Mes­sages

They say three’s a crowd. In this case, four was a def­i­nite case of a goose­berry out­stay­ing her wel­come...

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Contents -

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

Pop art.’

‘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.

‘What?!’

‘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.’

‘Wait!’

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.

THE END

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