Authors: Isabel Ashdown
By the time she walked back home that evening the worst of it seemed to be over, and, while relief was her abiding emotion, Laura felt the grief of loss: the loss of childhood, and the loss of a child.
By Sunday evening, without any mention of their earlier disagreement, things seem to have returned to normal between Laura and Phoebe. The following morning, when
Robert sets off for work, Laura drives her to the local college, to pick up a prospectus and look around the facilities. Apart from A-levels, which Phoebe already has, the main focus of the college is business and technology, with a few other subjects like hairdressing and mechanics thrown in for good measure. Laura tries to buoy her up as they pass suite after suite of computer screens and desks, but by the time they get back to the main foyer Phoebe is more miserable than ever.
‘I’m an A-star student, for God’s sake,’ she whispers to Laura as they stand at the brochure carousel, listlessly thumbing through the various subjects.
‘All the more reason for you to do something you really want to do.’ Laura notices the dark circles beneath Phoebe’s eyes; she looks as if she hasn’t slept for a week. ‘Come on, we’re both getting ratty – let’s go and get something in the canteen.’
They queue at the counter, where Laura picks up a Danish pastry and a pot of tea, while Phoebe orders fish and chips. She glances guiltily at Laura. ‘I’m starving,’ she says.
nearly lunchtime. Do you want a tea too?’
Phoebe wrinkles her nose. ‘No – I’ve gone off tea lately. I’ll get a Coke.’
Laura’s breath catches in her chest as she recalls the fierce aversion for tea and coffee that she herself had developed with each of her pregnancies. And the deep fatigue; the dark half-moons that had appeared underneath her eyes. She slides her tray along the counter behind Phoebe, taking in the almost imperceptible swell of Phoebe’s hips, the subtle plumping of her skin. At a guess, she must be three months gone.
‘You sit down,’ she says. ‘I’ll pay.’
With her own longed-for babies Laura had never got beyond eleven or twelve weeks, never stepped into that blossoming realm of ripening serenity promised by the mother-and-baby magazines she kept hidden in the bedside cabinet. After the first miscarriage with Doug, she’d held her subsequent pregnancies close, desperate to reveal them to the world at the turn of twelve weeks, only to have them slip from her too soon, like an empty promise.
She joins Phoebe at a table beside the window, looking out across the courtyard. Drizzly mist hangs over the benches and flower borders beyond the glass, painting it dreary, depressing. Laura sugars her tea and unravels her pastry; Phoebe concentrates on her plate, vanishing her fish and chips at speed. Only when she’s mopping up the ketchup with her final chip does she look up.
hungry,’ Laura says.
Phoebe looks a little embarrassed. ‘I didn’t eat much for breakfast.’
‘Do you want to get yourself a dessert?’ Laura’s anxious to let Phoebe see she’s not judging her. ‘They’ve got some nice cakes up there. And trifle – your favourite.’
She appears to think about it, before sliding her tray away and opening up the college prospectus. ‘Nah, I’m fine. Don’t want to get fat, do I?’ She gives Laura a cheeky smile to show there are no hard feelings.
‘So,’ Laura says, spinning the brochure to face her, and flicking through its pages, ‘is there anything here that takes your fancy?’
Phoebe shakes her head, despondent.
‘Nothing? Well, let’s look at it another way. What do think you want to do with your life – what really interests you? Something you can imagine doing as a job, not just a hobby.’
A gardener passes the window, pushing a wheelbarrow of cuttings. Phoebe’s eyes travel with him, as he carries on along the path and stops beside the flower borders.
‘I wouldn’t mind being a gardener. Or someone who designs gardens. Something outdoorsy would be nice. I can’t bear the idea of being stuck behind a desk.’
‘Your mum liked gardening,’ Laura is surprised to hear herself say.
Phoebe’s eyes widen slightly. ‘Really? I thought she was just a teacher.’
Laura laughs. ‘
a teacher, eh? Well, yes, she was a teacher, but she had other interests too. Once she and your father moved to the house we’re in now, she became a really keen gardener. The garden was always beautiful in springtime. It smelt of honeysuckle and jasmine, and wild roses. It was idyllic.’
‘It doesn’t look like that now. It’s really boring.’
‘That’s because your mum’s not there to keep it looking beautiful.’
Their eyes meet across the table. Laura reaches for her teapot.
‘I don’t mind talking about her, you know,’ Phoebe says, breaking the tension. ‘It’s not like I’m able to miss her, is it? I only know her through photos. You’re the one who brought me up, Laura, not her.’
‘I know that. But it still feels strange talking about her, as though she’s dead or something.’ She stops, appalled by her own lack of tact. ‘I don’t mean that – I know she’s not. I suppose I still miss her. She was my best friend, after all.’
‘I don’t know why you and Dad are so – so nice about her. After what she did. I mean, what kind of a mother just walks out?’
Laura shakes her head. ‘It’s hard to explain, Phoebs. You should talk to your dad about it some time. It would probably do him some good to talk it through with you.’
Phoebe takes a packet of sugar cubes from the bowl, unwraps it and pops one in her mouth. She turns to gaze out of the window, to where the gardener is digging out weeds with his hand fork. ‘I think we should ask at reception about gardening courses. I think that’s what I’d like to do.’
Back at the car with a clutch of new leaflets, they embrace, neither wanting to let go.
‘I’m proud of you, Phoebe,’ says Laura, ‘whatever you end up doing – however life turns out. And I know your mum would be too.’
Although they never admitted as much, Laura is certain that Wren and Rob first got together after that horrible night she had spent in the student bar with Jack in their final year.
She didn’t remember much about arriving home – barely a thing, in fact – except that she woke bathed in sweat in the early hours, thankful for the miraculously placed bucket by her bedside. She felt weak with dread, subdued by that unique thread of paranoia which comes after a night of alcohol-fuelled self-annihilation, her head throbbing like a fractured limb, every tiny movement vibrating throughout her trembling body.
, she thought as she fought the urge to retch again, and she tried to gather the stamina required to cross her bedroom to fetch her dressing gown from the back of the door.
After several failed attempts she was up, into her gown and out in the living room, gingerly making her way to the kitchen, where she would attempt to drink a glass of water
without throwing up. She rested at the sink, gripping the units with white knuckles, a fresh film of perspiration beading up through her pale skin. She groaned through a long breath and reached into the cupboard for a glass – filled it swiftly and banged it down on the side with a slop of overspill, rushing to the medicine box to search for paracetamol before the nausea caught up with her again. ‘
Pills, pills, pills
,’ she chanted in a whisper, until eventually she found them, picked up the water and retreated to the living room to perch on the edge of the sofa with her head on her knees. She stayed there for an age, long enough to actually drift into a light sleep, for her neck to seize up and complain as she finally raised her head to drink from the glass. Every movement had to be slow-motion, to trick her body into thinking it wasn’t moving at all. She popped out the tablets into her hand and stared at them for a while, slowly reaching out for the glass, thinking too much about the journey they had to take, via her lips, her mouth, her gullet. She noticed the stillness of the flat at this hour, and wondered for a brief moment if she was there all alone.
That was when she noticed it.
The door to Rob’s bedroom stood uncharacteristically ajar. Rob never slept with the door open; he needed complete darkness to sleep. Laura sat and stared at the foot-wide gap in the doorway, fighting back a tangle of images from the night before, each scrambling across the other to dominate her mind’s eye. Jack in the toilet cubicle with that girl, her ivory leg hooked around his, the soft brown ghost of a bruise snaking up the bone of her shin, the metallic chink of his belt buckle swinging loose at his thigh. The girl’s indignant expression; his dead-eyed shrug of indifference as he glanced over his shoulder then pushed the cubicle door between
them, slotted the bolt into place. Mum and Dad framed in the window of their joyless kitchen; married for better or worse. His disappointment; hers.
On shaky legs, Laura trod softly across the ghastly carpet and peered through the gap, into Rob’s bedroom. She pushed the door back a little, a little more, until it was quite, quite clear that Rob wasn’t there – that his bed was empty. And that was when she heard it: the soft murmur of two voices joined as one, drifting through the plasterboard walls of Rob’s room.
Unable to stop herself, Laura followed the sounds, laying her ear against the wall, her palms pressed flat either side of her head.
‘I love you,’ she heard Rob say, as clearly as if he were in the room beside her.
She closed her eyes, straining to hear Wren’s response, paralysed by the sudden shock of jealousy at the thought of Wren in there with Robert, her Robert. She prayed for Wren to say nothing, but her words came through as clear as Rob’s. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t be
if I didn’t believe that.’
Laura backed away, disgusted at herself, at her furtive eavesdropping, at the life she led, and retreated to the sanctuary of her sickbed, where she wept between retches and vowed to embrace her friends’ union, to be the best friend that she could be.
A letter arrives for Robert on Wednesday morning, while Laura and Phoebe are completing application forms for the college. The light blue envelope is handwritten, with an unreadable postcode, and its arrival unsettles Laura for
the rest of the day. In the afternoon, after Phoebe goes out, Laura turns it over in her hands a few times, even lifting it to her nose to inhale its papery scent, before placing it on the dresser with Robert’s other mail of statements and circulars.
It’s not Wren’s handwriting
, is her first thought, but she can’t shake the overwhelming feeling of its being somehow connected to her, to the recent resurrection of her ghost in the house.
By the time she hears Robert’s car returning at seven, Laura is so deeply unsettled that she leaps up from the kitchen table where she’s paring beans, and slides the envelope underneath the tea towels in the top drawer. Next morning, however, after a restless sleep, she forces herself to hand him the letter at the front door, as she helps him into his winter coat. Just as she had done, he turns the envelope over a few times and tries to make out the smudged postcode. ‘You don’t get many handwritten letters these days,’ he says, kissing her on the lips and picking up his briefcase. ‘Perhaps it’s a long-lost inheritance cheque. You never know.’ Smiling and waving it between them, he leaves the house for work.
Laura is astounded by his unruffled response; has he completely forgotten the journalist searching for Wren? Perhaps it’s just she who has become paranoid, on the lookout for every little signal, every tiny sign of her? From the quiet of the hallway she tunes in to the sounds of his feet crunching over the drive, the bleep of the car unlocking, the soft thud of the car door as he closes it behind him. She stares at the coat rack, her mind racing, until, after a few minutes like this, it strikes her – his car hasn’t left the drive. Moving into the living room, she looks out through the netted front windows. He’s sitting in the driver’s seat, the opened letter in one hand, his lower lip pinched between the forefinger
and thumb of the other. Slowly he drops his hand, and raises his face to stare ahead through the windscreen to the street beyond, his body a silhouette against the salmon glow of morning. Laura wants to rush out to him, to prise open the door and ask him,
What is it? Who is it?
But she can’t. Her feet are sunk into the plush champagne carpet of their living room, and all she can do is watch as he wearily fixes his seatbelt and disappears through the gate, his face a picture of alarm.
Throughout the day, Laura’s thoughts return to Wren and Robert, to the early years they shared together, Laura
as the couple graduated from lovers to partners to husband and wife. She thinks of their wedding day, a strangely subdued affair, overshadowed by the spectre of Wren’s mother, by the weight of her absence. It took place in Weybridge register office, with a small gathering of friends and family, and a few of Rob’s old schoolfriends thrown in for good measure. Wren had been adamant that she didn’t want any of her work friends to attend; it was a private affair, she’d insisted, though she was fine with Rob’s guests. Her mother had been in Austria in the run-up to the wedding, helping Siegfried host a conference on corporate efficiency; but
, she told Wren,
yes, darling, I’ll do everything in my power to attend
. Laura knew how much Wren was looking forward to seeing her; it had been two years since she had last met up with her, in Rome, and naturally her mother’s presence on this special day was important to her. Laura was in charge of making the hotel reservations needed for their few far-flung guests, and she had phoned Wren’s mother just two days earlier to pass on the details. It was
the first time they had ever spoken, and she was effusive and charming.
She’s very posh
, Laura had told Rob afterwards.
She’s got a voice like Joan Collins
. Rob had replied that of course she thought she was posh, because Laura was a great big leftie and an inverted snob to boot.
In her characteristically distant fashion, Eliza Adler kept them all thinking she’d be there right up until the day itself, when in her place she sent a telegram, wishing the newlyweds good health and happiness for the years ahead.