“Hi Hannah, it’s Clare. Can I come over?” I can tell from her voice something is wrong. I think I know what it might be, and I’m right.
“He’s leaving me. There’s someone else.” Her face is white. She hasn’t cried yet. “He told me just now. He’s going to go and stay at his parents’ place for the night, but I didn’t want to be in the house alone. Can I stay in your spare room?”
I tell her yes. I tell her she’s welcome to stay as long as she likes.
“Apparently it’s one of his work colleagues. I haven’t met her, thank god. He says he hopes we can stay friends.” I can’t describe how she says that word. Then she falls into my arms and howls.
I stroke her hair. Between the tears, she’s still talking. “You know the stupid thing? I want to have sex. I want to have lots and lots of sex, and I want to have it with him. He always did it so well.” This is really more than I want to hear. I feel sick to the stomach with pain for her. I feel like a leech growing fat on the terrible energy of her sorrow. I hold her close.
I’ve reached that life stage when the divorces start – I think there are more in the forties than the thirties, but plenty of my friends are now into their forties. I don’t know what yelling and crying they’ve done on other people’s shoulders, but the abandoned women I know, and a few men, seem to be taking it staunchly, though there are some nasty things happening in lawyers’ plush offices, and fissures opening up as social circles divide into his half and her half. I know a fellow mother at the school who came here from France for her husband’s job, and now he’s left her and gone back to France, but he can’t understand why she won’t go back too so he can have his children close by for visiting days; who wouldn’t want to live in France? And another friend who didn’t mention to any of us that her three kids’ father was gone until it had been a fait accompli for months, but who quietly took in a lodger to pay the bills and booked herself a weekly session with a psychiatrist. It’s simpler for Clare and Christopher; they have no children, and she is still only twenty-nine (so is the new squeeze, apparently; he’s a serial cradle-snatcher). She can pick herself up and start again, but right now she’s in my house, and she’s ripped apart.
“I had a dream last night that’s not hard to interpret. I dreamt he was there in the corner and I started kicking and punching him. Kicking his legs, punching his sides and head, just beating him up with every ounce of strength that I had. He was kind of passive, just curling over and shielding his face with his arms, but somehow that made me even more vicious. I didn’t know I had it in me to be so angry about anything. I can’t remember what I think about things any more. Which opinions were mine and which were his? People talk about dividing up the record collection but I have to divide up my head. I’ve been with him since I was twenty-one and I don’t know who I am, if I’m not his.”
She’s hardly eating at all; it’s as though she has to purge the years with him out of her body, until she’s almost as light and pale as air.
My husband hugs me when she’s left the room, conscious of what we have, aware of how I’m the shield Clare has placed between herself and the world for a while. I’ve become hypersensitive and the deliberateness of his gesture annoys me, just as I’m unfairly annoyed by the way he wants to tell me in detail about the interesting political think-piece he read today, or the way he puts the dishes away when they’re not fully dry. I have the children and Clare and I’m not sure how much spare capacity I have for him, especially when he is being so kind. I reflect that I am lucky to have him.
I see Christopher in town, looking at white goods with the new girl. I notice how, without being embarrassing or acting unsuitably for a public place, he’s taking every little opportunity to touch her; when I see his face turned towards her it’s full of happiness. Probably he has done the right thing – for him. Maybe the right thing for Clare too; they’d gone into a cul de sac, I think, marking time and wanting different things that they weren’t pursuing. Christopher is a romantic, ardent, charming; he likes to be in love, he thrives that way. I wonder if he’s really capable of a long, slow, ordinary togetherness, though to do him justice he gave it a good try with Clare; in fact, I’d thought of the two of them she was the more discontented. Then again, in most couples there’s one who has the initiative and, just as he was the one who courted Clare in the first place, so it was his part to call an end. In my marriage, I’ve always been the one who made the moves.
“I could do anything, now. I could travel. I wouldn’t have any money, but it doesn’t matter – I could teach English, or pick fruit, like the gap year students.” She’s stopped crying now, after a few days, but the skin of her face has a raw and fragile look. “I could do voluntary work abroad or go and be a warden on an island nature reserve.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know yet, but I can feel something waiting to take shape. I don’t want to stay in my job.” She gives a tiny sideways shake of the head, as though she’s flicking off something that irritates her. “Listen, could you come away with me for a few days? Would Martin mind having the kids on his own for that long? I need to go somewhere, but I don’t think I’m ready to do it alone.” I wonder if I can stand it; I feel I’ve soaked up enough tears for a whole trousseau of handkerchiefs and need to be wrung out and spread somewhere sunny to dry. “My sister will be back from America at the weekend and she’s going to come down and help me start sorting out the house. I just need a little ritual journey before I’m ready to be a grown-up again and leave you in peace.”
I say I will go with her, and Martin says he understands.
We’re going to a coastal town, a place Clare went with her university friends as a post-finals celebration, just before she met Christopher. We’ve booked rooms in a hostel because we’re doing this on the cheap, but they are separate rooms, not bunks in a dorm. It’s a beautiful part of the country with wild hills all around and it’s a bit of a drive to get there; we put together a collection of CDs for the drive, choosing things we can sing along to. We have the Dixie Chicks, Roxette, Madonna’s Greatest Hits and a compilation called Women in Rock. Clare’s a bit young for them, but she likes power ballads. We feel silly at first but quickly relax our inhibitions to ‘Listen to Your Heart’ and ‘Black Velvet’, though as I listen to a fair amount of current music I wish I’d slipped in at least a couple of things less determinedly orientated towards nostalgia and female bonding. We talk about our childhoods, our student days, the music we liked in our teens, the drama groups we used to be in, first boyfriends. We’ve been friends for a while but most of this we haven’t talked about before. I realise I’m enjoying myself.
Clare takes me for a walk along the beach, a route she’s done before. She shows me how in the cliffs, if you know what to look for, you can see fossils eroding out. The line of the coast has changed even in the years since she was here; landslips in the winter storms have taken out some beach huts she remembers. The worsening weather and rising seas of global warming will eat away ever more quickly at these beautiful, crumbling shales.
“Last time I was here, I remember I was planning to take a year out and then go back to uni to do a master’s in marine ecology. I remember talking about it with my friend Aisling on this very beach. Of course it didn’t work out like that. But I might look into it again. I’d like to do something positive for, you know, the world” – her tone is self-mocking but she’s perfectly sincere.
I say something encouraging in reply, but though she seems to be in a hopeful mood the emotional extremes of the past week suddenly return to me and I feel a plunge of horror: what future for my children, when the glaciers are gone and fresh water scarce, when the land is shrinking and the fish are dead? I think of the day-to-day maintenance of my life, the meal plans and making of tea, the small tolerances and attentions in the service of permanence, of raising new adults and keeping my man, and I wonder why I bother with any of it. But I know it’s no use to think like this and the weight soon lifts; it’s a warm and glowing summer evening. We buy wine and a takeaway on our way back to the hostel.
There’s a terrace outside the hostel where we sit to eat. Clare manages more of the meal than I expected, but the wine quickly defeats her; one glass in, and she gets the giggles over one of my less stellar jokes, declares that she’s very tired actually, and retires to bed. I’m not sleepy at all. I linger with the rest of the bottle, listening to some girls nearby who are quietly picking out songs on a guitar.
“Do you mind some conversation? I’m here on my own and I’m not feeling too contemplative.” It’s a man who’s been sitting a few spaces along from us. He’s maybe forty-five, short grey hair receding at the temples but a strong face and a fit, wiry physique.
“Go ahead. I’d like a break from contemplation myself. You look as though you’re probably on a cycling holiday?”
“Yes, I’ve been touring all the way up the coast. I’m taking a couple of rest days here and then I’m going to carry on going north.”
I ask him about his route and he tells me about the small towns he’s been travelling through, the time he dropped his tyre-mending kit in a stream and the man he shared a dorm with in the last hostel who seems to have inadvertently given him a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He talks amusingly, enjoying my attention, and it occurs to me that I, who’ve been feeling rather old by comparison with Clare, am at least as much younger than him as she is than Christopher.
“Have you seen the chamber tomb yet?”
“No. What chamber tomb?”
“It’s up there on the hill, only ten minutes walk from here. I came across it this morning; the signpost is pretty cleverly hidden. Come on, I’ll show you and the walk’ll help you settle your dinner.”
I rise to follow him and at this point I do wonder what I’m doing, but it’s such a lovely evening, the moon is up and the sunset’s not yet faded; I decide to find out where this leads.
We walk up the hill, brushed by the bending grasses that fringe the path. Not quite at the top, there is the tomb. It’s a pretty good tomb, a passage tomb with a low stone entrance and a tunnel that goes into a mound built out from the hill.
He dares me to go in and I crawl inside. It’s almost immediately pitch dark; I grope my way into a rounded, womb-like space that’s fortunately big enough for me to turn around in, so that I can emerge again head first. He doesn’t try to get in there with me, but as I scramble out he reaches down a hand and helps me to stand up. Then he puts the other hand behind my head and gently kisses me.
I feel a mixture of gratification, astonishment and panic. I think the following, more or less simultaneously:
what about Martin
this is nice
he tastes of coffee
and what about the children
oh, poor Clare, the irony
I have probably had too much to drink for satisfying sex
I step backwards. I don’t seem to be able to form words for a moment, but I raise my left hand and spread out the fingers to show him the wedding ring. And I’m fortunate; I’ve picked a nice man to lead on and then reject. He gives a slightly rueful smile, and with a bend that’s almost a bow he offers me his arm. And we walk back down the hill to the hostel and to Clare.