Authors: Cathy Kelly
Millie stopped wailing instantly and ran to her father, throwing her rounded baby arms around his knees and burying her face in his grey wool trousers. ‘Daddy,’ she cooed delightedly, as if she hadn’t just been flinging her dinner around the room like a mischievous elf moments before. He picked her up and cuddled her, the two dark heads close together, one clustered with long curls, the other a short crop with spreading grey at the sides. Matt was tall, rangy and lean, with the sort of dark, deep set eyes that set female pulses racing and a solid, firm jaw that had stubborn written all over it. The scattering of discreet grey in his new, very short haircut suited him, transforming his handsome good looks into something more mature and sexier. Even after seven years together, the sight of him all dressed up with his eyes crinkling into a smile and that strong mouth curving upwards slowly, could set Hope’s heart racing. The terrible thing was, she didn’t think that his pulse still raced when he saw her. ‘Are you in trouble with Mummy?’ Matt asked. Millie managed a strangled sob. ‘Yes,’ she said sadly. ‘She wouldn’t eat her dinner, she was throwing it everywhere and she’s just spilled my tea,’ Hope said, knowing she sounded shrewish but unable to help it. ‘Never mind,’ Matt said easily without even looking at his wife. ‘It’s only a bit of tea, you can wash it.’ Still cuddling Millie, he ruffled Toby’s hair and walked into the living room, his big body cradling Millie easily. Toby clambered off his seat and ran after him. In seconds, the sounds of giggling and laughter could be heard. Hope looked glumly down at her cream uniform blouse which was now stained with splashes of tea. One corner had escaped from her skirt and hung out untidily. Very chic. Ignoring the tea things, she went upstairs and stripped off her uniform. She’d have to sponge the skirt because she only had two and the hem was down on the other one. In her part of the wardrobe, she found the grape velvet two-piece
and pulled it on. She brushed her hair, put on her pearl earrings and spritzed herself with eau de cologne, all without looking in the mirror. It was only to apply her lipstick that she sat at the small dressing table and adjusted the oval mirror so she could see herself. She was old fashioned looking, she knew. Not the showily beautiful and spirited leading lady of romantic novels: instead, she was the quiet, sober Austen heroine with expressive, anxious grey eyes. Empire line dresses would have suited her perfectly because she could have shown off her generous bosom and hidden the slightly thick waist and sturdy legs. She looked her best in soft, muted colours that complemented the thick-lashed, eloquent eyes. Her grape outfit fitted the bill, while the dark navy and maroon of her uniform clothes made her look dull and middle-aged. Now she put lipstick on and pinned her hair up. Piled up, it showed off her slender neck. Finished, she touched the small silver and enamel pill box on the dressing table for luck. It had been her mother’s and touching it for luck was as much a part of Hope’s day as brushing her teeth after meals. She didn’t remember her mother so the box with its orchid illustration was special, the only thing she’d got left really. Sam had a matching box only hers had a picture of a pansy on it. The pillboxes were among the only things they had of their mother’s. She and their father had been killed when the girls were small, when they’d been driving home from a night out and their car had been hit by a drunk driver. Their father had been killed outright but their mother had lived long enough to be taken to hospital and died soon after. Not that Sam or Hope remembered much about it and Aunt Ruth, left to bring them up in her austere house in Windsor, had been very keen on ‘not dwelling on things’ and had disposed of most of their parents’ personal belongings. Consequently, they had very few mementoes of Camille and Sandy Smith. Except that Millie was named for her grandmother. Dear naughty little Millie.
Hope smiled and wondered what she’d leave her children to remember her by if she died suddenly: a dirty dishcloth or a basketful of ironing probably. Downstairs, Matt was watching CNN with the children sitting either side of him, both utterly content. Hope stood behind the sofa and planted a kiss on his head. ‘Sorry I was a grump when you came in,’ she said softly. ‘Let’s get this pair to bed and I’ll make you a lovely birthday dinner.’ ‘Daddy, you have to read me a story,’ said Millie querulously, knowing that the treat being discussed didn’t involve her. ‘I will, honey,’ Matt said absent-mindedly, still watching the news. ‘A long story,’ Millie said, satisfied. ‘Really long, about trolls and fairies …’ She shuddered deliciously. ‘No trolls,’ Hope said automatically. ‘You’ll have nightmares.’ ‘I won’t,’ insisted Millie. ‘No trolls,’ said her mother firmly. Matt did his bedtime story duty and when he came downstairs, the steaks were sizzling deliciously under the grill and Hope was wrestling with a recipe for herb and garlic butter she’d found in a women’s magazine. Fresh herbs, honestly. Who could be bothering with fresh herbs when they cost so much in the shops and went limp and tasteless after two days. ‘Smells good,’ Matt said, returning to his seat in the sitting room. He flicked around with the remote and found the sports channel. Through the double doors between the sitting room and the kitchen, Hope could see him put his feet up on the coffee table. He’d changed from his suit into his oldest jeans and a faded sweatshirt she could have sworn she’d thrown out. She shrugged. It was his birthday, he could wear what he wanted to. She took in the bottle of special birthday wine, eager for praise. ‘Will you open it?’ she asked, producing the madly
expensive corkscrew that Matt had seen in a restaurant and had insisted on sending off for. ‘Yeah,’ he said absently, still watching the TV. He opened the bottle and handed it back to her. When she’d poured two glasses and assured herself that the steak was getting along fine without her, she returned, gave Matt his glass and curled up beside him on the sofa. ‘Nice day?’ she asked. Matt grunted in return. Hope tried again. She was absolutely determined they were going to have a lovely coupley evening in for his birthday. She adored nights like this. She and Matt having a companionable dinner together and their beloved children asleep upstairs - that was what happy families were all about. She knew it, she insisted on it. But Matt was having none of it. He watched the television intently, his lean body sunk back against the sofa cushions, his handsome face in profile with his eyes hooded as he concentrated. After a few more of Hope’s attempts at conversation, he sighed and asked when dinner was. ‘Now, soon,’ Hope said, jumping off the sofa and heading back into the kitchen. She lit the candles on the kitchen table, repositioned the burgundy linen napkins someone had given them when they’d got married and dished up the second dinner of the day. Instinctively, Matt appeared as soon as his plate landed on the matching burgundy linen mat. He dug in hungrily. ‘This is lovely, isn’t it?’ Hope said. ‘Mm,’ grunted Matt, one eye still on the television which was visible from his seat at the table. News had been replaced by the monotonous roar of motor racing. He cut his steak into small pieces so he could fork it up without missing a bit of the action. ‘Is everything all right?’ Hope asked. ‘Yeah, it’s lovely. Nice bit of steak,’ he replied. ‘I didn’t mean the steak.’
Matt sighed and took his eye off the TV for a brief moment. ‘Hope, do we have to have one of these “is everything OK?” conversations tonight? I’m tired, I’ve had a hard day and I’d like to relax if that’s not too much to ask.’ Her eyes brimmed. ‘Sure, fine.’ The commentator’s voice droned on and Hope ate her meal mechanically, not tasting anything, worrying. There was something wrong, she knew it. Had known it for weeks. Matt wasn’t happy and she was sure it was nothing to do with his job. It had to be personal, something about him and her, something terrible. He’d been depressed since his favourite uncle had died in Ireland two months ago, and at first, Hope had thought Matt was feeling guilty because he hadn’t seen Gearoid for years. Mart’s family were terrible for keeping in touch and when they’d first been married, Hope, who’d expected to be welcomed into the bosom of a real family at long last, had been astonished to find that the Parker family had only one trait in common: apathy about family gettogethers. His parents were remarkably self-sufficient people who’d had Matt, their only child, late in life and clearly weren’t pleased at the intrusion of a small child into their busy lives. Now that he was an adult with a wife, they appeared to think they’d done their bit. Hope found it impossible to understand this, but was grateful that, despite his upbringing, Matt was so passionate about her and the children. Sam wisely said it was clear that Matt was determined to live his life very differently from the way his austere and cold family lived. ‘He’s insecure about people loving him and he needs you. That’s why he’s so controlling,’ Sam had added, with a rare touch of harshness. Hope just wished she was sure her husband needed her. If she was sure of that, she wouldn’t be so nervous about asking him what was wrong. Was it Gearoid’s death? He’d been incredibly fond of the eccentric uncle he used to spend summers with as a child.
But when she’d tried to comfort him about Gearoid, Matt had snapped at her, so perhaps it wasn’t that. What was it, then? She knew she should be quiet, that it was fatal to probe at this unknown awfulness, because once she’d probed, she’d know and she wouldn’t be able to bury her head in the sand and pretend everything was OK. But she had to probe. ‘Don’t tell me it’s nothing,’ she said quickly. ‘I know you’re not happy, Matt.’ ‘OK, you’re right, you’re right,’ he snapped, slamming down his fork. ‘I’m not happy. You win first prize for noticing.’ ‘I just want to help,’ Hope said in a small voice. ‘I’m just … oh,’ he threw his hands in the air, ‘I don’t know. I’m a bit down, that’s all. Unfulfilled, pissed off, depressed, I don’t know what you call it.’ She stared at him mutely, not knowing what was coming next. ‘Don’t say it’s a mid-life crisis,’ he added harshly. ‘That’s what bloody Dan said. Said I’d be running off with a seventeen-year-old soon.’ Hope flinched. ‘He was only joking,’ Matt said, seeing her face. ‘Who’d want me?’ he added in a voice resonant with bitterness. ‘I mean, I’m forty and what have I done? Nothing. Worked my butt off for years for what? A decent car and the chance of a good pension. I haven’t done anything, not anything I’m proud of.’ ‘You’ve got Millie and Toby,’ Hope said weakly, not wanting to add ‘… and me,’ in case Matt didn’t feel as if she was much of an asset. ‘I know, I know, it’s a … male thing.’ Matt seemed lost for words, possibly for the first time in his life. He couldn’t appear to say what he meant. Or perhaps he knew exactly what he wanted to say but wanted her to figure it out. He was leaving, that had to be it. Hope waited, guts clenching in painful spasm. This was
it: Matt was leaving. People left all the time. Her mother and father had left before she’d had a chance to know them, just when she needed them. All right, they’d died, so that was different. But Hope had been expecting Matt to leave almost from the moment she’d fallen in love with him. History repeating itself. There had to be a price for winning such a handsome man - you could never be sure of him, never keep him. All the fears Hope had successfully kept to herself over the years were coming to the surface. Matt was watching her across the table. He knew her background, knew her horror of being abandoned. ‘It’s alright,’ he said sharply, almost harshly. ‘I’m not going to leave.’ The tears Hope had been successfully holding off now flowed unchecked. She knew he was lying: it was obvious. There was someone else, he wanted to leave her and it was just a matter of time. He’d merely decided not to dump her on his birthday. ‘I’m going through a bad time and I’m trying to deal with it,’ Matt said. ‘I’m better if you leave me to it.’ ‘But I can’t,’ whispered Hope. ‘I love you so much, and I can’t bear it if you feel upset. I mean …’ she pushed aside her plate, her appetite gone, ‘I’d do anything to make it all right.’ She was too scared to ask him if there was someone else. Too afraid that he’d tell her the truth. ‘You can’t make it all right,’ Matt said bluntly. ‘I’m the one suffering the mid-life crisis, not you. You can’t magic it away so we can play happy families. Life isn’t like that. Now can we just have our dinner and try and have a relaxed evening? Please,’ he added more gently. ‘I don’t feel up to talking about it.’ Hope nodded. She poked her steak around the plate, trying to pretend she was hungry. Matt went back to eating and watching the television. She watched him surreptitiously, her nerves in tatters, wishing she wasn’t so needy and pathetically hungry for love that she’d take any excuse. She didn’t believe a word of it.
Matt was lying. If only she were stronger, she’d demand the truth. Someone like Sam would have sent the entire dinner flying and demanded an explanation. She’d have yelled that he wasn’t moving from his seat until he told her exactly what was wrong and cut all the crap about how he was better off dealing with it on his own. Hope knew how Sam would handle this situation, because Sam’s responses were programmed into her brain. You didn’t grow up practically joined at the hip to your older sister without knowing everything about her. But that didn’t mean you could apply her no-holds-barred type of reaction to your own life. Sadly no. Hope, hating confrontation and loving Matt almost obsessively, was content to know nothing if that was what Matt wanted. Matt finished his meal and smiled at his wife. ‘That was lovely,’ he said kindly. ‘Let’s forget about everything and watch a video. I stopped at the shop on the way home.’ ‘I can give you your presents,’ Hope said, eager to leave the desolate place she was currently in. If they had a nice evening after all, it meant their marriage was OK. Didn’t it?
Matt was up early the next morning. An early meeting, he said as he threw back the duvet at half six instead of the usual seven. Hope, head heavy after a practically sleepless night of worrying, couldn’t move. She was exhausted, her head throbbed with tiredness and her eyes felt piggy, as if someone had injected them with some type of swelling agent. She knew she should get up and talk to Matt - anything to convince herself that it was all okay - but she was too tired. The speediest dresser in the world, Matt was showered, shaved and ready in twenty minutes. Wearing the black Armani suit with a white shirt and his new tie, an outfit that made him look like he was auditioning for an Italian James Bond, he stopped by the bed to pick up his watch from the bedside table. Hope sat up on the pillow and rubbed frantically at her sleep-filled eyes.