Authors: Sarah Rayner
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Psychology
Johnnie struggles to open the heavy metal door of the clinic without dropping the stack of files he has clutched to his chest.
‘Ah, Johnnie,’ says Gillian, just as his duffle bag slides off his shoulder. ‘Thank goodness I’ve caught you.’ She is chatting with Danni, the receptionist.
Johnnie’s heart sinks. The traffic into Lewes was nose to tail, his first session is due to start in less than five minutes, and he badly needs a cup of coffee.
‘Could we catch up at lunch?’ he ventures.
He can tell at once from her expression that they can’t. Gillian is the senior therapist at Moreland’s Place and it’s occurred to Johnnie before today that for someone who
works in the caring professions, there’s something of the headmistress about her. Perhaps it’s the tight grey bun and half-moon glasses; perhaps it’s the robust Scots accent.
Beside her Johnnie often feels like a naughty schoolboy, dishevelled in appearance and lacking in gravitas.
‘Actually, now’s fine.’
‘Room 6 is free,’ says Danni. ‘I’ll keep an eye on those if it helps?’ She jerks her head towards Johnnie’s files.
‘Thanks.’ Johnnie offloads his paperwork and follows his boss down the corridor.
Gillian closes the door to Room 6 behind them. It’s blandly decorated in magnolia and beige and there are several like it at the clinic. They are used for private sessions with patients
and staff meetings; one blends into another.
‘Do sit down,’ she says, waving towards a neat, bowl-shaped chair that offers little in the way of style or comfort.
Johnnie glances at the clock on the wall and hesitates, then perches on the edge of the seat. He racks his brain to think of what he might have done wrong. He’s not very good at keeping up
with his admin; last week he was supposed to submit case notes for eight patients and he only managed to complete five.
Gillian pulls up a chair opposite, adjusts her woollen shawl and clears her throat.
Johnnie braces himself, guilt mounting. I took those flowers, he remembers, and Gillian saw me leaving with them tucked under one arm. But the young woman checked out of her room without wanting
them, and I thought my girlfriend could enjoy them at home. Surely it wasn’t a crime?
‘It’s regarding one of our patients,’ says Gillian. Her voice is gruff.
Johnnie’s mind goes into overdrive. Who does she mean? Patients come and go from Moreland’s all the time – they can have up to ten admissions each week – and that’s
just as inpatients. There are twenty-five beds and demand is high; as soon as they are empty, they’re nearly always filled, and there are countless outpatients too.
‘You mean one of mine?’ he says.
Her face crumples, she casts her eyes downwards and Johnnie has an awful sense of foreboding.
‘Well . . .’ Her tone softens. ‘It was someone from your eleven o’clock session.’
Again he glances at the clock. It’s eleven o’clock right now.
Gillian leans forward and gives Johnnie’s knee a squeeze and at once Johnnie understands the reason she was so keen to see him.
‘I’m so sorry . . .’ she says.
‘Those socks look really stupid.’
‘Shh, Luke.’ Karen turns to her daughter. ‘They’re fine, sweetheart. Don’t listen to him.’ Though Luke has a point; like the rest of Molly’s uniform,
the socks are far too big for her. Karen smothers a smile – they mustn’t mock; this is a huge moment for her little girl. ‘Let’s take a photograph,’ she says, running
her fingertips through Molly’s curls in a futile attempt to smooth them. She pulls the front door shut. ‘How about here on the doorstep?’
‘I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss,’ Luke sighs. He’s nearly seven, so an old hand at this first-day-of-term malarkey, but for his sister it’s all
new. Though her chest is swelled with pride as she poses with her satchel and bottle-green fleece embroidered with the school badge, Karen can tell she is being brave. She is quiet and pale and has
been sensitive since waking.
‘Now Luke, stand next to Molly,’ says Karen.
He bounds onto the front step and leans in close. ‘Just be careful of the ogre in the girls’ toilets.’
Molly’s bottom lip quivers.
‘I heard you,’ Karen warns.
Luke smiles sweetly at his mother, then whispers, ‘And the dragon under the stairs.’
‘LUKE! Why must you be so mean? He’s teasing you,’ Karen assures her daughter. ‘There are no dragons, sweetheart, I promise.’
Molly gulps. ‘What about the ogre?’
‘No ogres either.’
It’s terrifying enough without her brother stirring, thinks Karen, as they start to walk. The school is nearby and Molly has often been to collect Luke with Karen. She’s also used to
spending three days a week with the childminder while Karen is at work. Nonetheless, she’s leaving the safety of a familiar world, heading off to a strange wilderness of large classes full of
children, lessons, lunch and assembly . . . Then there’s playtime, with its potential for scraping elbows and knees on tarmac, or worse, being teased or bullied, not to mention endless
alarming activities that didn’t exist when Karen herself was growing up.
By the time they reach the school gates Karen’s heart is racing and her palms are sticky; she doesn’t know who’s more nervous, her or Molly. She sees Miss Buckley,
Molly’s new form teacher, on the far side of the playground and heads over with the children. Nearby a small boy is sobbing, and as his mother bends to kiss him farewell he claws her shirt
sleeve in his desperation not to be separated from her. Another child brushes off his mother’s angst with a ‘Bye, Mum’ and a grin; her smudged make-up and blotchy cheeks betray
she’s finding this harder than he is.
‘Hello,’ says the teacher, and crouches to Molly’s height. ‘You’re Molly, aren’t you?’
Molly is too overwhelmed to speak. She gives a barely discernible nod.
I should leave, Karen tells herself. Fussing will only prolong the agony. ‘Luke, you help Miss Buckley take care of your sister today, OK?’
‘OK,’ he offers, less disparaging now he’s charged with responsibility.
‘And Molly, I’ll be back at lunchtime to collect you.’ Karen girds herself. ‘Good luck, darling.’ She bends to give her daughter a hug, and senses Molly stiffen as
she fights to be grown up.
Karen’s heart twists, and as she makes her way across the playground, the woman with blotchy cheeks catches her eye and nods in understanding.
Five minutes later, Karen is back home. The house sits at the top of a street where all bar theirs and the neighbouring property are Victorian. The red-brick facade spoils the symmetry of the
white-painted terrace, but the 1930s semi was the most she and her husband could afford when they bought it a decade earlier.
Years of living here with small children haven’t helped, she observes, nearly tripping over a stray wellington as she steps into the hall. She picks the boot up, places it alongside its
partner, heads into the kitchen and flicks on the kettle. As she waits for the water to boil she pauses to look around. The walls are covered in small fingerprints and spillages – every room
could do with decorating, which means nothing gets done, because it seems a gargantuan task. Outside the window most of the pots in the patio garden are empty or contain plants wilted by frost; the
narrow borders are weed-ridden from lack of care.
There’s a rush of steam and bubbles and a click; Karen makes a cup of tea and leans back against the counter. Without the noise of the kettle the silence is striking – as though
someone has come along and underlined it in red ink.
I wonder if the other mums are feeling this bereft? The first day is notoriously tough, thinks Karen. And Molly seems so half-fledged and vulnerable, she’s barely more than a baby . .
Then, like a truck at speed, it hits her.
Starting school is such an important milestone, she thinks. Simon should be with us.
* * *
A few streets away, Abby is standing in the bay window of her bedroom, looking out. Vegetation frames the view, lending it weight, as if it were an exhibit in a show. Between
the fronds of a yew and the spiked leaves of holly she can see down into the dip of Preston Circus.
I’m going to miss this, she thinks.
The triangular roofs of railway workers’ cottages are lined up like an army, some ancient and covered in lichen, others more recently renovated, gleaming silver-grey in the aftermath of a
sudden downpour. The scruffiest are doubtless student dwellings; the rest more likely house people with children, keen to live near the park. From here pastel-coloured Victorian terraces climb up
the slope of Hanover in diminishing rows, as if whoever laid out the city was an art tutor testing his pupils’ ability to convey perspective. Beyond are the pale concrete blocks of Whitehawk
Estate, and in the far distance, the gentle curve of the South Downs, chalky fields ploughed and ready for planting.
Abby sighs. ‘Oh, Glenn,’ she murmurs. ‘Whatever happened to me and you, to us?’
She is not sure if she’s sad, angry, or both. Either way, her husband is abdicating responsibility; at least that’s how it feels. Fleetingly, Abby is tempted to absent herself
instead. How about we don’t put our home on the market, separate in a civilized fashion, she has an urge to say to him, as you’re so keen to do? What if I were to drive into the blue
yonder, leaving you to deal with all the shit? Then I could go back to photojournalism – focus on chasing stories, the challenge of deadlines, chatting with bright, sparky colleagues. My, how
working on a local paper seems with hindsight . . . What if I were to say I couldn’t cope – what would happen to Callum then? Would you pick up the pieces – take
over our son’s routine, give up your job? Because there’s no way you could continue working in London and care for Callum. That’s a full-time occupation in itself.
But of course Abby won’t say this, and Glenn knows that.
I couldn’t leave Callum, she thinks. I don’t want to. I love him.
She looks around the room. A vast sleigh bed dominates the space, though these days Abby sleeps there alone. Glenn has been sleeping in the attic for months, yet his clothes remain in the
wardrobe, which means he comes in every morning to get dressed, a reflection of the limbo they’re in. Thrown over the chair is the shirt Abby wore yesterday – seeing it reminds her.
There’s a line of red, chafed flesh on the side of her neck, like a particularly vicious love bite, from when her top was tugged so hard the collar left a burn mark.
It’s the aggression that Glenn can’t handle, she thinks. That’s why he’s going.
Her eyes fall on their bedside table. On it is a picture of the three of them. There’s her husband, unshaven, grinning – he appears quite the rebel. She is beside him; she was
plumper then – these days she is sinew and bone. How she loved her fair hair like that, long and softly layered. She regrets cutting it, but needs must – she was sick of it being
pulled. Between them is Callum, all white-blond moptop, rosy cheeks and big blue eyes – he was only a toddler at the time. It’s winter; they’re dressed in coats and scarves and
gloves, enveloped in a hug, a bundle of love.