abstraction. The best part is when Sandra’s friend Timur breaks down from the guilt of having voted against her; the worst part is when Sandra, Manu and Anne sing ‘Rock music’ in the car, breaking away from the film’s rigidity in an uncomfortable manner before returning to their trajectories. When Sandra takes an overdose, a real Manu would have had a more impassioned reaction, but this Manu had to stick to his lines: "You can do it, Sandra."

I thought Marion Cotillard was artful with the material and things rumbled along in a not unpleasantly soporific way, with tiny smiles or face twitches adding much-needed respite. However, the structure and idea had so much promise for depth that I find it hard to forgive the constricted focus and lack of liveliness.  

For me, this film required too much off-camera gap-filling in order to credit it with the monumental substance some reviewers have found in it. I’m a little sick of that technique since Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene wound me up.  

I know that less can often be more, but sometimes less is just less, and I think that allowing the characters to have an ordinary level of personality would have made a good idea into a wonderful movie.

24 Jul 2014

You never leave Willow Lane - a 2013 short story


Halted at a crossing, I was mid huff when I saw it. I’ll admit I’m one for looking into other people’s windows anyway, and had been devouring the titbits the half-drawn curtains allowed, when, jolt, I spied something worrying as we waited at the traffic lights.

My stomach flipped with recognition. I was staring into the solemn glass eye of a Georgian townhouse. Well, you may know the route of the 38 bus – down Essex Road, Balls Pond Road, Dalston Junction – it’s not like Georgian townhouses are rare, but this one offered up a scene I had seen before, in my past. This was familiar, mine.

Not similar, but exactly the same – the row of mismatched tea cups on a long, tatty shelf, the hanging pans, grubby Belfast sink, the French mustard walls, postcards stuck to the fridge with magnets, rise-and-fall lamp pulled down low, bulb nosing the Farmhouse table.

The darkness and the light. Motes beckoning with dazzling winks.

Fancy that, I thought, craning my neck to look longer as the bus pulled off. That house looks exactly the same as Willow Lane. A trumpeting gramophone, a lengthy oak mirror in the French style, and even an Eames lounge chair for Dr Claw’s cat, flat-faced and evil, biding his time. There he pads, flicky tail, over the floorboards and then ripped from sight.

Well, it’s hard to forget something so curious, and each time I blinked that evening, there was that picture burned into my retinas. A house that from the outside was on the end of a terrace, with a neat front garden the size of a paddling pool and a shiny brass doorknob, but from the inside looked exactly the same as Willow Lane. Different city and time; same postcard.   

In bed, head on pillow, I imagined exploring the house I’d seen, through the front door and straight up some wooden, rickety stairs. There was my room, straight ahead, with the sage walls my mother and I painted whilst we listened to Radio 4 plays, and my duvet and pillow, veined with smudged blood, sheets of dust on the dresser (the house spewed dust) and the nail in the floorboards I’d impaled my foot on. I was there for a couple of years – a burgeoning misfit passing through, like the others who hung their own oil paintings, made mobiles from origami, had sex this way and that way with this one and that one and left milk to turn to cheese in the fridge door. Mainly, it was a night-time house, appreciated best in candlelight.  Sipping whisky from a tumbler after hours, you could fancy you were in 1830, a bona fide libertine or broad. How we pickled ourselves, but despite that, the memories are shard-sharp. I wonder if they are for the others.

And so I walked around, in my mind, trailing finger across surfaces until I’d remembered every inch, nibble in the skirting, notch on the headboard. Even when sleeping, I dreamt of the wood. So much wood.

It became a game, first identifying the copycat house again (where had it been exactly?) and looking in, if the curtains allowed, if I had a window seat on the right side of the bus. Sometimes it was too dark in there to make out any more than shapes and shadows, but on a sunny day, with the back of the house open to the graveyard, I could clearly see the same things as that first time – the tea cups, the gramophone, the mirror.

I juggled with this concern, among others (men, work, whims, worries), tossing it up and down. I bounced it against the wall down by the garages, under one leg, overarm, chasing it under a car when it went wayward.

I could have let it be, but instead I shaped it into a clockwork toy, wound it up and set it on its way. After all, my relationships were floundering, my writing had become a wasteland, and I was as bored as bread. In the dead of night, I imagined my monkey-playing-cymbals rattling over the empty pavements from my flat to the house, stopping at the path, cymballing ‘sh sh sh’ on arrival.

*

Across from the Willow Lane-type house is: a Methodist church, laundrette, café, bike shop, charity shop, haberdashery, specialist travel agent, but of course, you’re up on this because you chose the house for your family to live in so must have staked out the neighbourhood good and proper. I know, because you’ve told me since, that the primary school is rated ‘Good with outstanding features’ and though you’d not say so yourself, this matters because you can already detect a wayward glint in Celia’s hazel eyes; you’re concerned she’ll open her legs for kicks, like she flicks elastic bands at the cat, not quite wanting to hit it, but seeing how far she can wind the spring anyway. You won’t like that I’ve seen her do that. I’ve seen her pick her nose, dig her nails deep into her brother’s skin and shave her own arm with daddy’s razor. Of course, I advised against these pursuits like a babysitter should.

She’ll be a better person for knowing me. I tell her the truth, you see – treat her like an adult – when you just purr ‘darling’ at her, through a mouth full of chrysanthemums.

I decided to interpret your house, laid out just like Willow Lane, as a message. It took some lying to myself, at first, not believing in the supernatural by nature. It’s a sign, just for me, I blinked, trying to force thoughts of coincidence and chaos from my mind. But, it was mine, you must realise. It was a scene from my past; and you became my future, didn’t you, so nobody can argue it wasn’t all for me; all mine to take. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, daaahling.

*

I went out with this guy once who luxuriated next to me in the soiled sheets of my Willow Lane bed, port having temporarily discoloured the tips of our teeth, and said: ‘It turns me on to zoom out on this; to see your room as a set, above the houses without roofs on, to see people in rooms, in the road, in the city, and there’s us, insignificant’. I thought about that a lot when I moved to London.

I thought, here’s me in my bed, alone. Here are my limbs, prickling the sheets with two-day stubble. There’s the window, not double-glazed, letting cold fox breath pool around the window seals, coiling through the room and tunnelling into my earholes to make them ache by the morning. Behind the internal walls, a paunchy man in his forties; two eastern Europeans, overeducated for the menial jobs they do to stay in London; the empty room someone stays in on business trips; the guy with a shaved head who looks after his giggle-pot of a toddler on weekends. And outside the windows (sixteen of them in the building I estimate) the street with two hundred similar abodes, stacked like a bullet belt.

And at least six other roads branching off this one, and more off those – ribbons of roads, millipedes of train tracks, over 250 underground stations; 8 million people. Look down on Hackney, look down on the East, look down on the North of the Thames, look down on the area inside the M25. Insignificant me. Remote, ineffectual, impotent.

I’ve known people more isolated than me by far. At least my eyes shine in conversation so people want to give me their phone numbers, and I’ve always said, if you find yourself by yourself, make things happen. Go to night classes, read in bars, smile! The Willow Lane connection, whether small or big (certainly not commonplace) was enough. Do you understand ? It was enough.

*

Who lives there? I sipped my sweet, milky tea, peering out through the drizzle. If you’re like me – I now know you’re not – it’s not unusual to wonder who chooses this place, that place. I’m the kind of person who after a few drinks disembodies and disperses her soul into the bar, breathing the same breath as others, coursing with fake solidarity. I lick the pearls on a girl’s neck with goodwill; I smile when the moustachioed man tastes his nectar.

I bought a bike from the cycle shop across the road and came back for extras so often they knew me by name. 

I took my washing to the laundrette in a backpack and relished watching the clothes tossing in the barrels to the sound of the music plugged into my ears, always with an eye on your house. Who doesn’t love the smell of laundry? Babies, towels and suds, soft against the chin. I suppose it was as much about the mystery and having something to do as linking up in a spiritual way.  

Anyone could have lived there, but it was you, Jay, Celia and Finlay, and after a couple of weeks I saw you all for the first time, leaving the house on a Saturday. A jolly troop of red wellies and green cagoules. I downed my tea, hugged my faux fur to my chest and followed.

Your trip that day was to Victoria Park and though I now know you love to walk and feel free, able to hammer miles away at a time under those strappy boots, you all took the bus for the little legs in the group. I sat safely back from the ivory king and queen, the two pawns. I remember the rain on the outside and condensation on the inside of the bus window. This time I couldn’t see out so I drew dogs in the style of Keith Haring and glimpsed brollies opening like water lilies, between the lines of my pictures.

The children were a credit to you both; they sat still and straight. Here, I got a look at you, from back and side. The kind of blond highlights that take forever at the salon, applied to the thinnest strands at a time, creating a bush of foils. Neat, prim – if that still exists in modern times – a bit tight around the mouth. I thought you looked bitter and briny, but radiant with health and money. You had mid-autumn tans telling of recent holidays. I remember that made me feel something between grief and jealousy: a tender mulch of wish and rue.

Of course, I could see the attraction from the first. You’re the kind of woman that validates a man’s position in the business world, like a Mac Book Pro or Savile Row suit. Not pretty, but haughtily good-looking.

Jay, he looked like nothing. Fleshy silly putty pulled into nothing features with brindled hair in a standard crop. It’s not that I fail to find something in everyone, it’s just you and the children trapped my attention and Jay was a hole I only much later filled. I thought nothing of him then. I suppose adults like him can seem rather boring when you’re young like me. 

We traversed the park on our own meridian lines. I hadn’t been to Victoria Park before, so thanks for leading me there – a huge, jovial green speech mark floating from Hackney’s concrete jaws. It’s become important to the children and I. We huddle in a stone alcove taken from the old London Bridge and look at picture books; here I told them about the Psammead granting wishes to children just like them.

Do you want to know what peculiar Celia said she’d wish for? I can’t tell you, it’s too close to the bone, but the crazy thing is, she’s getting her wish today. ‘Mummy loves you very much,’ I told her. She shrugged, which I thought was awfully grown up. It told me she knew life wouldn’t always give her what she wanted and that she would accept that, despite the pain. Nothing much like you, really, but so much like me.

*

So, we didn’t meet like you thought, not wholly. I wasn’t dead set on becoming friends, but London is vast and I didn’t know many people outside of the work sphere. You had become familiar to me; a comfort. Day in, day out, I knew you and your family were swaddled by the Willow Lane-type house.

The way you’ll remember it, we met on yoga mats in the Methodist Church.

‘God, I’d kill for a glass of wine,’ you said to the room, after we’d rolled our mats up.

‘I never say no to a glass of wine,’ I said, hand already outstretched in greeting. ‘I’m Tess.’ Paula and Erica came too, and we all got on very well. You spoke to me the most because you thought I was animated and warm. An antidote to your coolness. By the bottom of the bottle your number was in my phone and I was looking after the children on Monday afternoon. And there, finally, was the moment I had been waiting patiently for. I had my way in.  

How did it feel walking into your Willow Lane-type house when I first came over? I’ve heard fanciful things about ghosts being an imprint of a time on a house, their tautest experiences having such muscle they end up scorched into the space forever like movie negatives. I’m agnostic regarding ghosts, but the trick your house conjured up – well, that was something. All the things you have there, replicating my old home, made it feel even more like home than the real thing ever was. I suppose that’s distance and nostalgia, relief to have something that was gone, back again.

Only upstairs was altered, with the Duracell bunnies, the Peppa pigs, wooden train line, doggie duvets, rubber ducks, a rocking horse, building blocks and the sweet scent of almond milk that children excrete. The house massaged me with soothing oils from the second I left my shoes at the door: ylang ylang and rose rubbed into my tight shoulder blades. The spiders in the crevices shifted hello and the children ran into my arms.

‘Hello, little things,’ I said to them all.

‘You’re going to look after us today as mummy is goings shopping,’ said Fin.

 ‘Yes,’ you said. ‘Mummy is getting a rare chance to escape this place. She never gets to do anything she wants any more…’ You were speaking from the coat cupboard, already tying your felt belt. Your boot zips sounded like the closing of body bags in TV thrillers.

You didn’t say goodbye to the children.

*

Never try to second-guess a person before you know them, you’ll never fully pin them down. I’ve known all sorts but none like you. You have an air of Bakelite about you: archaic, clean, snappable. Your breath smells of stainless steel and your smile, frightening, strangled. You penetrate my eyes, and though I see a mask of understanding, I know you’re working on different logic to me, have a whole other world inside you I can’t comprehend, like I can’t fathom the end of the universe or how long 180 million years is. The closer we become, the less I know you and I know that alarms you; makes you feel unknowable. You’re unpredictable but never consistently so, though you do stay within the lines of the law. I don’t tell you how different you are, of course, because there’s good different and bad different, and I know you believe you’re bad different, whereas when you say to me, ‘You’re so different to other people,’ I know you mean it as a compliment.

One night, you went to bed early – nearly as early as the children – feigning flu, after I’d cooked you all my signature dish of lamb and rose petal meatballs. We had a box of wine on the go, and Jay, especially, threw it down his throat, replenishing his insides after a drought. The music was so loud the bells, chimes, strings and caramel voices licked our ears in silk scarves of melody. You were preoccupied with the candle wax, which mimicked lava spewing from the wine bottleneck and I wondered how many years of burning coloured candles had amassed such a glorious, gleaming Tudor ruff. You must have talked, conspired, confided, whispered, planned and promised this man so much throughout your decade of togetherness. The bottle itself – a 2001 Chateauxneuf-du-Pape – would have been shared when you were both so much younger and I erased Jay’s lines around his eyes and on his brow, microdermabrasioned his cheeks, smoothed the badger stripes from his hair, revealing an achingly normal but casually becoming young man. His grey irises eyes are heavy – gravid with latent feelings. You left us and we went to the couch.

‘You’re very different, Tess,’ he said to me, touching my hair, tenderly. ‘You’ve warmed this place up. The children love you, and I’ve never seen my wife take to someone as she has to you. She usually keeps people at arm’s length. Me included.’

He was looking at me like I could fix him – pleadingly. I could feel, from the way his hand writhed in mine, that he was ravenous for female affection.

‘I thought the children would fix everything. That they would fill me up in every way. I’m more filled up than I’ve ever been, but the vessel has expanded, and it’s emptier than before. Is that fair?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t have much, myself. I’m an eggcup.’

‘You have possibility,’ he said. ‘Everything is possible for you.’

Funny that he would use the same words that you do. ‘Everything is possible for you,’ you have always said. ‘I want that for me; I want to be free.’

I would never have helped you if it wasn’t for the threats. ‘I’ll kill them,’ you said. ‘I’ll kill them all, if I stay.’

*

We pack your things whilst the children play in a new Wendy house. Regardless of the new computer consoles, children never grow out of houses in houses or dens in dens. I can hear them giggling, squawking, kittening around. Into the suitcase go your gorgeous dresses that skim over your automaton curves. Are you the next generation of woman – Woman 2.0? In go your expensive products: Touche Eclat, Eve Lom cleanser, muslin cloths to lift the war paint away, and Chanel Gardenia to meld with your metal aroma.

‘You can have these,’ you say, pointing at stacks of jeans and jumpers, but when you see my grimace, you add, ‘Or you can take them to the charity shop.’

When the contents of your wardrobe shrank a couple of weeks ago, you told Jay you were having a clear out and that the charity shop around the corner would be busting at its seams, but this isn’t true – you packed tea chests with your very best items and sent them on first. I know you’ve been siphoning off money from your shared account for years, so you’re okay for funds, but you will need to live more frugally.

‘I might become a spy,’ you say. ‘Or be kept by a sheik. I might become an assassin. Or be assassinated.’

‘The possibilities,’ I say.

And then you go to the hairdressers and I feed the children porridge with melted butter and a glass of milk, just like my mother made me. When you come back, your hair is chestnutty and bobbed, and I can’t help but be awed by how it frames your ferocity.

We’re face to face now, and you thank me with a long hug. You promise to send me emails, but nothing to the children. They are not to be reminded. The Willow Lane-type door closes on you, and I’m alone in the hallway. The brightest, floury winter light streams through the top of the door, and it seems as though the walls relax in a low, guttural moan. We fuse together, house, children, cat, me.  

Celia and Finlay run down the stairs, playing chase, their little legs half swallowed by new frog wellies Jay got them last weekend which they’ve been allowed to wear in the house until they meet the puddles of East London. It’s a nice home for children. Plenty of running space and scope for enjoyable clatter.

I tidy the house and put happy sunflowers bought from Columbia Road flower market in the jardinière by the fireplace. We watch cartoons until we hear the key in the lock.

When Jay comes in, I go to him.