The People's Friend
Working extra hours was taking its toll – on both of us . . .
WHY don’t you sit down for a few minutes?” Andy suggested, as I whirled around the kitchen, pushing my arms into the sleeves of my jacket, jamming some bread in the toaster and checking e-mails on my phone.
“You’re nothing but a blur these days,” he added when I didn’t respond. “I’d really like to talk to you.”
He sounded exhausted, as though he’d trekked up a mountain, yet all he was doing was sitting at the kitchen table, pushing a heap of breakfast cereal around his bowl with a spoon.
“There’s no time to talk,” I said briskly. “I have to go to work and I’m running late.”
I aimed for a neutral tone, knowing if it came out accusingly he would look stricken, and that would make me feel guiltier than I already did about being the sole breadwinner.
“Perhaps you need to organise your time a bit better,” he said.
I glanced up from my phone to see if he was joking, but his face – nearly always unshaven these days – was deadly serious.
This from the man who, when he used to work, would be hunting around for his keys or his mobile, or deciding to change his shirt at the very last minute, so he was nearly always late – which clearly hadn’t helped when the big company he’d worked for had started making people redundant.
Not that he’d seemed particularly worried.
“I’ll soon find another job. A better one,” he’d said cheerfully. “People always need IT consultants.”
Clearly, they didn’t. That had been eight months ago, and lately he seemed to have stopped trying, or even getting dressed properly.
Sometimes I’d come home and he wouldn’t have showered, while I’d upped my hours at the office, desperate not to start dipping into the savings we’d worked so hard for over the last couple of years.
“Why don’t we use the money and take a break from our careers?” Andy had suggested a couple of months ago. “We’ve worked so hard for so long, it would be nice to do something different. We could go away for a bit, just the two of us. What do you think?”
I’d stared at him in astonishment.
“Go away?” He might as well have suggested a trip to Mars. “In case you’ve forgotten, we’ve a mortgage to pay, and we’re meant to be looking for a bigger house before we try for a baby,” I’d said, ticking off the list on my fingers.
He’d then accused me of overlooking more important things, like the fact that he’d never much liked his job in IT, and had always fancied turning his gardening hobby into a career.
“There’s a horticultural course at the college I was thinking of signing up for.”
“I don’t exactly like my job, either,” I’d replied, furious that he seemed to be morphing into someone I hardly recognised.
He was barely the same man I’d fallen in love with and married, full of plans for the future.
“We have to think of the bigger picture, Andy.”
He’d grimaced, looking somehow older than his years.
“What if I don’t like the bigger picture? What if it’s gone fuzzy, and all I can see is the smaller picture?” he’d begun, not making any sense.
I’d suppressed a yelp of frustration and demanded he search harder for another job, or we’d be forced to cancel the cheap and cheerful camping holiday I’d booked earlier in the year, before the prices rose.
“Good,” he’d said grimly. “I hate camping anyway.”
“I haven’t got time for this,” I said to him now, deciding not to rise to his comment about organising my time better.
I had no problems in that department. Andy was the one flipping through gardening books borrowed from the library, or out in the garden, digging and planting, and not bothering to clear away the breakfast dishes or run the vacuum around.
“Clare, wait,” he said, reaching for my hand as I passed, but I shrugged him off, glad to get out and into the car so he couldn’t see that my eyes were brimming with tears.
As I joined the queue of traffic at the end of the road for the commute into the city, I remembered there were roadworks ahead and groaned.
I couldn’t even turn the car around and take another route, which meant I really was going to be late.
Ten minutes later we still hadn’t moved. The lights appeared to be stuck on red. I pulled out my phone and called my boss, my chest tight with anxiety.
“Don’t worry, Clare,” she said so kindly that tears sprang up in my eyes again. “You’ve been putting in such long hours recently, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Why don’t you take the day off and spend it with that lovely husband of yours?”
I sat back, massaging my temples, feeling my shoulders unclench a fraction. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been given a day off, and the sensation was a little dizzying.
But how could I spend it with Andy, when I’d left the house upset? Goodness knew what he was thinking about me. Perhaps he was wondering where the fun-loving woman he’d married had gone.
A song came on the radio about a man feeling lost, no longer knowing who he was, and my mind flashed back to Andy sitting at the kitchen table, still dressed in the old T-shirt he’d taken to wearing like a comfort blanket, shadows beneath his eyes.
“What have you got to worry about?” I’d asked recently, annoyed he was sleeping badly when I was the one under pressure at work, trying to meet deadlines, and worrying about keeping a roof over our heads.
I cringed, recalling my sarcastic tone, and the way I’d stalked out of the room before he could tell me what was wrong.
I’d been frightened of what he might say, I realised now, feeling my throat tighten.
I switched off the radio and wound down the window. I took a couple of steadying breaths that resulted in a coughing fit as petrol fumes filled my lungs.
I hadn’t noticed what a beautiful day it was; sunny and warm, the sky dotted with cotton-wool clouds. It was a perfect day for sitting under our apple tree with a book.
I couldn’t recall the last time I’d read a book, and I had to admit that Andy had done a great job in our little garden since losing his job.
He’d filled the borders with flowers that had bloomed into a riot of colour, and planted a vegetable patch that was starting to yield potatoes and onions.
A couple of our neighbours had even asked him for advice.
I stirred uncomfortably. He’d never intended to stay in IT, now that I thought about it properly.
He’d always preferred being outdoors, but I’d argued that gardening was just a hobby and pointed out the necessity of a secure job that would bring in a decent income, and eventually he’d agreed.
Now I wondered if he’d gone along with it just to please me.
The drivers in front and behind me were growing impatient, tooting their horns, and shouting out of their windows, and a workman hurried over and began fiddling about with the traffic lights.
Glancing in my rear-view mirror, I noticed a figure striding along the sundrenched pavement.
His stooped posture was at odds with his smart outfit of light-coloured trousers, blue shirt and maroon tie, with a leather bag slung across his body.
He would have been taller if his shoulders hadn’t been rounded, and his demeanour was one of dejection.
I reflected with growing unease that he looked how Andy might appear a few years from now, with greying hair and the beginnings of a beard, weariness seeping from every pore, fed up of being stuck in an office, resenting his unsupportive wife, and his hopes of a different life fading fast.
As the figure drew closer I realised with a lurch that it
was Andy. My Andy, but a world-weary version, resignation slackening his features. A cry of horror escaped me and I stuck my head out of the window. “Andy!”
He looked over, startled out of whatever torpor was holding him in its grip, and his expression became so falsely bright I wanted to weep.
He strode across the road, hands dug deep in his pockets, and a brave attempt at a smile flickering over his face.
“I thought you’d be at work by now,” he said, glancing at the traffic as if he’d just noticed the queue, taking in the situation.
“Where are you going?” I asked, a quiver in my voice, remembering the old Andy from the early days of our marriage, who’d bounce through the door and chatter non-stop, always on the verge of laughter. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d heard him laugh.
“My old boss called as you left,” he said with a happy inflection that didn’t quite ring true. “The company’s landed a contract with an American company and he asked if I’d like my old job back.”
He paused, and when I didn’t respond went on.
“Obviously, I said yes. I’ve got to swing by the office and sign a contract.” Another pause, loaded with confusion. “I was going to surprise you later.”
His gaze was expectant – waiting for the cries of delight and approval I’d have uttered less than an hour ago – but now I simply felt frozen.
A man stepped out of the car behind me and strutted over, his face a mask of anger.
“Get a move on, will you? Some of us have got places we need to be,” he growled, and I noticed the lights had finally turned green and the traffic was inching forward.
“Don’t speak to her like that,” Andy said, straightening at once to face the man, a warning in his voice.
Watching him bristle on my behalf, ready to do battle, so heartbreakingly willing to take back a job he didn’t even want, was like seeing him through the eyes of a stranger.
“Get in the car,” I said, making my mind up.
The man backed off, muttering under his breath as Andy came round and climbed into the passenger seat. He was wearing the aftershave I’d bought him for his birthday, and the scent of it filled my senses.
“You don’t need to give me a lift. There’s a bus in ten minutes,” he said, looking doubtful. “You’re going to be very late for work.”
“I’ve been given the day off,” I said, noting the look of surprised pleasure that swept over his face, transforming him into the Andy of a few years ago.
I revved the engine and began to drive, turning the car in the opposite direction to the city.
“Where are we going?” Andy said, laughing a little, his eyes brighter than I’d seen them in ages as he picked up on my change in mood.
“To the college,” I said firmly. “To see if there’s still time to sign up for that horticultural course.”
I paused, anticipating his response. I hoped with all my heart that it wasn’t too little too late.
“Clare, are you sure?” There was no mistaking the hope in his voice, and I knew I was doing the right thing.
“I’m positive,” I replied. Doing the course would mean tightening our belts even further for a while, but seeing Andy’s smile made me feel richer than I had in ages.
“And then you can call your old boss and tell him you’ve changed your mind.” n