They say three’s a crowd. In this case, four was a definite case of a gooseberry outstaying her welcome...
So he’d come to get my blessing; to have his guilt assuaged
We’d planned a New Year’s wedding. Driving back from the caterer’s that November evening, we hit a patch of black ice, the car skidded a few yards and then, as if in slow-mo, the bumper crumpled cinematically into the barrier on the central reservation.
Instinctively, I reached for Joe’s hand. Such moments made you realise what life was all about.
I was still holding it as they loaded him into the ambulance. ‘Marianne,’ he murmured, semi-conscious – and in those three barely audible syllables, I knew it was all over; must have been for some time.
My name is Jenny.
His injuries weren’t life-threatening, only self-revealing.
At the hospital, we were separated and processed. I was taken to one part – all that form-filling they had to do! – and Joe to another, getting his head wound seen to.
As soon as I could, I beat a hasty path to his cubicle in A&E, only to hang back when I saw a total stranger soothing his brow.
Except, she wasn’t a stranger. Not to Joe. This had to be ‘Marianne.’ Was she named after the Leonard Cohen song, So Long, Marianne?I wondered. ‘So long, Marianne,’ I whispered fiercely, but that was so much wishful thinking, and it does take two to tango…
Joe and I had been learning a tango for the wedding; ‘learning’ putting it somewhat ambitiously. We’d had a laugh falling over each other in a room above a greengrocer’s every Monday after work, easily the least foot-sure of three couples denting the varnished floorboards.
Maybe that had been a metaphor for our lack of fusion all along…
My phone, still in my hand, lit up a shade of starlit blue to signal an incoming message. You OK? asked Mum.
Where are you?
Briefly, I messaged back that I was still dealing with the aftermath of the ‘shunt’, adding that Joe was fine and I’d see her soon.
I didn’t go into details about any of it.
I stayed a bit longer to watch Marianne do her ministering angel thing from a safe distance. And then I fled.
I still had my old flat, thank goodness – though it was in the process of being readied to rent out, unfurnished – so I went back to think and take stock.
Digging in for the duration, I sandbagged my heart, gave thanks for a bed still in situ and a duvet with a high tog rating – better than a blackout curtain – pulled it over my head and tried to forget that I’d lost everything.
An hour or so later, I saw by the flashing screen on my phone that I had more text messages.
I snatched the phone off my pillow, part of me anticipating the unlikely prospect of Joe offering an explanation, begging for an audience – but I spotted, without opening the missives, that I had four more from Mum, two from my nan and half a dozen others from old friends.
So they’d all heard about the accident. Am OK, just lying low for a bit, I tapped noncommittally by way of ‘reply all’, then threw the phone down, too lost in self-pity to read soothing platitudes or offer further assurances to them.
Later, Joe did come round. I heard his key scratching in the lock before I heard the post-accident wheeze in his breath as he pushed open the front door. I sat waiting for him on the living room sofa.
He paced about at first, nudging the half-filled boxes with one of his two left feet and looking at rectangular marks on magnolia walls where my questionable taste in art had hung.
‘We’re not taking that to our new place,’ he’d said of my Andy Warhol soup can.
‘You don’t like Pop art? I thought everyone liked
‘It’s a can of tomato soup, Jen.’
‘You say tomato soup, I say tomayto soup. Let’s call the whole thing off!’
Another ‘laugh’ we’d shared that now seemed prophetic in retrospect.
‘Jen.’ Finally, after lapping the flat’s narrow dimensions a few courage-gathering times, he dropped down in an armchair and stared at the carpet. ‘I’m so, so sorry. Marianne and I… it all blew up out of nowhere a few months ago. I-I met her at work. I was building up to telling you, I swear. If only you knew how much I regret everything that’s happened, the terrible coward I’ve been. Can you ever forgive me?’
So he’d come to get my blessing; to have his guilt assuaged before he moved on without me. Et tu, Joseph.
Transgressors are quick off the mark when it comes to seeking absolution, I’ve found. But I’ve also found that actions speak louder.
By way of response, I rose regally, walked over to the living room door and flung it wide open. All hail the dramatic gesture!
And it worked. He turned ashen, hung his head, then exited quickly stage left, at least not pursued by a wrathful ex.
Which is how I came to have a flatmate, Grainne. She liked the ‘vibe’ in my flat, she explained, being into crystals and all that superstitious stuff, as Nan would have said. She brought along her own bits and pieces and put her writing desk in the best place for ‘feng shui’, which I could just imagine having my nan in stitches.
In fact, thinking of my nan… I’d opened the stream of messages on my phone by now, reading them through stinging
tears: Come home, love (from Mum). You were too good for him (Nan, naturally). When can we expect you, to lavish some serious TLC? (That was from my great-uncle, who was also my godfather – a real sweetie).
Treasuring family above all else, I’d wanted to create my own with Joe. Partly, that came from never knowing my dad, beyond the fact he hadn’t stuck around to bring me up.
Grainne and I kept out of each other’s way in the flat, but it quickly became clear she was a lamb to the slaughter when it came to men. I’d sit on the sidelines (the side of the bath, actually, scrolling through my latest texts from home) and sigh inwardly as I heard the latest object of her affection stride about the flat dropping precious ornaments or complimenting Grainne on her sticky toffee pudding (without offering to wash up), or making a furtive phone call on the other side of the bathroom door while Grainne was drying the dishes.
Dave turned out to be ‘not quite as divorced’ as he’d claimed; Rex was perpetually in need of ‘the odd tenner to tide me over till pay day’ and Sam came up with my personal favourite: ‘I’d invite you back to my own flat, G, only it’s a total mess at the moment. Wait till I’ve got things a bit more under control.’
Code for having something to hide, of course, only Grainne was too puppy-eyed to realise it. When she gave her heart, she gave it wholly – which seemed to happen with alarming frequency.
I had to keep my powder dry, though I was especially keen to keep tabs on Sam, he of the furtive phone calls and mysteriously out-ofbounds flat.
One evening, when he offered to take the rubbish to the bins out in the yard (he was a bit more house-trained than previous beaux, I’d give him that), I pounced on his phone, which he’d left sticking out of his jacket pocket, hanging up by the kitchen door. Its screen twinkled with an incoming message.
‘What the heck do you think you’re doing?’
Curses! Sam had materialised in classic cat burglar mode, gazing in righteous disbelief at his pilfered phone.
Grainne held up the phone, heat flooding her normally trusting face. ‘Who the heck is Laura? I didn’t even have to know your password to get into your phone, because you’ve clearly had it open for a while, exchanging messages back and forth! Why is this Laura texting you to ask what time you’re coming to pick her up tomorrow night – not to mention adding three kisses?’
‘Laura is my daughter.’ He said it quietly.
‘She’s nine and lives with her mum, but stops over at mine on different nights of the week. I was going to tell you, G, when the time was right for both you and Laura. I didn’t want to mess this up. Obviously, I’ve done the complete opposite. I’m so sorry. Laura can be a little… jealous… but I knew if she could meet you when the time was right, she’d see how wonderful you are. Look. I’ve got to go.’ Suddenly, he swept up both phone and jacket. ‘This has all gone pear-shaped, as per. I’ll be in touch. I’ll ring. I promise.’
For my money, he should have been upfront about Laura from the start
‘I promise. Goodnight. Again, I’m sorry.’
She flew after him in vain. I hovered, wanting her to show a little more dignity – but also making myself scarce before she got back and shot the messenger. You can’t do right for doing wrong, can you? For my money, he should have been upfront about Laura from the start. Honesty is the foundation of trust, and without trust, what’s a relationship worth?
On her return, Grainne went straight to her room.
Yet when, a few nights later, I saw Sam’s familiar jacket slung over the back of the living room sofa, relief leapt, fish-like, in the pit of my stomach. Then I heard laughing and followed it to the kitchen, where Grainne was sitting at the table with a little girl, admiring her pink-maned pony, while Sam checked on pots bubbling on the hob.
They say three’s a crowd. In this case, four was a definite case of a gooseberry outstaying her welcome.
Sam gazed around the confined space crammed with Grainne’s eclectic possessions. ‘Is this why you sleep in the box room and use the bigger bedroom as storage space?’ He teased her. ‘Shouldn’t it be the other way round?’
‘Oh, that other room has – a vibe.’ Grainne smiled secretively. ‘Not an unpleasant one, but it feels as though I might be trespassing, sleeping in there.’
Sam shook his head. ‘That’s why I love you, G.’
The air stood still.
‘Why, because I’m illogical?’ She laughed, blushing.
‘Because you have an interesting answer for everything.’ He blushed back, while Laura combed her pony’s pink mane and pretended not to hear the ‘l’ word, for now.
I went back to scrolling through the latest messages on my phone, all begging to know when I was coming home.
Later that night, as she sat down with a nightcap, Grainne’s phone pinged. She picked it to read the one-line text message: Are you happy? She looked up, smiling, towards my bedroom door. ‘Very,’ she whispered. ‘I wish you were, too.’
Tears stung the back of my eyes again. My duvet no longer blotted those tears, just as the memory of Joe no longer fed my bitterness or coloured my cynicism towards Sam.
Joe had been guilty of weakness, of shirking the truth, of terrible timing… but you had to trust, anyway. Sam and Grainne might still find plenty of bumps on the road, but they were prepared to take those risks. They were living.
I watched over Grainne for one more night. And then, as the dawn came up, I opened another of the heartfelt messages in my inbox and hit ‘reply all’ to tell Mum, Nan, my godfather and everyone else who’d passed on before me but never stopped loving me: I got all your lovely messages and I’m finally coming to be with you all. Won’t be long and can’t wait to see you all again. Have the kettle on! Jen.